We've just spent our first weekend back on the island after another trip up to the Good Old U.S.of A. We spent a week in the high northern Colorado foothills around Ft. Collins. We even nipped up into Wyoming for a day, checking out La Gringa's old haunts in Laramie and beyond. Beautiful country, and spending time back in our homeland sure reminds us of some of the basic changes in our lives that have somehow become the norm for us. We feel like country bumpkin kids dropped into the middle of Disney World every time we walk into a shopping center, strip mall, grocery store, or in my case especially, one of the giant hardware/home building supply megastores.
And the roads..... I guess I never really appreciated smooth, level pavement much before. I mean, we do have smooth level pavement in Providenciales. Several stretches of it, in fact. I have seen them myself. Some of them are hundreds of yards long. But Denver airport alone has a whole lot more of it. Miles and miles. More cars at Denver airport, too. I think we saw more cars in parking lots at the airport in Denver than have ever existed in this little nation. I just 'googled' it, and discovered that "As of 2003, there were approximately 50,000 public, private, and employee parking spaces serving Denver International Airport." That is twice as many cars in one US airport as there are people in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Since the first automobile license plate for the T.C.I. was issued, they have gotten up to around the number 22000, in over 40 years since the first jeep was offloaded at Heaving Down Rock in the mid 60's. And probably half of those are no longer on the road.
It's all about trade-offs, isn't it.
Anyhow, we're back and we've been out with our friend Preacher Stubbs looking for lionfish on the Caicos Bank. And we found some. Way too easily. But before I get into that I need to post one of La Gringa's traditional (in this blog anyhow) sunrise photos:
Okay, now back to the lionfish. I am sure most of you have heard of these things. They are a beautiful, striped fish that was originally native to the Indian/Pacific ocean area west of Australia. Well, not any more. They are everywhere these days, and spreading. And the problem is that they eat all the other fish.
We have been hearing for some time about how they have spread into the local waters, and how they are impacting the native fish population. We tasted lionfish last November at the Conch Festival on Providenciales. And we talked to the DECR officers here about them. But...we haven't really been snorkeling in the kind of places they would hang out. We've mostly been kayaking, or conch diving. Neither of which is really lionfish habitat. They like places where they can corner and gobble smaller fish. Reefs, rocks and wrecks.
And these danged things eat everything. They are a problem for the native species. Nobody seems to have much of a plan for handling them, and I don't see how they could. But we wanted to go see them for ourselves, in the wild.
We had also heard some time ago about an old aircraft crash site out on the Caicos Banks several miles from Providenciales. We have a new underwater camera and have been chomping at the bit for a chance to get underwater to try it out. We figured that pieces of airplane on the relatively flat shallow Caicos Bank might be a good spot for juvenile fish to hang out, and therefore a likely candidate to attract lionfish. We asked Preacher if he knew where the old airplane crash site was...... and yeah, he sure did. From back in his youth. He even remembered that it was a Beech.
So, finally this past weekend the wind fell off, the seas calmed and the weather was perfect for a boat trip. The wind has dropped to almost nothing. The ocean is still, for the moment. The atmosphere is making threats, though. It looked like this from the patio after we got back from our trip.
We get days like this in the summer. And we try to make the most of them. The diving is always best here in the summer. We met Preacher and his boat "Cay Lime" down at Sherlock Walkin's Leeward marina. Not a lot of people there early on a Sunday:
Despite having absolutely no navigation equipment on "Cay Lime" other than a compass, Preacher drove us unerringly to this 60 year old plane crash site, over 5 miles from the nearest land. And there is nothing on the surface to mark it. Looking at Google Earth later, I could make out the debris field. It isn't much after all those years and storms. It looks a lot like this on Google Earth:
But I would never have found it on the sat image without the handheld GPS coordinates I took while we were there today, so I am cheating on that one. Makes me wonder about all the other seemingly insignificant smudges that show up when you look really closely.
