- Published: Saturday, 31 December 2016 18:07
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2016 is a year many people will remember as the year a lot of celebrities died and insanity manifested in the USA (in which form, I don't have to mention). For me personally it was an amazing year. A year of travel and new as well as old friendship, intense experiences and beauty, but also a year in which I witnessed signs of climate change and other anthropognic destruction of the planet we call home. Thanks to some people I met and some things I learned, I regained some optimism for the next few years, but have little hope for later on. A lot of what I learned this year made me wish not to be around anymore in, let's say, 40 years.
I started the year on the island of the everlasting volcanic activity, Stromboli. A volcano erupting every 15-30 min for more than 1.000 years. I call that persistent! On Stromboli, I could relax, eat dozens of oranges, mandarins and lemons a day, and enjoy long strolls along the ocean. I witnessed strong storms, eating away the old cliffs and swallowing stretches of sandy beach. I talked to people telling me how the sea comes closer to their door steps year by year, and saw the steady stream of ships, mainly cargo, pass by, leaving traces of oil and chemicals in the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Which is a big sea, but doesn't smell like one anymore. Because of overfishing and pollution, there is very little life. And where there is little life, there is little death, and no smell of drying algae and decayubg fish along the shores.
From Stromboli I went to Kiritimati in Kiribati, with a short stop-over in Sydney, Australia. I was happy to see seagrass grow in the bays next to the famous Opera, and mangroves along the Parramatta River just outside town. Which, by the way, is a wonderful day trip on a public ferry for a few dollars on Sundays.
On Kiritimati, the world's biggest atoll and a foreign world for me, I met wonderful people. People who welcomed me, who made me laugh and laughed with me, who invited me for picnics at the cemetery, remembering their beloved dead. People who shared their lives, experiences and culture with me, who will stay with me for the rest of my life. But also the sight of the coral reef will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was the first time I wept under water. I was excited about scuba diving in one of the most pristine reefs of the world. I knew that we were in the middle of a strong and weird El Niño, but let's be real: how much can one El Niño do to one of the healthiest reefs of the planet? As it turned out: a lot! I wept in my mask, because all saw were dead corals, overgrown with red algae. Yes, the reef fish were still there, except the strictly corallivores. The corals had just died within the last 3 months, algae encased them velvety red, the three dimensional structure still intact. It was heartbreaking, I only went diving one other time, with scientist, which is another story.
The other heartbreaking thing about diving in Kiritimati was the absence of sharks. We actually saw two whitetip reefsharks, in my books nothing to write home about. Except here, where basically all sharks, from oceanic to reefsharks, were finned within the last 5-8 years – a side business of the industrial tuna fleet. At least one tuna factory ship can always be seen from Ronton Village, as they anchor just outside the lagoon entrance, from where they dispatch the smaller fishing vessels to roam the waters around the island. I saw a smudgy, oily, foamy mess come off a Korean tuna ship that got cleaned, and I highly doubt that the detergent was bio-degradable. It certainly didn't help the corals to recover.
But despite everything, I also witnessed colors coming back to a few corals on the reef flats. Sparks of pink and blue and purple, where there had been white before. Again, I as weeping into my mask, but this time from joy. Not all the corals were gone, there was still life after this devastating El Niño, life, that might spread and repopulate the dead reef. Lost in joy and hunting for more specks of color, I got one of the worst sunburns of my life.
From Kiritimati I traveled to the countries capital, South-Tarawa. A tiny atoll, actually only half of one, inhabited by 54.000 people. A population density as high as Berlin, but without multistory houses. Can you imagine that? Let me tell you: its dense living. And you feel in our cities like you can spit into your neighbors coffee cup, when she is sitting on the balcony? Good for them, that the I-Kiribati don't drink coffee! Here, I learned to bread intricate hair styles and witnessed the destructive power of human feces on coral reefs. I saw intact and broken sea walls, I saw sea walls scoured by currents and swells, I saw roads being washed away and a ship half crashed into a road by the last kingtide. I listened to people telling me how their island gets flooded again and again, and compared the anecdotal evidence with data from the tide gauges – a tale hard to stomach.
In Marakei, the third island of Kiribati that I visited, I met the four goddesses and rode a motorbike around the circular atoll. I drank Kava Kava and listened to songs about Marakei and life in general, melancholic songs, cheeky songs, beautiful songs. I learned to weave pandanus leave strips into mats, and saw beaches being washed away by high tides 30 cm (1 foot) above normal thanks to the El Niño. I listened to people telling me how scary it is when the water erodes their land and flows underneath their stilted houses in storms. How disturbing it is, when salt water intrudes and pollutes the well, rendering the water undrinkable for months or years. I listened to tale of people who fled their land a decade ago and others preparing to flee when the last coconut tree between the house and the ocean falls. I learned about old skills of growing food on seriously poor soil and traditional knowledge. And I had 15 year old kids tell me (in somewhat sad voices) about wanting to go to university. Which means leaving the family, leaving the traditions, and leaving home for the next 30-40 years. Will there be anything for them to come back to? But I also found happy people, people who enjoy their lives, who have good lives, and who always find something to laugh about!
