Posted in Conservation, Editorial, Travel, tagged conservation, culture, editorial, French Polynesia, ILCP, Living Oceans Foundation, Mangareva, pearl farming, pearls, Tahiti, travel, underwater on February 5, 2013 |
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Our last day in the Acteon group with the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, representing iLCP, my assistant Megan and I were able to photograph the turquoise waters where Tahiti’s famous black pearls are grown. Pearls come in a rainbow of colors, but Gambier has the reputation for the finest pearls in French Polynesia and a distinct blue-green shade.
One of the Tahitian free divers retrieving an oyster filled screen.
It was a vigorous start to the morning with Dominique Devaux, the head manager for GIE POE O RIKITEA teaching us about the pearl farm industry. Starting with the freedivers amid the labyrinth of pearl lines to pull in oyster baskets, it was an amazing experience photographing the task – underwater. After years hanging in the water column, filter feeding on the plankton, and secreting a shiny compound called nacre, the pearls inside these bivalves were ready to be harvested.
A delighted group of pearl free divers. Amazing young men.
Flashback to oysters’ young lives: A spat, at one year old (science’s word for oyster baby) is ready to be seeded. The shell is pried open with a special wooden wedge peg in order to reach inside for graphing. The oyster is alive (and hopefully will stay that way) so opening the shell as little as possible and swift skillful handling are essential.
Quick and gentle opening of the oyster is essential.
A technician slides a small square of mantle tissue, muscle from a donor oyster with great color, and a small nodule (called a nucleus) into the oyster body. You could easily hire these Tahitian women in any dentist office across America after seeing how precisely they move big sharp metal tools in tiny places!
A technician implants the nucleus that will be the base for the pearl.
Oysters plop back into the water for the waiting game. It will take 45 days before managers will know if the oyster accepted the graph and another year or two before the pearl is ready for harvest. Graphing is a highly developed skill so technicians label their batches of work and are evaluated individually on how many quality pearls are produced each cycle.
In the wild only about 1 in 2000 oysters are growing a pearl inside. Pearl farming has upped the odds and satisfied the global market. Working as a pearl technician is a college-trainable position and farms are a backbone to the Tahitian economy particularly in remote island chains like Gambier. Without pesticides, antibiotics, fish-food spillover or heavy nutrient influx, pearl farming is a very low impact aquaculture practice. Culturally the black pearl is an icon of French Polynesia and an ocean fashion statement you can wear proudly as a symbol of healthy ocean stewardship on a homegrown level.
The result of an oyster’s life on the farm held by one of the lovely technicians. Beautiful tattoo!
Just remember to thank the whole team of oysters who chipped in on your layered strands, as an oyster will only produce 1-3 pearls in its lifetime!
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The Living Ocean Foundation team is hard at work at Hao Atoll, far flung in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia. We’re six days into the first EVER comprehensive reef assessment for this beautiful coral atoll.
How do you count all the fish in the sea? Divers lay down transects and record every fish that swims within a 4m wide belt. Because the same methodology is used all over the world, these reefs can be compared to others around the planet. Meanwhile the rest of the team is scooping sediment, diagnosing coral disease, installing oceanographic instruments, identifying coral building blocks, and searching for sea cucumbers.
Joao Monteiro from the Azores, is using a transect grid, camera and sampling bags.
Eva McCure from Australia counting fish.
James Bond has his gadgets; Batman has his utility belt, but no superhero has as many tools as these science divers. It takes a lot of equipment to diagnose a healthy reef.
Marie Kospartov – can she be carrying any more gear?
Some of the science from this week will help the government of French Polynesia make choices about the sustainability of the recently closed sea cucumber fishery. The market was new to the island in 2009 and skyrocketed, much faster than scientists could learn how many cucumbers were present throughout the islands. Thankfully officials intervened and now our team is keeping a sharp lookout for these humble, sand-dwellers.
Reefs around the world come in all shapes, sizes and colors. One of the most common questions I am asked is, where are the MOST beautiful. I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder as long as the reef is healthy. How exciting to be seeing new reefs and taking new pulses.
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Papua New Guinea Through the Lens
What takes me back to Papua New Guinea so many times? It’s the magic of this island nation “through the lens”. The landscape, fascinating wildlife and rich culture has intrigued me enough to travel to PNG some 27 times over 20 years. What excites me even more is the opportunity to bring guests to share in the adventure and experience – something so few people on our planet get to see. From June 4 – 15, 2013, I invite you to join me on a photographic tour in association with Asia Transpacific Journeys to the mountain territory, the delta and the coastal areas.
