Friday, May 15, 2009

The swim shirt and the sea turtle

This is a continuation of the story of my trip to Culebra, which starts here.

On my way back from the exhausting Resaca Beach trip (see tourist map for refresher), I stopped at a kiosk near the airport. A group of Puerto Rican men were outside talking and one stepped inside to see what he could get for me. My choices were (a) pork kebabs, or (b) chicken kebabs. I ordered a chicken kebab and he pulled one off the grill and covered it in barbecue sauce, then took a slice of bread and stuck it to the end of the kebab. I learned later that this is standard procedure with kebabs but am unsure why... at any rate, it provides some evidence that Puerto Rican cuisine contains at least three food groups (I mean meat, starch, and barbecue sauce).

I began to walk back to the campground but when a publico pulled up beside me I was more than happy enough to pay the $3 to get back. I got changed and walked over the spine of the island to Tamarindo Grande Beach (also on the above map). This is about a 20 minute walk and is steep and rugged in some places, although people constantly made it in flip flops.

On the other side I discovered a narrow beach completely flanked with coral except for one opening wherein a swimmer might walk out to swimming depth beyond the coral. (See this picture for an idea of how the coral fringes the beaches... this isn't Tamarindo Grande, but it's vaguely similar.)

Remember the Culebra Forum, on which I'd read that even cold sleepers were warm on the island with just a flannel blanket? I had also read that cold people were also quite comfortable in the tropical water. So against my better insticts I refrained from purchasing a light wetsuit and instead outfitted myself with a simple lycra swim shirt.


I was cold. The water is cold! I don't care what these other, delusional people who have been swimming there think. It is very brisk. It is the sort of water you get into briefly to cool off when it's 90 degrees out, not the sort of water you want to hang around in staring at fish.

I stepped out through the gap in the coral reef. Here it was rocky, so there should have been coral, but something had made it impossible for the coral to grow, which was probably thousands of feet a year stepping on it. Once through the gap I could just barely stand. I put on my mask and looked around. The rocks near the gap were also covered in silt and sand and not very coral-fied, but there were a few juvenile fish the size of my pinky. It is very exciting for a first-time snorkeler to see these brightly-colored fish right next to shore and I think non-swimmers could be very content just poking around in these sorts of areas and watching them. But I knew there would be bigger fish ("better" fish) further off.

As I swam away from the gap, on the seaward side of the reef, the coral became larger and more colorful. There were many sea-fans, which were green and purple, swaying back and forth as the small waves came in and out. Even though these sea fans really characterized Tamarindo Grande I did not get a very good picture of them. Here is the sort of picture my Fuji underwater camera was able to take:

Here you can see a yellowish sea fan pointing straight up toward me in the lower left... there are some other soft and hard corals in the picture, and what looks like some quite small fish.

Here is some more coral and perhaps some sponges. I'm uncertain what I was taking a picture of here, but perhaps there's a fish in it. This coral does not look tremendously healthy, being mostly white, but some of the lack of color is due to the medium.

Underwater photography is difficult because the water does not allow long wavelengths (such as red) to travel very far. Blue, on the other hand, can travel great distances. If you're relying only on sunlight, red objects become black at no great depth, and everything takes on a bit of a blue tinge in just a few feet of water. Yet in real life, the coral I saw wasn't this drab; I believe the brain compensates much better for the extra blueness than the camera does, and when snorkeling we perceive things as closer to their "true" colors than we do with natural-light photography.

(This reminds me of a study I read about in which researchers placed a coke can at a depth of, I don't know, 40 feet, and told participants to scuba down and find the aluminum can and record what color it was. A great number--perhaps a majority--of participants said the can was red, even though physically no red light should be available at that depth and the can would appear black.)

Trying to take the blue out of my photographs has resulted in some clearly false color:

But the juvenile hawksbill turtle in the photo is not false. This was the only one I saw on this trip. It was maybe a foot and a half long. I wanted to watch its natural behavior but it swam away from me, and I didn't want to keep chasing it everywhere. In U.S. waters it is illegal to disturb marine mammals or sea turtles, and the rule of thumb is that if you approach an animal closely enough to make it change its behavior, that is disturbing it (though it is all right if the animal approaches you). Note the abundance of soft coral.

If you examine a sea fan closely you will often find flamingo tongue cowries on them. Cowries are a type of gastropod (like a snail), but are one of the few who extend their fleshy mantle over their shell, so when you look at a live one you are actually looking at its flesh, which is spectacular. Check out this lovely photo my camera never could have taken.

I managed to stay in the water about a half an hour, then returned the the beach to warm up a bit before clouds covered the sky and it became chilly out. I returned to my tent and ate a granola bar, carrots and chips for supper (not exactly gourmet, but it was a 45-minute walk to the nearest restaurant) and I was exhausted. I was falling asleep. I had only been awake for 12 hours.

At this time I was just beginning to appreciate the practical difficulties of my condition. I had somehow acquired a type of arthritis about a month previous, was still awaiting a diagnosis, and found my condition worsening while I waited. I could not keep my eyes open. It's true that I'd gotten quite a bit of exercise this day, but I felt like I'd been awake for 48 hours in some kind of Caribbean decathlon. I was asleep shortly after 8 PM.

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