Going Back in Time in Raja Ampat

Sailing S/V Mir through remote Raja Ampat has been like traveling back in time to a wilder, less-peopled world.

Underwater in Raja Ampat. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation

I spend a lot of time imagining what this planet was like even just a few centuries ago, before people began altering Earth’s living systems on a global scale. Human beings have been leaving their mark on the lands they inhabit for millennia, even causing extinctions, but it wasn’t until recently that the long reach of mankind has begun to affect nearly every corner of this globe, including the oceans, which were once thought too vast to deplete.

When I hike near my home in coastal California I often imagine scenes of what it used to look like there: scenes of stumbling upon an entire pride of mountain lions bent over an elk kill, their golden faces wet with blood. All around the cats are bald-headed California condors, shaggy in their oversized coats of black feathers, hopping and grunting and looking comically-huge as they wait with impatient eyes for a chance at the spoils. I imagine the Central Valley when it was still a vast wetland, and how the temperature must have dropped when the sky went black with migrating birds in the spring and fall. I imagine the lowland grizzlies that could get fat all year round without ever needing to hibernate in those temperate climes, lolling on their enormous woolly backs on a beach after a feast of elephant seal. Those bears must have been mythically huge.

By 1924, grizzly bears were completely eradicated from California. It’s disturbing how short a time it took people to tame this world, leaving only vapors of its original wildness. I seem to always be on the lookout for that untouched place, that glimpse into what this planet was like before our species watered it all down, and I’ve perhaps come closer than ever before to finding traces of that old world this past month as we’ve sailed Mir across remote Raja Ampat.

After leaving our friends in Mansuar, the crew aboard Mir headed towards the island of Wayag in northwestern-most Raja Ampat. Along the way we crossed the equator, and in the matter of a millimeter we sailed from summertime right on into winter.

Wayag is stunning and otherworldly — a vast and meandering mass of uplifted karst limestone islands surrounding countless bays and brilliant turquoise lagoons. The islands are green with vegetation, some are long and peninsular and steep, while many are small and stand alone, their grey bases all pocked and jagged and eroding into the shapes of mushrooms where they meet the ever-gnawing seas. Some are pointed in the likeness of arrowheads, and many are circular and rounded, like gumdrops.

Wayag Island. Photo by Nadia Low (and her drone), Biosphere Foundation

On one of our first mornings in Wayag I paddled for hours through a vast shallow lagoon that was full of young black-tipped reef sharks, presumably enjoying a respite from the big, bad ocean beyond. The lagoon was also speckled with hawksbill sea turtles who would watch with calm curiosity from below as my paddleboard approached them, probably thinking it nothing but an average bit of jetsam. Once I was right above them they would rise to the surface with the utmost mellowness and poke their pointed faces above the waterline where they would momentarily gawk at me in bewilderment before darting away in a frenzied panic.

“Holy Tortuga, there’s an enormous sunburned monkey on that thing!”

Paddleboarding in Wayag. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

One evening, I paddled through the narrow opening of another lagoon, this one deep and emerald and surrounded on all sides by thick jungle and the eerie booms of spice imperial pigeons. It felt like I was paddling through a freshwater lake instead of a salty lagoon until I’d get close enough to the shore to see a blue-spotted stingray zip past me, or a coral bommie haloed in reef fish. Here, a glimpse into that untouched world I’m always searching for.

Most mornings we would randomly choose one of the nearby mushroom islands to scuba dive around, and we were never let down by our picks. The reefs were pristine and fanatic with sea life. We saw corals that looked like enormous bouquets of oversized roses, and others like thick, bony bramble patches. Some were huge brains with labyrinthine channels, and others opalescent fingers. There were vast areas of reef that resembled a thousand small fists raised proudly in protest, and coral bommies that formed underwater mesas and plateaus and buttes, and others that appeared nebulous as they waved and swished with sea fans and soft corals. All of them were engulfed in a profusion of fish life of every color and size and shape, some so wildly patterned it seemed only a nonconforming second-grader could have painted them.

Titan triggerfish. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation

I experienced many operatic moments where I would be skimming above a reef with the sunlight feathering down all around me and tornadoes of fish above me and baby sharks darting through curtains of massive barracuda, and I would feel something that is becoming more and more elusive to me: hope. Hope that this world may actually be resilient enough to weather us humans.

