Archive for June, 2014

Celebrating life in the Banks Islands

June 12, 2014

26 April 2014

We woke to a rolling sea the colour of gunmetal and were up early and on deck. The Spirit of Enderby was drifting in the centre of the Banks Islands, maximising our chances to see the rare and little-known Vanuatu Petrel, as it made its way to feeding grounds from the island of Vanua Lava, thought to be where it roosted.

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The landscape was surreal, with volcanic islands all around, topped with cloud or steam. I spent the morning on board, watching for birds, while the zodiacs went out to find the petrel.

We were all relatively successful. As the day got warmer, parts of the sea began to “boil” with movement and fish were seen jumping and scattering. Some of the crew went out with lines and succeeded in catching a beautiful small tuna, about a metre long, which we sampled as sashimi that evening. These fish feeding frenzies attracted the birds as well, including storm petrels, boobies and frigate birds.

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Storm petrels working a fish frenzy.

Mid afternoon, after another huge lunch and time to relax, we all boarded the zodiacs and headed out in a calm sea, to try to spot Vanuatu petrels returning to the islands to roost. The evening was to prove to be a highlight of the whole trip. As we sat rocking on the sea, we were suddenly visited by a pod of Blainville Beaked whales, which surfaced so close we could smell their fishy breathe. It was a remarkable encounter, one that left everyone in my zodiac quiet and pensive, for at least five minutes.

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Not long afterwards, as the sun was beginning to lower in the sky behind Ureparapara, the sea began to boil again with fish life, as tuna chased smaller baitfish and flying fish. Suddenly the birds appeared – frigate birds, boobies, terns, storm petrels and then the Vanuatu petrels, wheeling and diving around us. It was a magnificent sight, made all the more exciting by the rarity of this bird and how little is known about it. We stayed out as late as we could, watching a constantly changing scene of fish and birds, until the sky began to darken, and we were “forced” to return to the Spirit of Enderby, to celebrate another wonderful day.

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Vatthe Conservation Area, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

June 5, 2014

25 April 2014, ANZAC Day. As I went out on deck and contemplated the day ahead, I thought of the New Zealanders who had served in WWII in these islands. That thought would haunt me all day, as we explored the Vatthe Conservation Area at the north end of Espiritu Santo, which the locals just call Santo. It was a beautiful morning, still and clear, the sea like mother-of-pearl. The Spirit of Enderby was moored in Big Bay, surrounded by high, forested hills, shrouded in wisps of cloud. And there on the beach, clearly visible, was the “piece of calico” that was the signal of where to land. I felt a million miles from home and open to anything.

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We landed in the Zodiacs soon after breakfast and received a wonderful welcome from the Vatthe villagers. The calico signal turned out to be a welcome sign. Chief Solomon and his wife Purity greeted us with beautiful leis, some made from flowers, but others constructed cleverly from coloured leaves.

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Chief Solomon welcomes us to Vatthe.

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Thanks to Charmaine for this photo of me, contemplating ANZAC Day.

I was delighted to discover the connections between Vatthe Conservation Area and the New Zealand Forest & Bird Society (http://www.forestandbird.org.nz/). Vatthe is Vanuatu’s largest conservation area and is working with Forest & Bird to combat invasive weeds and improve the original habitat (http://www.forestandbird.org.nz/what-we-do/news/break-through-in-controlling-invasive-vine-in-the-pacific). Working in such hot and sticky “jungles” must be difficult for New Zealand volunteers used to cooler climes, but the work they do is really important.

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We were taken into the forest by guides Bill, Velda and Mike and were soon eyes up, spotting Melanesian Whistlers, Southern Shrikebill and eventually, the Buff-Bellied Monarch (although it seemed more primrose than buff to me…).

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Monarch – high in the canopy.

I was thankful I had worn long trousers and a shirt with sleeves, but even so, received some painful bites right through my trousers, which were later identified as ant bites, not mosquitos. I learnt that dark colours, being warmer, attract these biting insects! Our guides warned us not to touch anything in the forest without asking first and pointed out the “fire plant”, with its thorns. ANZAC Day took on another layer of meaning.

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“Fire tree” – do not touch!

The “real birders”, amazingly, found everything they had come to see, including the very rare Vanuatu megapode, sitting very conveniently low, in a tree off the path, which reminded me far too much of a Queensland brush turkey, which are not rare at all. They also spotted a lovely pair of Vanuatu Kingfishers, which I admit I enjoyed in photo form only.

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Thanks to Steve Howell for this photograph.

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Back at the village, we were revived with coconut milk, before a veritable feast, put on by the village, of chicken, fish, delicious banana rice, breadfruit, sweet potato, cucumber and fabulous fruit. The table was beautifully decorated with flowers and palm fronds.

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We later explored the village, visiting the kindergarten, school, and the copra drying plant for extracting coconut oil. The final product is shipped to China apparently. I had some wonderful close encounters with roosters, which appeared very similar to the original jungle fowl, introduced for food purposes many years ago (see Matisoo-Smith et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Dec 8, 1998; 95(25): 15145–15150).

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It was hard to leave Vatthe. Thank you for a wonderful day!

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