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A chronicle of the travels & adventures of Christian Wappl…

Paradise and Purgatory

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08.01.2019 – Portobelo, Panama

An impressive array of historic forts greeted us in the bay of Portobelo. This Panamanian town saw its fair share of action during the Spanish colonial era, including prominent guests such as Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan. Drake died of dysentery on his vessel, the Defiance, while anchored near Portobelo. His body was buried at sea in a lead-lined coffin and has never been recovered. Morgan was luckier and successfully evaded Portobelo’s naval defences by attacking over land. He conquered the town and later ransomed it back to the Spanish crown.

Sadly, at the time of our visit the atmosphere of this once exceptional town had much in common with a garbage dump. After four days at sea, we had certainly hoped for a prettier sight. Trash littered the streets, the bay was dotted with shipwrecks, and on the outskirts, the skeleton of an autobus lay, stripped bare of functional parts and left to rust. The omnipresent black vultures (Coragyps atratus) and the occasional turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) completed the foreboding atmosphere. Worst of all, the historic forts have been on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger since 2012 due to lack of maintenance.

I was surprised to find a number of expats from first-world countries living in this desolate town. Many of them had been stranded after their boats had been wrecked by a hurricane. Some continued to live on their floating coffins, unable to move on to greener pastures, while others managed to eke out an existence on land. While I can’t say anything definitive about the crime rate, a yacht anchored maybe fifty meters beside the Imagine fell victim to an armed robbery one night. Certainly not a good sign, considering the short period of time we were there.

As the town itself was quite off-putting, I quickly turned my attention to the surrounding nature. The rainforest was heavily degraded, but exploring the paths and more remote forts was still an enjoyable experience. I observed many quintessentially Central American animals such as leafcutter ants (Atta sp.), large orb-weaving spiders (Nephila clavipes), mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) and various parrots (Amazona spp.).

The most promising habitat, however, was the coastal mangrove forest. I was eager to uncover its secrets, so I rented a kayak from a friendly Frenchman, stowed my gear in a waterproof bag and set out to explore. I quickly encountered a myriad of lifeforms, including mangrove tree crabs (Aratus pisonii), four species of kingfisher and eight species of heron. My personal highlight was the ringed kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata), an oversized kingfisher weighing up to 340 grams. Based on the high abundance of fish-eating birds, there had to be all kinds of action going on beneath the surface. The canals were surprisingly deep, too. Probing the turbid waters with my paddle, I did not encounter solid ground. Further upstream, where the water was fresh and the mangroves gave way to rainforest, large patches of vegetation had been cleared to farm cattle. Luckily, the mangroves themselves appeared to be in better shape. On the outskirts, I encountered heaps of garbage and the occasional fisherman trying his luck with a handline, but as I delved deeper into the mangrove forest, I was alone with nature. I noticed that biting insects, which people often associate with mangrove forests, were surprisingly rare. A single location in the middle of nowhere, absolutely teeming with biting midges, was the only exception. To me, there was no obvious reason behind this phenomenon, but I didn’t feel like stopping to investigate any further. Paddling through the canals, I spent a very enjoyable day feeling like an explorer back in the early days of the continent’s discovery.

On my way home, after I’d left the mangrove forest behind me, I stopped to investigate some of the shipwrecks stranded in waist-deep water. Nature had been quick to reclaim them. One wreck in particular, which had once served as some sort of motorized fishing vessel, was used as a daytime perch by a variety of birds, including brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) and great terns (Thalasseus maximus). With the exception of a lone gull, the birds had already left for their night-time roosts by the time I climbed aboard, but droppings and remnants of their prey reminded me of their presence. The boat’s hull had been colonised by barnacles and mussels, and a few small, hardy plants were beginning to grow inside the wreck. I even heard the characteristic call of a house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus). Rummaging through the nearby wreck of the S/Y Loonsong, I stumbled across a thick book entitled “Sailboat Maintenance Manual”. By the looks of it, the owner had not quite taken it to heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Portobelo thanks to the mangroves, shipwrecks and forts, despite the unappealing state of the town itself. Nevertheless, the Panama Canal was calling, and so the Imagine set sail to Colón – the last part of my voyage before my return to Austria.