The first location will be in the heavily forested mountain area where birds of paradise live in all their splendor along with many other colorful birds. Bring your cameras because we have an opportunity to get up close and personal at our lodge in Kumul. From Enga Province we will move to Wahgi to attend a small but intimate sing-sing where tribes gather to show off their clan design in body décor. The visuals are a mind-bending event but along with it, the people of the area chant and dance to the beat of their drums providing those guests more enthusiastic about video with fabulous action footage.
In the delta environment of the Sepik River Territory is a peaceful lodge named Karawari. As we awaken to the sounds of the many bird species, it is a location where the mist hangs over the Karawari River in the early morning hours as the forest rises with the sun. Our day is spent in a small boat traveling to local villages to learn how the tribes people live as they have for centuries.
Ending our journey at Tufi in the Cape Nelson area on the coast is the perfect way to learn the difference between clans. High on a cliff overlooking the waterways, these tribes travel and fish in their traditional outrigger canoes. We will have a special day getting to know the people – and photograph them as they prepare for our own welcome sing-sing.
I am so excited about collaborating with Asia Transpacific Journeys for this tour. ATJ has impressed me with their knowledge and experience for travel to unusual locations. In addition, I have found their staff to be the best I’ve worked with in years.
We invite you to journey with us – beyond your borders, beyond your expectations, beyond the ordinary.
Get a feel for this amazing part of the world in this gallery of Papua New Guinea images or by viewing the presentation below:
Space is limited so please visit Asia Transpacific Journeys for detailed information about joining me for this once in a life time journey.
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Posted in Travel, tagged China, culture, michele westmorland, people, photography, Tekesi, tourism, travel, trip report on June 28, 2012 |
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To see even more images view this gallery from Tekesi.
The following day would bring a new experience. At the invitation of the Deputy County magistrate, Li Qing Mei, I was able to meet and film the Lama in the Mongolian community and share a moment with an elder, who wore his traditional dress and played his two string instrument. The morin khuur (Mongolian: морин хуур) is a traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument. It is one of the most important musical instruments of the Mongol people, and is considered a symbol of the Mongolian nation.
After listening to the man’s music, we visited the residence of the Lama. A huge man with a smile that could light up the world, he shared some important and delicate artifacts that are centuries old. I was thrilled to be allowed to view and photograph the handwritten scrolls, elaborate necklaces and a mask made of a tortoise shell. These are significant items and are cherished and protected by the community. Invited to share in a tradition of drinking a shot of alcohol, most likely vodka, milk tea and eating bread, I was draped with a long white scarf and taught how to participate in a blessing. The scarf or khata symbolizes purity and compassion, is made of silk and in my case, given with my arrival.
That evening, the entire photographic group was treated to a wonderful dinner in a large tent – plenty of food and drink and traditional music and dance. It wasn’t until very late in the evening, the jury of judges began to review and vote on the 1000 images that were submitted for the contest. I was extremely impressed to see the quality of imagery but by 3:30 AM, I retreated to my room for some much needed sleep. The last day of the event would require me to give a speech at the closing ceremonies and deliver the prizes to the winners. I was quite honored to be able to give the 20 prints I had at the exhibit to a large local school to be hung in their lobby. It’s a wonderful way to encourage the local children to learn about the marinelife and culture in a part of the world they will never have a chance to visit.
There are so many people that need to be thanked for this wonderful opportunity. First to Natalie Fobes for the introduction; Zhu Jiong in Beijing for the formal invitation and for her tireless work before and during the event; Gao Jun for all the communication and cooperation to make sure my prints were the best they could be; to the organizers and community leaders for making this a memorable trip and experience; and to my translator, Yili Peng, for the sleepless nights and long days helping me communicate with the audience and community.
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At least when I awoke at 5:00 AM the following morning, I had little if any residual effects from the night before. It was a good thing because we were on our way to hike into the Kalajun Ecological Region. After two hours of walking I decided to get a “rent-a-horse” from one of the local Kazakh. These little horses might appear scrawny but they certainly were sure footed in the rocky terrain. Arriving to the meadows to see the majesty of the mountains and flower-filled prairies, it’s no wonder the local land owners have applied to make this territory a UNESCO World Heritage site. I admire the people and leaders of the territory for turning down offers from major mining and oil companies with the promise of riches to protect the environmental beauty of the area. Kalajun is a Kazakh word meaning “black fertile and vast prairie”. There were at least 50 photographers there to capture the beauty of the wildflowers and snow-covered mountains. Leaving the meadows and vast prairie areas, we had enough time to stop at a Kazakh camp of herders. They live in yurts that are colorfully decorated with tapestry and pillows inside. Our hosts shared with us some songs and music on an ancient string instrument called a dombra. The songs were actually a banter back and forth between a young man and woman beginning their courtship.
