Category Archives: Trip Accounts

A Tiny Seahorse with a Big Problem

After 2 long and arduous attempts at diving “Ray Point” off Mobul Island solely in order to photograph a Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti), we finally managed these shots and it was truly a team effort.

Pygmy Sea Horse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

Pygmy Sea Horse (Hippocampus bargibanti) off the coast of Mobul

 

Prior to arriving to SeaVentures (A converted Oil Rig in the Celebes Sea) we were blissfully unaware that innocently photographing these little guys has a tragic outcome. Turns out, they are exceedingly sensitive to flash photography and prone to going blind and dying if one isn’t careful. Several horror stories were recounted to us of divers having exceeded the Sea Horse’s tolerance and finding them hanging, dead or dying with their eyes having been “exploded” from the high energy flashes. Surely no one would intentionally harm these adorable fellas but not enough care is being taken by divers (In far more than just this respect) to be ecologically conscious while underwater.

So armed with this knowledge, Ash and myself limited ourselves to being able to take only 2 photos, good or bad. Our strobes were also turned down as much as possible along with our ISO being cranked up to reduce any retinal impact. It was by no means an easy task to photo a 1cm uncooperative creature in a current and actually get him in focus.

Pygmy Sea Horse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

Pygmy Sea Horse (Hippocampus bargibanti) in Mobul

 

Like most Hippocampids, they have this REALLY annoying tendency to face away from the camera and move into the most awkward positions. And it’s not like you can go in like you can with a lizard and manually position his head — you just have to deal with the cards you’re dealt. To add insult to injury, he was on the side of the Sea Fan (Muricella sp.) facing the current which made it impossible to stabilize myself underwater. Ash ever so graciously then faced me, braced one hand against a rock and used the other to push me backwards, keeping me just steady enough to land these shots. I wish someone would have photographed us doing this but just trust me, it was sufficiently awkward looking!

Scuba Diving with Sea Snakes

After finishing our 7 day liveaboard through the Surin and Similan islands in the Andaman Sea, I’m glad to say that we knocked off a few bucket list animals. This Yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) was my first encounter scuba diving with sea snakes and I was actually more excited to see this than anything else on the trip which includes Whale Sharks and Mantas. Call me crazy but I am enthralled with the idea of marine reptiles, especially snakes.

 

Yellow Lipped Sea Krait

Yellow Lipped Sea Krait found on a dive of the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea near Thailand.

What a marvelous feat of evolution for these terrestrial creatures to have carved out a niche for themselves in a seemingly foreign and hostile environment. Still needing to come ashore to nest and drink fresh water, these snakes spend the vast majority of their lives hunting, sleeping, and mating under the waves of the worlds tropical oceans.

This particular snake is one of the most iconic of the sea snakes but there are 62 recognized species that occupy anything from mangroves, estuaries, reefs, and even the open ocean. The Yellow Lipped Sea Kraits famously come ashore in the state of Sabah, Borneo (Where I happen to be right now) so I’m very much looking forward to more opportunities to photograph these guys and hopefully have some more time to get some standout shots.

And a quick fun-fact: Though extremely venomous they rarely show hostility towards divers and carry on with their daily activities without being hindered by our presence. It is often said it is safe to be around them due to their mouths being too small to physically bite a human. This is, in reality, a blatant fallacy as there are several bite cases per year from fisherman removing them from nets. Nonetheless it was far less nerve-wracking to photograph this Elapid than most.

Adventures in Thailand: Elephants

Turns out a seemingly difficult task of spotting Asian Elephants in the jungles of Thailand is not as difficult as one might think. At both Kaeng Krachan National Park and Khao Yai National Park elephants abound! A

HerpNation Publication

My writeup for the February Ecuador trip with the Biodiversity Group has finally been published. Go pick one up and let me know what you think!

http://www.herpnation.com/issues/issue-no-13/?simple_nav_category=issues

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Islas de Sonora México

For higher resolution pictures, please visit my gallery of Las Islas de Sonora México

3 others and myself recently came back from a five day trek out to 3 of the 4 main islands belonging to the state of Sonora, Mexico. This adventure, however, started before the trip even began; rarely a good omen. The boat I had reserved several months prior from an American outfit doubled in price the day before we left…needless to say this caused some unrest in our group. The ensuing calamity subsided with the uneasy compromise of going down there and “winging it”, which under normal circumstances I would have no objections to. Winging it generally ends in having a pleasantly (subjective) eventful trip and, if you know me, that is pretty much my modus operandi. This time though there were some financial constraints within the group, and we couldn’t afford to come home empty handed.