Once Preacher got us there and we dropped the anchor, we could easily see a few old pieces of airplane wreckage from the surface. This is on a really calm day, in about 9 ft. of water:
And yes, that is TOO a piece of an old airplane. It's just being slowly re-assimilated back into nature. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Aluminum to oxide and steel to rust?
We grabbed our face plates and my new camera and hopped overboard. On a day this clear it was no problem at all to find the remains of this old disaster. I am pretty sure this is the right wing, upside down with not much left but some aluminum skin still riveted to old wing spars and ribs. The dark thing sticking up in the foreground....well my bet is that it's what's left of half of the main landing gear. The marine life obviously loves the place.
We embarked on this little expedition to try to get some photos of the new invasive lionfish. But I want to warn you other divers out there not to get excited... it would be easy to get distracted by the fact that this old wreck site is literally crawling with lobsters. I mean literally. Hundreds of them.
I can see all or part of at least eight of them in this one photo alone:
And another five, at least, in this photo:
That one on the top left, and the one peeking out from under the wreckage are WAY legal size, too.
And they were, for the most part, totally ignoring me! Here I was, an extra-large size, potential predator hovering just a few feet above them, and they ignored me. These two even came out from under their pieces of wreckage to duke it out over some lobster dispute or insult:
They stood there face to face ( and face is a realative term, here ) and balanced on the tips of their tails and just started kicking each other. It got pretty busy with each of them shoving with about six legs apiece. This went on for about ten seconds or so, then they stopped. And I guess the dispute was settled, because they sauntered off toward whatever the lobster equivalent of a cold beer must be. I couldn't figure out who won. Or what was won.
I could have easily scooped them both up with a net. Looking around I realized that the fish were pretty much ignoring me, too. We swam around this old wing for over an hour, and the underwater denizens acted like I was no threat at all.
They just went about their fishy business as though I wasn't even there. Maybe I just didn't get copied on the memo about ignoring old fat white guys with cameras or something.... Does anyone know what a fish looks like when it's laughing?
I swam around the area a little expanding the search, looking for other pieces of the airplane. Most of what I found were small pieces, and those almost unrecognizable.
Of course anything of value would have been salvaged long, long ago when Preacher was a boy, and parts of this smashed up aircraft were most likely sticking up above the surface or just slightly under it. And what's left after all these decades....well you can see for yourself. It's just a condo for lobsters.
Oh, and lionfish. Mustn't forget that the original purpose of this post was to show you the lionfish. This was before I got totally distracted by several hundred fearless lobsters. (when I lived in New England, these guys would have all been menu items) But yes, we did find lionfish happily living among the natives. Here's one showing me a little aggression as he guards the landing gear strut amongst a mob of snapper and lobster:
I easily spotted at least a dozen of these guys cruising around the site. And like the rest of the critters living here, they pretty much ignored me for the most part.
These two were pretty much engaging in their typical hunting behavior. They get small fish that they can swallow pinned up against some kind of structure and then block the victim's escape by spreading our their fins. Then they open up their mouths really wide and just gulp the victim in whole. The whole thing takes about two seconds.
These things are certainly not very hard to spot. They are very noticeable among the other fish:
I tried using the movie function of the camera, but got very marginal results. The problem is that one needs a fairly stable platform to get a decent movie with a hand held camera.
Freediving is not a stable platform. When I was on the surface looking down the waves bobbed me up and down, affecting the camera. When I tried diving down to the bottom I was constantly moving while trying to stay at the bottom. The obvious answer, of course, is to use our hookah compressor and a weightbelt and become a stable platform near the bottom. I'll have to try that.
But La Gringa Suprema cobbled together some segments from my efforts to get movies. At one point I got right down on the bottom, but it is very hard to hold still against the bottom when one's tendency is to bob to the surface. And it's especially hard to hold still while wearing only a bathing suit and your unprotected skin is inches away from barnacles and all the other fun growth that makes you itch, burn, and scratch if you merely touch it. Not to mention the stuff that injects you with painful poison if you annoy it.
