It’s a wild wild world: the cool animals of Martinique
Updated: May 29
”It causes the caiman to cry by jabbing its proboscis into its eyes and then drinks the tears. ”
This week has mostly been consumed with boat work and taking advantage of the excellent boat chandleries in Le Marin. Getting the cockpit tent repaired, servicing one of the winches and beginning the slow process of replacing the steering wheel lock - not very simple unfortunately.
However, we did manage to spend a day exploring. We were worried about cycling as the bay is surrounded by hills, but there is a valley that cuts through the hills from Le Marin to the Macabou Cays on the Atlantic Coast and we were hoping we could cut through there. Martinique is a volcanic island and this little southeastern tail is the oldest geological part dating from 24 million years ago. Subsequent eruptions have meant other parts of the island are relatively more recent. We weighed down the much-patched inflatable dinghy with the folding bikes and exited at the dinghy dock by the marina. From there we cycled uphill, having to get off and push from time to time. But at last we reached the plateau and looked down over the green valley below and down to the coast. From there it was all downhill, freewheeling down the winding steep roads. Every so often we would brake sharply, the little folding bikes screeching in pain as we saw a little lookout from which to look at the breathtaking view of the Atlantic coast stretching out before us. As we reached the final descent the road turned to stones and we came across a tiny grassy area leading to a little beach. We stopped here to admire the scene before heading back along the stony paths until we reached the trails of Grand Macabou. There are 113 hectares of protected coastline here and a number of offroad trails leading along the beach, through mangroves, up into the hills and up on the rocky coast. We started well but soon found ourselves often having to get off and push the bikes as we got mired in deep fine sand. The trails were definitely designed with walking rather than cycling in mind, although a mountain bike would probably have coped ok.
However, the slower you move, the more you see. Pushing the bike along on the trail behind the beach, through baby and mature palm trees, I spied something moving semi-rapidly and awkwardly along the brown leaf-strewn sandy path. It was a hermit crab inside a large whelk shell. It made its way across the path, trying to escape the huge metal monstrosities we were pushing along and hid itself in the shelter of a rotting tree stump. We carried on, the path occasionally making its way out onto the beach. This is the Atlantic coast and as we crossed the Atlantic, most of our trip was through the Sargasso Sea, named after the sargassum seaweed that circulates between the Gulf Stream, North Atlantic Current, Canary Current and North Atlantic Equatorial Current. We saw lots of this floating brown seaweed on our trip and for some sailors we have met, it caused real problems with their hydro generators. These are electrical generators that are towed in the water to top up your batteries. They had to keep taking them out to clean the weed off them. Here on the east coast, as we had seen on the east coast beaches of Barbados, it seemed all of that sargasso weed had been washed up in dense thick blankets more than a metre deep swathed across the beach. Sargasso weed is generally an environmentally positive feature, providing cover for turtle hatchlings from overhead predators and allowing eels to breed. However, the amount of sargasso has been massively increasing, to the extent that it can prevent dolphins and turtles from being able to surface to breathe. Scientist Mengqiu Wang and her team have been investigating why and believe that excess fertiliser from the water discharged from the Amazon and upwelling currents from West Africa are responsible. The increased fertiliser from the Amazon may possibly be related to increased deforestation, but more research would be needed to get definitive data on this. In any case, the increase will be self-populating as the increased amount will result in greater seeding for blooms the following year according to oceanographer Amy Siuda. You can read more about this in The Atlantic article from which this information comes.*
The trail had more wild delights in store for us. As we passed up from the beach towards the rocky path up to a chapel high above the coast, we stopped to look out at the sea. As we did so, we looked up and saw a huge brown pelican, wings outstretched, travelling languidly on the air currents that passed overhead, it passed over us, looking below for edible piscine treasures worth diving for. It whirled slowly round over our heads, so close we could see the outline of its long killer beak and dead black killer eyes. Over and over it circled. Eventually we headed up the rocky path towards the little chapel perched on the hill. As we ascended, and eventually reached the chapel to rest our bikes, we turned back around and at last the pelican dived, abruptly with a decisive splash. It swam around and re-emerged from the water to begin its lofty circular scanning of the water, propelled gently by the air currents. As we harness the winds for sailing, there is a peculiar beauty to realise our connectedness with other species in how we as animals use earth’s features for our niche needs. We feel free when we sail and we feel connected to nature to use the wind. But there is something extra that a bird must feel when floating on these air currents, wind ruffling its feathers, conserving its energy, an exhilaration with the final dive and possible fishy treat as a reward for its effort. Like a cheetah that sleeps all day in the cool shade of the long grass then sprints briefly to grab the sustenance it needs and no more. Is this mere anthropomorphising? I don’t know, but ultimately our nature as hunter gatherers has meant that travel and movement is intrinsically connected, perhaps subconsciously to the quest for nourishment. Hunter-gatherers spend much time walking - gathering is about 80% of calories consumed and involves much walking. Hunting, though often unsuccessful with traditional weapons also requires much walking to stalk prey. When nomads have outstayed what can support them in that area, they move on, allowing that area to recover. Humans have always migrated, seeking new areas and escaping ice ages and localised environmental changes and catastrophes. To walk, to cycle, to sail feels natural. Unfortunately we can’t run from our planet completely to avoid climate change, although a few billionaires are trying their best.
