‘Ere be cuttlefish.. or maybe not

Cuttlefish are incredible. I know that’s a sweeping, meaningless statement but when you’ve met a cuttlefish or two, you do appreciate them.

Without being overly anthropomorphic, you can commune with a cuttlefish. This film tells you a LOT about them.

Snorkelling in the Caribbean at St Lucia four years ago, I was watching fish when a flotilla of cuttlefish hove into view.   They were lined up in front of me, five of them, in formation, holding their positions at eye level with me.

It was a surprise, to say the least these creatures appearing out of the blue to observe me. I was meant to be the observer surely?

I’d just spent a wondrous ten minutes or so watching fish having fun – swimming into a shallow pool at the edge of the rocks and being washed out by the waves – only to swim round to experience the whole thing again…and again… and again…

So it was a very new experience having creatures observe me as I lay still in the water, camera in hand.

I’ve blogged about it before and there’s a bit of film here on YouTube so I won’t repeat myself but suffice to say that when I spotted a cuttlefish in Akumal Bay, I was unfeasibly thrilled and expected much the same behaviour.

The Akumal Bay cuttlefish was very different. It was about two feet from the seabed when I spotted it and looked like a Disney version of a sea-creature – about a foot long, sparkly pale pink and silver with a silver-white frill all around it and two enormous eyes. It was holding its tentacles primly together in a neat arrowhead at the front.

I stopped swimming and just lay watching. It saw me and turned from sparkly baby pink to turquoise, mauve, pale green and pink.   I retreated a little to show I wasn’t threatening it but giving it space.

The expected communication did happen. It swam up a bit and continued changing colours from second to second – an astonishing display. I swam forward a fraction and it retreated a little but rose in the sea to just below my eye level.

It was only about four feet away now almost directly in front of me, then it did a curious thing. I’m quoting from my diary now so you get the full gist… I called her “she” with no scientific evidence whatsoever other than she was an incredibly girly-pink cuttlefish..

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“She did a curious thing with her tentacles. She loosed the arrowhead of tentacles and curled some upwards and some downwards giving a splayed-out effect before bringing them neatly together again.

“Then she brought her body into a curved vertical position in the water before going horizontal again.  All the time, the two big eyes were regarding me with, I felt, a degree of curiosity and intelligence.

“I stretched out one hand to her and waggled my pink painted nails. I felt her behaviour deserved some kind of reciprocal recognition. She wasn’t in the least phased and continued the constantly changing colour display including a turquoise the colour of my swimming cozzie.”

I’m not sure how long this went on. Time just stretches out when extraordinary things are happening. She swam closer and I swam very quietly alongside her with minimal movement for a short distance. So beautiful and so close!  If only I’d had the Go-Pro camera but I had nothing with me to record it.

Very shortly, she decided she’d had enough and literally shot off faster than a speeding bullet. Ok well faster than I could discern anyway!

As I was returning to shore, I saw her again in the next sandy clearing in the rocks. She was posed about a foot from the sea floor again. This time, I left her alone. We’d had our fun and she’d made it clear my time was up.

The turtles were one thing, tolerating my presence and allowing me to swim alongside for brief periods  – this beautiful communicating creature was quite another. I was convinced it was a cuttlefish so I looked it up on the Caribbean Reef website.

“The Caribbean Reef Squid…. Often mistaken for a cuttlefish… etc etc…

So I was communing with a squid! My Little Disney Princess Squid. An amazing, curious and communicative creature.

I may never order calamari again.

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More about the Caribbean Reef Squid

From the Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda by Kelly M. Mackay:

It has been suggested that the Caribbean Reef Squid has its own ‘language,’ with visual signals constituting a vocabulary and syntax (Moynihan and Rodaniche, 1982). This suggestion exvokes many responses in the scientific community and poses such questions as, “do signals provoke different responses?”(Hanlon and Messenger, 1996), “are combinations of patterns designed for particular reasons?” and “can individuals ‘converse’ with one another?” (Moynihan and Rodaniche, 1982). Answers to such questions may lead to important revelations in squid society and behavior. Though limited knowledge is known on the various forms of visual signalling, much more research needs to be done to show the wide-ranging implications it can have.

 

 

 

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Turtling around

 

I like to have a day off on my birthday.

Being at work kind of spoils the celebration of still being alive because you have to behave professionally, not drink and there is a total ban on swimming cozzies and jumping in the deep end.

A week is way preferable to one measly day, but when I was proposing a week’s cycling tour of France or Italy (either would be good) absolutely no-one was interested in coming with me!

