Sweet Meanderings Around Soufriere Dominica

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Soufriere Dominica is tucked into a valley which once formed part of an ancient volcanic crater.

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Soufriere is a very pretty and historic fishing village located in southwestern Dominica.

Although it’s been a while since I took a long hike on the Nature Isle, I am currently contented with little outings around Dominica.  Readers of Ti Domnik Tales will know by now that the possibilities of things to do are endless in this lovely little country.  For the past few weeks, I have been occupied with preparations for my overseas relocation to Canada, which is timely and necessary.  But every now and then, I take a break in order to immerse myself in the intriguing aspects of “nature, culture and adventure” that prevail in this beautiful tropical paradise.

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Scotts Head village and promontory as seen from the Soufriere look-off above Soufriere Bay.

 

 

 

On a Saturday afternoon not long ago,  I decided to take the short drive from my home to Soufriere, on the southwestern side of the island.  I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, and of course, I was curious to see how things had changed (or not) following Tropical Storm Erika last August.  This time, I did not travel down to the end of the main road, where the village of Scotts Head is located.  I did enjoy that journey a couple of years ago and you can read about it here.

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Soufriere is renowned for its historic seaside catholic church and is a prominent fishing village in Dominica.

 

 

This time, I decided to check out the Soufriere Sulphur Springs Eco-site, as I hadn’t been there for quite a few years.  First I parked at the main crossroads in the village and took a walk up the road to a popular view-point.  I gazed at the gorgeous southerly scene, which included tranquil seaside vistas of Soufriere Bay, the distant promontory at Scotts Head, and inland views of the steep hills that form part of an extinct volcanic crater.

DSCF7013I drove beyond the village down well-marked side roads and then entered the park where the famous and historic sulphur springs are located. I could immediately smell the pungent fumes

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The big pool at the Soufriere Sulphur Springs is a great place for a soothing soak.

emanating from the area, which is renowned for its sulphur deposits and hot  mineral springs, also indicative of the ancient volcanic terrain.  It was very hot and dry in this area, and I perspired profusely as I hiked a short distance uphill to

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A sulphur deposit at Soufriere Sulphur Springs Eco-Site

view the

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This once-flowing sulphuric river was completely dry – perhaps as result of TS Erika or maybe not!

mineral deposits.  I remarked to myself that the area did look somewhat different form my last visit there, as one of the strong streams was not presently flowing.  A few people were enjoying natural baths in small enclosed cabanas.Apart from the occasional bird call, all was quiet.  I caught an iguana having his midday

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This iguana was not bothered by my presence in his sleepy state.

nap on a tree.  While I stood very close to him to capture his essence on camera, he was not bothered in the least by my presence!  When I arrived at the large bathing pool, no one was in it at all.  It seemed somewhat eerie to me, as I recalled other times when one had to wait for a turn to enter the murky healing water, as it was filled with bathers.  Something didn’t seem quite right, but at that moment I didn’t know what it was.

 

DSCF7034I had already decided to take a sea/sulphur bath later, so I left the site and drove a short distance to another lovely locale that I had not visited for a few years:  Rodney’s Wellness Retreat. As luck would have it, I met a senior forestry officer, Jacqueline André as I walked down the little lane en route to this  attractive enterprise. We stopped and chatted for a few minutes and I shared my sense of something changed at the Soufriere Sulphur Springs Eco-Site with her. She then told me about the signficant damage that the site had sustained from Tropical Storm Erika, and that the entire park had been buried under several feet of mud!  She described the extensive clean-up process, and exclaimed that what had been done to restore the site was quite remarkable.  All of the pools had been submerged in silt, and the buildings located there had been damaged too.  Now I understood why it didn’t look exactly the same as I had remembered from a few years earlier!  .

I was very hungry by this time, and I welcomed the opportunity to have a meal in the open

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The open air restaurant at Rodney’s Wellness Retreat is set in a beautiful tropical garden.

air restaurant set in a pretty garden on the property.  On this lovely Saturday afternoon, I dined on Mahi-mahi, commonly known as Dolphin – but not the Flipper type!  Hummingbirds flitted to and fro amongst the colourful hibiscus flowers.  In this peaceful setting, with a fresh breeze blowing down from the steep hills, I further relaxed as I chatted with Bevin Lewis, one of the owners of this family run business. He encouraged me to take a garden stroll and to look at the newly built

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Sweet steel pan music is now a part of Rodney’s Wellness Retreat.

‘pan house’, where traditional steel pans would be housed to be teach students and entertain visitors and residents .

 

We also chatted about hiking, as Segments One and Two of the Waitukubuli National Trail are located in this area. Bevin informed me that a large landslide still exists on Segment One in the Morne Crabier area (March 2016).  He said he had had to rappel down the slope in that area, so hikers be forewarned!  I was so happy to have completed that segment when the trail was first opened.  I fell in love with the section of it known as the French Quarter, which is also part of an archeological dig as it was a inhabited by the French in the 18th century (not far from the village of Scotts Head).

DSCF7039Along one of the garden trails, I came upon an inviting hammock and was sorely tempted,but I felt there was too much else to see before taking a nap that day! As I wandered around the lushDSCF7033property, I became completely captivated with the concept of ‘caldera’, meaning large volcanic crater. I really gained a sense of being in a ‘bowl’ as I looked up at the verdant hills high above Soufriere.  And of course, I could see evidence of changes to the terrain DSCF7041resulting from landslides, thanks to TS Erika.  Thankfully, Rodney’s Wellness Retreat did not sustain damage from the devastating storm.

As the afternoon was wearing on, I had one more stop to make before heading home.  My reward for my very relaxing afternoon would be a dip and soak at the Bubble Beach Spa, seaside in front of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in the village of Soufriere.

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I enjoyed studying the sky above the Soufriere hills while I lounged in the Bubble Beach Spa.

 

 

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The hot pools at Bubble Beach Spa also offer a spectacular view. The promontory of Scotts Head is in the distance.