Happy reef. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere FoundationA wobbegong shark camouflaged against the seafloor and surrounded by reef fish. Wobbegongs are ambush predators, meaning they stay still and hidden until prey swims close enough for them to strike. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationA many-spotted sweetlips resting in a coral. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere FoundationHawksbill sea turtle and Captain Laser. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation

We had a cookout on a small beach near our anchorage on one of our last evenings in Wayag. In the wee hours of the night I was lying on my back in the sand looking up at the stars; it looked as if the Milky Way had touched down to fill the entire channel of Wayag Bay with thick, woven starlight, so close it seemed I could reach up and swirl it with my fingertips. I paddled back to the ship that night beneath that frenzy of stars and with each paddle stroke the water around me burst with bioluminescence — that starlight of the sea — and I felt like I was rowing right through the cosmos. I finally understood how the Polynesians had been able to read the night sky like a map; a map that was not only above them, but that they were navigating straight into. Once again, even if only fleetingly, I had found another piece of that old world.

That’s not to say that this part of Indonesia is actually untouched — far from it. At times we’ve seen what look like flowing rivers of trash caught in narrow current lines that flow past our ship uninterrupted for hours: plastic bottles, flip-flops, bags, food wrappers, even an entire television. And though the coral is faring much better here than it is in many other parts of the tropical world, we’ve still witnessed plenty of anchor damage, signs of dynamite fishing, and corals that look unwell and stressed from disease, excessive nutrients in the water, and bleaching. Anyone who came here even thirty years ago would probably tell you it’s trashed now; three-hundred years ago and Wayag Bay must have been boiling up to its banks with sharks and rays and turtles. But even now, even in the year 2018, it is still sacredly beautiful here, and the ecology remains intact enough to act as a nursery to repopulate our depleted seas with corals and fish and sharks and turtles, if we could only just leave it alone, if we could only just let it be the blazing technicolor wilderness that it’s always been without mussing it all up.

Raining fish in Raja Ampat. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

After leaving Wayag we slowly made our way back to the town of Waisai on the island of Waigeo, where we are currently resupplying for our voyage back to Bali. Along the way the beauty continued: late one night in the Bougainville Strait we watched bottlenose dolphins riding our bow; their torpedo-like bodies completely encapsulated in electric blue bioluminescence. And one morning at sunrise, manta rays breached off our stern through the apricot-lit water as we weighed anchor in the Dampier Strait.

But it seems time has had its way with us — as it’s wont to do — and after all the planning, the researching, the imagining, and the effort, we’re already getting set to leave Raja Ampat. Luckily for us, we have a month to get to Bali, which means we can take our time and keep exploring along the way, as well as stopping at Moyo Island for a few days to visit the Biosphere Foundation’s “Friends of Moyo” project.

To anyone who has been keeping up with this blog and is curious, yes my back is better, and thank you for your concern — what a relief to have gotten well so I could go back in time in Raja Ampat and get a taste of a world that once was, and a world that I would like to see return.

Blue-spotted stingray hiding beside a heart-shaped Acropora coral. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

Please keep following along on the rest of our adventures here, and to learn more about the Biosphere Foundation, visit our website at: https://biospherefoundation.org/

Originally posted 2018-03-04 10:20:57.

Un Enfoque Divertido para los Educadores para Involucrar a los Estudiantes en Biodiversidad de Insectos & Cambio Climático

LOGOTIPO DEL JUEGO. DISEÑO R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

Los insectos generalmente no son muy atractivos a los ojos de muchos, fuera de las coloridas y “carismáticas” mariposas y escarabajos. ¿Cómo mostrar a las moscas y “gusanos” de una manera interesante y atractiva? El secreto está en exponer las vidas secretas de los insectos. ¿Sabías que puedes usar “gusanos” para ver si el agua del río es buena para beber? ¿Sabías que hay zancudos primitivos que han sobrevivido sin muchos cambios desde la época de los dinosaurios (período Jurásico)? ¿Y qué pensarías si te dijera que hay familias enteras de moscas que parasitan arañas tan grandes como las tarántulas? ¿O qué hay larvas de moscas acuáticas que poseen ventosas hidráulicas ventrales las cuales las mantienen firmemente agarradas a las rocas sumergidas

¿Cómo se puede involucrar a mentes jóvenes en temas complejos como el cambio climático, la conservación, el endemismo y los bioindicadores en un paquete divertido?

Este juego gratuito está destinado a servir tanto a niños en desarrollo típico como a niños en desarrollo atípico (como aquellos con autismo leve y otras necesidades especiales). Los materiales abarcan palabras escritas que el niño o el maestro pueden leer en voz alta, fotos para la representación visual y piezas táctiles para mejorar la comprensión.

Hay dos componentes principales de este enfoque educativo: 1) el juego y 2) reflexión intelectual (el rol del educador).