Back to the drawing board of the internet, I buried the massive disappointment of not having a holiday with my bike by researching and booking a hol to a place where I could be with the next best thing – turtles.

Ok there are turtles in the Mediterranean but not many and they are often pursued by boats full of tourists. I didn’t want to be one of those. I wanted to swim with turtles on my own. This might be possible in Mexico.

And so it came to pass that at 6,45am on Akumal Beach on the 2nd August, I slipped a T shirt over my cozzie, got my surf shoes, mask and snorkel on and swam out into Akumal Bay.

The Caribbean was calm, the sun rising over the outcrop of rocks at the mouth of the bay but the water was cloudy in the shallows. It just started to clear when a shadow cruised into view, circled and descended in front of me to the sparse sea grass below.

Out of the gloom I realise that one green turtle had swum in to land next to another green turtle, which it greeted with with a friendly head-bump.

Here, I realised, be turtles!

They are benign, handsome creatures with rounded off square heads, big dark kind eyes and shells which varied from beautiful patterns in shades of tan and caramel to big battered algae-covered dustbin lids with associated hangers-on.

Unlike hammerhead and hawkbill turtles, green turtles are vegetarian.They spend all day grazing on tasty tender sea grass.. But in the early morning and late evening, they become more active, swimming around, hanging out with mates and generally turtling around.

I was in a very soggy version of Cloud Nine. Turtling expeditions – maybe 4 – 5 hours a day every day were a joy. I got to know individuals.

There were differences in their shells, in their head markings and the largest and oldest turtle that I saw always had three long green torpedo-shaped remoras on board. The other name for remonas is shark suckers. They enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other creatures because they are full-time cleaners.

Other turtles were accompanied on their day-long buffet by small silver fish that flashed about in front of their faces, hoping to snaffle any tasty morsels that the turtles disturbed as they were eating.

Some turtles had a habit of using both front flippers to excavate the seagrass, sending up clouds of sand and sending the hangers-on fish into ecstasies of excitement.

I’m not a diver so watching turtles was perfect as every two or three minutes – depending on the size of turtle – they would glide up to the surface beside me – take a gulp or two of air – and then descend to continue feeding.

The early mornings, when it was just me and the turtles, were magical. Turtles would be swimming through the water parallel with me at about the same speed before a few breaths or circling around to visit other turtles.

They knew where other turtles were located, no doubt about that. The touch-noses greeting didn’t always work. One such encounter I watched, the turtle missed the nose and buried his into a shoulder whereupon the other turtle turned away in a huff. It was exactly like the moment when a mwah-mwah embrace goes horribly wrong among the middle-classes when someone goes for a three instead of a two.

It’s a great life being a turtle. OK you come in for your fair share of attention from the buoyancy-jacketed tourists who’ve bought a Turtle-watching Trip but you really don’t care. You can always swim away. If fish annoy you, you can slap them out of the way with a flipper.

The remoras are well behaved. As the turtle rises throught he water to take air, they reposition themselves under the shell so that they don’t break the surface. As the turtle descends again, they return to their stations on the top of the shell.

They know their places.

The turtles were the main focus for me but only a tiny fraction of the whole of Caribbean reef life. The acquatic community is fascinating; a whole society of creatures with vastly different characters. There are the territorial fish, the curious fish, the sneaky dangerous fish. Barracuda, for instance are the fishy equivalent of finding Christopher Lee in your wardrobe.

I was happily filming a couple of turtles on the sea bed when I turned towards a shadow in my peripheral vision. The shadow was the dark thick rust-coloured rope joining up a series of buoys but in the shadow, there was the long pewter shape – five feet long to be precise – of a resting barracuda. His flat silver unemotional eye was upon me and his mouth was opening and closing slightly showing needle-sharp teeth.

I could see him very clearly because those teeth were only two feet away from my face. I’d seen barracuda before, a group of half a dozen glittering four-footers, streaking fast just beneath the silvered underbelly of water. They can swim at speeds up to 25mph when they are chasing prey before tearing it to bits.

The barracuda didn’t move but I was far too close for comfort! I withdrew gracefully, rather like I did when I was swimming over a four foot wide Caribbean whiptail stingray.

Respect is the key when you’re the alien swimming with the locals.

Just realise I haven’t mentioned my communing with a cuttlefish.  That’ll have to be a whole other blog.  Oh and there were the giant rainbow parrot fish..

 

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Walking with cats

It’s a great pity cats won’t go for a walk.  They might accompany you down the drive but they don’t seem to favour a proper walk, up the path, across the road, around the woods down to the pub and back.