Thorns, Flamingos and Jellyfish

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18.12.2018 – Spaanse Water, Curaçao

It had been a brief and uneventful journey from Carriacou. The lights of Bonaire, easternmost of the ABC islands, appeared on the horizon on a warm December eve. Our destination was the neighbouring island of Curaçao, located some 27 nautical miles (50 km) west of Bonaire. Arriving after dark complicated things somewhat: we had to reach Spaanse Water, a lagoon connected to the open ocean through a narrow canal. Traversing the canal in the dark would’ve been a great way to add another shipwreck to the Caribbean Sea’s collection, so we spent the rest of the night sailing up and down Bonaire’s leeward side. After reaching Curaçao and anchoring in Spaanse Water, our first stop was checking in with the authorities in the island’s capital, Willemstad. This turned out to be slightly frustrating, as we were sent from office to office, but also provided some comic relief. One immigration officer took a record-breaking ninety minutes to fill out a two-page form, because – as he informed us in a conspiratorial tone – there was “problem with computer”. Once he had finally completed the form, it was riddled with spelling errors and several fields were left blank anyway - never mind that he had asked us the corresponding questions at least three times. Weeks later, upon clearing out, his colleague would inform us with a sigh that the Imagine and her crew were nowhere to be found in the database, because the data sheet had not been properly saved.

By the next day, we had covered the necessities of internet, food and renting a car (in that order). Fellow nature photographer Jan Piecha, a frequent visitor of Curaçao, had generously compiled a list of good wildlife spots on the island for me. I wasted no time ticking off that list. My first stop was Curaçao’s largest national park, Christoffelpark, which is part thorny dry forest and part even thornier savannah. Driving around the dirt roads of the park, I encountered numerous birds, including northern crested caracaras (Caracara cheriway), brown-throated parakeets (Eupsittula pertinax) and orange-backed troupials (Icterus croconotus). As the light quickly grew harsher, I found myself focussing on the smaller creatures in the shade instead.

The oddly-shaped shells of peanut snails (Cerion uva), which they are named for, littered the ground. Live individuals, glued to plants and rocks in the typical fashion of snails waiting for rain, were fewer in number, but still a common sight. It seemed quite odd that such a dry habitat would be home to the largest number of snails I had ever seen, yet arthropods were mostly absent at first glance. However, a closer look at some of the larger cacti revealed that insects and spiders were sheltering between their spikes. A sensible move, considering the high number of birds. In the late afternoon, on my way to the exit, I encountered the national park’s most prized animal: the Curaçao white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus curassavicus). It was introduced to Curaçao by the Arawak Indians almost 4000 years ago. Isolated from its relatives on the mainland, it has evolved into a distinct subspecies, of which only around 250 individuals remain. The deer did not appreciate its celebrity status and disappeared into the tangled undergrowth almost immediately, leaving me without any photographic evidence.

The following days, I set my sights on a very different target: the crystal-clear waters surrounding Curaçao. One spot in particular was teeming with green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), and I wasted no time getting in the water. A grisly sight greeted me: the sandy ground was littered with fish corpses and body parts, no doubt the work of local fishermen cleaning their catch there. Interestingly, sharks were nowhere to be found, but the turtles were picking up the slack. I encountered several of them munching on fish parts, and even one individual engaged in a tug-of-war against a sizeable moray eel over a tuna head.

The tugboat wreck, located in the immediate vicinity of Spaanse Water, was another memorable underwater spot. It is unusual among shipwrecks in that it is easily accessible without a boat or diving gear. The wreck was a splendid sight: a cloud of fishes hung above, and it had been colonised by hard corals and sponges over the years. This organic and metal hybrid structure gave shelter to many smaller organisms, which in turn attracted predators such as the Atlantic trumpetfish (Aulostomus strigosus).

My most visited spot on Curaçao was Saliña Sint Marie, both for its wealth of wildlife and its ease of access. This shallow lagoon is conveniently located beside the street and even sports a marker labelled “flamingos” on Google Maps. In addition to the obligatory American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), I observed multiple species of heron here at every visit. Even better, these birds were used to people and would approach me fairly closely, by bird standards. Unfortunately, not everybody was satisfied. As is often the case with semi-tame wildlife, I sometimes witnessed people get too close to in an attempt to take pictures with their cell phones.