The angle of the sun was fairly low over the sea as I  first submerged myself  just outside of the stone enclosed hot water pools.  I bounced around in gentle waves in a shallow spot just offshore, and then walked over to warm up in the hot water, which results from sulphuric vents on the sea floor mixed with sea water.  I screeched when I stuck my big toe into one of the pools: it seemed to be boiling hot!  Then a young man who was in the same location but further away from shore informed me that the temperature was a little cooler in deeper water.  Bathers be warned!

 

I then submerged in another pool of more

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This young man was groovin’ to the disco tunes of the 70’s and 80’s, such as those from Saturday Night Fever. His enthusiasm  was definitely infectious!

moderate temperature.  I chatted with some of the other guests, and we even sang along to the oldie-goldies pumping out of the sound system at the beach bar on the premises.  Spirits were high and the scenery was out of sight!

 

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The bar at Bubble Beach Spa is cute and comfortable.  There is a change room too.

After the better part of an hour, I was sufficiently cooked and if I had stayed any longer I would have been overdone!  I thanked the proprietor and his wife for arranging this adorable spa, which also offers massages, drinks and food.  I was amazed that they only requested donations to help with upkeep of the beach and hot pools. I made my fair contribution and trust that everyone who visits this delightful spot would do the same.  It’s good karma, after all!

 

“Now that was an afternoon that needs to be repeated,” I said to myself as I drove off into

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There’s nothing like a Caribbean sunset to end a perfect day in paradise!

the sunset. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll spend some time meandering around Soufriere Dominica as soon as you can!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Encouraging Research Continues on Dominica’s Critically Endangered Frogs*

DMCP logo (2)I am profoundly grateful to Jenny Spencer, research volunteer from the Zoological Society of London  (ZSL)for taking time from her work on the  Dominica Mountain Chicken Project to respond to my questions about the current plight of this critically endangered frog in great detail, as noted below. Readers will observe that we refer to this amphibian as ‘crapaud’ in this report, which is the local Creole name.

A Mountain Chicken  'poses' on a  rock for Jenny, who took this photo!

A Mountain Chicken ‘poses’ on a rock for Jenny, who took this photo!

This is Jenny’s third time  in Dominica, while there have been other ZSL volunteers in the interim periods.  She came here in 2011, 2012, and 2015 to actively participate in this important collaborative initiative, which is hosted by the Government of Dominica’s Forestry, Parks and Wildlife Division. She will have completed her current assignment by the end of June 2015, when another volunteer  from ZSL will take over her duties.

Because I have spent considerable time with her, I know that Jenny has spent many hours in the field looking for frogs at night, as well as caring for the ones in the Research Facility in the Botanical Gardens by day. In addition, she has shared her knowledge with others and passionately promoted their plight to increase public awareness about this dire situation. Thank you Jenny!

Jenny examines a mountain chicken/crapaud in an undisclosed location on the west coast  of Dominica.  Photo taken by Stephen Durand.

Jenny Spencer examines a mountain chicken/crapaud in the forest on Dominica. Photo taken by Stephen Durand.

Here is a review of present situation (2015) with respect to the critically endangered crapaud/mountain chicken frogs:

Gwen: What happened to the 9 juveniles and 2 adults that were found in the undisclosed location that I wrote about here almost three years ago ?

Jenny: Despite intensive monitoring efforts, these frogs have not been found again during the past two years. It is possible that the frogs succumbed to the fungal disease, chytridiomycosis. We know that this location has been subjected to some habitat alterations and has a polluted water source. Sadly, a combination of these factors could have proved fatal to the mountain chickens.
Gwen: How has the overall situation changed with respect to the health of the crapaud/mountain chicken frogs and their numbers on island?
Jenny: It is estimated that the wild population of mountain chickens in Dominica is now less than 100 individuals. This may sound like enough, but when you consider that between 8,000 and 36,000 frogs were hunted annually before the hunting ban was introduced in 2003, you can see how abundant the crapaud used to be. Thankfully, the frogs that we have found during our 2015 surveys appear to be healthy with no signs of disease (although this does not necessarily mean that they are disease free – the swab results will determine this). We are also finding young frogs, indicating that these are important breeding populations. If these frogs can stay healthy and undisturbed, their numbers could slowly increase.
 

Gwen: What is happening in the Captive Breeding & Research Facility in the Botanical Gardens?

This crapaud is one of five that is housed in the Captive Breeeding Research Facility in the Botannical Gardens.  Photo taken in 2012, but it and its 'friends' are still there and doing well!

This crapaud is one of five that is housed in the Captive Breeding Research Facility in the Botanical Gardens. Photo taken in 2012, but it and its ‘friends’ are still there and doing well!

Jenny: Three male and two female mountain chickens are successfully being maintained in the facility (in addition to various species of insect to feed to the frogs!). Whilst no successful breeding has yet occurred, some infertile nests were produced by the frogs last year. It’s still early in the 2015 breeding season but the male frogs have started to make loud ‘whooping’ calls from their burrows at night to attract the females – a positive sign!

Jenny 'feeds' teh forgs insects such as cockroaches and crickets in the Research Facility. Photo taken in 2012.

Jenny ‘feeds’ the frogs insects such as cockroaches and crickets in the Research Facility. Photo taken in 2012.



Gwen:  What is being done to promote continued awareness of this crisis?
Jenny: The mountain chicken project runs an outreach program that includes school visits, talks, radio / TV interviews plus leaflet and poster campaigns. We had a crapaud carnival queen in 2014, and host a mountain chicken hike and Mountain Chicken Day on an annual basis in September. We have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dominican-Mountain-Chicken-Project/136933839835254 and a website: http://www.mountainchicken.org to keep our supporters up-to-date on the latest news and events.

Gwen:   Why is it important to continue with efforts to save the frogs, if their numbers are so few?