As tired as I was from the hike, I prepared to give my presentation when we returned. My topic would cover the magic of marinelife and the connection of the local people to this watery environment. My theme was well received – “Man himself is a part of the living nature”. As humans, nature gives us meaning; nature sustains us; nature is us. This message is something actually already understood by the indigenous people of the territory – they live it every day!
The following day would be an event I will never forget. An hour from Tekesi, all the participants were driven to a major Kazakh area where games of horsemanship would be displayed. Children are on a horse before they can barely walk here which is why the Kazakh as some of the top riders in the world. It was quite rainy when we arrived but a little moisture didn’t keep several hundred horsemen plus throngs of villagers from the festivities. Races are held in two categories – 3 or 5 laps. The most competitive races are by the young boys all riding bareback! The horses are actually too small and don’t withstand high speed long distance races with full-grown men and saddles. But that doesn’t mean the adults don’t participate. They have their shorter laps plus an unusual team event. Kokpar is a traditional Kazakh game in which 2 teams of players compete to carry and “dunk” the headless carcass of a goat into a hoop-like basket. It’s a cross of polo and basketball. The riders can aggressively steal the carcass from each other which makes this game very intense.
Other events are a little more calm. One involves picking up a small object, like a handkerchief or coin, on the ground from your horse without dismounting. Did I say calm? There is another show of skill from the women. How about chasing a young man, also on horseback, and trying to steal his hat then using a small whip on the poor lad?
There were several men on horseback carrying their cherished golden eagles. I was curious about the hunting tradition and asked how the birds were collected , how and why they were used. I was told that a young chick is taken from the nest – one and only one. Training a young eagle is a sacrifice for the new master. There is no sleep for him as the bird grows and completely bonds with his owner. A hood, rendering the bird sightless, is used until its dependence on its master becomes complete. Such intimacy turns into a long-time trust with the eagle. In this particular area, the bird hunts for his master and is kept for approximately 10 years. Then at a point in time, respect for this bird is given by releasing him back into the wild to spend the remaining years in freedom.
The most touching part of the day was held after the games. We were invited to share a meal at the home of a local Kazakh family. The Kaderbhke’s had a feast laid out that would make any king or queen happy. The room was colorfully decorated with elaborate rugs, wall hangings and pillows. We sat cross-legged on the raised floor area and savored a myriad of dishes including breads of all kinds, goat cheese, noodles with lamb and my favorite – local potatoes. Tea was served by the youngest wife in the family and she did not eat until all were served and well fed. After the meal, we gathered for “family” photos and yes, I did feel like family and left with a sincere invitation to return and stay for several days. What a photo story that would be – in addition to an awesome experience.
Stay tuned for the last part of my Tekesi trip report!
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It was only 6 weeks before the event in June that I was invited to exhibit images and lecture on one of my favorite subjects – the marinelife and culture of Melanesia. I hesitated accepting but only for a moment. Once I understood what a rare opportunity this was to visit a remote and intriguing culture, it was no longer in question.
Tekesi is a small and unusual city in the remote northwestern corner of China. Xinjiang Ili Kasakh Autonomous Prefecture, where Tekesi is located, is surrounded by dramatic mountains and bordered by Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan. The word “Tekes” comes from Dzongkha and means “numerous wild goats” while in Mongol it means “wild plain with great quantities of water sources”. Aside from the stunning landscape, what intrigued me most was the culture. There are 33 ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Prefecture. Actually, there are a total of 56 ethnic groups in all of China so Xinjiang has the most diversity. In Tekesi, the population is primarily made up of Kazakh, Mongolian, Han and Uyghur people.
I had a lovely 17 year old woman, Yili Peng, who was my translator for the entire stay. There would have been no way for me to communicate otherwise. Mandarin Chinese is the official language but with all the different ethnic groups, there were still challenges. The most important thing I discovered was that no matter how complicated, the people of the villages were so warm and hospitable that sometimes only a smile was necessary. My other English speaking friend was Patrick Zackmann, a noted photojournalist from France, who was also there to lecture.
