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Tuvalu - A Nation of Superlatives

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Want to visit the world's least populous nation?  If so, I suggest you pack your sunscreen and head to Tuvalu, whose nine Polynesian atolls are home to 12,373 inhabitants.  Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu achieved independence from England in 1978.  Want to visit a smaller nation?  Only Monaco and nearby Nauru can claim a more diminutive status, as Tuvalu is the world's third smallest nation.  Want to visit a lower lying nation?  Only the Maldives edges out Tuvalu, whose highest elevation is a mere 16 feet above sea level.  It is this latter fact that indirectly led to my recent visit to this very remote island nation. 

You see, Tuvalu is understandably very concerned about the rising oceans due to global warming.  In other parts of the world, this change might impact the types of crops that are grown, how much energy is used, and the introduction of new tropical diseases.  In Tuvalu, rising oceans may submerge the entire nation under water.  As Samuel Johnson said, "The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully."  Indeed, for Tuvalu the prospect of being drowned does cause a nation to take rising sea levels very seriously.  Unfortunately for Tuvalu, the negative impacts of the rising oceans are already being experienced in terms of stronger storm surges that reach farther inland.  During my recent visit, many village elders described how this is already happening, with areas that never before experienced flooding now regularly underwater during storms.

It is well known that mangrove forests ameliorate the impact of storm surges.  As was seen in the great Southeast Asia tsunami several years ago, villages that kept their mangrove forests intact suffered less damage than those that had cut their mangrove trees down. Consequently, the Tuvalu atoll of Nanumea approached Seacology for support of a win-win project.  Nanumea has a population of 660 people and outside of government employment there are no (as in zero) paying jobs on the island.  Everyone lives off the bounty of the land and sea in a subsistence fashion.  Therefore Nanumea was seeking support for the renovation and expansion of a Woman's Centre where the local women can make traditional handicrafts for sale in the capital city of Funafuti.  In exchange, the people of Nanumea would begin a two acre lagoon based mangrove nursery and reserve, planting over 1,000 mangrove seedlings along the coastline.  Seacology's response was a resounding "YES."

Along with Seacology president Ken Murdock and 42 other guests on Zegrahm Expeditions' exploratory cruise ship the Clipper Odyssey, I recently attended the official opening of the Nanumea project.  As we came in to the lagoon on our zodiacs, we were serenaded in traditional fashion by villagers who came out to greet us on their kayaks.  After receiving flowered headdresses from the wonderful Pula Taofa, coordinator of the Tuvalu National Council of Women (TNCW), and other high ranking village representatives, we walked over to the new Women's Center.  The speeches made by Pula and her colleagues from TNCW were very moving and made it clear that the Women's Center will allow women to earn income from the manufacture of traditional handicrafts and give them not only much needed income but also a sense of independence and accomplishment. It was then time for Ken Murdock and me to cut the ribbon officially opening the new Center (see photo below).  

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Photo credit Ramona Wilson

We then traveled by zodiac rafts to the other side of the lagoon to inspect the mangrove nursery (see photo below) and plant mangrove seedlings. 

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Photo credit Ramona Wilson

 It is very much in the tradition of Seacology to get our hands dirty (in this case literally) and lend a hand to our projects. The photos below show Jerry and Don Zieglar with a mangrove seedling (left), and local women planting mangroves (right).

Don & Jerry Ziegler Nanumea.JPG Local Women2.JPGWith our work completed, it was now time to celebrate.  The village put on an incredible fest featuring pigs and chicken baked in an earth oven.  Afterwards, we were treated to a wonderful performance of singing and dancing. Ken Murdock and I made our way through the 80 villagers singing in a tight knit circle around a large drum and joined the villagers in the drum circle, which was a very moving experience. As a surprise to my fellow passengers, Seacology had arranged to be the first major customer of the Women's Handicraft Center and with our support, the village presented everyone with gifts of beautiful handmade dresses, necklaces and fans.  It was an event that none of us will ever forget.