Thursday, everyone agrees to go on with the trip and met up in Tucson, piled into my truck…only barely managing to stuff all the gear in the bed. Loaded up, we headed down in eager anticipation of sun-drenched islas, tacos pescado, y cerveza! Now, let me preface this with: I have never had a trip into Mexico where something unexpected didn’t happen. As cliche as it is, you have to expect the unexpected down there. Some events are worse than others, but all make for entertaining stories. The situations encountered on this run were, luckily, pretty benign and were good for a few laughs.

Our first destination was Bahía de Kino, a sleepy Mexican vacation town which, in any day except Saturday, you would be hard pressed to see more than 5 people walking in the town. The town before Kino Bay is Miguel Alemán which pretty much just pops out of the middle of the desolate desert and is, unfortunately, chock-full of policía. Distracted, I neglected to slow down driving through the town and managed to get pulled over for speeding for the first time in MX (I’ve been pulled over for just about everything else though). The cop directed us to follow him to the police station, where I left everyone in the truck and slowly marched in, praying that the policía were going to go easy on the extortion. Once inside, the 2 officers began to question me as to what we were doing in their town. I told them plainly that we were heading out to a few islands to photograph lizards. Not surprisingly, this didn’t compute…it rarely ever does…even in the states. To elucidate the situation, I claimed to be a photographer for NatGeo. Immediately the mood in the room changed from stern inquisition to childish glee, as if they just ran into a celebrity. “NatGeo?! Really?!” I smile and nod and even offer to show them my equipment to convince them. This was unnecessary, as within 10 seconds of talking amongst themselves, I get my licencía back and they release me free of tariff. Shell-shocked, I stood there for a second until the reality of the situation sank in, at which point I swiftly made my way to the front door. With a giant shit-eating grin I walked up to my truck, got in and left. I can’t believe that actually worked. Fine avoided! Maybe our luck is turning around? Maybe this trip won’t be a complete disaster? Not to press our luck any further, we casually rolled into Kino, not exceeding the posted limit and headed to our contact in town. A few phone calls later, we’re confident we have a boat for Sunday and Monday so it was time to unwind with some margaritas and road cruising…a great combination!…only in Mexico.

That leads us to our first find:

Sonoran Banded Gecko (Coleonyx variegatus sonoriensis)

Unfortunately a few of these were all that we found alive that first night.

The following morning we set out to find Dickerson’s Collard Lizard (Crotophytus dickersonae). This is a photo of our target which I took on a previous trip.

To give you an idea these mountains are the only home in the world for this lizard

The temperature was unusually cool that day with the marine layer blowing in all the way from the pacific. Despite this, Rob Schell spotted a pair of C. dickersonae yet failed to get them in-hand and only managed shots with his telephoto. After several hours, the heat of the day was upon us, which meant our time was up in Kino. We needed to head south to San Carlos to reserve a boat for the next day to travel to Isla San Pedro Nolasco. A simple enough plan, but we spent too much time hiking and it was going to be hard to keep schedule. The shop was to close at 5pm and it is just over a 3 hour drive, if you believe Google Maps. The thing is, Google fails to notify you that one of these roads can get rather rough occasionally. I say “rough” with much reservation. The road is downright ridiculous, but last time I traveled it (the year before), they had patched over most of the pot-holes. The patches didn’t hold at all — surprise, surprise. Immediately realizing this once I hit the road, I knew my passengers were going to be in for a hell of a ride. I would never let a few pot-holes keep us from making the boat reservation, so I continued to speed down La Bandera. I believe I was a rally car racer in a previous life so I was thoroughly enjoying the ride, but as usual, it was a nightmare for everyone else in the truck. This time pot-holes weren’t my only worry though. There also happened to be copious quantities of invasive Eurasian Collared Doves on the road…which of course I tried to hit, as any good biologist would. Unbeknown to me, hitting a large collared dove at 75mph has quite a bit of force behind it…more than my poor 8” HID light could handle. I didn’t realize it broke off until we got to San Carlos and by that time it was too late; a $400 light was donated to the state of Sonora. Some say this was Karma, I say nay, if it were Karma I would have stumbled upon an Indigo on the road for removing invasive species! Needless to say, I wasn’t too happy, but a few beers later and I my usual jubilant self. I’ve done worse down there.