After these months in Kiribati, I went to Fiji, where I learned about the devastating effects of cyclones, but also about their ability to rescue coral reefs. Without cyclone Winston, at least some of the breathtaking reefs would have shared the fate of Kiritimati's reefs: killed by the 2015/16 El Niño. But Winston took enough energy out of the oceans and mixed the water layers deep enough to cool the surface water. And thus allowed the corals to live. But Winston took the lives of several dozen people on the islands, destroyed important agricultural areas and thousands of houses. I visited pristine forests on Kadavu Island, where I could hear but not see the endemic parrot and some native ones. But on Viti Levu and Malolo Lailai I also saw erosion, sea walls that increased the problem of neighboring beach erosion, and shoreline remodeling to match the image conveyed by tourism brochures advertising paradise: open beach shorelines without any protection against tides, storms or rising sea level due to anthropocentric climate change.
From the West Pacific I jumped to the North Sea, to the tiny island of Borkum. Beautiful weather greeted me in my old home, Ostfriesland. The island showed itself from it's most beautiful side: balmy wind caressing the buckthorn shrubs and salt grass meadows, gulls screeching in the blue sky, and the people being lovely and helpful, telling me about changes of the island and letting me access the archives of the local history club. Like Marakei and South-Tarawa, Borkum is a small, low-lying island, where salt water intrusion threatens the freshwater lens, source of all water to drink and use. But unlike the other two islands, Borkum has a long history of dike construction and other measures to fortify the shoreline against water and wind. And the financial means, know-how and solid coastal aggregate to build the dikes. In Borkum, climate change can be felt like everywhere else. It manifests itself with less predictable storm seasons and warmer weather in April and September, thus elongating the tourist season by two to three months. Happy climate change!
After Borkum, I made my way westward around the globe, back to the Pacific, the East Pacific. This year's final destination: Galápagos. The islands, where my ocean obsession began. In Galápagos I was happy to meet old friends again and make new ones. To find some old places still the same as 13 years ago, while others were gone and changed. I happily noted more marine iguanas at Tortuga Bay than I ever saw there before, but I was sad about the reduced numbers of blue-footed boobies and Galapagos sea lions. I saw the signs of the El Niño, that devastated the West Pacific, but only very moderate ones. Obviously the marine iguana population on Fernandina Islands suffered, but I didn't get the impression of a reduced population of flightless cormorants or penguins. So what was horrible in the West, didn't affect the East that much.
But despite that, the signs of rising sea levels can be seen in Galápagos as well. You remember the amazing Supermoon in November? While such a moon is a beautiful sight, it is a scary one when you live close to the coast on a flat island. While the Galapagos islands are not flat, the high tides around the Supermoon were higher than most people had ever seen them. Salt water intruded inland on several islands, washed away cormorant nests on Fernandina, just missed some blue-footed boobies nests and washed underneath the nests of frigate birds on Seymour Norte. I saw more nesting frigate birds than before, but they were the only marine animals that gave me the impression of population increase. Basically everything else ocean related seemed to be reduced in numbers, especially in the water. No sea cucumbers! Absolutely none! Searching for them in nutrient rich water on sandy and rocky bottoms, where there used to be thousands, I found three. Groupers are basically gone, too. And sharks. Well, they are not gone, they are still there, but the numbers seem to dwindle. Or they move further out from the central islands, because the chemical and noise pollution of more and more boats gets to them? I don't know, I just know that I saw fewer sharks.
So yes, it was an exciting year, a year full of wonderful and sad things, a year that showed me the effects of climate change and other human activities on oceans and coastlines in more ways than I expected. But as I said at the beginning, I am more optimistic about the close future, about our ability to change things, if we want. Now 2017 is starting. For a me a year to finish processing all I saw, and to write about it. My oberservations on climate change will have priority, as I have to finish the manuscript in mere 3 months, for the book to be published by Springer-Spektrum in fall 2017. To be followed by a book on the still amazing nature of the Galápagos Islands. As the conract is not yet signed, I can't tell you the publisher yet – but it is coming!
And with that, I wish you happy new year, an active new year, a year 2017 marked by activism to prevent the oceans from dying and conserve a little bit of habitat for Homo sapiens sapiens!