Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part IV: Tortoise Tickling

Yep, you read that right. In 1976 my parents flew halfway around the world, then survived passage on a rickety freighter to be marooned on a tiny coral atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean in order to…tickle tortoises?

Y’know, I can’t possibly explain it better than Peter. So once again…it’s all yours, Dad.

17 December

This day was devoted to tickling tortoises.  Meg had called our attention to the fact that the huge tortoises (similar to those on the Galapagos Islands) would respond to the presence of a flightless rail approaching from behind by rising up on all fours.  A similar response would occur if one took a straw and gently tickled the inside of a hind leg.  There is a controversy here as to whether this is to be viewed as a sexual response, or whether it is akin to the behavior seen among cleaner fish and their hosts, or crocodiles and the birds that clean food particles from between their teeth. Ectoparasites on the skin of the leg have been noted, so this is not unreasonable.  However, it is also possible, that the response is purely defensive.

[Ohhhkayyy…]

In case you suspect I might be making this up: here’s my mom, tortoise-tickling.

Our plan was to determine whether both males and females respond similarly, reasoning that if this was a sexual response, only females would display it.  So, Martha spent several hours tickling hind legs of mature individuals.  The first problem was to approach them without causing alarm, which leads to their withdrawing within their carapace altogether.  A second was to avoid having fingers rasped by their sudden movement, the solution to which was a longer tickling stick.  Finally, we had to determine the animal’s sex.  Males have a larger and fatter tail, and a more concave lower shell, presumably to aid in balancing on the the female’s back.  But, these traits are relative and, among the smaller, younger animals, not pronounced.  Many of the animals had identification numbers engraved ventrally, with their sex, as determined by tortoise specialists, entered in a log, but most of the animals were too heavy for us to invert so their sex remained a mystery.  However, given the proportion that responded to her tickles, we surmise the behavior is not sex-dependent.

[Aha! Science!!]

Visualize this ancient coral as you read the next paragraph. Ouchie!

Moving across the coral is hazardous, though the old-timers do develop a remarkable facility, so with time we, too, have become more more daring and are able to move fairly rapidly across the uneven terrain.  Just how competent we have come may be gleaned from the fact that last night we caught several goats for ear-tagging, which is done by cornering the animals on coral ledges overhanging the ocean.  These ledges are several meters above the shark filled ocean, and are composed of razor-sharp coral, with narrow pinnacles separated by deep, foot-grabbing crevices.  This is done in the dark, of course.  We survived unscathed, and scored a total of a half dozen goats, marked and measured.

[Oh, right…goats! The real reason for their long journey was goat study. So, tune in next week when we actually get back to goats.]

Parents Gone Feral: Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part III

Welcome back to the next installment of my parents’ goat-research adventures in the winter of 1976-77. When we last left Martha & Peter, they had just been dropped onto the tiny island of Aldabra, one of the Seychelles, a coral atoll in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean. The research crew already in place were happy to see them, as they’d heard their freighter had been lost at sea. I’m throwing in this Wikimedia Commons map to help you visualize.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So now…take it away, Dad. (Just a reminder for those of you new to Wing’s World, or Peter Klopfer: the man is a walking thesaurus.) 

14 December

We’re now settled in a small, airy cell, next door to Meg (Meg Gould, a Phd student from P.’s lab, who is here for a year). The housing conditions are simple, but clean and adequate, along with decent quarters for scientific work, including air conditioning. There are 18 scientists and technicians (including a couple of meteorologists) aboard, along with about two dozen Seychellois laborers and their families.  Half of the scientific staff are at the two field camps on the far side of the atoll, sites that are difficult to reach because of the high tides and reefs, so travel from one side to the other is only possible at intervals of several days and at particular times. The Seychellois have their own village a few hundred meters distant from the main station, which includes several small wooden buildings, principally a dining and assembly hall and the laboratory building. Usually the techs are in the majority, a situation which, with our arrival, has now been changed.  Meg is hoping that table-talk will now revolve about topics other than auto races. 🙂

The birds here are incredibly tame, and several species have become flightless. Of the three dozen or so endemic species, we’ve already, in our first few hours, encountered about a third, including a kestrel nesting by the door to our room, coucals, drongos, fodys and sunbirds. Avian photography could not be easier: the birds all but pose for their pictures.

Or let you grab them to take their picture!