Upside-down jellyfish

Unbothered by tourists, a much smaller but no less interesting species was floating in the waters of Salina Sint Marie. At first glance, these jellyfish appeared to be in trouble: their bell was rotated downward, while their tentacles were sticking upwards. If someone were to flip an upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopea sp.) over in an attempt to help them,  he would be surprised to see the jellyfish rotate itself back into its previous position and quickly settle back down on the muddy ground. Members of this genus have evolved to exploit a niche usually reserved for plants. Their tentacles carry symbiotic algae, and they spend most of their lives with the tentacles oriented toward the sun for the purpose of photosynthesis.

On one of my visits to Salina Sint Marie, I encountered a juvenile green heron (Butorides virescens) in distress. It was badly starved and crash-landed in the water when attempting to flee. I quickly captured the bird and secured it with a blindfold. Fortunately, I already knew of just the right person to take him to.

The story of Bob the flamingo had made a large splash in the wildlife photography community in 2018. Wildlife photographer Jasper Doest documented the life of this disabled flamingo, who was saved by his cousin, veterinarian Odette Doest, after crashing into a hotel window. Bob is unable to return to the wild due to existing disabilities, and visits schools together with Odette to spread awareness of Curaçao’s wildlife. In the process, he’s become something of a local celebrity.

After giving Odette a short phone call explaining the situation, I drove the heron to her clinic. There, he was diagnosed with a broken wing and extreme malnourishment. He received electrolytes and a few chunks of fish, and was placed in a cage so he could recover before getting wing surgery at a later time. While the heron settled in, I got to meet Odette’s animals, which included parrots, seabirds, a caracara, and, of course, Bob and two other flamingos. I was very happy that I could leave the heron in such caring and competent hands as Odette’s.

At this point, we had already been on Curaçao for some time, spending both Christmas and New Year’s Eve there. Originally, I’d wanted to visit the neighbouring island of Aruba next, to search for their endemic rattlesnake and the invasive boa constrictor. Unfortunately, time was running short as we had to get through the Panama canal sooner rather than later. At best, we could’ve visited Aruba for three or four days, and I suspected that I might well have spent more time with customs officers than with snakes. With that in mind, we decided to set sail directly for Panama.

Isle of Spice

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30.11.2018 – Port Louis, Grenada

10.12.2018 ­– Tyrell Bay, Carriacou

Grenada is mostly known for being one of the largest producers of nutmeg in the world, which gave it the nickname “Isle of Spice”. It is also home to a rather small but quite diverse set of bird species. The first birds I noticed were magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) soaring in the sky. Frigatebirds are kleptoparasites, which means they harass other seabirds to steal their food. More often than not, the food is already in the stomach of the other bird as this happens, and the frigatebirds force it to regurgitate. Strolling through the marina, I added a few small landbirds such as the Lesser Antillean bullfinch (Loxigilla noctis) and the tropical mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) to my not-quite-seriously kept bird list and encountered a familiar friend from Costa Rica: the bananaquit (Coereba flaveola). In the evening, my search for animals drew the attention of a security guard, who told me that arthropods had seriously declined in the last twenty years. Indeed, there was curiously little animal activity at night, except for the characteristic two-note calls of the Lesser Antillean whistling frogs (Eleutherodactylus johnstonei).

The next day, the first trip into the interior of the island led us to the Grand Etang, a crater lake. The lake and many other localities still carry French names from the time when France owned the island, but English has long been the official language. Most Grenadians speak Grenadian Creole English, but will switch to regular English when talking to tourists. The history of French and English occupation has created  some peculiar pronunciations (i.e. French words with English pronunciation), which led to occasional communication problems with locals. We opted for public transport, as rental cars were quite expensive. Public transport on Grenada is limited to small buses, which are emblazoned with names or slogans. Most of these are a testament to the cheerful Caribbean spirit of the island (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or “Jah Bless”). Somewhat ominously, our bus was adorned with “Not Guilty” (a few days later, I travelled with a different bus, this one with a “Not Guilty Again” sticker). However, any fear of being left alone with a potentially criminal driver was quickly proven unfounded, as the bus was crammed full to the last seat, and further. Pumping reggaetón music with barely comprehensible lyrics completed the authentic Grenadian experience.