El Juego

Los estudiantes participan en una combinación de temas que incluyen descubrimientos de especies, endemismo, cambio climático, especies introducidas y biomonitoreo a través de la exploración, el descubrimiento y el pensamiento proactivo.

El tablero de juego es una composición  artística de imágenes satelitales de la geología y hábitats de la Patagonia (Aysén, Chile).

Tablero de juego con explicación de figuras. Diseño R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

Como “exploradores”, los jugadores parten hacia una tierra desconocida, por donde viajaran a diferentes hábitats en busca de especies de insectos raras y nuevas, las cuales deben ser adquiridas a través de herramientas específicas para cada especie (red de insectos, pinzas, etc.) Estas herramientas sólo pueden obtenerse respondiendo preguntas sobre la biodiversidad. Las preguntas variarán según el grupo de edad de los jugadores.

Durante el juego, los exploradores se encontrarán con especies introducidas y aprenderán sobre su impacto en el medio ambiente (cómo se desplazan /superan las especies endémicas). Asimismo, aprenderán sobre el microhábitat donde habita cada especie.

El enfoque de bioindicadores es simple y tiene como objetivo proporcionar a los estudiantes una sencilla comprensión de su uso como bioindicadores, así como una visión simplista de cómo identificar a los grupos.

En su andar, los jugadores pueden adquirir, a través de la adquisición de un comodín, una “especie invasora” y tratarán de encontrar una manera de “lidiar con” (controlar) las especies invasoras que se establecieron en la nueva tierra del jugador.

El juego está destinado para tener un enfoque de grupo. El jugador con más especies no es el ganador, por el  contrario, el objetivo del juego es discutir e interpretar los diversos insectos y su información de hábitat para crear un equilibrio.

Los insectos seleccionados para esta primera versión del juego son una combinación de especies nuevas, carismáticas y poco conocidas. La información sobre insectos proporcionada se basa en información de publicaciones científicas y en relatos precisos e inéditos de la historia natural de la especie seleccionada.

Tarjeta de especies con explicación de figuras. Diseño R. Isaí Madriz

Reflexión Intelectual (el rol del educador)

El maestro no necesita ser un experto en entomología para usar este juego con los estudiantes. El rol de el es facilitar el aprendizaje antes y después de jugar el juego. Antes de iniciar el juego, el maestro puede dar una introducción a temas generales, como la biodiversidad, los ecosistemas, etc. El enfoque del juego puede ajustarse a los requisitos del plan de estudios del aula.

Al final del juego, el maestro guiará un intercambio intelectual entre los jugadores con el fin de ayudarse unos a otros a lograr “un planeta en equilibrio” basado en los insectos que recolectaron. Se sugiere el fomentar discusiones adicionales para que los estudiantes reflexionen sobre lo que aprendieron y por qué es importante.

El objetivo de la reflexión intelectual es estimular a los estudiantes a que expliquen su razonamiento sobre cómo jugaron el juego y su estrategia de crear un ecosistema diverso y saludable. Hay un gran potencial para lograr diversas perspectivas y resultados, lo que crea un proceso de aprendizaje más valioso.

R. Isaí Madriz adquiriendo información sobre moscas de torrente para el juego. Foto Anand Varma.

Nota: Esta herramienta de aprendizaje fue inspirada por diez años de trabajo en educación, conservación y experiencia científica colaborando con distintas comunidades en todo el continente americano en temas de conservación para ayudar a los educadores a involucrar a sus alumnos y llevar las maravillas de la exploración y los descubrimientos científicos al aula.

Este juego y sus componentes se pueden adaptar a cualquier parte del mundo en dimensiones tan pequeñas como un municpio hasta un un continente y más allá. Además, se puede adaptar para diversos estilos de aprendizaje y actualmente se está desarrollando en español e inglés.

* Para obtener más información, incluidas las reglas del juego y el acceso a archivos PDF de los componentes, comuníquese por medio de la sección de comentarios de este blog o mande un mensaje a [email protected]

Sigue a Isaí Madriz en InstagramFacebook or Twitter.

El equipo usado para este proyecto de nueve meses es cortesía de Fulbright, National GeographicIridiumAlpacka RaftAqua-BoundBoo BicyclesKokatatSeal LineOsprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

Originally posted 2018-05-11 01:29:11.

Just a Seagull? Nope.

There’s no such thing as a seagull, according to certain pedantsHow can that be?

