This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Looking for strandings – and through dead stuff

whalebones-2Two land days in a row. During the first one we emptied the old freezer in the garage. Too gross for photos, but try to imagine the smell of dead dolphin or sea bird carcass. Baby whale stomach contents. Or a dumpster used not for garbage but for natural rotting of dolphin skull flesh with the help of maggots loving horse dung, in order to bare the bones and create a beautiful skull for display.

The rotting flesh and horse manure were no contest for what we pulled out from the freezer. The worst were the intestines of a half-rotten dusky dolphin. We had to open its stomach and gut, and to look for eye lenses and earbones of fish. They were tiny, tiny things amidst much else rank stuff. I confess I had to stand upwind from the carcass. The smell was horrible, and unfortunately it only got worse as we pulled out the remains of the insides of a bottlenose dolphin baby. Or perhaps it was a pygmy right whale baby. Must have been as the organs were so large. The sight of a carcass does not bother me at all; it is simply the conditioning of my brain that says this is smelly and unhealthy for you, and you should vomit to be on the safe side.

But I soldiered on, like everybody else. Nobody displayed any visible signs of being physically grossed out, even those who had never done a necropsy before. But I refused to believe that I was the only one who suffered. It was not my first dissection day, but I know from experience that had we done this inside I would not have been able to contain my involuntary retchings.

I washed my jeans twice in the laundry machine but still could not get the smell out entirely.whalebonesFortunately, the second land day was all about beaches and 4×4 driving and fresh air. Secretly I hoped we would not find a fresh stranding, alive or dead, because in the first case we’d be exhausted after a long, potentially dangerous rescue mission; and in the latter case we’d be exhausted from in situ necropsy, throwing all our clothes away by the end of the day.

Thank goodness that we just found old bones. No need for rescue or necropsy. One person was able to carry one spinal disc from the stranding site to the car. It took two people to move a sei whale’s lower jawbone about half a meter. The rubber wellies in the photo are a huge size 44 (US size 11), for comparison.whalebones-3(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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Wardens of conduct

wvb-bathroom-2Little gems of wisdom in the public bathroom in Walvis Bay. The toilets are used by guests frequenting the bars on the boardwalk, mostly either during sunny hours of the day or quite late at night. Mostly the message is a plea for morality, leaning towards biblical sources of wisdom. But sometimes there is humor involved, too.
wvb-bathroom-3I can only imagine how frustrating it is to keep the one public bathroom of one’s little home town clean after a weekend night – every weekend.
wvb-bathroom(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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Six belts of ocean floor

sesriemSesriem means “ses riemen” or “six belts” – the number of belts tied together required to reach the water on the bottom of the canyon with a bucket. Very practical. Very survivalist.

When there is no water one can walk among the massive rocks that form the 30 m deep and a kilometer long canyon by Sossusvlei gate. And when one looks closer, one can see that the rock is filled with holes and seashells. This is an ancient ocean floor, and the mother of the desert sand all around. The circle of life in action.

(Sesriem Canyon, Namibia; July 2017) 


Dead trees on a dead vlei

deadvlei-1Once upon a time this was an oasis. There was a river flowing through, nourishing these 500-year-old acacia trees. But the river decided to go elsewhere, and the acacia trees could not follow. In the hot, arid desert climate they dried upright, like skeletons from better times.
deadvlei-2The dark scraggly trees against a white lake of salt and the red dunes and blue sky is one of the most photographed landscapes in Namibia. And at 7.30 am it is all mine. I am the only person on the entire salt pan.deadvlei-4From time to time (not even once a year), the rains come and the dry white pan becomes a flooded lake. When an oryx walks across the mud, its footprints dry up like those of dinosaurs, waiting for the next rains to come.

Deadvlei also serves a more modern purposes: fashion shots. And less fashionable tourist shots. That’s me on the far left. deadvlei-3(Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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The Martian

deadvlei-77.30 am on the Deadvlei salt pan. It is as if I am the only person on a foreign planet. A Martian on a red planet of sand, where water once existed but is now long gone. This must be how the space-age people of the 60s imagined walking on Mars to be like. It is quiet. Still. The air is chilly but strangely easy to breathe, even with the dryness. There are no sounds anywhere, except for my team mates and two other crazies trying to ascend the Big Daddy dune, far above.