The next day we woke up early to get on the boat to Isla San Pedro Nolasco (SPN). On the ride to the island we spotted flying fish, dolphins, and a breaching sailfish. Once we anchored off the east point, we had already spotted our main target:

San Pedro Nolasco Iguana (Ctenosaura nolascensis)

But it was now time for the hardest part of the trip, physically getting onto SPN, an island with no beaches and sheer rock walls. I’ll spare you the grizzly details but I don’t recommend taking a kayak for this! Just swim up to the island from the boat to avoid painful injuries and frustration.

We did eventually get onto the isla and within 30 seconds we found this big guy:

San Pedro Nolasco Iguana (Ctenosaura nolascensis)

Its no wonder they call these guys Spiny-tailed Iguanas

And a little later this tiny guy:

San Pedro Nolasco Leaf-toed Gecko (Phyllodactylus homolepidurus nolascoensis)

As well as Sceloporus clarkii and the endemic Uta and Aspidoscelis, none of which I managed shots of. Nolasco is also popular for its endemic mammalaria cactus

I managed 2 dives while at the island which is one of my favorite dive sites in the Sea of Cortez, so here are a few photos from the last dive…I had some major technical issues with my new strobes so I didn’t get too many but I hope you enjoy the few I did capture.

Ophiuroids on a Oreaster occidentalis

Apricot Slug (Berthellina ilisima)

Cowry (Pseudozonaria annettae)

Eastern Pacific Crown-of-Thorns (Acanthaster ellisii)

Gorgonian (Eugorgia aurantiaca)

Lizard Triplefin (Crocodilichtys gracilis)

Polyclad Flatworm (Mexistylochus tuberculatus)

Redside Blenny (Malacoctenus hubbsi)

Sea Urchin (Toxopneustes roseus)

Chocolate Chip Seastar (Nidorellia armata)

Seastar (Oreaster occidentalis)

Urchin

Sea star consuming dead fish

Christmas Tree Worm

After trekking around on the island and doing the 2 dives, we were relaxing on the boat when we spotted a pod of Fin Whales in the distance and even witnessed the second half of a breach

And as usual, Brown Pelicans, Blue-footed Boobies, and Brown Boobies abound

Then it was back to SC and the drive back to Kino Bay to solidify our boat (called a panga in MX) to islas San Esteban y San Pedro Mártir. With our responsibilities taken care of for the night we went out for some seafood and a couple beers. After satiating our appetites we could barely stay awake, so we got a hotel and crashed for the night. The next morning we met up with our boat and captain, loaded up, and made the long haul out to Isla San Esteban, about 1.5 hours.

The cliffs of these islands are home to thousands of breeding sea birds every spring

We expected San Esteban to be the highlight of the trip…and indeed it was. On the ride out we even caught a glimpse of a unknown species of shark thrashing around at the surface eating what I presume was a bird, but we sped right by it so no shots –sorry. Again, just like SPN, as soon as we landed on the island we spotted a Chuckwalla, and if you weren’t aware, this is the granddaddy of all chucks. Big, beautiful, and piebald. They were everywhere and incredibly tame so they made for some nice shots, some of my favorites of the trip:

San Esteban Island Chuckwalla (Sauromalus varius)

Wandering around, we also saw plenty of San Esteban Iguana (Ctenosaura conspicuosa) hanging out on the Cardón cactus (pachycereus pringlei):

For every live iguanid we found, it seemed we also found a skeleton. Testament to how difficult insular life can be for these lizards.

There were also plenty of these around:

San Esteban Side-blotched Lizard (Uta sp.)

Returning to our campsite we would inevitably get mobbed by gulls protecting their chicks, which were walking all around the coastline near our campsite. Of course, I was the only one (un)fortunate enough to get crapped on, but it made for some good laughs.