Let's all work together to save the Mountain Chicken/Crapaud!  Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

Let’s all work together to save the Mountain Chicken/Crapaud! Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

Jenny: There are so many reasons to save this species from extinction. Mountain chickens are the largest native amphibian in the Lesser Antilles. They are highly valued culturally, scientifically and economically through hunting. They play an important role in the ecosystem and provide a free pest control service by eating large amounts of crickets, cockroaches, slugs and snails. They have a unique breeding system with a high degree of maternal care. (Females lay their eggs inside a foam nest at the bottom of a male’s burrow. The tadpoles develop within the foam nest as the male and female guard and defend the nest against intruders. The mother feeds her tadpoles with unfertilized eggs until they are ready to metamorphose into young froglets).
 
Dominica is known as the ‘Nature Island’ and has rich environmental assets. However, nature can be fragile and we have an obligation to protect local biodiversity for the health of the island and to encourage eco-tourism. Studying these remaining mountain chickens could help scientists discover new methods of controlling the disease in the wild. This would benefit amphibians worldwide as at least 200 species have already suffered massive declines or extinctions caused by the chytrid fungus.
Gwen:   How can the public assist the Forestry Division with its efforts, if at all?
Jenny: We greatly appreciate any help or information that the public can give. If anyone sees or hears a mountain chicken, we would like them to call the Forestry & Wildlife Division on 266-5852 to give details of the location and time. However, it is important not to touch or move any frogs. DSCF3195
People can also help by refraining from pouring oil, diesel or other chemicals into ditches or waterways and by not using pesticides and chemicals in their gardens. The public should remember that it is still illegal to hunt or eat the crapaud.

Gwen: Is the situation better or worse on Montserrat, the only other place where the crapaud are still found?
Jenny: It’s probably just as bad, if not worse! The chytrid fungus reached Montserrat in 2009 and had the same devastating effect on their crapaud population as we have experienced in Dominica. In addition to this, volcanic activity in the Soufriere Hills has resulted in the complete loss of mountain chickens and their habitat in the south of the island. At present, nearly 60% of Montserrat’s land area is within the exclusion zone. In response to the chytrid outbreak, 50 frogs were evacuated and used to establish safety net populations in European institutions. Some anti-fungal treatment trials and experimental reintroductions of captive bred mountain chickens have been attempted but the disease is still prevalent on the island.
Gwen: What is the prognosis at this point for the recovery of the crapaud population?
Beautiful  crapaud art work adorns a wall at the Research Facility. Frog on the left by Marta and the one on the right by Ben, both previous ZSL volunteers!

Beautiful crapaud art work adorns a wall at the Research Facility. Frog on the left by Marta and the one on the right by Ben, both previous ZSL volunteers!

Jenny: Despite the critically low numbers of wild mountain chickens, it is encouraging to find that the remaining frogs are managing to survive and produce offspring. Our ongoing research suggests that some of these animals may still have Chytridiomycosis but are somehow coping with the disease. It is possible that this trait could be passed on to future generations, giving these frogs some degree of immunity. This is why it is so important to protect these rare survivors and give them the time they need to recover. If we are patient and sympathetic to the needs of the crapaud then we may be rewarded by the sound of their ‘whooping’ calls reverberating around the forests at night once again.

* Jenny, thank you for your passionate and dedicated efforts to aid in research and education about Dominica’s critically endangered crapaud/mountain chicken frog.  I wish you well as you return to your patient and supportive husband, Warren, and the two lovely cats who wait for you in Amsterdam.  Au revoir!

 

Gentle Giants Sighted off of Dominica! A Seafaring Excursion in the Whale Watching Capital of the Caribbean*

Whale tails off of the coast of Salisbury, Dominica thrilled respectful onlookers aboard the Anchorage Hotel's catamaran, 'Passion'.

Whale tails off of the coast of Salisbury, Dominica thrilled respectful onlookers aboard the Anchorage Hotel’s catamaran, ‘Passion’ on Sunday April 19, 2015.

On a breezy, hazy Sunday in mid-April 2015, I, along with  my companions Jenny and Jeremiah stepped  from the wharf at Dominica’s Anchorage Hotel, Whale Watch and Dive Center  onto the ‘Passion’ catamaran for a memorable whale watch excursion.  I was particularly delighted to be going offshore that day to search for gentle giants in the sea. Only a few days earlier,  I had attended an enthusiastic presentation about the ongoing Dominica Sperm Whale Project from its head research scientist,  Dr. Shane Gero . It had been my good fortune to interview this whale biologist (cetologist) for a piece about Sperm Whales and this initiative in 2011.  That particular article is located on the avirtualdominica.com website and you can read it by clicking here. I also enjoyed a similar outing with the Anchorage’s knowledgeable captain and crew in August 2013.  You can see it here.

Dr. Shane Gero is the head researcher of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. In April 2015, he presented an overview of the project at its 10 year mark at the Anchorage Hotel

Whale biologist Dr. Shane Gero is the head researcher of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. In April 2015, he presented an overview of the project at its 10 year mark at the Anchorage Hotel

In 2015, the project had reached its 10 year mark, and after thousands of hours of observing the whales, a great deal more is now understood about these reclusive creatures who spend most of their time underwater. I was intrigued by the phenomenal information that Dr. Gero disclosed about these large mammals. However, it is what he suggested in terms of their familial relationships and “complex social structure” that impressed me the most! You can find out more about his team’s research and findings in the links noted in the first paragraph.

In addition, he reminded the group about global concerns such as climate change, pollution,

Dr. Gero stressed the need for regional conservation, whale sanctuaries and concerted efforts to protect the oceans and their inhabitants.

Dr. Gero stressed the need for regional conservation, whale sanctuaries and concerted efforts to protect the oceans and their inhabitants.

man-made ocean noise and overfishing. Dr. Gero concluded his fascinating presentation by stressing the dire need for collaborative conservation programs  for marine life and an increased awareness of the importance of healthy oceans.