The lionfish and the spiny lobster are definitely the most colorful characters around this site.
I know I neglected to mention this, assuming you guys already knew it, but the long fins on the top of the lionfish are very venomous. This probably explains why they act like they have no natural enemies to worry about. There are ways to neutralize the poison on the spines, and I plan to learn how to handle these. We want to do our part to try to slow them down, at least. Of course with so much reef here and other places it would be impossible to control them by conventional means. It would take some lionfish-specific approach, and I don't see that coming ocean-wide. Heck, we humans can't even keep our plastic trash out of the ocean. I shudder at the thought of us actually trying to control an entire species.
In the meantime, these things would be SO easy to spear, and they are tasty.
With plenty of time to observe these guys going about their business, I started to wonder about why they evolved their coloration. Perhaps they are more camouflaged in their natural environment, but here they stand out like a sore thumb.
I noticed that their tails and the tips of some of their fins are almost totally transparent except for some oval markings. You can see the rocks clearly through the tail on that one above.
So if our stated excuse to go spend the day on the ocean was to see if we could find some lionfish and take their photos, it worked. I think my favorite one, out of this first batch, is this one:
I tend to get totally immersed in watching the fish when I am snorkeling. At some point I looked around and discovered I was the only human in the water. I looked up to see what La Gringa, Preacher and Dooley the Dehydrated were up to. Preacher was standing on the back of the boat fishing....
I had an idea what he was trying to hook, since I had been chasing this guy around a few minutes earlier:
When we first hopped overboard I had spotted some conch, and Preacher picked up a half dozen or so while I was swimming around annoying lobster and lionfish. He had cut up one of the conch, baited his hook, and was trying to catch a barracuda. Or shark. Or snapper. I kinda saw it as attracting them, myself.
I didn't mind him trailing fish hooks and pieces of conch bait in the water while I was swimming. I just asked him to let me know if he spotted his old quarry in the vicinity. We don't pay much attention to barracuda any more. But 14 ft. Tiger Sharks still get our attention big time.
About this time I started asking myself..."WHAT am I doing here alone in the water, between an airplane crash full of poisonous fish and a hungry barracuda, with Preacher standing there chumming for sharks???"
Man oh man....didn't I used to be, like, smarter than this?
While on the subject of being smart, you might have noticed that La Gringa was not in the water on this trip. She just had some basal cancer cell hot spots removed last week at the local clinic here. We had an anxious week prior waiting to hear the biopsy results. None of them were the dreaded melanoma but the doc wanted them out to be on the safe side. So she is recovering from that and has about 30 fresh sutures in her shoulders and leg that she can't get wet just yet. Not much fun, but sun damage is definitely a factor in living in a place like this. I think I am going to start wearing a hat more often.
Well, eventually even I got tired of looking at lionfish and lobster, and we headed back to the island. Of course it just wouldn't be boating with Preacher if we didn't have some kind of boat-related issue to deal with. And this trip was no exception. We were cruising along at Preacher's usual hair-raising clip when the engine sputtered a few times and died. Repeated attempts to start it failed to produce anything useful, or even humorous. We were dead in the water.
Preacher and I are both pretty familiar with the systems on this boat. I guess to be accurate I should say I know what systems were supplied with the boat when it was new, and what modifications I made to it when I owned it. Preacher knows what's been replaced on it since Hurricane Hanna two years ago, when it became his baby. So it didn't take us long to find out that the metal fuel filter/separator had rusted completely through, and the motor was sucking air into the fuel lines instead of gasoline. "Not a huge problem" (I thought to myself) "We'll just wrap the filter in duct tape, closing off the sucking wound in the filter, and it will get us home". Preacher said he had no duct tape.
So I asked him for a screwdriver so that we could take the hose clamps ('jubilee clamps' in UK-ese parlance) off, thinking that we could just bypass the filter entirely... and Preacher said he had no screwdriver on board, either.