Rob figured out how to use his lizard noosing pole to fend off the buzzards

And as luck would have it, we were on this island during a partial solar eclipse which was quite the memorable experience. We watched the eclipse set in while eating fresh caught sea bass from earlier in the day, which our guide generously cooked up for us. Though he didn’t cook us his tiburon he caught as he can get a pretty peso for it in market. Shark fishing is prevalent here just as it is in most coastal communities around the world. Though individuals line-fishing for them does not affect the populations as much as commercial fishing does, we were still disconcerted at the site. Raul was pretty proud of himself though:

After dinner the sun was low in the sky

The eclipse was starting to begin so I set up to capture what is surely a unique photo with this enigmatic and, sadly, endangered creature:

After the eclipse set behind the hills and with full stomachs, we marched out in search of the endemic black-tailed rattlesnake. After about an hour we hadn’t seen anything except a scorpion and this tarantula:

Species?

Then we bean spotting the endemic Phyllodactylus running around. These were far and away the most agile and acrobatic geckos I’ve ever seen. They were outrageously fast and wary and would gap distances you wouldn’t think they could, doing back-flips whenever you went in for a grab. Eventually I got my hands on one of these little buggers:

Peninsular Leaf-toed Gecko (Phyllodactylus nocticolus)

Still no sign of the crot. Not a half an hour later though, I get a call from Tim on the radio saying he found what we were all looking for.

A male San Esteban Rattlesnake (Crotalus estebanensis) and then as expected, a female a few meters away

Happy with the night’s finds, we hiked back to camp and set up our sleeping bags. Mine was a sheet of cardboard with a sheet borrowed from the hotel…my sleeping bag was misplaced and I was unaware of this until I went to pick it up the night before we left for MX. Astonishingly I didn’t have the worst night though, as Tim was harassed by a pack of unusually bold rodents all night, which went so far as deciding he made a tasty snack –ouch.

The next day we headed to San Pedro Mártir, which is another tall rock sticking out of the sea. This one though has 1 gravel beach on the south side which we made a landing at. This was the old docking area that was used to bring prisoners to the prison/guano mine located on the island.

A few things were immediately apparent about this island: Being one of the largest Blue-footed Booby colonies in the world, it was entirely covered with guano and dead birds so the smell was pungent.

The odor was the least of our concerns though, as since the island is entirely white, the albedo was extremely high and it was akin to walking into a pizza oven. All the heat was reflected onto you and was nearly unbearable, even for a desert rat like myself. Luckily the Uta were concentrated on the coast, and man, what a neat lizard! Wait, did I just get excited about a side-blotched lizard? Yeah, I did! These things were twice as big as a normal Uta; indeed they are the largest in the genus. I imagine this is because of the plague-like levels of large flies on the island which the lizards effortlessly gobbled up. It was amazing how much these guys could put away! They were both incredibly agile and also surprisingly tame. We were able to feed them out of our hands without much persuasion and they would continue to crawl all over you to mow down all the flies off your back. Quite the experience!

San Pedro Mártir Side-blotched Lizard (Uta palmeri)

Hiking up to the interior of the island was incredibly miserable but luckily it didn’t take long to find one of the coolest Aspidoscelis in existence.

San Pedro Mártir Whiptail (Aspidoscelis martyris)

Despite the unbearable heat, tt was a rather surreal experience hiking around this island. All you could see was white wall surrounding you. All you could hear was the eerie sound of the hundreds of nervous Boobies guarding their chicks. That imagery won’t be leaving my memory for quite some time.

The reason they are called Blue-footed Boobies

Seeking shade in the caves

With the 2 targets acquired, we headed back in the panga to Bahia de Kino and happened to cross the path of a pod of Pilot Whales. This leads me to my biggest regret of the trip: not bringing my mask and snorkel on the boat. The pod was only 10m from the boat though so I obviously still couldn’t resist jumping in. I swam up to the pod and watched as they effortlessly swam through the deep blue waters, unperturbed by my presence. If only I had brought my underwater housing….

And so ends our Islas de Sonora adventure. I hope you enjoyed the photos and the journey!