It’s not as though I haven’t tried to persuade them. Lily just looked at me and rolled over on to her back in the compost-scattered unfilled plant trough that she has made her outdoor home.

Leo seemed much more enthusiastic. There was a miaow and a walking along, through the gate, a pause by the car on the drive and then a walk over the lawn and along the road.

He stopped but started again when I said  (with vain hope, I must admit)  “Heel”!

The walk was about 1 mph which is distracted toddler speed – a bit slow for me – but I stopped and waited for him where the path converges. He caught me up looking puzzled but when continued onwards he just remained there, standing covered in pathos.

“Coming?”

Nah. He wasn’t. He gave a high pitched miaow “But don’t go!”

He was about 200 yards from home but that seemed to be the edge of his territory.

I carried on walked, glanced over my shoulder to see if he was following but no, he’d set off down a different path. He’d find his way back home, no doubt.

Returning home from the opposite direction I saw the silhouette of a cat standing at the path ‘crossroads’ in the distance.  I couldn’t quite believe it – this was about an hour later.

“Leo? Is that you?” I shouted.

There was a distant mew in reply – and another one and then another one.

“Have you waited all this time?” I asked him. He kept on miaowing so I took it that he might well have done.

“Come on then, let’s go home,” I said.

I thought we’d have a companionable stroll back over the grass to the path and home, but no, he leapt ahead. When I say leapt, I mean flew in an arc through the air as though I’d just attempted a drop kick making contact with his ample purry posterior. He landed, sprinted ten paces with his ears back then stopped.

When I caught him up he leapt forward again, strolled for a few paces, sniffed a nearby bush then rolled over and wriggled around on the warm tarmac covering himself in dust.

He looked happy. It was a “You carry on. This is nice. I’m staying here” expression.

Some people, I hear, take their cats out on leads.  I’d just like  to know… how?

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Happy Purrthday

Happy Birthday Leo and Fat Lily!

They are five years old. As always with a birthday you ask “Oh where has the time gone?” “It doesn’t seem like five years” and other predictable stuff that people say about every birthday when they are getting older. Like climate change, time is definitely accelerating.

Here they are enjoying riotous partying.

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Yes. I know. Cats just don’t know how to appreciate birthdays. You can give a dog a present, wrapped up in paper. He will rag the paper into tiny pieces all around the room, seize the gift and carry it about triumphantly, eyes gleaming, mouth in a rictus grin, drooling at the edges.

It gladdens your heart to see it. It’s rare that any of your nearest and dearest ever react quite so positively – even at Christmas. I’m not counting the year that Aunty Betty tried vodka for the first time. The drooling wasn’t pretty and she rather lost control of her knees.

In spite of the frankly disappointing gaiety from birthday kitties, I am very pleased to be a cat person now.

They are not generously life enhancing in the same way as dogs but they do enhance life exclusively on their own terms.

Surprisingly, they do come and greet you when you return home. They are curious about what you’re up to and they settle in your general vicinity even if not directly lying near the back of you neck on the sofa, luxuriating on the lap or requesting a tummy tickle upside down in “Max Adorable” position.

I’ve just been wandering around in the garden with the camera accompanied by Fat Lily. She’s one of those curious characters who doesn’t want to appear overtly nosey. She will show interest in your drink but only lick the edge of the glass when she thinks your back is turned.

She’s a pain sometimes. She emits her  “Eh-ow” half miaow repeatedly, indicating she’s ready to take up the restricted position on lap between me and lap top (there’s a coincidence) and I go to lift her up but she trots away and lingers coquettishly in the study doorway.

I know damn well she hasn’t changed her mind because she’ll be back in two minutes asking again. The thing is, she doesn’t want to be lifted. She has to leap to lap of her own accord, when she’s ready – at the precise minute when she’s ready. That entails me ceasing typing and waiting while she decides on the moment. Sigh.

I don’t really know how she’s even wormed her way back into my study taking into account that she quadruple-pawedly destroyed my Dell laptop.

You think you’re going to be as disciplined and stern with cats as you were with dogs. *

They have other ideas. When I arrive back home late after a looong car journey the cats come to say ‘ Hello.’ I give them some Dreamies and some cat cuddles for a minute or two, then it’s time for bed.

They have other ideas. The door closes and there is plaintive miaowing from the landing for several minutes adopting the tone “How could you do this to us? We’ve hardly seen you and you’ve shut us out.”

“Tough” I think, sinking into the blissful bottomless cotton wool of dreams.

Then comes the scritch-scratching… a couple of seconds… a silence… then prolonged scritch-scratching which I realise is the ruination of a recently-laid wool carpet!