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The driver dropped us off, and after a short walk we arrived at the crater lake. The paths through the forest and around the lake were paved with empty nutmeg shells, which produced a pleasant crunching sound underfoot. A sign informed us that the Grand Etang is stocked with various different fish species, none of which are native due to the lake’s volcanic nature. Some, such as guppies (Poecilia reticulata) and swordtails (Xiphophorus helleri), have comparatively short journeys behind them, while goldfish (Carassius auratus) and Mozambique mouthbreeders (Oreochromis mossambicus) came all the way from Asia and Africa, respectively. My GoPro action cam allowed me a glimpse below the surface, and the lake was absolutely teeming with fish, no doubt due to the combination of excessive feeding by tourists and a fishing ban.

On the way back from the Grand Etang, we stopped at the Annandale waterfall. A beautiful tropical waterfall, it had unfortunately fallen victim to the care of the Grenadian government. While I wasn’t exactly happy to see that a garden of ornamental plants had replaced the surrounding rainforest, this could be considered a matter of taste. The large concrete viewing platform directly beside the waterfall, however, is disgusting by anyone’s standards. Fortunately, Grenada has plenty of waterfalls, and I had the opportunity to visit one that was still surrounded by rainforest a few days later.

Grenada tree anole

Grenada tree anole

As is the case on many islands, the terrestrial vertebrate fauna of Grenada is somewhat depauperate, with around a dozen reptiles and only a handful of terrestrial mammals and amphibians. Anoles (Anolis spp.) were the most commonly seen land vertebrates during my stay: I encountered one of the island’s three species almost everywhere I visited. Different species of anoles are found on practically every island in the region, making them the most typically Caribbean of all land vertebrates.

Although most islands are lacking in terms of terrestrial mammals, one group typically does well on islands, and Grenada is no exception: bats. While researching for the trip, I had come across a blog post by Professor Sharlene Santana about the research on bats she had conducted on Grenada. Upon my request, Sharlene referred me to her local collaborator, Professor Sonia Cheetham Brow from St. George’s University. Sonia kindly took the time to show me some good bat locations scattered around the island. She also had some interesting (and chilling) tales to tell about her research on bat-borne pathogens. Over the course of an afternoon, we visited three of the island’s countless abandoned houses. Most of these were the result of Hurricane Ivan, which had devastated the island in 2004, damaging 90% of homes. The first and most derelict of the three houses had long been stripped of its roof and the forest was advancing into the house. While the building certainly had a remarkable flair, it was too open and not dark enough for bats. The second abandoned property was home to a fierce-looking squatter who carried a large machete. Despite his looks, he was happy to show us the handful of bats hanging in the fundament of “his” house. He disliked the bats for some reason, but through his heavy, slurring accent I could only make out that he thought they were ruining something. We finally hit the jackpot with the third building: this large and rather fancy building had been abandoned for many years, but was largely intact thanks to its robust construction. We did not have to search for long, as there were bats in practically every room. Most of them were small and skittish Miller's long-tongued bats (Glossophaga longirostris) – we had already encountered these at the previous location. Hundreds of fruit seeds littering the floors of the building betrayed the presence of a second, much larger bat species: the Jamaican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis). Despite occurring in much lower numbers than the long-tongued bats, the fruit bats were less fearful due to their size. In the time I spent roaming the house, I also encountered some of its other denizens, including termites, spiders and geckoes.

While the abundance of abandoned houses had allowed bats to proliferate, there were still bats on Grenada that adhered to their traditional, cave-dwelling way of living. One such cave was located at the very edge of the forest, adjacent to a soursop plantation. I ducked into the cave, where the characteristic musty smell of bat droppings greeted me. From above, tree roots had grown through the low-hanging ceiling, which was furrowed by deep cracks. Thick clumps of Jamaican fruit bats hung inside the cracks, chittering angrily as I moved beneath them. Before entering the cave, Sonia had quipped: “Be careful, that’s not rain in there”, and indeed I hadn’t been photographing for long when I felt liquid dripping down my neck. Making a mental note to thoroughly scrub myself and my clothing later, I worked quickly, both for my own sake and for the bats’.