" Preacher....You ain't got no tools or duct tape on the boat????"
"La Gringa!! We ain't got no tools or duct tape on the boat!!!!"
Well what he did have was a dull knife for cleaning conch. And I just happened to have a very small "Leatherman" style pocket tool I bought on our recent trip up to Texas... which had a screwdriver on it.
At least it was a nice day to be bobbing along, totally dead in the water, no radio, no tool kit, no spares....but we did have some basic knowledge of these things and a little pocket tool.
And it was enough.
We just loosened the clamps, and re-connected the fuel line with the whole leaky filter assembly out of the loop. This means that until Preacher buys another filter canister his motor will be sucking up dirt and water along with the fuel from the bottom of his tank. But it means we can at least get home with a temporary fix. After all, this was not our first rodeo.
We had brought some refreshments along and decided to go check out a nearby beach. After several hours on Preacher's boat we were all ready for some cool shade. We beached the boat near an overturned Casuarinas tree that has been happily growing at the edge of the salt water with most of its main root structure completely ripped out of the ground by the hurricanes two years ago.
These trees grow on the beaches here in a lot of places. They are locally called Casuarinas trees, and I have also seen them called "Australian Pine". But they are not pines at all, even though they resemble them with the needles. These are some bizarre combination of tree and weed. They will get a foothold (roothold?) anywhere there is loose soil and some moisture and the roots tunnel for many yards in search of more water. You can see the roots headed inland even from the trees overturned and ripped up right at the ocean's edge. Not many plants can survive in an area like that. These things are very hard to eradicate and grow like a slow motion version of the star of "The Little Shop of Horrors". Preacher was telling us that he remembered when this one was just barely big enough to camp next to:
We don't want these growing next to the foundation of a house because the roots will follow water and drain pipes right to the source but out on the sun-blasted beaches the shade is a welcome relief.
These are the kind of plants that make you want to set up a lawn chair or hammock and take an afternoon nap.
Dooley the Disappearing is actually in that photo. Somewhere.
By this time it was early afternoon and afternoons this time of year are known for squalls and thunderstorms. We had some forming and headed our way.
So we loaded up Cay Lime and headed back to Leeward. Not soon enough for Dooley the Distraught, here seen keeping the boat between himself and the thunder and anxiously awaiting someone to lift him out of the water.
Even though we got back to the house well before the thunderstorm hit, when it did hit, complete with the expected flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, Dooley the Disappearing Dog was located trying to hide behind the darkest, most interior corner he could find. Under a desk and bookshelf, in fact. There he shivers and shakes and basically acts like a completely helpless fool.
That was pretty much most of what went on during our lurking lionfish liason. I need to renew our Resident Sport Fishing Licenses (they expired while we were in the USA at the end of July) and then we might stop by that wreck site from time to time if we feel like grabbing a couple lobsters. Neither La Gringa nor I are very fond of lobster so it's not a priority for us. We would actually rather eat conch. But it's nice to know of a few places close by where we can get some during season if we have guests who like it. They are fun to catch and this spot looks easy. I think I could put a pot on the bottom near that wing and the lobster would climb into it on their own, from what I saw of the competition for space under that old wing.
I mentioned that we had been back from Colorado for a week before our lionfish trip. We didn't do any boating for that week, as we had a lot of catching up to do around the house. Come to think of it, we ALWAYS have a lot of catching up to do around the house. And yet we have never gotten caught up. I think the deterioation here is basically uncatchable. It stays a few steps ahead of you, no matter how hard you work at it.
Of course the first thing we do when we get back from a trip is to spring Dooley from the kennel. This time we had to pass inspection by a new guest there or perhaps they have added a doorman to the staff.
The little booger let La Gringa by, no problem. Maybe she knew the code word. But he kept casting a suspicious eye in my direction.....he even stepped up onto the sidewalk to block me. Hey, Billy Goat Gruff.....lighten up, dude.