Before we actually stepped aboard the ‘Passion’,  Captain Philbert reinforced many of the points raised by Dr. Gero in the mini-lecture he provided about Sperm Whales in the Anchorage Hotel’s Whale Research Centre. Then we set off in the catamaran and  proceeded in a northerly direction up the coast from Roseau.  My friends and I admired the magnificent topography of

Captain Philbert gave us a brief pre-boarding overview of the Sperm Whales features in the Whale Research Centre at the Anchorage Hotel. The female sperm whale skeleton  to his right was reassembled after it had washed ashore in the north of the island, the cause of its death unknown.

Captain Philbert gave us a brief pre-boarding overview of the Sperm Whales’ features in the Whale Research Centre at the Anchorage Hotel. This female sperm whale skeleton was reassembled after it had been buried, as it  had washed ashore in the north of the island. The cause of its death is unknown.

the Nature Island as we motored along.  It is impossible, I think, to ever get tired of looking at those prominent verdant massifs that form the backbone of this beautiful country.  I’ve written this  before and I’ll write it again:  When the Kalinago people sailed  from South America through the Caribbean islands over a thousand years ago, they accurately ‘nailed’ Dominica’s description with this indigenous name: Waitukubuli. It means “tall is her body!”

Morne Trois Pitons, Dominica's second highest massif is a mountain majesty with its 3 peaks.

Morne Trois Pitons, Dominica’s second highest massif is a mountain majesty with its 3 peaks.

Gwendominica and Jeremiah studied a map of Dominica and compared it with each mountain we could see as we sailed along Dominica's west coast. Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

Gwendominica and Jeremiah studied a map of Dominica and compared it with each mountain we could see as we sailed along Dominica’s west coast. Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

While Jenny scouted for whales, Jeremiah and I studied a map to ensure that we could correctly identify each peak! Every half hour or so, Captain Philbert and a crew member would lower the hydrophone into the water to listen for the loud ‘clicks’ (the sound the Sperm Whales make for

Captain Philbert and a crew member prepare to lower teh hydrophone and listen for whale 'clicks' as Jenny and Jeremiah look on.

Captain Philbert and a crew member lowered  the  hydrophone and  listened for whale ‘clicks’ as Jeremiah and Jenny looked on.

echo-location). It was quiet for a while, but then I believe the crew got a message from another whale watching boat, their business neighbour Dive Dominica , who announced that whales had been sighted off of the coast of Salisbury! We were almost there when we responded to an enthusiastic shout from an excited crew member:  “Whales at 12 o’clock!” There were only nine of us on the boat, apart from the crew, and we all carefully moved to the bow for best viewing.  Jenny and Jeremiah sat down on the net.  I was not so inclined and stayed a little further behind on the port side.  Later on, I ventured onto the firm passageway between the two front nets with assistance from a helpful crew member. Then I held on to ropes on each side of me, as there was a bit of a roll. I had also been looking at a chart with a variety of tails that have been identified over the years (they all have their differences, in terms of markings) and the young man graciously offered to take it off my hands.  Good thing, or it might have blown away once I became distracted by the next whale sighting!

Jenny Spencer captured this sensational shot of a whale dive. I presume the calf is to the right and the other whale nearby, as there were three together.

Jenny Spencer captured this sensational shot of a whale dive. I presume it is a juvenile on the right.

This whale dive created quite a splash.  Jenny Spencer had a front row seat on the catamaran when she took this photo!

This whale dive created a splash. Jenny Spencer had a front row seat on the catamaran when she took this photo!

We oohed and aahed when we came upon two adult  female whales and a calf on the surface of the sea.  I had already learned from Dr. Gero that whale families do take care of each other, and all the females, who stay together for life, are involved in nurturing the youngsters.  What was curious during this viewing,  however, is that one of the whales was bringing her tail down hard from a horizontal position,  smacking the surface of the water.  She repeated this several times.  When I asked the crew about this behavior, the exact reason was of course, unknown, but there were suggestions that it could have been a warning as two boats were near them (a perceived threat?), or it could have been that the baby was being ‘troublesome’ (playful) and this was a way to express annoyance, perhaps. (I think I will ask Dr. Gero his opinion, even though he wasn’t there). And ‘big up’ to Captain Philbert and crew for providing passengers with a ‘heads-up’ for photos when the whales were set to dive and display their tales!

Morne Diablotin, Dominica's tallest peak was shrouded in haze that day.

Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s tallest peak was shrouded in a haze that day.

Gwendominica was all set to see whales and appreciate the Nature Island's topography from a distance.  Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

Gwendominica was all set to see whales and appreciate the Nature Island’s topography from a distance. Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

After several minutes, even the calf submerged with his family(these animals are below the surface about 80 % of their lives for 45 minutes to an hour at a time. Sperm whales can dive as deep as 2 kilometers!).

From my vantage point on the catamaran, I could observe whales enjoying their interval on top of the sea.

From my vantage point on the catamaran, I could see whales enjoying their interval on top of the sea.

As the boat motored along  in a southerly direction, I gasped as I looked off of the bow  and saw the gorgeous tail of another whale as it dove into the deep.  I did not have camera up, and it seemed as if only a few people, Jenny included, observed that marvelous sight.  Then a few minutes later, two whale spouts were seen just ahead of the catamaran, with a third even farther out to sea. They would have likely been related to the first three we observed nearby.   As we gazed in silent wonder upon these magnificent creatures, we could hear the closest two  breathe through their blow holes.  We were immediately caught up in a mood of reverie  as we took in this very fine aspect of marine life.

After 20 minutes or so, the whales disappeared from view so we headed south in search of dolphins.  While we did not spot any that afternoon, I was not disappointed as I had seen ‘super-pods’ of these playful mammals a few years earlier.  You can read about that adventure here.  Of course, we all felt blessed to have seen some Sperm Whales that afternoon, because there are never any guarantees as to where they might be in the Eastern Caribbean on any particular day.