A night-time search for the island’s endemic tree boa (Corallus grenadensis), which yielded multiple individuals of varying sizes, concluded my visit to Grenada. Before moving on to Curaçao’s flamingos and crystal-clear lagoons, we made a short detour to Carriacou, a small island north of Grenada covered by a tangled and thorny dry forest. Compared to Grenada, Carriacou has been somewhat less affected by humans. Green iguanas (Iguana iguana) are very rare on Grenada (I hadn’t seen a single one in the wild), but on Carriacou they still roam freely in the more remote parts of the island. Even the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonarius), which is possibly extirpated on Grenada, survives here. I was unable to locate any tortoises, but I did find a couple of worm lizards (Bachia sp.), as well as some hermit crabs and large quantities of millipedes.

The Call of the Horizon

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11.11.2018 – Atlantic Ocean

Day 1

Cory’s shearwaters (Calonectris diomedea) escorted us out to sea as we left the harbour of Santa Cruz de la Palma on the Canary Islands. I was with my parents, both of them veteran sailors, aboard their new vessel, the S/Y Imagine. Our destination was Grenada, separated from us by approximately 2.600 nautical miles (4.800 kilometres) of open ocean. I had spent my childhood on a yacht not unlike the Imagine, but around twenty years had passed since I’d crossed an ocean for the last time. As we sailed further and further from the island, the wind picked up and the internet reception began to falter. I said goodbye to civilisation and settled down in the cockpit. Night had fallen and a dazzling array of stars was visible. As my father joined me on deck, our conversation gravitated towards the stars and we pondered the possibility of alien life. Later, I moved back below deck and tried to find sleep. The ship and the waves created a myriad of creaking, clanking and sloshing sounds, but I was dead tired and none of these sounds kept me from sleep for long.

Day 2

The wind was in our favour, and the rest of the day passed uneventfully as the boat sped along. In the evening, the creaking and sloshing sounds were joined by angry gusts of wind. I couldn’t help but imagine them as the lost souls of those taken by the Atlantic Ocean. As I settled into a restless sleep, I wondered how many the ocean had claimed over the millennia…hundreds of thousands, millions?

 

Day 3

Thanks to the self-steering gear, the Imagine kept her course mostly by herself, and accordingly, there was little to do besides some occasional changes to the sails. Despite this, none of us got bored easily. The rocking motions of the boat tired us out, and we slept intermittently throughout the day. In one of my waking phases, I started thinking about our freshwater reserves. 350 litres had sounded like a lot, until I visualised the 300 litre aquarium that used to stand in my living room. Suddenly, it seemed like a very small supply of freshwater for crossing an ocean of salt. How many days would we last with 350 litres if I used water as liberally as usual?

Day 5

By now, I had become well accustomed to life aboard. Anticipating and compensating for the ship’s movements had become second nature, staring at the computer screen no longer made me feel sick, and my sleep requirements had normalised as well. In the morning, a tropicbird (Phaeton sp.) investigated the Imagine. Later in the day northern storm-petrels (Hydrobatidae) showed up, as well as larger, unidentifiable seabirds in the distance.

Day 7

The winds alternated between moderate and practically non-existent, and we switched between sails and the boat’s engine accordingly. Ominously, a bolt had come lose overnight and was found on deck, but it was quickly returned to its correct place. Shortly before lunchtime, a ship came within viewing distance during daylight for the first time. The Automatic Identification System (AIS)  had already alerted us to its presence and informed us that the vessel was a cargo ship: the Ligari, 225 meters long and bound for Itacoatiara, Brazil. Carried by most ships, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) is an automatic tracking system that gives others detailed information on the identity, size, speed and more via VHF. Some hours later, we passed a pod of short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus).

Day 8

Angry skies with dark clouds greeted me in the morning. The winds were back, albeit not from the ideal direction. Nevertheless, we were happy to reach speeds over five knots again. A juvenile ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) circled the Imagine in the afternoon and settled on her deck some time later. Gulls are not birds of the high seas, and this one was far away from home. As darkness fell, it settled down near the prow of the boat.

 

Day 9

The gull was gone. Strong winds had battered the boat throughout the night, and the bird must’ve become scared and flown off into the darkness. A cargo ship had passed by, so there was a small chance it found a new resting place. The next marooned bird didn’t take long to arrive: a cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis). Frightened by the motion of sails and ropes, it decided not to land, even though this species is even less suited to life at sea than the gull.