The echolessness of the desert is too strange to get used to.  It is not just the lack of an echo, but the lack of any sound. There is no sound of birds, people, traffic, or even the wind in the trees – because there are no trees, and often also no wind. And the sound that there is is somehow muffled. As if one were in a padded chamber for lunatics. deadvlei-6Standing in the still desert reminds me of the movie Truman Show, where Jim Carrey plays a man who has a lovely suburban middle class life – until he one day wakes up to realize his world is literally a stage and everything in it is scripted and televized. He begins to seek the boundaries of his physical world and comes to the end of it: at sea, outside of town, he touches the side of the dome which he always thought was the sky and the horizon. The water splashes towards it and all sounds are muffled, as if he were inside a room. Endlessness isn’t endlessness, but finite and staged.

My friends, hungry for sights and sheer exhaustion, are making their way up the 325 m tall dune Big Daddy. It has a rough start and a muscle-wrenching end, and in-between those two it is long and winding. While I wander around on the Deadvlei pan by myself, I can hear my friends cheer each other on. It is so quiet we can have a conversation: I down on the salt pan and they up on the ridge of one of the tallest dunes in the world.

At 8.30 am the first group of (other) tourists begin pouring in. Chinese, with big cameras, shouting instructions to each other as to where to stand for a best pose and effect. This is not Mars. This is still the Earth, just more wondrous than I thought.
deadvlei-5(Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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Sunrise at Sossusvlei

sossusvlei-1We camped under a full moon at the overflow site, away from tourist buses and noisy families. We lit the braai fire under the tree, under a full moon, with lizards keeping us company. At night as I walked the 200 m stretch from the tent to the bathroom facility, I needed no flashlight because the moon lit up the sand. Somewhere, not far away, I heard the agitated grunt of a grazer, maybe a zebra or an oryx. Either it had a quick disagreement with a herdmate, or it was very quickly killed. Only the moon knew which one was the case. The jackals were howling in the distance. Thank goodness each campsite in Namibia has guards patrolling the area day and night.

We rose in the dark and passed through the Sesriem gates before first light, at 5.45 am when they opened, aiming for some of the most famous sights in Namibia: the Sossusvlei salt pan, the Big Daddy dune, Dune 45, and the Deadvlei salt pan. It was a magical 1-hour drive through the river valley, with dry savannah on the sides flanked by tall, red dunes. sossusvlei-2The desert here is one of the oldest in the world. The red sand of Southern Namib comes from the Kalahari desert. When the Sossusvlei area was under the sea the Kalahari sand got washed in and stayed as the sea dried up to the desert it is now. The beaches became dunes. Some of the tallest dunes in the world are in Sossusvlei and the coast around Walvis Bay.

The last stretch to the salt pan must be with a proper 4WD, or preferably, a safari vehicle. Sossusvlei means a “dead-end marsh”. Most of the time it is not a marsh but a white, hard pan of salt. It becomes marshy only when it rains, and the rainwater cannot exist the pan but stays in the dead-end of the river valley.sossusvlei-3(Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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What’s in a name (of a dune)?

dune-elim-1The colors of Sossusvlei and the Sesriem area at dusk and dawn are the colors of every Namibian travel guide. No, the photos of those guide books are not photoshopped: the colors are truly magical. The red and pink hues come from iron content in the sand.

Many dunes in Namibia have names: Dune 7, Dune 45, Elim Dune, Big Daddy. Elim Dune, just off the Sesriem camp site, takes its name after an old farm. Dune 45 got its name as it is on the road to Sossusvlei and exactly 45 km from the Sesriem camp site. Some dunes, like Dune 7 are simply given a number, often counted from the sea towards inland in rows, like waves of sand.

And yet, when one looks at a satellite image, behind each of these famous dunes is about 500 other dunes. The sand sea is endless and we only see the edge of it because there is no way we can move or survive through the rest. All we are capable of doing is perhaps climbing one of them and running down the side like tiny ants.dune-elim-2(Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn

tropicofcapricornOn the way to Solitaire one must cross the Tropic of Capricorn. This is the southernmost location where, depending on the season, the sun shines down from directly overhead. it does not really feel tropical on the other side. Warm during the day perhaps, but freezing cold at night.