Because it’s a gull—actually, one of about fifty gull species living in habitats all over the world, oceanic and otherwise. They range from the size of a dove to the size of an osprey, with all sorts of differences in appearance and behavior. Three of those species live here in New Zealand—including the river-dwelling black-billed gull, the most endangered gull in the world. When I took my sketchbook and went looking for nesting gulls, I found some nests inches from the ocean and others 50 miles inland, which is about as far from the coast as you can get around here.

So…what’s wrong with calling a sea-affiliated gull a seagull? Sigh. Nothing, I guess. But by using more precise terms you can help discourage a tragic misconception: that there’s one kind of seagull, and it’s a rat with wings. In a single week I’ve watched a motorist drive casually into a flock of endangered black-billed gulls resting on the grass, cringed while a recreational fisherman traipsed through one of their breeding colonies on a river island, and heard stories about people shooting them for fun. They’re just seagulls, after all—they’re everywhere, all making a nuisance of themselves. Right?

Nope. Endangered or otherwise, each gull species is unique and deserves to be recognized as such, in my humble opinion. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to New Zealand’s gulls.

RED-BILLED GULL (Larus novaehollandiae)

The dainty red-billed gull is known as tarāpunga or akiaki in Māori. It’s the most common gull on New Zealand’s shores, so some people think of it as a pest. But in fact its population has been plummeting in response to things like invasive predators and changes in krill abundance caused by climate fluctuation. I think the red-billed gull is one of the dandiest birds around: sparkling white, with brilliant red accents and an attitude well out of proportion with its size.

BLACK-BILLED GULL (Larus bulleri)

The black-billed gull also goes by tarāpuka. Closely related to the common but declining red-billed gull, it’s of similar size and spunk but with a more elongated body, a more attenuated bill, and more of an emo expression. It nests in dense colonies on river islands and is the most endangered gull in the world. I generally avoid talking about politics, but I voted for the underappreciated black-billed gull in the New Zealand Bird of the Year elections. More about this gull in my next story.

SOUTHERN BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus dominicanus)

The southern black-backed gull is found all over the southern hemisphere, where it’s usually known as the kelp gull. Here in New Zealand it goes by karoro or simply “black-back”. Opportunistic scavengers, black-backed gulls have gotten more common in conjunction with human impacts on the landscape. Even among bird aficionados they have a villainous reputation, thanks to their habit of dining on eggs and chicks. But just look at how cute that black-backed gull family is…

In the next episode I’ll take you to a special gull colony I stumbled on. Meanwhile, remember: good or bad, a gull is never just a seagull.

Abby McBride (Photo: Edin Whitehead)Photo by Edin Whitehead

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

Originally posted 2018-02-01 02:26:32.

Indigenous leaders of Pimachiowin Aki Are a Beacon of Hope As World Heritage Designation Becomes Official

The Bloodvein River, one of many significant rivers, streams and water bodies within Pimachiowin Aki. Photo Jeff Wells.

It’s part of what may be the largest single block of intact forest in the largest intact forest landscape left in human history and the largest remaining landscape of southern boreal forest left in Canada. Millions of birds fly north from tropical climes to nest here every summer filling the rich forests with a symphony of song. Woodland caribou, moose, wolves, trout, whitefish, walleye and so many other living creatures thrive in its woods and waters year-round.

It is called Pimachiowin Aki and it is and has been for thousands of years, the ancestral homeland of strong and vibrant Indigenous communities.

Those communities came together some years ago with the provincial governments of Manitoba and Ontario to start the long and sometimes difficult process to place these lands on the world stage as the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site. In the first ever proposal of its kind, the Pimachiowin Aki communities and governments, insisted that the landscape be simultaneously considered and designated for both its cultural AND its ecological values.

Such a request initially sent the international governing bodies that decide on World Heritage Site designations into a bit of a tizzy. They weren’t sure how to handle such a dual consideration of values. But to their great credit, they found a path forward to honor the request of the Pimachiowin Aki communities.

The path wasn’t necessarily an easy one, perhaps a bit like trying to hack a new portage through a thick stand of spruce beside a boreal forest river within Pimachiowin Aki itself! But the people who have lived for thousands of years in that landscape have hacked through many a seemingly impenetrable stand of spruce. A tough pathway through international designations would certainly not be enough to stop them.

That many-year journey started and led with both steely determination and gentle persistence by forward thinking Indigenous leaders of the First Nations of Bloodvein River, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi , and Poplar River has finally achieved its goal. Together with the governments of Manitoba and Ontario, these First Nations are working to ensure a healthy future for both the Indigenous people and the birds, caribou, moose, fish and all wildlife and plants and the forests, lakes, rivers, and wetlands of the more than seven million acres found within the landscape of Pimachiowin Aki.