 

Day 11

We still encountered flying fish (Exocoetidae) on a regular basis – some of them alive, some of them dead on deck in the morning – but seabirds had become rare. As in the last days, we made excellent progress, and crossed the halfway mark sometime in the evening. However, this came at a price: the Imagine was bobbing and twisting and turning in every imaginable direction, courtesy of the waves. As I was trying to find sleep, I was tossed to and fro, and found myself wishing for a narrower bed.

 Day 12

Many of our fresh supplies, including bananas, tomatoes and tangerines, were on the verge of running out. Time at sea would be decidedly less fun without fresh food, and I was glad that we still had apples, oranges, potatoes and pumpkins. In the afternoon, we encountered clumps of Sargassum weed, a floating macroalgae, for the first time. The full moon rose at dusk, a breath-taking sight above the churning sea. It almost made up for what was sure to be another night of short and irregular sleep.

Day 13

The sound of the collision alarm cut through the night at 3 AM. I was fully awake in an instant and frantically scrambled to the AIS in the dark, only to find out that the sound for no GPS reception was identical with the collision alarm. Relieved, I went back to bed for three more hours of uneasy sleep.

Day 16

A brown booby (Sula leucogaster) followed us for some time, hunting the fish we disturbed from the ever-present Sargassum weed. In addition to the small clumps we’d encountered in the last five days, Sargassum mats that covered several square meters were now turning up. Occasionally, some of it would get snagged on the boat and had to be manually dislodged. Dolphins joined us around lunch for a short time.

Day 19

As we steadily approached the Caribbean, animal life grew ever more abundant. A lone parasitic jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus) hunting around the boat was an interesting addition to the familiar cast of flying fish and boobies. Changes to sails and course kept us busier than in previous days and the genoa sail succumbed to the combination of UV rays and wind in the afternoon. The outer corner was left hanging by a thread. We wrestled the flapping sail into submission, barely avoiding a man-over-board scenario. The sail was then stitched back together by my father and back in action by the time the sun set.

Day 20

Approaching Grenada

Approaching Grenada

In the morning, I spotted the silhouette of Grenada in the distance. Savage rhythms faintly drifted across the sea and slowly grew louder as we approached the island. My first association was a group of cannibals, drumming their heavy war drums, but it later became apparent that a different breed of savages were behind the noise: a cruise ship full of tourists. Shortly afterwards, we entered  Port Louis Marina, and passed a number of red-footed boobies (Sula sula) sitting on the buoys that marked the entrance. At 11:30 local time, the Imagine was finally secured in the marina.

La Isla Bonita

01.11.2018 – La Palma, Canary Islands

La Palma immediately seemed strangely familiar, even though I could barely remember my childhood visit to the Canary Islands. Jagged lava rocks, cacti, inquisitive birds and lizards…I could soon pinpoint that the familiarity stemmed from the island’s resemblance to the Galápagos Islands, where I spent two field seasons for my master’s thesis. When I later found out that the Canary Islands were formerly inhabited by giant tortoises, I was rather unsurprised.

Aerial view of Marina La Palma

I had come to La Palma to join my parents on their journey across the Atlantic Ocean via sailing yacht, but, since I was already there, I wanted to take the opportunity and explore the island first. As I began moving my equipment – back-breaking 50 kg – onto my parent’s yacht, the Atlantic Ocean was barely on my mind and my thoughts were focussed on the island’s riches instead. A first stroll through the marina, however, had a sobering effect, as nothing more than a few isopods and spiders showed up. Since the island’s fauna and flora evidently wouldn’t reveal itself so easily, we rented a car first thing in the morning on the next day.

Despite the island’s small size, there were some large distances to cover on La Palma, thanks to its seemingly endless winding roads. Our first destination was the Roque de los Muchachos, arguably the most famous of the island’s viewpoints and home to an observatory with one of the world’s largest reflective telescopes. From the top, the view into the caldera and onto a sea of ever-changing clouds was breath-taking. However, for me, the highlight of the day was a pair of common ravens (Corvus corax tingitanus). Like many island (sub)species, they have little fear of humans and display an incredible boldness when looking for scraps. On our way down, a flock of much smaller black birds whipped past at breakneck speed. We had encountered the island’s second resident corvid species: the red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax barbarus), locally known as graja. Veritable acrobats of the skies, they took little interest in us humans and disappeared as quickly as they came. Although the serpentine road left us tired at the end of the day, I would come to enjoy this type of road in the coming days as it was more varied and exciting to drive on than the highways of Central Europe.