I tried appealing to his sense of humor, even mentioned us both being members of the local "old goat" network. He didn't budge. Told me he wasn't that old. Then I realized that it might have been the goatee that was fascinating him. I have one. He doesn't, yet. Maybe he just wanted to butt heads or something. Turned out to be mellower than he first appeared and a scratch around the ears set things right. We sprung Dooley without further ado.
Back at the house I was unpacking some of the goodies we brought back from the USA with us. We are each allowed up to $400 worth of stuff duty free if we carry it back as luggage. I don't know what most people bring back with them, but in our case it's stuff like bike parts, water filters, stainless steel cable, swaging sleeves and a tool for crimping them:
"Why would I lug steel cable back to the island?" you might ask. Well, because for the past month I have been unable to open one of the garage doors. These things have never worked right because they were never installed right. We ended up with three brand new electric garage door openers with all the goodies like automatic electric eyes and remote controls. None of them have worked for even one day. I had already removed the opener hardware from the wider door and had been opening them all manually. These things have two steel cables that wind around pulleys, and tensioned coil springs pull the weight of the door up. Theoretically. Or so I have read. This one never did that.
The first steel cable rotted away about a year ago. It broke one day, without much fanfare or noise. I just increased the spring tension (a fairly nervous little exercise in itself) and limped along with one cable. With this door open, I get a fresh ocean breeze right through the garage and workshop. This makes it tolerable, and even pleasant, to work on the many, many things that need periodic trips to the workshop to be worked on.
With this door inoperable, it is downright miserable in the garage. It needs the breeze. You can see where the rain blown against the door by the 150 mph winds of hurricane Ike went up to the ten foot high ceiling and blasted the 'popcorn' finish off above the door. (Note to self: Don't use popcorn finishes here. Ever again. Add this to the long list of things learned while building our first house here.)
So things were okay with this overhead door until about a month ago when the remaining steel cable rusted through and came apart just as I was trying to lift it. Man, that thing broke like a guitar string with three hundred pounds on it. You can see where the rusty, broken end of the cable whipped around and around beating the heck out of the wall as the spring suddenly unwound in the space of about a half a second. Or five hundred heartbeats. It left most of its rust on the wall:
You can also see how rusty and corroded the door hardware has become here, after less than three years. And this is protected inside a building. This is what the frayed end of the original cable looked like after rusting through and letting go with a horrible racket and a lot of mechanical motion as I was holding onto the door:
Almost causing me to ruin a perfectly good pair of shorts, I might add...
As long as I was going to replace the cables, I decided to do it with something that won't rust. Now I know the differences between 304 stainless and 316 stainless. (Still learning new tricks, arf arf.)
So anyhow, not being able to easily find the right sized cable in stainless steel at my usual local sources, I had picked up this and similar stuff on our recent excursions to the consumer wonderland of North America. And I picked the crimping tool with the fewest number of moving metal parts. Now, if I could only back the house up in time to the point where we were picking doors and windows and light fixtures.... sigh.
Oh, I almost forgot..in order to replace the cables I needed to raise the door. It's ten feet wide, and with all the hardware is more than I can lift safely without the assistance of the (temporarily unsprung, useless, and ugly) coiled springs. So once again I called on the sherpa to pull the weight:
Love that 4x4 low range for the gentle touch with ropes and pullys:
That little exercise had its own level of 'pucker factor' too, but it worked out all right. Sometimes you never know until you try. And here you definitely need to always have a "Plan B" ready.
It might be my imagination, but I seem to have been spending a lot of time tying ropes to Land Rover bumpers lately. But I got the cables replaced and got the springs re-wound using two rusty (what else?) pieces of steel rebar. I will let you know when it fails. Because one thing I have finally begun to learn after five years of this is that I really cannot "fix" things in the sense that I was accustomed to fixing things. Here, they don't stay fixed. They just start coming apart in different places depending upon what you did to the last place they came apart. All you can do is delay their replacement. For a while. But then, that's all any of us can say about anything we do here, isn't it?