I scorch through the dreamy cotton wool like a rocket , fall out of bed and stumble to open the door.  I feel a furry rush around my calves. They have entered the room like fleeting wraiths.

Back in bed, I think I’ve escaped but within moments surprisingly heavy paws are kneading…ow!…my….ow!….thigh….ouch!.. and there’s ingratiating purring going on in my hair.

It’s another skirmish in the ongoing battle for dominance. Okay, puss-cats, you’ve won this one but I live to fight another day. Yeah right. Happy Birthday.

*not very

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Hei Hei Hay!

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It’s Hay Festival again. I won’t go droning on and on with the usual bountiful enthusiams. Suffice to say that it’s worth an annual pilgrimage even if you’re only slightly interested in books, book people, films, culture, hedonism and breathtakingly Welsh countryside.

Unusually, I went up to Hay-on-Wye on Sunday without any pre-booked tickets.  I thought I’d just busk it and take my pick from what was available.

Even if you aren’t attending any of the talks, there is still more than enough to keep you occupied. You can relax in a deckchair in the sun with the paper or a new book (pre-loved) for 50p from the massive and excellent miscellany at the Oxfam bookshop. Or you can treat yourself to something shiny and new or author-signed from the main Festival Bookshop accompanied by a Shepherd’s ice-cream cornet – a double damson perhaps.

You could stroll down the road to Hay town and buy a couple of still-warm Welsh cakes, fresh from the griddle in someone’s front garden. In Hay there is a whole world of bookshops and quite a few pubs, plus the river if you fancy a bit of canoeing. Second thoughts, canoeing options are limited. Basically in Hay you can only canoe if you bring your own but canoes can be hired at Glasbury a mile or two upstream.

But back to the festival. It always helps when the sun is shining. The best view of the site is from the top of the Macmillan car park (raised £200k for Macmillan Cancer over the years) and you can’t help but stand and consider just how perfect everything looks with creamy blobs of sheep seemingly placed perfectly on impossibly verdant fields.

This year they had a ‘returned tickets’ board where, for a goodly donation to charity, you could pick up a ticket that someone else couldn’t use.  I took up a ticket for Ian McMillan’s How to Write A Poem workshop, which was hilarious, inclusive and punctuated by his Barnsley banter.  We were all involved in making up an epic poem featuring a ghostly hairy hare with a hare-dryer but there were also big laughs in creating a whole load of ‘consequences’ style random poems which were ridiculous and surreal. Some are here on the BBC Get Creative website

I busked it again with a ticket for Germaine Greer, the Grande Dame of Feminism. She is always thought provoking and didn’t disappoint again this time.  She might not have the answers but she hits a lot of nails on the head…

“Girls are being lasered until there’s not a hair left on them. They are like newts!”

I had a good snigger at her Jane Fonda diatribe.

“..And there’s poor old Jane Fonda. I mean, it’s cost her a fortune. She’s got a back full of steel, a replaced hip and a replaced something else… I don’t think it’s a brain – I think it’s a knee.

“You just think, Jane, there must have been more to life. Think of the things with her money and clout she could have done. I remember when we thought she was going to save the whale.”

She is certain that women generally have less self-confidence than men.  Boys’ mothers are “convinced that everything they do is fantastic – even if they are obviously dorks!,” she said.

“The girls need re-enforcement from their fathers and that’s much harder to get. It’s harder to get his attention and it’s harder to be taken seriously.”

I stupidly left it too late to get a ticket for the final event with Stephen Fry,  Sandi Toksvig and the director of Oxfam talking freedom. I wasn’t particularly heart-broken. I was cosy enough in the Friends tent with my second Pimms and oodles of time to read.

People-watching is de rigueur at the Festival. Each year there seem to be more Londoners than the last but it’s a change to see the yummy mummies with their impeccably-spoken children. The only Welsh accents I heard were from some of the women working at the Festival, which was a shame but maybe I just wasn’t over-hearing the right conversations.

The one thing I’d like to tell Peter Florence, esteemed Director of the Festival, is to get the message our there that at Hay, we are all of one mind, so don’t be shy or restrained.. ..talk to people!  It’s always interesting to hear what people thought of their last talk, which celebs they have spotted, what they’re currently reading.

Interestingly, the guy at the long table in the food tent had just been to see Andrea Sella, the excellent chemist and communicator that I blogged about when he blew my mind with his massive test tubes and explosive experiments at Cheltenham Science Festival. The guy who saw him at Hay was impressed too, although here was a technical problem with the lighting that meant the experiments weren’t as clear as they could have been.

I had the distinct impression that the Festival has got bigger, better and prettier. I loved the strings of lights over the top of the lawn tent and at the entrance – also loved the new fish café and the option to have crab salad and chips!

Going back for a more limited visit tomorrow (Weds) to see Jack Dee and then the wonderful Alan Bennett…and then there’s next weekend, a bit of H for Hawk, some Lewis Carroll early on Sunday and to close the Festival, my fave virtuoso violinist, our Nige.

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Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, keep those cheeses rollin’

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Bonkers dare-devils chased Double Gloucester cheeses down the 1 in 4 slope of Cooper’s Hill continuing the ancient Spring Bank Holiday tradition at Brockworth, Gloucestershire on Spring Bank Holiday Monday.

Police closed one of the major roads close to the event for the morning so about 4.5k spectators got there ye olde Brockworth way, by walking up the footpath from the Cross Hands roundabout. It’s a bit of a pull in places but the meadows were looking lovely and the views are excellent – there was even a bit of excitement as a red deer bounded out of the woodland across one of the fields.

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The weather was perfect, the going was good to firm and the hill looked in good condition. The organisers get out and do some scrub-bashing and tidying in advance of the event – which has been officially banned for about five years since it went super-global and about 30k people tried to turn up all at once.

Brockworth people (..and yes, I am one. Welsh first, Brockworth second) tend not to bow to pressure from authority to cease an event – especially when it is on Common Land and more especially when it is a much-loved and ancient local tradition.

The tradition, in spite of dire warnings of the sheer untrammelled dangerousness, in spite of some local landowners chaining and locking gates, in spite of no official attendance by first-aiders or the police, continues untroubled by such details.

I was hoping that some enterprising news agency would have invested in a drone to do some over-the-top and in-your-face footage of the cheese-chasing but there wasn’t one. Instead, a magnificent person in a bi-plane entertained the crowds to some aerial acrobatics and loop-de-looping over the hill.

Fifteen-times cheese-chasing champ Chris Anderson showed his supremacy and style winning two races without a single somersault but thank goodness they didn’t all run as fluently and easily as he did.

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What would cheese chasing be without some descending A over T action,  unexpected power slides, spectacular body bounces and head-planting?

Part of the joy is the entire crowd going “OOOOOoooo” in sympathy/horror at someone’s particularly heavy impact or spontaneous applause for the last man or woman down the hill.  First one down wins a cheese but every single participant is a hero at the cheese rolling.

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Local girl Keavy Morgan won the Ladies Race in fine style – so fine and so chaotic that even my camera on sports setting only captured blurred images of her tumbles so here she is after the presentation…

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The only injuries were a couple of guys with broken or sprained ankles. One of them had come to the event from the Midlands. He was shocked by the gradient.

“It doesn’t look this steep on film!”

He said he was the only one of his pals who’d had the guts to run. The others were celebrating at the top of the hill. He’d foolishly raced sober! Big mistake.  Squiffy people fall softer, as ane fule no… or at least ane fule taking part in the roll of chiz.

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The police did a good job this year too. Instead of wasting money flying a police helicopter pointlessly over the event, as they did last year to cheers and jeers from the happy mob on the hill, they supervised road closures and traffic and enabled the crowds to cross roads safely where they needed to.

Gloucestershire County Council posted notices around the countryside and did their very best to frighten people. Thankfully, upwards of 4,500 spectators took no notice of them at all.

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May Hill

It had been a bit of a bad-shit week, which was why, on a sunny evening straight after work, hardly passing go, last week, I felt like a stroll on May Hill.

The first thing I saw was a red fox with a wily eye streaking across a bank thick with bluebells and hazel just unfolding their lime-green leaves.

Then there were the ponies – a few of them heavily pregnant, some with the most appealing little foals – grazing amongst the trees just before the old stone walls which marks the former Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border.

One of the things I love about May Hill is that you can look over into Herefordshire where the meadows always seem a tad smaller and prettier prettier. It seems to be even greener with more field-corner copses and trees.

Beyond the bluebells was the great swathe of short grass – with more bluebells growing out in the open and largely ignored by the herd of cuddly Belted Galloways which were grazing around the landmark pines at the top of the hill.

The light was quite special. The contours of the ribbed hills before Wales, the Black Mountains, Sugar Loaf and Skirrid all spread out in graduating tonal layers.

Everything was gilded and glowing as we strolled down through the scrubby woodland – and a friendly foal was back-lit by the setting sun.

May Hill

May Hill

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