As we drove up and down the island in the following days, I was surprised to see that bananas were the most prominent agricultural crop. This is unusual because they are usually grown in a humid climate, which is not exactly something the lowlands of the Canary Islands are famous for. The lack of humidity seemed to be reflected in the banana plant’s tattered leaves, and I got the impression that these plants were hollow shells of those I had seen in the humid tropics. Nevertheless, large portions of the island were covered in banana plantations, and the resulting fruit tasted delicious. While driving, scrubland was the most prominent of the island’s natural biomes: barren rocks dominated by spurges (Euphorbiaceae) and introduced prickly pear cacti (Opuntia ficus-indica). The scrublands are also home to the iconic dragon tree (Dracaena draco), the most famous among the island’s endemic plants, but it has become rare and limited to certain locations. The Palmeran sow thistle (Sonchus palmensis) is decidedly less impressive but the most ubiquitous of the island’s endemic plants. I saw it reach its highest densities along a barren volcanic caldera exposed to the sun, but individual plants also thrived near trails and roads almost everywhere on the island.

 I’d previously read that Gallot’s lizards (Gallotia galloti palmae) were common in the arid scrublands, but wind and weather were not lizard-friendly during my stay. Accordingly, few lizards showed up and those that did, cowered behind rocks, where they were protected from the wind and from my camera. I didn’t get a single decent photo of the species I had expected to be easiest to photograph. Orb-weaving spiders (Araneus bufo) were undeterred by the wind, and spun their webs between cacti near the island’s cliffs. From the cliffs, which were patrolled by ravens and gulls (Larus sp.) in search of a meal, I got a good view of the island’s harsh and beautiful shoreline. The unrelenting waves had carved beaches, coves and small islets out of the jagged black lava. A sign urgently suggested to stay out of the water, and as I watched a lone surfer struggle with the waves hundred meters below me, I happily heeded the sign’s warning.

The island’s coniferous forests are mainly composed of the endemic Canary Island pine (Pinus canariensis) and offer a wonderful contrast to the barren scrubland. As I walked over the thick, crunchy blanket of needles that covered the ground, clouds occasionally drifted between the trees, transforming the cheerful forest into something more sombre at a moment’s notice. I found the borders between the pine forest and lava fields to be particularly interesting. Twisted and bent by the lack of nutrients, pine trees were in the process of colonising the naked lava one individual at a time. In many areas, trees bore the scorch marks of forest fires, some of which had been caused by humans. One fire in 2016 was a particularly sobering reminder to be mindful of your impact on nature (and other people). A man living in a cave had tried to burn his used toilet paper, and ended up setting 4.800 hectares ablaze, killing a park ranger in the process.

The laurel forest is an evergreen jungle made up of several loosely related species of laurel tree (Lauraceae). As I walked among the ferns and brushed aside the vines hanging from the trees, I almost felt as if I had arrived in the Caribbean already. Smalls groups of inquisitive chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs palmae) were congregating at the viewpoints. They were waiting for the crumbs that would invariably land on the forest floor when tourists took out their lunch. The blackbird (Turdus merula cabrerae), on the other hand, mostly appeared as a fleeting shadow among the ferns covering the gloomy forest floor. Time flew by as I hiked through the laurel forest, and I enjoyed it so much that I almost forgot to take photos. The viewpoint at the end of the hike offered a breath-taking view of the forest from above. Far in the distance – too far to determine the species – an endemic laurel pigeon (Columba sp.) flew above the canopy in its characteristic, powerful flight.

There was much untapped photographic potential on La Palma, and I hadn’t even taken a single shot of the stars – the main reason why most photographers come to the island. I would’ve loved to stay another week or two, but the weather was already slowly changing for the worse. If we didn’t depart quickly, we might be stuck in La Palma for a longer period of time. The time had come to leave the marina and venture into the open ocean.