As to our plans for the days to follow: we will leave tomorrow to Middle Island for a week or two of goat tracking, hoping to return to Main Camp for Christmas. At this time, tides don’t allow us to simply cross the lagoon, so we will need to use a large dinghy with outboard motor, pass seaward of the reef that surrounds the atoll, and hope for calm seas during the several hour trip to the far side of Aldabra.  After Christmas, we’ll head for another of Meg’s sites, on South Island.

The main problem everywhere on Aldabra is water shortage. There is a solar still at the Main Station, but it has not been functioning for some reason, and the rain catchments are empty: lots of rain all around the atoll, but none on shore. Bathing must be done in the sea, for which we’ve been issued saltwater soap, and hydration depends largely on beer.  Since the staff here are largely Scots, there is fortunately no shortage of beer and other spirits (and, as we noted when the supplies were unloaded, alcohol comprised almost half the cargo).  The problem is serious, however, as there is absolutely no alternative water supply.

When he gets going on the physical description, however, my dad loses the scientific tone and waxes downright poetic:

Apart from a lack of water, this place appears to us to be a replica of Eden. After unpacking, we jogged a kilometer or so down the pebble strewn beach from Main Station, where we found a 20 meter swath of pure white sand, while the tide was out. It was slow going in the soft, deep sand, but we persevered to the end of the strand where the beach gave way to a 2 meter high coral cliff that had been undercut by wave action and whose face, at low tide, was full of small caves filled with marine creatures. From there seaward, to a fringing reef, was a shallow lagoon, less than a meter deep, crystal clear, except when an occasional wave breasted the reef and broke onto it.  We stripped off our clothes and sported about like a pair of porpoises in the warm (30C) water, savoring the white sand, black coral cliffs and, all around us, tiny fish, some transparent, others brightly hued.  We did have to keep a sharp lookout for the moray eels, which abound, for though we’d been told that they were not dangerous their appearance and behavior seem to say otherwise. Overhead, a frigate bird attacked a booby, while a group of pied crows chorused from behind the coral cliff.

The vegetation here is exotic to our eyes, but still bears some familiarity to that which we know from home. There is a grove of what appear to be pine trees above the coral cliff, but are actually casuarinas, an ancient plant related to the horsetails. The ground beneath the trees is covered with needles and cones, and, except for the absence of pine scent, could be a pine forest. The wind sounds the same in the casuarina’s jointed needles as it  does in pines. The scrubby growth elsewhere on the island has much the same quality as western chaparral, but there’s no manzanita or sage brush here, just lots of other plants that look similar but we’ve never seen before nor heard of. All of it is thorny and sharp!

15 December

We’ve just completed our first 24 hours in the field, which has led to our developing enormous respect for Meg.  Work began at 5 am, and did not end until after 8 pm, and involved climbing through the roughest terrain in the hottest clime imaginable. [Yes, he really does use words like “clime”. Welcome to my world.] The landscape is entirely composed of old, dry, emergent coral, knife-sharp edges ready to slice through shoes (and skin), and covered with a thick scrubby vegetation, the notorious Aldabran pemphis. But, now, the next morning, we are relaxing while awaiting for the teapot to boil, watching several dozen sharks cruising about the lagoon, some 10 meters distant. Swimming does not appeal.

Yesterday, we did take a short run down the beach and followed it with a brief dunk in the ocean, breakfasted, and then towed our gear in a large dore [dory?] for the 2 ½ hour ride to Middle Island.  Except for the push through the reefside surf, the trip was smooth, enlivened by schools of porpoises, with frigates and boobies accompanying us overhead.  We cast fishing lines astern, and, after a half dozen barracuda, began hooking a great variety of brightly colored beauties. “c’est bon”, said our creole boatman, smacking his lips, and “c’est tres bon” for one particular one.  Two tuna were also landed, but our prize was a 40-50 kilogram kingfish, over a meter long!

A storm enveloped us as we beached, first rain, badly needed, which was captured in a large tarp and fed into an old drum cistern.  In a few hours time all was clear again, and we had a stewpot bubbling away with a fine creole fishstew.  Mid-afternoon we left the others (our companions included a pair of ornithologists, an assistant, and two laborers) and, together with Meg, commenced a goat stalk, which continued until dark.  Supper was not until after 8 pm, and was immediately followed by an exhausted, and much too brief, sleep.

Our field camp here consists of a 3’sided corrugated tin shed, 2 x 4 meters, where food and gear are stored and whose roof provides a water catchment.  Tents on the small sand beach in front of the shed serve as our bedrooms, which are surrounded by coral and mangrove.

From ocean to lagoon there are four distinct zones into which the 800 meters of the islands’s width can be divided.  The shore at this end of Middle Island (the shoreline differs greatly from one area to the next) is marked by casuarina trees, thus resembling a temperate pine grove, with needles on the ground, clear trails and cool breezes.  Crabs scurry everywhere and grunting tortoises are also everywhere one looks.  Early and late each day, the trees are festooned with awkward looking frigates, like oversized Christmas tree ornaments. [I love this.] But 20 meters further inward inward, the “Platen” beings, flat, weathered coral, with fairly open 1-3 meter high vegetation, allowing for moderately easy walking.  But, then comes the Pemphis, a wall of shrub 3-4 meters high, and so dense as to be totally impenetrable without a machete (known here as a ‘pongo”).  Visibility is less than one goat length. [🙂 !!!!!!!] Meg has had a single trail cut through this forest, and is building a second, our only hope of accessing the interior.

The final zone is the mangrove, only a few meters wide, a tangle of roots arched by broad-leafed crowns, beyond which lies the lagoon, some 15-20 kilometers wide,  with its mushroom coral columns.

Mushroom coral. Or coral mushroom.

In next week’s episode: Tortoise Tickling! See you then.

Parents Gone Feral: Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part II

To catch y’all up…in my last post, I gave my parents’ narration of why they were abandoning leaving their daughters behind, in the winter of 1976, to have themselves dropped onto a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Here they are now, aboard a rusty old freighter on their way to their new island home. Know what? I’m just going to let them tell it. But I can’t resist adding a few of my own reactions along the way. 🙂

11 December – aboard the Nordvaer

Our crewmates appear to number about a dozen, of all possible shapes, ages, and hues, most from the Seychelles, some from Africa, one Indian. Their common language is a Seychellois French-Creole, though a few speak a bit of English. They and their ship , when not under charter to resupply the Royal Society station on Aldabra, mostly ply a route between East Africa to Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles.

The favored occupations of the crew appear to be fishing and drinking, and the condition of the Nordvaer attests to both sports. Shipshape is indeed a relative state.  🙂 At least the fish were biting this morning, Bonitas for the most part, which were then filleted, dried, and salted for later sale or consumption. For some hours the fish were hooked as quickly as lines were thrown overboard, but now the school seems to have passed, and all is quiet. Sad to say, we saw none of the catch at meals: the fare is English at its worst, mostly tinned stew. Even the coffee does not pass muster, being mostly water of a faintly brown color. Still, we’re enjoying the lazy, loafing seaboard routine, enlivened by the presence of lots of albatross, flying fish, and ever distracting cloud sculptures.

Our exercise is limited to running in place, much to the bemusement of the crew.  [They’re marathoners, remember?] Fortunately, our cabin is air-conditioned as the engine room heat below deck is fearsome. It’s breezy and pleasant above deck, but the available spots to perch are few and not conducive to long sojourns. The only chairs are on the aft-deck above the fantail, where the two lifeboats (whose davits are so rusted as to make it unlikely they can ever be launched) block the view of all but the fishing lines off the stern.

12 December

Flying fish in abundance this morning. We first thought them to be low-flying birds, they covered such great distances, changing the angles of their fins as they “flew” for up to 10 seconds at a time at a speed no less than ours.

Our shipboard lethargy is growing, with even arising for breakfast taking a major effort. And sight-seeing has become less interesting: no atolls to be seen, and very few birds other than an occasional Booby or Gannet. [yes, those are real bird names]

13 December

Breakfast had just ended when a deckhand beckoned to a distant horizon: Aldabra, visible a full day sooner than expected. The spirits consumed by the crew evidently had accelerated our progress. Or perhaps the absence of a First Mate increased efficiency. 🙂 At any rate, but two hours later, we were climbing down a rope ladder into a waiting dinghy and ten minutes after that were on our island home. The Aldabrans were as surprised by our premature arrival as were we. Somehow, they had gotten word that the Nordvaer had been lost at sea.

Home, sweet home…?

Tune in next week…

Parents Gone Feral: Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure

Having colorful parents who raised you and your siblings in unorthodox ways is considered, these days, a piece of literary luck. Hey, look at you—you have memoir material! (Thinking Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, or, casting farther back, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell—which my own father read aloud to us.)