William Butler Yeats wrote that "Things fall apart." While he was not talking about his specific little part of the universe...he sure nailed it in three words here.
It just seems to me that the tropics accelerate the whole falling apart process.
It's changing the way we do a lot of things, and really reinforces the old "nothing lasts forever" sentiments. Big time.
As another example of things one takes for granted in the USA that become lengthy projects here, La Gringa had been talking about her bike seat for some months. I don't know why she didn't like it. I thought it was responding well to WD-40 and duct tape.
I thought it looked like a perfectly reasonable island bicycle seat to me. But then perhaps my standards have begun to slip...
I guess the main complaint had to do with the shock absorbing qualities of the steel spring inside that seat post. It no longer had any. Well, the garage door pretty much demonstrates the future of steel springs in a place like this. It's a short life.
I managed to find a shock absorbing seat post without steel springs, and we coupled that to a sprung seat with a gel pad. She reports that this setup takes a lot of the lumps out of the roads here.
Cause sometimes you just wanna ride downhill fast without standing on the pedals.
Okay I think that's most of the new stuff I planned to post today. Oh, wait a minute I wanted to mention the cameras. You have already seen some of the photos I am getting with the new Olympus Tough 8010 we recently bought. I know I blasted the Olympus Stylus cameras in the past, having been through two of them. Well, this time they seem to have made a lot of changes, and dare I say it.... improvements. It's too early to tell yet how it will hold up here, but so far I am seeing a lot of features I like. We put the "waterproof" camera inside an underwater housing...so hopefully this one will last long enough for me to learn how to actually use it and get the most from it.
And we also added another optical device, which I suppose could be called a camera. My brother-in-law in Texas put me onto a web site for a supplier of inexpensive optics. (binoculars.com ) He had bought himself a humungous pair of binoculars and we were having a lot of fun testing them at Lake Travis over the 4th of July.
I bought a spotting scope from the same supplier, with an integrated little digital camera. I don't need a spotting scope for hunting, but thought it might enhance our ability to record images from some of the stuff we see out on the ocean here behind the house. I uploaded one of my early photos from it in the previous blog post, the one with the three masted schooner off miles away.
And to illustrate what I am trying to do: in this scene taken with my "standard" camera, you cannot tell that there is a barge out there on the water dredging a spot where a large boat ran aground a few days back:
Running my optical zoom out to the max, I can just get this image of the same scene:
And now you can make out that there is, indeed, a barge or something out there. But I just didn't have the zoom to bring it in any closer. So I bought this relatively inexpensive 45 power scope, with a camera built in:
And pointing this contraption out there I can get a lot more info:
I not only can show you what they were using to dredge the 'high spot' in the channel, but I can see that the cowling is missing off their Honda outboard. I can even recognize who is running this show! We know that guy! The blond guy is a Hungarian expat named George who works at the boatyard! (Hi George! Who's the diver?)
This is one of Jay Stubb's multihulls sitting at the boatyard about 1000 yards away:
And the distortion of the mast etc. is due to the wind motion affecting the little aluminum tripod that came with the scope. I just need a better mount to nail that down.
For a real check, I focused it on the old freighter wreck south of Leeward Going Through. This boat is just about exactly 4.4 miles (7.1 km) away.
The photo quality isn't the best, but it beats not being able to show you some of this stuff at all due to the limitations of our camera lenses. I probably should have bought a terrestrial telescope with a camera adapter, but I didn't. I bought this thing instead. The phrase "Better than nothing, and it's cheap!" comes to mind .... Now, we just need something interesting to happen offshore to photograph.
Whew, this was a long post. But that's the end of it. We have a trip already set for next weekend, going with Preacher over to a little get together of some kind on North Caicos. That should be good for some fresh photos without having to resort to the kayak. And we'll be out on the kayak, too, but will try not to make it the main subject of the blog.
And we have a sunset-over-Providenciales photo of La Gringa's to close with. And those colors are just as the camera recorded them, by the way: