Sea turtle

Hidden Gems of the Caribbean Field Report

Rich Pagen|January 16, 2019|Field Report

Sunday, November 25, 2018

We arrived from different corners of the world to explore the lesser-traveled islands of the Caribbean, our flights touching down at Fort-de-France, the sleepy capital city of Martinique. On the drive to Le Cap Est Lagoon Resort, we admired the lush green vegetation covering impressive volcanic peaks.

In the evening, we gathered for a cocktail party and dinner with our fellow travelers, where Expedition Leader Jeff Gneiser welcomed us and told us about our plans for the following day. We mingled amidst the background chorus of resident frogs, before heading off to bed to rest up for our first full day of exploration.

Monday, November 26
Martinique / Embark Le Ponant

We awoke to a brilliant sunny morning, and after breakfast set out to explore the island of Martinique. Some of us drove out to Presquile Caravelle National Park, which covers the vast majority of a large peninsula on the east coast. We watched as the sugarcane fields disappeared and coastal dry forest began to dominate the landscape. At the end of the road, we explored the ruins of Château Dubuc, a former plantation that hosted a bustling sugarcane production during the 18th century. From there, we set out on trails to explore the area and, with a little luck, encounter the rare white-breasted thrasher, which is found only on the Caribbean islands of Martinique and St. Lucia.

Gray kingbirds called from exposed snags as we made our way down to the coastal mangroves and mudflats. Fiddler crabs waved their large arms as green herons fished the shallows. Inside the mangrove forest itself, we witnessed an impressive tangle of gray roots and trunks, and the ever-present calls of the ubiquitous bananaquits.

Others explored various cultural stops on the island, starting with Sacre Coeur de Balata, a miniaturized version of Paris’s Montmartre Basilica. The interior was beautiful, with windows and walls decorated in delicate art nouveau motifs. From there, we drove up through drifting clouds and dense tropical forest to La Domaine de Emeraud or “Emerald Estate.” With local guides, we wandered the grounds learning about the island’s many medicinal plants and their traditional uses.

On the way to lunch, we caught glimpses of the semi-active Mt. Pelée, Martinique’s tallest volcano at 4,600 feet, notorious for its 1902 pyroclastic eruption which wiped out the entire population of St. Pierre. Three months later, Pelée claimed more lives in the village of Morne Rouge, the very place where we enjoyed a relaxing Creole lunch at La Chaudière. We sampled rum, various fruit juices, and cod balls in a garden pavilion before we tucked into lunch in an open-air dining area. Carib grackles and Lesser Antillean bullfinches were our constant companions as we enjoyed the various courses.

The next stop was Fort-de-France’s pre-Columbian Museum, next to a large park famous for its headless statue of Napoleon’s Josephine. We also visited the impressive Schœlcher library, named for the famous abolitionist who donated his private library of about 9,000 books and 250 musical scores to the General Council of Martinique in 1883 on the condition that a public library be built in the colony.

We then boarded our ship and settled in for a welcome briefing on board the beautiful Le Ponant.

Tuesday, November 27
Tobago Cays, Grenadines

This morning we visited the spectacular low-lying islands of Tobago Cays, five small islands and an extensive reef system in the southern Grenadines. While the expedition team scouted the snorkeling, diving, and landing beach, Jack Grove gathered us in the lounge for an introduction to the fishes of the Caribbean. After the lecture, we sped ashore in the Zodiacs. Some of us headed out to the snorkel site just inside the reef. Though the surface conditions were choppy, we spotted resting nurse sharks on the bottom, and groups of surgeonfish grazing the filamentous algae growing on the rocky reef.

Others boarded local boats to search for green sea turtles. The turtles were concentrated just off a beautiful sandy beach, with a sea grass meadow extending out across the sand flats. The warm rusty brown color of the turtles was a striking contrast to the brilliant light blue water as we scanned the sea surface for our next turtle to pop up. Some of us went ashore on the 'turtle beach' for a swim and to try our hand at spotting some turtles under water. Others roamed the tree studded landing beach feasting on locally caught lobster.

After a delicious lunch back on the ship, including some more local lobster, some of us went ashore to join Rich Pagen and Claire Allum for a nature walk across the island and up to a high viewpoint. Zenaida doves foraged under the manchineel trees, while anole lizards perched on the tree trunks. Later in the afternoon, Rich gave his presentation in the lounge entitled, Productivity on the Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire. We watched the sun dip below the horizon as Le Ponant set a course for tomorrow's destination, Grenada.

Wednesday, November 28

We arrived this morning at the beautiful port of St. George, with brightly-colored houses lining the waterfront and climbing up the hillsides above the harbor. Fishing boats with heaps of fishing floats piled on them were moored alongside each other. Grenada is known as the "Island of Spice" as it is one of the world’s largest exporters of nutmeg and mace. It is also remembered for a U.S.-led invasion on October 25, 1983, which was catalyzed by both the overthrow of a moderate government by one which was strongly pro-communist, and the presence of Cuban construction workers and military personnel who were building a 10,000-foot (3,000 m) airstrip on Grenada.

Some of us headed out this morning to hike to the beautiful Carmel Waterfall, located on the east coast of the island. The hike traversed rolling terrain and ended at a steep box canyon, where a rocky pool below a magnificent waterfall welcomed us. Small fish darted around the rocks as we took a dip into the cool water.

Along the scenic drive to the trailhead, we saw and discussed many of the food products being grown along the roadside: breadfruit, mango, nutmeg, and cassava. We also encountered the tiniest of stick insects. These magnificent plant-eaters are masters of camouflage, looking nearly identical to the plants on which they live and feed. But perhaps the highlight of the trip out to the trailhead was a very friendly mona monkey who happily climbed across our shoulders. These Old World monkeys are native to West Africa, and came across the Atlantic in slave trading ships during the 18th century.

Others headed off to see the remains of the unfinished international airport, now a flat area which offers a bizarre scene of scrawny cattle and goats grazing on broken-down tarmac around the wreckage of two burned-out Cuban MIG fighter planes. We then visited a distillery which still uses ancient original equipment to produce rum in the traditional way. We watched in anticipation as a jumble of cut and stripped cane stalks crept up a conveyor belt to a mighty iron press manufactured in Victorian England. After watching the extracted juice being fed into evaporation vats above wood fires, we sampled the final product.

Our last stop was an estate that produced nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaves, and cocoa beans. We saw the tricky drying process for cocoa beans and then walked through a long, narrow shed which smelled sweetly of the spices displayed there both as plants and as finished products.

After lunch, the divers set out to explore the island's rocky reefs. Meanwhile, many of us boarded a local catamaran to explore the underwater world of Grenada by snorkel. We took a tour of one of the world's only underwater sculpture parks, and explored a rocky reef home to banded butterflyfish, as well as nocturnal squirrelfish that peered out at us from inside rocky crevices. The gorgeous sunset back on the catamaran was accompanied by a delicious rum punch!

Thursday, November 29
St. Lucia 

This morning we docked at Soufrière, a quaint town squeezed in at the base of several very sharp volcanic peaks, their silhouettes softened by the dense vegetation. The tallest and most famous, the side-by-side Pitons, one grand and one petit, rise nearly vertically out of the sea below. These peaks feature prominently on the label of the local beer, aptly named Piton. 

We piled into the backs of a number of flatbed trucks with benches assembled along the sides, and set off to explore the island. Some of us headed out to the Morne Coubaril Estate for a wander past a re-creation of Carib huts, where scattered artifacts such as tri-pots were now used as planters. Near the handsomely refurbished manor house, we saw a water well run on mule/donkey power, a drying area for cacao beans, and a furnace-like oven where coconut was being turned into copra.

We sampled fresh coconut meat, proffered by a man who held a coconut in one hand and then cleaved it in two with one swift stroke of a machete held in the other. We gasped with relief at each bloodless blow, while the man himself maintained a look of bemused serenity. We walked along a row of brightly colored one-room houses where such goodies as freshly made spiced candied coconut and whole nutmeg were offered for sale.

Others headed up the mountain to embark on the Edmund Forest trail, which was a muddy affair after all the rain the island had earlier in the morning. The scenery was stunning, and we saw such interesting birds as the rufous-throated solitaire and the endemic St. Lucia black finch. Bananaquits flit from flower to flower in search of nectar, as did a very cooperative Lesser Antillean crested hummingbird, who returned to the same perch every few minutes.

After a delicious lunch on board, the divers and snorkelers went off to explore St. Lucia's boulder-strewn inshore environment. Smooth trunkfish hovered up in the water column, adjusting their course with the slightest movements of their pectoral fins. A balloonfish was spotted, which can inflate with water as a defense mechanism, not only making itself much larger, but also erecting the sharp spikes on its body.

Back on the ship, Claire gave her presentation, The Caribbean before Columbus: The Indigenous Peoples of the Islands. 

Friday, November 30

After a hearty breakfast, we disembarked on Dominica’s northwest coast at the town of Portsmouth. Some of us crossed the island for an excursion to Kalinago Barana Aute, a territorial reserve which is home to around 3,500 indigenous people. These people refer to themselves as the Kalinago, and they are the descendants of the Caribs, Amerindians who conquered and absorbed older native groups as they moved northward up the Windward chain before the arrival of the European explorers who eventually defeated them.

Our route to the Atlantic Coast took us inland through wild forests interspersed with villages and gardens used for the cultivation of crops such as taro. Once on the Atlantic side, we had breathtaking views down to rocky islets and the pounding surf below. Once we arrived at the reserve, a young Kalinago guide led us down and up and over a loop through open forest to a large open-air pavilion for a show put on by a small group of musicians and dancers in costumes of their own making.

Others hiked the Syndicate nature trail in search of endemic fauna, and to witness the ubiquitous evidence of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The canopy was still nearly completely missing, though regrowth was happening all around us. Some of us got looks at the beautiful red-necked parrot, while others watched as a pair of wrens brought nesting material back into a cavity in a large tree. After the hike, we stopped at a café with an incredible view over the sea for a cold drink

After lunch, many of us set out to explore the island's underwater rocky reefs. A spotted moray was encountered, hanging nearly halfway out of its hiding place. We also saw a number of snake eels out and about, quite actively exploring every crevice in search of something tasty to eat. Feather duster worms rocked back and forth in the gentle surge, while bicolor damselfish actively defended their algae patches from other plant eaters, and from us!

Some of us opted to go ashore and explore Fort Shirley, an 18th century military garrison. Our guide there was Lennox Honeychurch, the director of the ongoing work at that remarkable fort. Born-and-bred in Dominica and an Oxford-educated anthropologist, Dr. Honeychurch offered a unique perspective, uniting breadth of factual knowledge to depth of emotional connection to this incredible historic place.

Saturday, December 1
Îles des Saintes, Guadeloupe

We watched the sun come up over Îles des Saintes, a small archipelago in the French Antilles that is politically a part of the island of Guadeloupe, which in turn is an overseas department of France. It's so interesting to consider that the capital city of this gorgeous, low-lying group of tropical islands is actually Paris!

After lounging over breakfast on the aft deck, looking out over the blue water, we went ashore on the island of Terre-de-Haut. From the town dock, there was easy access to the patios of a row of waterside bars and restaurants, as well as to the peaceful main street one block inland, with its quaint, bustling shops.

Only when we got up to Fort Napoleon and its museum on top of a nearby hilltop did we feel the wind coming out of the Atlantic, as the streets of town below had remained quite sheltered. A small museum is now housed in the 18th-century building, which is perfectly designed to allow maximum air flow into its furthest interior.

Some of us joined a nature walk across the island, along a rocky trail shared with goats and land-loving hermit crabs, and with a constant view of the dry scrub vegetation and beautiful rocky coastline. After a stop atop a hill with a panoramic view, we descended to a sandy beach dotted with palm trees for a swim in the sea, followed by a beer at a rustic snack shack tucked back in the trees.

After lunch, many of us took advantage of the regular afternoon shuttle ashore to explore town further. There, we saw such landmarks as a pretty little Catholic church; the City Hall decorated across its lemon-yellow and white façade with a scroll reading Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité; or the somewhat crowded graveyard on the road leading to a popular beach, its pathways marked by long rows of conch shells.

Others ventured off with local guides to snorkel and dive the azure waters. Schools of yellow goatfish searched the sediment with the chemoreceptive barbels on their chins, while a juvenile Spanish hogfish took up residence above a huge barrel sponge, where it spent its afternoon cleaning parasites off larger fish. The conditions were so good that there was a certain Zen quiet to the snorkelers as they drifted silently above the busy inhabitants of the reef below.

Sunday, December 2

We were welcomed ashore at the dock in Montserrat by a local musician and a number of vendors selling their wares. After the 1995 eruption of the 3,000-foot-tall Soufriere Hills Volcano, life changed drastically for the island's residents, and it was obvious that there was a certain enthusiasm to have visitors like us step ashore for the day. 

Some of us went on a nature hike with a local legend named Scriber, during which we learned all about the local vegetation in a steep gully called Runaway Ghaut. We also watched a pair of endemic Montserrat orioles feeding in the trees and played tug-o-war with a tarantula hiding down in its burrow! We also paused at a spring where a sign told us that if we sipped the water, we were destined to return to Montserrat someday!

Others explored the "new town" being built on the north side of the island, far from the reach of the still-active volcano. There we saw new playing fields in a new sports complex, new housing, new schools, a new hospital, new government buildings, and so forth. All of this rebuilding was underway because of the cataclysmic 1995 eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano. The residents who lived near the volcano largely escaped, but Montserrat’s capital Plymouth, a once-vital city with a past reaching back to Georgian times, was obliterated, buried by almost 40 feet of ash. In that sense, Plymouth can be seen as a sort of modern Pompeii, but with the difference that this is not ancient history: we were visiting a place where events continue to unfold in real time. 

After lunch back onboard, we returned to the island to get a powerful firsthand look at the southern part of the island, which remains off-limits to habitation. We drove first to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and watched a film about the eruption history. We also passed what is left of AIR Studios Montserrat, the Beatles producer George Martin’s famous studio opened in 1979 and never re-opened after 1989’s ferocious Hurricane Hugo.

Further along, we passed a checkpoint, where we were counted off against official lists, and from there, we drove along a dusty dirt road towards Plymouth. Once there, some of us donned protective masks to keep the dust out of our noses, before we set off to explore the ruined city. It was clear from our guides' voices that coming back here to the restricted zone was reliving a very emotional experience. We saw the remnants of city hall, the bank, and the hospital where one of the guides had worked, all partially covered in volcanic debris and ash. It was a very eerie experience to see such a large capital city now a complete ghost town.

Monday, December 3

This morning we arrived in Antigua, named by Christopher Columbus in 1493 in honor of the "Virgin of the Old Cathedral" in Seville. Once a naval base for the British, Antigua is home to beautiful natural harbors and is bursting with history. English Harbour on the southeastern coast is famed for its protected shelter during violent storms. It is the site of a restored British colonial naval station called Nelson's Dockyard after Captain Horatio Nelson. Today English Harbour and the neighboring village of Falmouth are known as a yachting and sailing destination and provisioning center.

Some of us embarked on a morning kayak tour of North Sound Marine Park, where we paddled silently through narrow channels between the mangroves, watching for herons and egrets stalking the prolific fish life in the shallows. We also encountered numerous upside-down jellyfish basking in the sun, their symbiotic algae partners carrying out photosynthesis in exchange for a substrate in which to live. From there, we re-boarded a boat and cruised out to a gorgeous remote island, where small white butterflies flitted about by the thousands. Some of us snorkeled the rocky reef offshore, where a large porcupinefish watched us from under a large ledge.

Others explored set off to enjoy a tour of 18th-century Nelson’s Dockyard village, which served as a base for a squadron of ships patrolling the West Indies to maintain England's power at sea. We also visited the Blockhouse Ruins, which date back to 1787, and enjoyed magnificent views from Shirley Heights, a restored military lookout. Back at the harbor, dozens and dozens of gleaming mega-yachts were on display, and numerous cafes and restaurants beckoned us to sample the local faire.

After lunch, some of us went out into the North Sound on a local boat to have a close encounter snorkel experience with stingrays. Others went diving or snorkeling on the island's reef system, where we were treated with good looks at pairs of four-eye butterflyfish flitting about the rocky outcrops. Some of us also came across lionfish, whose long fin rays and disruptive zebra-striped pattern act to confuse potential prey.

Tuesday, December 4
Sint Eustatius / Saba

This morning we set foot on a little-visited, but very historically important Dutch dependency known by its nickname, Statia. As we drove along the narrow coastal strip known as Lower Town, we learned how, in its 18th-century heyday, Statia was known as the Golden Island. It was a hub of commerce, including the trade in arms and ammunition. In fact, it played a very important role as the source of arms to what is now the United States, in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War in 1776.