Pleasantly surprised as to just how big this event was, our schedule was filled with lectures, dinners, introductions, photographing, handshaking – and scads of locals who all wanted their photo taken with a Westerner. Or was it the blonde hair and green eyes that made me such an anomaly? Children giggled and pointed at me as I walked through the town. And it was no exception at the opening ceremonies of the festival. I actually thought it was the opening of the Olympics! There were at least 50 horsemen and women, over 1200 people in colorful traditional dress, 100 tai-chi performers and a stage laden with flowers for the important government officials and organizers to watch from. The air was filled with the thumping hooves of trick riders, children laughing, traditional music and announcements from the loudspeakers.
The dinner that evening was just as exotic. Gifts were given to the attendees, more speeches were madeand a lot of toasting was done with an unusual beverage. Actually, it tasted like pure alcohol so after the first glass, I resorted to filling the glass with water and faking the next downing of the drink. The culture is to participate – and many certainly did.
Stay tuned for Part II later this week!
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Posted in Conservation, Travel, tagged caribbean, conservation, diving, michele westmorland, National Geographic, scuba, travel, underwater on May 24, 2012 |
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Porkfish photographed in South Florida. These fish can be bred in captivity.
After some terrestrial travel and playing catch up here at home, I wanted to get back to the topic of the aquarium trade. To my surprise, I saw a trailer for a new National Geographic Wild Channel series titled “Fish Tank Kings”. Of course, I was curious. I’ve watched two episodes now and I have some REAL mixed emotions. First of all, I’m not sure just how long this program will last. How many times can you watch guys argue over construction? It is similar to some of the other “less than intelligent” programming that has really disappointed me – especially when it comes to those channels that are supposed to be smart. Anyway, I tried to take an objective view about the aquarium business.
Here are a few things I did like about the program – at least in the first ½ hour. They have a biologist on staff who manages the selection and health of animals. They design and build the coral structure out of synthetic material and I did not see “live” corals. The first and biggest location was at the Marlin Stadium in Miami so the original intent was to keep the tank as a Caribbean marine life exhibit. They did mention that one of the species targeted for the exhibit was captive bred so there would be less stress on natural reefs. In the second episode titled, “Pimp My Tank” (how classy is that?) the positive side was that the aquarium company, Living Color, helped restock an old tank at an accredited aquarium. They did collect with proper methods and actually discovered a new species.
Amphiprion ocellaris AKA clownfish can be bred in captivity but there are still too many that are being harvested from the reefs. Morbidity rate is extremely high.
Now the cons: Marlin Stadium did not adhere to only Caribbean species and Indo-Pacific species were brought in for additional color. Not all the fish were captive bred so I would be concerned with just how many fish actually died or will die to keep that massive tank going. The second episode also included the design and construction of a 3000 gallon tank for a pet store. The requirement when completed was to include sharks!! Unfortunately, a poor juvenile black-tip reef shark was collected “somewhere” and shipped in. The stress this animal had to go through was not good and I’m surprised he even made it. Once again, the concern about how many animals are collected from the reefs resurfaced.
I’d love for people who have seen the program to chime in with a comment. Oh – Nat Geo Wild was redeemed the following evening by airing “24/7”. Now that was exciting and educational. Check it out.
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Posted in Conservation, Travel, tagged aquarium, conservation, diving, fish, Hawaii, michele westmorland, nature, photography, scuba, underwater on March 27, 2012 |
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Dead fish bound for the aquarium trade found in a harbor dumpster in Hawaii
(Photo Courtesy of Teri Leicher)
After my recent trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, several questions came to mind about conservation of the marine life that inhabits the azure blue waters. When I made my first dive of the trip, I remembered that since Hawaii is so isolated, many species are unique to the area. Over ¼ of the fish found there are endemic and new species are still being discovered regularly. These endemic fish and sea creatures are impacted from a practice that is more widespread than I realized. The aquarium trade is a big industry in Hawaii and although there is talk of new legislation and better management, capturing animals is often far too easy. It is perfectly legal for a collector to go and remove the entire population of a fish that only inhabits one reef in the entire world. They can cause an extinction in a matter of minutes! Fish populations have declined by as much as 97% on some reefs purely from this sort of harvesting.
Living version of the Tangs pictured above
Furthermore, did you know that 98% of saltwater aquarium animals are wild caught? I certainly didn’t. The mortality rate of these captured fish is staggering. For example, the brightly colored tangs that I saw flit over the reefs and clean turtles have a death rate as high as 40% once caught. That’s before they make it to the hobbyists’ tanks where many of them die within weeks from stress related disease, cramped environments, improper food or inexperience maintaining a tank. It is amazing this is allowed to happen and so few people are concerned by it. For more information on this issue, check out For the Fishes.
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