The Tropic of Capricorn should actually be renamed the Tropic of Sagittarius. Yes, some 2000 years ago the sun probably was in the Capricorn constellation on the European Midwinter’s Day, when it is at its highest on the Southern Hemisphere. But everything changes, and the axis of the Earth and the Universe change, too. Hence, today we see the sun in Sagittarius, factually making it the Tropic of Sagittarius.

(Tropic of Capricorn, Namibia; July 2017)

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Endless sand

namib-2East winds are here again, blowing from the desert for a few days. In Walvis Bay we probably have 27 degrees Celsius on land, and we can feel the hot desert winds out at sea and witness the sand storm behind the dunes. The dunes have obtained a black rind that indicates a shadow: the wind has blown the edge of the dune over toward the sea.

A weekend off means exploring the desert. This time with just a clumsy 2WD Volkswagen, but it does fit all 6 of us. The road between Walvis Bay and Windhoek, toward the junction of Solitaire, is terrible. From the junction onward it is dreadful. No paving but a sand road through the Namib desert, with ridges and bumps so my teeth shake in my mouth. There is a mountainous area with a few narrow passes, and otherwise there is sand on the road, enough for some proper swerving of any type of car.

After the highlands come grassy plains. Everything is yellow and dry after December rains (the first in 4 years). Still, the plains are inhabited by hardy animals: zebra, springbok, oryx, wildebeest. The oryx can apparently live on the tiny amount of water in desert plants, and only need to top up with drinking water every few weeks.

It is a strange experience to drive in the desert. There are signs to lodges, but nowhere does one pull up into a nice lookout spot with the buildings hiding in the shadow of trees. Simply, someone staked a plot of land and decided to put up a number of houses in the sand. A road sign, and voilá: done.

Before cars there was no living in the desert. People only crossed the desert because they really needed to, even with risking their lives factored in. Today, one can experience a night in the desert by entering from one side and exiting through the gift shop the next morning. namib(Namib desert, Namibia; July 2017)

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Trying to make sense of marine mammals

bottlenoseSo much of the lives of dolphins and whales remains as a mystery. We only see what happens on or near the surface. Most of our study data is biased to surface activities, and when we submerge hydrophones and other tools we are still mostly blindfolded: either we drop in something that only records behavior when animals are nearby, of we tag them but cannot really see what they are doing, and thus miss the big picture.

And so many whale species are rarely spotted alive here; they only make themselves known when stranded, and often either dying or dead.

To a random observer it might look like we are collecting bits and bobs of data just for the sake of details. But for example weather is used to predict the probability of a sighting, and the probability is for example going into a model of distribution of animals in the area, if this is the research question asked. If the weather is poor and we see some animals, it is possible to model their actual existence in a certain area based on how easily they really were to spot vs. what amount we probably missed due to poor conditions. There is some heavy, predictive data modeling going on in the background.

In essence, population ecology and much of cetacean (marine mammal) research is post-hoc analysis, meaning that the minds of scientist work different from those with my own background and working in controlled test-environments of laboratories. We would pose a question, a hypothesis; and then design and conduct an experiment to test this hypothesis. In cetacean research one collects lots and lots of data systematically, and interrogates the data afterwards to answer several research questions. Many times there is no hypothesis when one goes out to collect data, but the research questions can be asked by going backwards in time to look at years and years worth of data, to find a pattern.whaleIn Kenya we collected much information on fishing activities: locations of harpoonists, fishing dhows, and nets. Combined with dolphin sightings one could map out a picture of how fishing activities change the routes the dolphins prefer to take in the area.

In the Amazon, much of the data collection was analysis of social groups of branded animals: who interacts with whom, which animals are seen together year after year who has calves and where do the calves go when they grow up.

And yes, from time to time we see whales, too. We capture data in an opportunistic fashion. This whale was enjoying life and barrel-rolling, flipping its fins, for twenty minutes. Dolphins like to bow-ride boats, but today was the first time I saw tiny Heaviside’s dolphins bowride a humpback whale. Double joy.
whaleandheviside(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

(Photos courtesy of Sea Search)