Monday, January 28, 2013

Snorkeling at Peter Island, BVI

Twenty feet of clear water - see the coral heads below?
Blue chromis fish amidst the sea fans
Redband parrotfish
The Virgin Islands are made up of a multitude of little islands, and the opportunities for exploration are boundless. After Thanksgiving at Virgin Gorda, en route back to St. Thomas, we stopped at Peter Island, BVI to snorkel. What a fantastic stop! The cruising guide shows a small area for anchoring on one side of Key Bay, on the south side of the island. A boat was already anchored there, so we checked around the area to see where we might drop the hook. It didn’t look good: sea grass, rubble, and shallows. This is an anchorage? So we cruised slowly around the rest of the bay, and what did we find? The perfect place to anchor! We motored slowly toward a broad sandy swath inshore, watching the depth carefully. Before it got too shallow, we dropped the anchor and fell back into deeper water. We ended up with our anchor and anchor chain over bare sand, and our stern floating over a fantastic reef. We just hopped off into the water and snorkeled to our hearts’ content. Here are some pics of what we saw. We love finding these little places where no one else goes!

Juvenile blue tang in a pretty reef tableau

Friday, January 25, 2013

Creature Feature: Fearsome Flora

All right, so plants aren’t what come to mind when you hear the word “creature”, but I really wanted to introduce some of the plants we’ve seen. You always hear warning about dangerous animals, but with all our tramping around on land or swimming/snorkeling/diving in the water, we’ve never been accosted and hurt by any animal (except for that damn sergeant major fish that nipped Anne in the Bahamas – stupid little thing). The plant life, however, never fails to take its toll. And nothing so mundane or sneaky as poison ivy. These plants are armed and dangerous, if you’re not careful to give them a wide berth. Still, we’ve both received our shares of scars from plants such as those pictured here. Can you believe some of those wicked thorns and spines?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Lamshur Trail Hike, St. John

Chris hiking the trail

St. John has a wealth of hiking trails that you must take advantage of if you’re on the island (and like hiking, of course!). While staying at Great Lameshur Bay, we hiked the appropriately named Lameshure Bay Trail. Our goal was the Indian petroglyphs that we’d heard so much about. We started out on a dirt road that soon turned into a well-tended trail. The steep slope was enough to get our hearts going, but the climb wasn’t long, and the views from on high were well worth the effort. Heading downhill, we made our way into the valley, or gut, as it’s called locally. It’s cooler and moister in the guts, which is probably why folks long ago built a great house down here, where it’s more comfortable than in the hot dry forest. The ruins of the house were on a spur off of the main trail, right next to a now-dry rocky streambed that’s probably quite lively during the rainy season. We even saw a deer bounding through the forest here! Back to the main trail, and we kept going downhill, finally reaching the stream-bed again (we probably could have gotten here directly from the great house by following the stream bed), where we picked up the Petroglyph Trail. Just a half mile further, past a neat stone wall, we reached the petroglyphs! They are carved into the stones that line a couple of small freshwater pools. The pools are fed by a spring that keeps them full. When we were there, just a trickle of water wended its way down the rocks into the upper pool, but during the rainy season, the trickle expands into a waterfall. But this day the pools were quiet, dragonflies zipped back and forth, and we relaxed and sipped our water in peace while gazing at the petroglyphs mirrored in the still water. The petroglyphs were carved by the Taino people around 500-1500 AD; the designs apparently spiritual symbols also seen on Taino pottery. At the risk of being profane, I have to say that some of the designs looked to me like aliens and happy faces. We were hot, sweaty and tired when we got home, but that’s the beauty about living on a boat—we just jumped in the clear water to cool off.
Alien face on the left
Is that a smiley face or what?
P.S. The Lameshure Bay Trail is where we saw all the millipedes I blogged about in an earlier Creature Feature. Interestingly, we saw them only along the trail on the western side of the hill between Lameshur Bay and the petroglyphs. I guess there’s something about the micro-climate or vegetation here that the millipedes like. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Creature Feature: Tunicates

Beautiful! See the two siphons in each tunicate?
Tunicate-encrusted mooring line

Look at the brilliant color of these tunicates above – beautiful! They look like pretty marine flowers, no? No! Tunicates are chordates, related to vertebrates (animals with spinal chords); these little critters have a primitive version of a spine in the larval stage, when they’re free-living and tadpole-like, though it disappears by the time they settle onto a substrate, attach and develop into their sedentary adult form. Tunicates feed by pulling food particles out of the water that enters their barrel-like bodies through the inflow siphon, and discharged filtered water and waste through the outflow siphon. Though they resemble anatomically simple animals such as anemones, they actually are quite more complex. Tunicates are hermaphrodites, producing both eggs and sperm. The sperm is released into the water to be taken in by other tunicates to fertilize their eggs, and the eggs remain within the adult until they hatch. The larvae are released for dispersal. Tunicates come in a wide variety of forms and colors, as seen here. As you can seen here, in addition to attaching to the bottom, tunicates also quite willingly attach to lines underwater, such as those on mooring balls.