Photo credits Giovanna Fasanelli

Whale Sharks In Mexico

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Next time you are in Mexico and someone asks you to play with dominoes, you may be in for a very large surprise.  Due to the many white spots that mark their gray bodies, in Mexico the common nickname for  whale sharks is "dominoes."  Indeed these gentle giants do resemble dominoes - very, very large ones, that is.  At up to 48 feet in length and weighing up to 25 tons, whale sharks, or Rhincodon Typus as they are known to scientists, are the world's largest fish.  Despite their enormous size, comparatively little is known about them.  One of the reasons for this is that there are not large numbers of them left in the oceans and for much of the year they are solitary animals.

Whaleshark0025.jpg Less than ten years ago, marine biologists discovered that during the months of June to September the world's largest aggregation of whale sharks takes place off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.  In recent years they can be found north of Isla Mujeres, a small island just off the coast of Cancun.  A smaller number can also be found off of Holbox Island near the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.  Whale Sharks are listed on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN's) Red List of Vulnerable Species, meaning their future is in danger.

One of the many things that sets Seacology apart from other nonprofit organizations is our roster of international affiliates.  We now have branches in Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.  Recently, Seacology's Executive Director Duane Silverstein and Development Director Susan Racanelli traveled to Tokyo for a memorable visit with our good friends at Seacology Japan. Here's what Duane had to say about his trip: 

Our first stop in Japan's capital was speaking at a seminar in front of 300 people.  This seminar was brilliantly organized by Seacology Japan cofounder Akemi Yoshida.  After my speech was completed it was a rather unusual experience to be surrounded by large numbers of people wanting my autograph or asking to have their picture taken with me (a photo with some supporters appears below).  Some were so overcome with emotion they were even moved to tears.  I don't think what I said or how I said it inspired them so much as the people of Japan having a strong affinity for Seacology's important work:  the wonderful island people we help as well as the beautiful island species we protect.  Whatever the reason we can only say domo arrigato - thank you very much!

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The palm covered islands of Lakshadweep make up what is arguably the least known part of India. These 36 islands, totaling a mere 18 square miles, lie 180 miles off of India's western coast. Ninety-three percent of the 60,000 residents are Muslim giving these islands their own distinct culture. Nonetheless, mention the Lakshadweeps to experienced travel agents in the U.S. and you are likely to be greeted by vacant stares. Susan-India-pics-2010-040.jpgVery few visitors come here from the U.S. and in fact special permits are needed to visit all but a few of the Lakshadweep Islands.

After a 90 minute flight from the subcontinent, our small group was met on the island of Agatti by Seacology's newest field representative, Vineeta Hoon. We were escorted to our boat by several locals performing a traditional knife dance (pictured right). We then boarded a boat for a two hour ride to Bangaram Island, our home for the next few days.

French Polynesia Travel

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I just returned from an interesting and exciting trip to French Polynesia. The main purpose of my voyage was to attend the official opening of Seacology's latest project on the beautiful island of Moorea. But on this trip I was wearing many hats. In addition to my role as executive director of Seacology I was also an island "expert" lecturer on a Zegrahm Expedition cruise throughout French Polynesia. Zegrahm is one of the world's leading exploratory cruise companies. What makes a cruise an exploratory cruise as opposed to the more typical drink, eat and gamble 3,000 passenger cruises? As the name implies we stopped at many remote destinations including islands that had not received tourists for many years. An exploratory cruise also features numerous snorkeling, diving, hiking, birding and cultural events. Furthermore an exploratory cruise such as the one I was on has many lectures throughout the day on the history, geography, culture, fish and birds of the many places we visited. Finally, exploratory cruises take place on smaller ships such as the Clipper Odyssey which I traveled on with a maximum capacity of 110 passengers (pictured above left).