We pushed our bikes up the dry rocky slope towards the tiny stone chapel. The distant tropical green hills was the backdrop to the desiccated shoreline, so arid it has an abundance of cacti growing, in places as tall as the trees. The chapel is tiny, with a little wooden bench outside from which you can admire the view down to the sea. Next to the bench is a tiny little window outlined in brickwork. Someone has placed a conch shell on the little windowsill. Inside is even more charming with tiny rustic paint stripped shabby chic wooden benches, a sky blue painted ceiling and bunches of flowers and candles in glass cylinders dedicated to Notre Dame de Fátima and some other “Our Ladies” whose names are obscured by bunches of flowers. We exited through the distressed wooden white doors that look like floor length shutters. We carried on along the path and into a verdant wooded area.
After a flash downpour we peered out from our shelter into the trees glistening in the sunlight and saw tiny little black and green crested hummingbirds feeding on the flowers in the trees. They vibrated at dizzying speeds, long thin beaks poking into the petals and flittering rapidly in and out of the trees. These are Antillean Crested hummingbirds with the gorgeous metallic green sheen like a male mallard combined with the cute quiff. They are found across the Lesser Antilles as well as Puerto Rico. We also saw a giant orange butterfly, proper name Dryas Iulia, but more appropriately AKA “The Flame”. Not only beautiful and eye catching, it is also daring and brave enough to drink the tears of a caiman. It causes the caiman to cry by jabbing its proboscis into its eyes and then drinks the tears.** The beautiful colours of butterflies may be explained by the fact that they can see almost the largest number of colours of any animal, with fifteen different photoreceptors compared with the measly three of a human. Only the mantis shrimp has more photoreceptors. Meanwhile birds have four photoreceptors, allowing them to see millions more colours than humans, helping them to clearly distinguish between leaves in dense foliage.*** Many types of bird, including hummingbirds can detect ultraviolet.**** It’s incredible to see how differently the perception of the world between species is. It’s thrilling to realise what other animals can do and puts us firmly in our place.
* Yong, E., 2022. Why Waves of Seaweed Have Been Smothering Caribbean Beaches. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/great-atlantic-sargassum-belt-here-stay/593290/> [Accessed 12 March 2022].
** the Guardian. 2022. The real butterfly effect – not chaos, but wonder. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/apr/06/sensational-butterflies-natural-history-museum> [Accessed 12 March 2022].
*** Koumoundouros, T., 2022. Birds Can See a 'Colour' Humans Can't. Now Scientists Have Revealed This Hidden World. [online] ScienceAlert. Available at: <https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.sciencealert.com/birds-can-see-uv-light-now-scientists-can-show-us-what-that-looks-like/amp> [Accessed 12 March 2022].
**** Google.co.uk. 2022. Hummingbirds are able to see millions more colors than humans. [online] Available at: <https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/nypost.com/2020/06/24/hummingbirds-are-able-to-see-millions-more-colors-than-humans/amp/> [Accessed 12 March 2022].
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