Tunicate Fun Fact: Tunicates are also called “sea squirts” because, when you take them out of the water, they squirt. Always a good trick to play on an unaware bystander.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Yacht Spotting: Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge was anchored near the Bitter End Yacht Club in Virgin Gorda when we sailed up to BVIs to meet our friends on Celebration for Thanksgiving. As far as mega yachts go, this one is pretty. I especially like the “BR” logo with the backward “B”. Just over 200 feet long, she can carry 16 crew and 12 guests. For some exterior and interior photos, look here. She's apparently owned by a French billionaire. Those billions will come in handy when it's time to fill the fuel tanks, though I'm sure the $500,000 charter fee (Caribbean high season) helps out. By the way, I'm sure that half-million dollars isn't for the entire season, but probably a week, hopefully not just a day.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Creature Feature: Agouti

WARNING: Mom, don’t read this blog entry – it’s about a rodent, and I know you hate rodents.
(Whereas Anne thinks rodents are adorable.)

Agoutis are New World rodents related to guinea pigs (to name a familiar species). Native to Central and South Americas, as well as some of the Caribbean islands, agouti have also been introduced into other locations. They generally inhabit rainforests or savannahs, and sometimes cultivated fields, depending on species (there are several), eating fruit, nuts, leaves and roots. With short front legs and long hind legs, they run quickly by springing along the ground. They live up to twenty years, and a male and female pair-bond for life (how sweet!), mating year-round to produce one to several offspring at a time. Agouti range 18-30 inches in length and 5-13 pounds, which put them in the roast chicken/turkey size for eating. And yes, they are eaten in many places. Here’s a recipe for Curry Agouti. Apparently agouti are also prized as a means of getting out of traffic offences, as noted in this article about two Trinidadian police officers accused of soliciting and receiving a bribe of $3,000 and an agouti.
We saw the agouti pictured here at the Asa Wright NatureCentre in Trinidad, where we spent a couple days and a night hiking through the rain forest, learning about the myriad plant species, watching the birds at the feeding stations at dawn, and ducking the bats at night. This little guy (or gal) partook of the various fruits that the center staff puts out to attract the local birds. We also saw them running around with fruit freshly fallen from the trees. And no, agouti wasn’t on the menu for dinner that night (at least, we didn’t recognize it…)

Monday, January 7, 2013

That Four-Letter Word: Work

Celeste moored at Henley Cay

When we started cruising, we knew that eventually we’d have to go back to work. You can only stretch a dollar (even a Trinidadian dollar, seven of which are equal to one U.S. dollar) so far. Though we’ve been doing well in budgeting our funds, we decided to spend this winter season working in St. Thomas to fatten up the cruising kitty. It’s the U.S., so we don’t need special permissions or visas, and we have several friends working here. And boy, did we land our dream jobs. Chris and I are now running day charters on the 38’ sailboat Celeste for Caribbean Blue Boat Charters. It’s perfect: Chris is a licensed captain, I’m a marine biologist, and we take people over to St. John to sail and snorkel. How cool is that! We’ve done a number of charters already, and the guests we’ve had have been great. They love the sailing, and I get to teach them about all the critters we see underwater. We do our best to ensure that they have fun, and it can be quite exhausting. But a couple of our groups have opted to go ashore for lunch instead of eating on the boat. On these occasions, after tidying up and making sure everything is ready for their return, we can sit back, eat our own lunches and relax. It doesn’t get much better than this. We even got a five-star Trip Advisor review, which you can read here (the one for December 28th entitled “Great Day on the Water”).

Guests getting geared up to snorkel

Relaxing while waiting for our guests to come back from lunch

Friday, January 4, 2013

Creature Feature: Millipedes

Or gongolo, as the Virgin Island locals call them. We were hiking on St. John, traversing a dry forest area, when Chris noticed one of these millipedes on a tree. Then we noticed another. And another…and another…and—you get it. They were everywhere! Nearly four inches long, they were all curled up like not-so-little question marks. Millipedes, though worm-like in appearance, are arthropods, so related to things like insects and crustaceans. And despite the name (milli~thousand), they don’t have a thousand legs, though it may seem like it. This particular species is called Rhinocricus arboreus, the arboreus part of the name referring to its penchant for inhabiting trees. We wondered about this; the critters were right out in the open, an apparently free lunch for any bird flying by. But according to a document I found online, when disturbed, this species secretes a brown fluid that’s distasteful to potential predators. This fluid, which smells like iodine and stains the skin, is not generally harmful to humans, though in some it may
cause a skin reaction, especially if it gets in your eyes. No problem with that, because we had no desire to pick them up. Millipedes are nocturnal herbivores and scavengers, generally feeding in leaf litter. We kind of creeped ourselves out wondering what it would sound like with all those hundreds of legs skittering around the ground…at night…in the dark…