In my previous blog I wrote about how, because of the great work of Seacology, I was selected to be to be honored by Major League Baseball (MLB) at the All-Star Game in St. Louis. After throwing out the first pitch at an Oakland A's game it was time to pack my bags and head to St. Louis. Right from the beginning it was obvious that MLB was going to treat me and my fellow All-Stars Among Us (ASAU) honorees like royalty. A driver came by my house to pick up me and my son, Robb, and of course a driver was waiting at the airport in St. Louis to take us to the Riverside Hyatt Regency. The hotel has a terrific location just beneath the Gateway Arch. We were shown to our room which was, shall we say, a bit impractical in that it did not have any (and I mean zip) drawers. When I called down to the front desk to ask if they had forgotten to put in a dresser they said "No, sir, this is the new European style." I know that some Europeans are naturalists but this was news to me that they did not travel with any clothes. For the next several days we literally lived out of our suitcases and books and magazines we were reading were left on the floor. Considering the hotel rooms were just remodeled this is one interior designer who certainly is no all-star.

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You are probably thinking, what does baseball or wrestling have to do with Seacology? The tale begins a little over one month ago when former development assistant Ellen Kamoe suggested nominating me for the All-Stars Among Us (ASAU) contest. This is a joint promotion by People Magazine and Major League Baseball (MLB). The purpose of ASAU is to find 30 individuals who are helping people and causes around the world, one to represent each Major League Baseball team. The nominations would be culled by the editors of People and representatives from MLB. Three finalists would be selected for each team and there would be a two week period of public voting. I told Ellen I was flattered by the thought but please don't spend more than a few minutes of your time nominating me as I doubt if I would have much of a chance of winning a national contest.

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According to the Lonely Planet guide, "Among the 115 islands that make up the Seychelles are some of the most beautiful island getaways in the Indian Ocean, or indeed the world. Here you can find the lush tropical paradise you may have seen in seductive advertisements." The group of islands around Mahe (home of the international airport and the capital city of Victoria) are made of granite while the remaining islands are coralline atolls. The Seychelles lie 1,600 kilometers off of East Africa, its nearest neighbor. As a result of this isolation the Seychelles are rich in rare plants which flourish nowhere else on the planet. Perhaps the most famous of these is the coco de mer, the world's largest coconut weighing as much as 20 kg. In addition to their prodigious size the coco de mer is famous for its rather erotic shape (pictured right). I will let readers' imaginations run wild on this but if you want to see this coconut in person head for the beautiful Vallee de Mai on the island of Praslin. I recently led a Seacology group to visit the Seychelles and some of us are still blushing after seeing these rather evocative coconuts. The Seychelles visitors bureau knows a good thing when it sees one and the coco de mer not only appears on posters and brochures everywhere but the Seychelles official passport stamp is in the shape of this naughty coconut.

Diving the Red Sea

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Because it is close to Europe the Red Sea attracts more dive boats than any other region of the world. The Red Sea's frequent encounters with thresher and hammerhead sharks and the beauty of its hard and soft corals help account for its popularity. However, if not managed well, too many divers and dive boats could ironically help destroy this beautiful dive destination. Every time a boat drops an anchor on a coral reef a large section of the reef is damaged. Multiply this by the large number of boats in the Red Sea every day and the potential for significant damage is great. However, by tying up to mooring buoys, boats no longer have to drop anchor.

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To help preserve this beautiful marine environment a local ngo called HEPCA has installed the world's largest mooring buoy system. Nonetheless more mooring buoys were needed around five islands in the 494,100 acre marine reserve adjacent to Wadi El Gemal (Land of the Camel) National Park off the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea. Seacology, an international ngo with the sole purpose of preserving the environments of islands throughout the globe, provided the funding needed to help HEPCA install 25 mooring buoys in the Wadi El Gemal area.

Fiji Travel With Seacology

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In August 2008 a Seacology group traveled to Fiji to open two new projects. In Ketei Village, located on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu Seacology funded the construction of a community center in exchange for the creation of a 900-acre forest reserve. Our visit to Ketei began with a traditional kava ceremony. Kava is the ground up root of a pepper plant which acts as a calming agent. It has been the center of Fijian traditional life for hundreds of years. (Right, water is being poured into a kava bowl to begin the kava ceremony.)