The sun had almost set by the time the Passion cruised back to its home base at the Anchorage Hotel.

The sun had almost set by the time the Passion cruised back to its home base at the Anchorage Hotel.

On the return journey, we all ‘caught the breeze’ and became better acquainted with each other, as we excitedly recounted our whale tales (tails) on that

Jenny and Jeremiah made the most of their whale watch and were thankful for such a great afternoon on teh Caribbean Sea.

Forestry Division/Crapaud research colleagues Jenny and Jeremiah made the most of their whale watch and were thankful for such a great afternoon on the Caribbean Sea.

amazing excursion.  As the sun sunk slowly in the west, we felt fatigued but extremely elated with our chance meetings of those gentle giants who live primarily below the surface of the sea!

*Special thanks to Jenny Spencer, who generously offered her fabulous photos for inclusion in this post. XO

Morne Micotrin, in the heart of the Roseau Valley prominently loomed over Roseau, as always.  Photo take by Jenny Spencer.

Morne Micotrin, in the heart of the Roseau Valley prominently loomed over Roseau, as always. Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

 

 

 

English Immersion on the Nature Island: French Students Learn about Dominica’s Flora and Fauna*

Students Carole (l), Victoria and Marie-Agnes from Ludicademi in Martinique demonstrated tremendous interest and keenly participated in class discussions.

Students Carole (l), Victoria,Marie-Agnes and Charles from Ludicademi in Martinique demonstrated tremendous interest and keenly participated in class discussions.

The Crapaud frog (aka Mountain Chicken) is critically endangered and is endemic to Dominica and Montserrat. Read about its plight and the exceptional efforts to save it here.

The Crapaud frog (aka Mountain Chicken) is critically endangered and is endemic to only Dominica and Montserrat. Read about its plight and the exceptional efforts to save it here.

During a class held at the University of  the West Indies Open Campus in June, the English immersion students from Ludicademi in Martinique grasped the significance of  relevant and meaningful vocabulary  that could be directly applied to plants and animals on the Nature Island. Over the course of three hours, they began to understand  the meaning of biodiversity, the importance of wildlife conservation, as well as how, why  and what endemic, migratory,  endangered and vulnerable species are found here.

By the amount of questions that they posed, it was clear they were tremendously interested in the less common  and threatened species that exist on Dominica. That afternoon,  renowned author and  Forestry and Wildlife Officer Arlington James (retired) would be taking them on an interpretive tour of the Syndicate Forest Nature Trail (located above Dublanc on the west coast, in the foothills of Morne Diablotin). I was assured that they would come away from this day’s topic with a great appreciation for and understanding of Dominica’s flora and fauna.

The Fragile’ Mountain Chicken’ Frog

They were particularly fascinated by the ‘Mountain Chicken’ frog (aka Crapaud), which is critically endangered (almost extinct!) due to a persistent fungal infection. It is a regional endemic, as a very  are few found on Dominica and Montserrat. Those that manage  to survive are being closely monitored by Forestry and Wildlife Division officers, with much appreciated assistance from specialists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Birds, Birds, Birds!

The Imperial or Sisserou Parrot is endangered and is only found on Dominica.  This is a female.  Photo taken by Forestry Officer Stephen Durand.

The Imperial or Sisserou Parrot is endangered and is only found on Dominica. This is a female. Photo taken by Forestry Officer Stephen Durand.

I referred them to the classification system of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) where they would discover the survival status of specific species. They had no idea that Dominica’s two parrots, the Sisserou which is endangered and the Jaco which is vulnerable are only found on Dominica.  That means that they are endemic to this country alone!  However, some of the students wondered if they might have seen Jaco parrots on Martinique.  I could not confirm this, of course.  I do hope that they queried Mr. James.  The Jaco’s numbers are increasing and the distance between Dominica and Martinique is not great, so I wonder if it is possible…I will certainly check with my friend, Forestry Officer/Bird Specialist Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste when I next see him!

Certainly, Dominica can be described as a bird enthusiast’s ‘heaven’.  Over 200 species of our feathered friends have been sighted here, although only about 50 are resident year-round (reference:birdlife.org).  Of course, the others are migratory.  The class was intrigued when I showed them a photo of a Blue-Headed Hummingbird, which is only found on Dominica and Martinique.  That means it is a ‘regional

The vibrant colouts of the male Blue-Headed Hummingbird are a sight to see. it is only found on Dominica and Martinique.

The vibrant colours of the male Blue-Headed Hummingbird are a sight to see. it is only found on Dominica and Martinique. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

endemic’!  I was very surprised that no one in the class had ever seen one on our sister island to the south.  I could only hope that they might catch a glimpse of one in the Syndicate area, as I had with ‘Dr. Birdy’.

Snakes and Lizards

Friends took me to see a nest of Boa Constrictors (locally called 'Tet-Chien' in Creole) on Canada day 2012.

Friends took me to see a nest of Boa Constrictors (locally called ‘Tete-Chien’ in Creole) on Canada Day 2012.

I showed the class a number of other photographs of animals on Dominica – at least my favourites!  They were really astonished by the possible length of the endemic species of Boa Constrictor snake – which can reach 10 feet!  I assured them that it was not poisonous, nor were the other three species that are found here.  While the confirmed numbers of this reptile are not exactly known, it is felt by some experts that they might be vulnerable, especially due to habitat loss and hunting.  They do play a vital role in keeping down the rat population.  I am always thrilled to come across one in the forest, which is not that often!

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The endangered Lesser Antillean Iguana (called Leza in Creole) is the largest lizard on Dominica. Recently some other types have colonized here from other countries.

The other reptile that I enjoy watching up close is the Lesser Antillean Iguana.  

Amazingly, the class had seen a bright green juvenile in the Botanical Gardens the previous day but didn’t know what it was!  It is the largest of about nine species that thrive on the Nature Island. Again, it has been suggested that  their numbers are in decline and that they are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List.  However, on Dominica, these creatures are protected by law, so I hope they fare better here than on other islands.  I have seen them  in various locales along the west coast, including Champagne Beach, Mero Beach and  seaside at Coulibistrie.

