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A chronicle of the travels & adventures of Christian Wappl…

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.