Statia has a single town, the capital called Oranjestad, but in the 18th century “Little Amsterdam” as it was known boasted a population of 10,000 people. Then, as the Dutch lost power in the region, that seat of commerce was abandoned and left to ruin, its waterfront warehouses reclaimed by the sea and brick buildings at the base of the cliff buried under mud slides. Statia’s population today is 3,600, a number bolstered in recent years by immigration from such places as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. 

We visited the Honen Dalim Synagogue, the Dutch Reformed Church, and Fort de Windt at White Wall, an important defensive structure for Statia since its completion in 1756. Others of us hiked up the prominent volcano on the island, called The Quill. There we were accompanied by hermit crabs, whose sea shells had been carried all the way up the mountain by these amazing terrestrial crustaceans. Some of us made it all the way up to the crater rim, which was draped in beautiful forest vegetation. As we hiked back down the slope, tiny endemic anole lizards scampered out of the way through the leaf litter. 

Over lunch, the ship's crew raised the sails and the captain told us all about Le Ponant and its sailing and navigational capabilities. An entourage of brown boobies chased flying fish during the transit to Saba, where we would be spending the afternoon. There, some of us embarked on a challenging hike on the Crispeen Nature Trail, with incredible views down over the villages and the sea coast. Others visited the local airport, which boasts one of the shortest commercial runways in the world! We had some free time to explore the quaint village of Windwardside, with its delightful art galleries, pubs, and shops.

Wednesday, December 5
St. Barth's 

Just as Sint Eustatius goes by a nickname, so too does St. Barth’s; but that is more or less where the resemblance between the two places ends. One look at the town of Gustavia, with its wall-to-wall designer boutiques and its docks filled with gleaming yachts, confirms that St. Barth’s is a place to go to see and be seen, all against a pretty island backdrop.

Some of us ventured off on a gorgeous coastal hike to remote Colombier Beach. Along the way, pelicans and brown boobies fished in the shallows, and red-billed tropicbirds came and went from their nests on the rocky headland. Our constant companions on the hike were red-footed tortoises, which fearlessly crossed our path as if we weren't even there. These beautiful creatures have been on the many of the islands of the Lesser Antilles for as long as anyone can remember. But, being that they are native to the Amazon basin, they were likely brought many centuries ago by Arawak and Carib people, perhaps as a source of food. At the terminus of the hike, we relaxed on the beach and went for a swim in the protected waters. 

Others went off to look for marine life in a semi-submersible glass-bottom boat, from which we saw remora, the fish that often hitchhike by attaching to larger fish. We also had great looks at the rocky reef system, patrolled by wandering gangs of young parrotfish and surgeonfish.

After lunch, some of us shuttled into town for a beer or some shopping, or to just sit at a café and watch island life unfold. Others set out for snorkeling excursion in a small marine preserve surrounding some offshore islands. Tropicbirds and boobies flew overhead as we looked down on blue chromis feeding up in the water column, their florescent color accentuated even more by the bright sunshine. A group of squid were seen by many, as was a magnificent snake eel out in the open on the bottom. 

This evening we gathered in the lounge for the captain's farewell cocktail party, which included watching the captain cut off the top of a champagne bottle with a sabre before our very eyes!  After a wonderful dinner, we enjoyed reliving our adventures through Jack Grove's fabulous slideshow of our journey.

Thursday, December 6
St. Martin / Disembark / Sint Maarten

This morning, Le Ponant docked at the port of Galisbay on this single island which for more than three centuries has been jointly administered by both France and the Netherlands. It is thus called by names that refer to the same saint but in two different languages, and has two different capitals. Nonetheless, there is free passage between the two sides.

After some free time in town where we could visit an open-air market or sip a coffee overlooking the water, we set off to explore the island. Off in the scrub woodland, we could easily see iguanas perched in the sun on the tree branches, their (unusual) orange coloration making them stand out significantly. After a few photo stops, we made our way to the airport to meet up with our flights onward.

The final days of this expedition were dominated by reflection and celebration. We reached the end of our exploration of the Caribbean's Lesser Antilles. If we were to stitch together all the islands we visited on this voyage, it would create quite the patchwork of cultures, people, natural history, and experiences. It was a special trip, shared with both new friends and old.

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