This 'stick insect' is endemic to (only found on) Dominica!

This ‘stick insect’ is endemic to (only found on) Dominica!

Whales and Dolphins  and Other Mammals

Of course, I told them a little about the sea creatures as well, including a resident year-round pod of Sperm Whales, and plentiful dolphins.  A number of other types of whales are migratory and pass through Dominica’s waters annually.  Dominica is known as the ‘Whale Watch Capital of the Caribbean’, as the likelihood of spotting some cetaceans  on an excursion is very high.

Then we talked about  a few of the other 16 mammals that exist on Dominica:, including 12 species of bats, the rodent-like agouti, and manicou (opossum).  They are similar to, if not the same varieties on Martinique, according to some of the students.

Sea Turtles

There was a very lively discussion when I showed the class some video clips about the three types of endangered sea turtles that regularly nest on Dominica’s beaches (Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Green).  To see the females come in to  dig a nest and lay many eggs, or to watch hatchlings run into the sea are awesome sights.  As these animals are protected by law on Dominica, some students queried the balance between tradition and conservation.  Historically, turtle meat and eggs have been eaten by some people here.  There was  some concern  in the class about being denied one’s rights to eat a traditional food or to protect an endangered species.  It can be a delicate subject, but I urged the students to consider that if they were plentiful, and if there were no other food sources, I could understand the need to hunt them.  Most definitely, that is not the case these days, and anyone caught interfering with the turtles is arrested.  I also told the group that a number of community associations, especially on the east coast, patrol the beaches at night when the turtles come in.  They also offer turtle  watching tours!

Flora/Plants

There was so much to say about the flora and fauna found on Dominica that I ran out of time.  It was important to point out that the Smithsonian Institute In Washington D.C. has previously described Dominica as “a giant plant laboratory, unchanged for 10,000 years” (Fodor’s Caribbean, 1996).  I made sure to emphasize that there are over 1,000 flowering plants in Dominica, of which 11 species are only found here, and nowhere else!

These red and pink ginger lilies are called exotic plants because they were introduced to Dominica from sources in Malaysia.

These red and pink ginger lilies are called exotic plants because they were originally introduced to Dominica from sources in Malaysia.

These beautiful anthurium lilies belong to the monocotyledons class, of which tere are 186 species on the Nature Island

These beautiful anthurium lilies belong to the class of ‘monocotyledons’, of which there are 186 species on the Nature Island

Two species of heliconia flowers are only found on Dominica.

Two species of heliconia flowers are only found on Dominica.

Prolific Gommier Trees are indigenous to the caribbean region.  There are about 200 forest trees in Dominica.

Prolific Gommier Trees are indigenous to the Caribbean region. There are about 200 types of forest trees in Dominica.

I quickly showed them a few more photos of my favourites and then they were off for their excursion with retired forestry and wildlife expert Mr. Arlington James to learn more in the forest at the Syndicate Eco-site.

This "chicken of the forest' mushroom is edible, although there are other species on Dominica that are poisonous!

This “chicken of the forest’ mushroom is edible, although there are other species on Dominica that are poisonous!

I think they were truly amazed about the extraordinary amount of biodiversity on the tiny lush Nature Island!

* This mini English immersion programme was organized by Tina Alexander, Executive Director of Lifeline Ministries, Dominica.

Reference: Overview of the Flora and Fauna of Dominica [notes] prepared by Stephen Durand For Dominica State College Basic Skills Training Programme, October 2006.

Winter Solstice on Dominica: Experiencing the Essence of the Nature Island

Even in Dominica, the hype about December 21st and the hubbub of the approaching yule-tide were having less than desired effects on me. Fortunately, I had already decided that that particular Friday was a day to escape to “the country” (that is, away from Roseau, the capital!) if the world hadn’t ended by then.

I headed off to somewhat familiar territory, my destination being the wonderful Papillote Wilderness Retreat at Trafalgar in the Roseau Valley.  I ‘d already booked my massage with physiotherapist Ariane Magloire and was looking forward to soaking in the hot pools after my session with her. As there was no cruise ship in port, I decided to go early and explore the very popular Trafalgar Falls eco-site, which can be very crowded when hundreds of people are on-island for a few hours.

The trail to the viewing platform passes through dense forest that is filled with birdsong.

The trail to the viewing platform passes through dense forest that is filled with birdsong.

It was a beautiful day in paradise and that is no exaggeration! Brilliant sunshine, nary a cloud in sight and slightly cooler temperatures were ideal conditions for my little hike from Papillote up the hill to the twin falls at Trafalgar. As I approached the Visitor Centre, I was completely surprised that there were no visitors or tour buses in sight.  I spoke to the forestry officer and the attendant on duty and informed them of my plan to work my way up to what is called the “mother” fall which is more readily accessible than the “father” fall.  We chatted for a few moments and then I headed off on the well marked  and groomed trail to the viewing platform, about 15 minutes along the route.

So many shades of green on the approach to the "mother" fall at Trafalgar.

So many shades of green on the approach to the “mother” fall at Trafalgar.

A mountain whistler (rufus-throated solitaire) high up in the tree-tops  cheerily accompanied me with its melodious trills. Antillean bull finches and peewees flitted about the lower limbs of the trees, capturing my attention now and then as I paused to look at pretty plants along the path. I marvelled at so many shades of green all about me in the dense forest.  I could sense my breathing becoming deeper and more even as I steadily walked up a gradual incline.  After about 10 minutes, I arrived at the sturdy wooden platform and gasped with delight at the sights before me.