That fact has been formally recognized as UNESCO has now (as of July 2018) designated Pimachiowin Aki as an official World Heritage Site for both its globally significant cultural and ecological values.

Congratulations leaders of Pimachiowin Aki and thank you for your vision and strength. You truly are a beacon of hope in today’s complicated world!

Fairy slipper or calypso orchid from near Aikens Lake, Manitoba in Pimachiowin Aki in May 2011. Photo Jeff Wells.

Originally posted 2018-07-02 21:51:18.

A Fun Approach for Educators to Engage Students in Insect Biodiversity & Climate Change

Game logo. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

Insects are not generally appealing to most, outside the “charismatic” colorful butterflies and beetles. How can flies and “maggots” be presented in an interesting and appealing way? The secret lies in exposing the insects’ secret lives. Did you know that you can use “maggots” to see if the water from a stream is good to drink? That there are primitive crane flies that have survived seemingly unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs (Jurassic period)? What if I told you there are entire families of flies that parasitize spiders as big as tarantulas? Or that there are fly larva living in rivers with ventral hydraulic suckers that keep them firmly attached to the submerged rocks?

How can you engage young minds in complex topics like climate change, conservation, endemism and bioindicators of environmental health in one fun package?

This free game is meant to serve both typically developing children and atypically developing children (such as those with mild autism and other special needs). The materials encompass written words which can be read by the child or out loud by the educator, photos for visual representation, and tactile pieces to enhance understanding.

There are two main components to this educational approach: 1) the game and 2) facilitated discussion (the role of the educator).

The Game. 

Students engage in a combination of topics including species discoveries, endemism, climate change, introduced species and biomonitoring through exploration, discovery and proactive thinking.

The game board itself is an artistic composite of satellite images of geological features and habitats of Patagonia (Aysén, Chile).

Game board with Explanation of Figures. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

As “explorers” the players set off into an unknown land traveling to different habitats looking for rare and new species of insects, which must be acquired through species-specific tools (insect net, tweezers, etc.) These tools can only be obtained by answering questions about the biodiversity. The questions will vary according to the age group of the players.

Along the way, players will encounter introduced species and will learn about their impact on the environment (how they displace/outcompete endemic species). Likewise, they will learn about the microhabitat of where each species inhabits.

The bioindicator approach is simple and aims to provide the students with a broad understanding of their use as bioindicators as well as a simplistic view of how to identify the groups themselves.

Along the way, the players may acquire, through the draw of a wild card, an “invasive species” and they will try to figure out a way to “deal with” (control) the invasive species that established itself in the player’s new land.

The game is meant to have a group approach. The player with the most species is not the winner, rather the object of the game is to discuss and interpret the various insects and their habitat information to create a balance.

The insects selected for this game prototype are a combination of new, charismatic and poorly known species. The insect information provided is based on scientific facts from peer-reviewed publications and accurate unpublished accounts of natural history of the selected species.

Species Card with Explanation of Figures. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

Facilitated Discussion (the role of the educator).

The educator does not need to be an expert in entomology to use this game with the students. The educator is meant to help facilitate the learning before and after the game is played. An introduction of broad topics such as biodiversity, ecosystems, etc. can be presented prior to playing the game. The focus can be based on how the game’s material fits with the curriculum requirements of the classroom.

At the end of the game the educator will guide a discussion among players to help each other to achieve “a planet in balance” based on the insects they collected. Further discussion is encouraged so that students reflect on what they learned and why it is important.

The goal of the facilitated discussion is to encourage the students to explain their reasoning for how they played the game and their strategy of creating a diverse, healthy ecosystem. There is potential for many perspectives and outcomes, which creates a more powerful learning process.

R. Isaí Madriz acquiring torrent midge information for the game. Photo by Anand Varma.

Note: This learning tool was inspired by ten years of education, conservation and scientific experience working with local communities across the Americas in conservation topics to help educators engage their students and bring the wonders of exploration and scientific discoveries into the classroom.

This game and its components can be adapted to any part of the world in dimensions as small as a county to as large as a continent and beyond. As well, this game and its components/content can be adapted for diverse learning styles and is currently being developed in Spanish and English. 

*For more information including rules of the game and access to PDFs of the components, please reach out through the comment section of this blog or write to [email protected]

Follow Isaí Madriz on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Equipment used for this nine month project is courtesy of Fulbright, National Geographic, Iridium, Alpacka Raft, Aqua-BoundBoo Bicycles, Kokatat, Seal Line, Osprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

Originally posted 2018-05-03 06:29:00.

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