The higher  "father" fall at Trafalgar is more remote and inaccessible

The higher “father” fall at Trafalgar is more remote and inaccessible

To my left, the taller and slimmer “father” fall glistened in the shadowy sunlight.  Its seemingly remote location added to the intrigue.  I did recall a time many years ago when I did actually work my way over treacherous boulders and slippery stones (with the assistance of a guide).  But a landslide changed all that and I was content with the memory of soaking a bruised leg under a man-made bamboo shower of natural hot mineral water.  Now that area is off-limits to visitors.

My only choice was to head  further along the track to the majestic and stately “mother” fall. I was happy to snap shots of the twin cascades from different angles as I followed the trail to the right.  It had been many years since I ventured beyond the platform, mainly because there were always too many people on the trail for my tastes.  Admittedly, I did meet three young men just as I left the viewing point.  They were heading out and now I was completely alone!

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The cascade of the “mother” fall at Trafalgar is powerfully hypnotic!

The “mother” falls’ persistent roar drew me towards her base, over big rocks, a coursing stream of hot water and some huge tree roots. As I was on my own, I decided to stop a bit of a distance away from her as the boulders can be extremely slippery when wet.  I realized that with no-one else around, personal safety was a priority.  I sat on a damp boulder and gazed all around me.  By now, after only 10 minutes beyond the view-point, sweat trickled down my back and my face was wet from the mild exertion. A damp mist from the cascade blew over me and I breathed deeply and slowly for some time.  I stared at the tumbling waters as if in a trance, while recalling its pristine source higher in the mountains in Morne Trois Pitons National Park. 

After a short while, I glanced at my watch and realized that it was time to make my way back to Papillote for my appointment.  As I carefully turned myself around on the over-sized boulder, I cast a backward glance at the “mother.”  Although I had only spent a short time near her torrents, I felt completely invigorated, re-energized and refreshed.  Any stress that I had carried into this spectacular wilderness eco-site had quickly vanished. I was now ready to celebrate the holiday season in the best of spirits!

DSCF5145My few moments of solitude reminded me that nature is indeed a tonic for the mind, body and soul.  I highly recommend it, and urge you to spend a little time in the great outdoors, as well as with family and friends this holiday season –  where-ever you live.  Peace and goodwill to all!

Searching for Dominica’s Critically Endangered Frogs*

This adult female Mountain Chicken (aka Crapaud) has just had her dinner. The leg of an insect dangles from her mouth!

On a drizzly Monday evening in late August, I accepted an invitation to observe wildlife researchers in action. Their quest to track down a particular species was somewhat out of the ordinary. These specialists were looking around in the dark in the hope of finding a critically endangered frog called the ‘Crapaud’ (pronounced Craw-poe), in local Creole language.  It’s commonly known as the  Mountain Chicken, and is highly regarded as a national symbol that is found on Dominica’s Coat of Arms. But sadly, to actually see or hear one in its natural habitat these days is extremely rare.  Since 2002, their once prolific numbers have rapidly declined by about 90%,  due to a new fungal disease called chytridiomycosis (or ‘chytrid’ for short).  And right now, they’re  on the brink of extinction!

Fortunately, scientists are actively looking for ways and means to eradicate the devastating fungal infection. I actually  witnessed some  of these investigations, which are part of a long term international project between Dominica’s Forestry and Wildlife Division and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in the U.K..

About a year and a half ago, I had the pleasure to meet  Jenny Spencer, a volunteer with ZSL who specializes in amphibians and reptiles.  She was my neighbour at that time. Over the seven months of her first stay in Dominica in 2011, she patiently explained the plight of this large frog to me in great detail.  Before she returned to the Nature Isle this past June, I happened to meet other ZSL representatives who reinforced what I had learned  from Jenny about this serious conservation crisis.
Contrary to what one might obviously think, the Mountain Chickens are not found on higher terrain.  As I quickly discovered, they tend to reside at lower elevations, near streams or forests and even in residential areas!

Jenny marks a swab sample at her portable field research station.

Jenny and her research team from the Forestry Division picked me up early that evening and we drove to a housing development  along the west coast that was  in close proximity to a small stream.  They ‘set up shop’ on a grassy vacant lot that was interspersed with banana plants and mango trees.  The protruding porch of a house under construction provided some shelter from occasional drizzle and protected Jenny’s paperwork from the damp ground.

Machel  holds  a juvenile Mountain Chicken frog while Jenny performs a buccal swab in its mouth which will be sent back to ZSL for genetic research.

We were in an area where some frogs had been found before and there was a feeling of optimism that we might hear and/or see some of these amphibians once again. Two Forestry Division staff members and two student volunteers searched the deep grass with strong “headlights.”It wasn’t too long before Machel from the Forestry Division called out that he had found one!  Excitedly, we gathered around to see it.  Then the team followed strict scientific protocols, and carefully recorded important data such as weight and measurements. They also swabbed their underbellies, hind limbs and hind feet so that the samples could be analyzed in laboratories in Dominica and  ZSL to determine if the frogs were infected with the ‘chytrid’ fungus.  Numerous photographs were taken for identification purposes.  The first frog of the evening was a female and it was determined that she had been previously assessed as a microchip  reading was found upon scanning her. This helps the team to easily identify the frog and to monitor body weight and condition accurately. Jenny also took a GPS location reading and carefully recorded by hand all of the information that had  been gathered about that frog. The enthusiasm of the group did infect me.  I admired their attention to details and their rigorous routines with respect to constantly changing gloves and wiping down equipment with alcohol whenever necessary to prevent cross- contamination, as well as their careful handling of these wild creatures.

One of the nine juveniles that were found on this research expedition.

Over the course of four hours, the team delighted in finding NINE juveniles, all of very similar weight and length.  Everyone was amazed, because this large find of young frogs proves the Mountain Chickens are successfully breeding.  It was estimated that the babies were about 0ne month old and likely to be siblings from the same nest. (The genetic swabs will confirm this).  Jenny and the team were so thrilled on this night because, to the best of their knowledge, there had never been such a large find of juvenile Mountain Chickens since the commencement of the research project a number of years earlier.  Towards the end of the evening, one more female was captured and her particulars were documented.  While no males were directly observed or caught, we did occasionally hear their distinctive whooping call in the distance while we were there.

The nine juveniles and two adult females were released into their habitat after they had been examined.  On previous outings, a small number of frogs  had been taken for further observation and study at a specially built facility which is located in the Botanical Gardens near Roseau.  These frogs have been successfully treated for the disease and it is hoped that they will breed in the near future.  Their offspring may be released into areas that no longer have Crapaud but did support populations of frogs in the past.

The research team takes measurements of an adult female Mountain Chicken frog.

I was uplifted just by watching the dedicated and enthusiastic research team.  Their love of the animal and strong desire to aid in its conservation was clearly evident.  I admired the hard work that is involved in finding a rare Mountain Chicken in the field.  But most of all, I stepped away from this remarkable experience with renewed hope.  Perhaps the end result of this gargantuan effort to save the ‘Crapaud’ will be its ultimate survival.  Thank you to all the researchers involved in this important project.  May your efforts be truly rewarded…

You can  read more about this dire ecological situation and obtain further background information about the Mountain Chicken Research Project in my previous article  here.  Jenny has  also recently written about the ongoing  joint initiative between Dominica and Montserrat (the only other Caribbean country where these frogs are still found) on the mountainchicken.org blog.

I urge you to carefully consider the importance of wildlife conservation and the preservation of all species – no matter where you live.

* Written with the kind assistance of Ms. Jenny Spencer, volunteer from the Zoological Society of London.

Delighting in Dolphins and Dominica’s Topography on a Nature Island Sea Safari!

On a sizzling hot Saturday afternoon in hurricane season (presently none in the forecast!), with sunny skies and calm seas, I decided to go on a whale watch excursion.  I was tempted by the reduced rate offered at Dive Dominica as one of the special events featured during annual Dive Fest celebrations.  It had been some time since I participated in a search for whales, so I was hopeful of spotting a few of these majestic creatures.  They are really a sight to behold!

The ‘Sting Ray II” is Dive Dominica’s whale watch excursion boat.

We boarded the boat promptly at 1 pm, and Captain Gus immediately gave us  instructions with respect to the layout, as well as  detailed safety measures. A chart filled with descriptions of whales and dolphins was brought to our attention.  As we headed away from shore, we were encouraged to ask questions, stay on the look-out for any sightings and to  be patient  while we waited  until we were a few miles out when the crew would check for whale sounds by hydrophone.

Captain Gus (right) and a crew member give us details about the afternoon’s outing.

Gwendominica eagerly awaits cast-off. Her hand is on the boat’s hydrophone, which is placed in the sea (when the engine is off) to detect whale sounds (clicks) within a fair distance.

As we cruised further and further off the west coast, I was once again completely in awe of Dominica’s stunning and dramatic verdant beauty. It reminded me  of the Kalinago  name for the Nature Island, Waitukubuli, which means “tall is her body.” That was their first impression upon paddling here from South America over a thousand years ago.

From north to south, shadowy mountains, valleys, ridges and plateaus were shaded in many hues of green by the brilliant afternoon sunshine .Low clouds hung over the  breadth of the island’s highest peaks.  This splendrous scene created a captivating  mystical mood, which really enchanted me. While I stared at this magnificent setting on a perfect day in paradise,  I couldn’t get the well-known traditional English  hymn, “For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies…” out of my head.  That  is MY lasting impression of Dominica, the Nature Island of the world.

Every half hour or so,  Captain Gus would turn off the engine and the crew would dip the hydrophone in the sea.  We were always between 4 – 6 nautical miles offshore where the waters went  down to 4,000 feet below – ideal whale territory.  But there was nary a ‘click’ in any direction. As the afternoon wore on, we fought hard  not to be discouraged.  We were almost as far north as Portsmouth when the crew performed the last hydrophone check.  With no positive results, Captain Gus turned the boat 180 degrees to the south so we could head back to home base at Dive Dominica.

Those lovely and lively marine mammals made quite a splash for their captive audience!

Those agile dolphins were too quick for my camera shutter!

We were just off of Colihaut when all of a sudden Captain Gus’s excited voice came over the loudspeaker: “Look to your starboard side.  Approaching a ‘super-pod’ of dolphins.  There must be 500 of them!”  We all squealed,whooped and hollered with excitement.  They definitely put on a show in Dominica’s own natural “Marineland.”  And there were two different kinds: Spinners and Pan-Tropicals. They were feeding on abundant flying fish in the area. These inquisitive marine mammals jumped, flipped, danced, raced along the boat and sometimes seemed to stand on their tail fins as they checked us out. I really was amazed by their vertical positioning above the surface.  I consulted a helpful crew member who told me this pose is actually called spyhopping and whales do it too.  Captain Gus drove the boat in circles while they entertained us.  After half an hour, it was time to go.  We continued southwards and a few dolphins followed us for a short while, then lost interest (or sensed they were going in the wrong direction!) and turned back to rejoin their pod.

My only regret is that my delayed eye-hand coördination, coupled with only a simple camera prevented me from catching those awesome critters in action.  Next time, I’ll be better prepared!  You really have to see them to believe it!

The prominent catholic church in the village of Massacre glows in the late afternoon light.

By then, the sun’s rays  slanted in the late afternoon, creating a contrast of intensely deep shadows and brilliant reflections.  I was overwhelmed with so much beauty surrounding me – on land  and in the sea. While there were no whale sightings, we were all satisfied with what we had seen.  We are sure to keep the memories of our extraordinary dolphin encounter and  Dominica’s exceptional topography with us for a long time to come.

By late afternoon, the clouds had lifted off  Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest mountain. Salisbury savannah is in the foreground.

Rainbow over Roseau. Will I be able to find the pot of gold?

Dominica exemplifies her original Kalinago name: ‘Waitukubuli’ = ‘Tall is her body’.