Don’t worry, this isn’t a pitch to buy my memoir; I’m not writing one. But if I did, the Aldabra Winter would fill a good chapter. And since it really is a good stand-alone story, what better place to share it?

I’ve blogged about my marathoning, Civil Rights activist, lemur-studying, poetry-writing, horse-riding, Quaker school-founding—oh, heck, colorful parents before. But I’ve never written about the Aldabra Winter of 1976-77, when my parents abandoned my sister and me for ten weeks to disappear into the Indian Ocean.

Okay, that was unnecessary drama. I just enjoy thinking of the story that way. In reality, I was 15, my sister was 17 (with the all-important driver’s license), and we had both a Duke student living with us and my grandmother living adjacent. Hardly “abandoned.” But still. These were the days LONG before internet, and Aldabra did not do phones.

So where is Aldabra, and what were Martha and Peter Klopfer doing there? For that I’ll turn to my parents’ Aldabra Journals, which they kept back then, written longhand, and which my dad is now digitizing one by one, a kind of 42-years-later blog. Take it away, Dad.

“Among students of animal behavior, it is commonly believed that if one concentrates ones studies on a particular species, one comes to resemble it.  Doesn’t Konrad Lorenz remind you of an arrogant gander, Niko Tinbergen of a graceful gull, and Karl von Frisch of a preoccupied honey bee?  Given such Noble [Nobel?] examples, we could be forgiven for accepting this belief and thus diversifying our interests so that, by switching from ducks to deer to damselfish, we could avoid a resemblance to the goats which had been our primary subjects.  However, insofar as the U.K.’s Royal Society was concerned, we were still goat-people, so when they and the Smithsonian decided to deal with the depredations of the goats on Aldabra Atoll, we were the ones they called.  The goat population on that isolated island had increased considerably in the past several decades and the fear was that this would adversely impact the large land tortoises, a threatened species, that shared the atoll.

We had been looking at the process by which newborn kids bonded to their mothers, a process that depended on events that were limited to a very short period of time: if bonding did not occur within 5-10 minutes after parturition it would not take place at all. We had reasons to believe these events were mediated by the pituitary hormone, oxytocin, but caprine oxytocin was not commercially available, and we were unwilling to sacrifice animals merely to obtain extracts from their glands.  But, if the goats of Aldabra were due to be slaughtered anyway, harvesting their pituitaries would be a sensible act.  The Royal Society proposed to allow this if, in return, we would document the impact of goats on the tortoises.  With Meg Gould (now Dr. Meg Burke), a doctoral student who was prepared to spend a year in the field, we agreed to undertake the task.

Aldabra is a fly speck in the Indian Ocean, some 400 kilometers northwest of the giant island of Madagascar.  The atoll resembles a flattened doughnut, 30 kilometers long, its width varying from 5 to 10 km.  Most of the interior, the doughnut hole, is a shallow lagoon that connects to the sea through three channels that dissect the rim of the doughnut, dividing it into 4 separate islets.”

Dad and Mom, ready for some serious goat-watching action

Let me take the mic back here to explain, in case you haven’t picked up on it: my dad is an academic, and both his speech and his writing tend toward the, shall we say, multi-syllabic. So let me zip through this next part to say that simply getting to Aldabra was an odyssey in itself. Starting in December of 1976, they left from L.A.–three hours after completing a marathon race!–flew to London, then Nairobi, and finally to Mahe, the main island of the Seychelles. Can you imagine how cramped and sore they must have been? Then they discovered their luggage was missing. OK, back to Dad.

“10 December. – Mahe

The day began with a desperate search for clothing to replace what was in our lost luggage, a search that was largely unsuccessful as local stores only offered sizes appropriate for the local population, who are considerably smaller than we.  But, miraculously, before the day was out, our wandering suitcase was located and we could turn our attention to confirming the arrangements for the final leg of our journey, a three day boatride on the freighter that, twice each year, resupplies the garrison on Aldabra.

The boat in question was an ancient 500 ton tub, the Nordvaer, which plies the Indian and South Pacific Oceans.  We clambered aboard and were escorted to the Captain.  “Sorry”, was how he greeted us, “my First Mate is sick and must be hospitalized.  Maritime law in the Seychelles forbids freighters lacking a Mate to carry passengers”. With the next available trip a full six months distant, we were stunned.  Somehow, in the lengthy discussions that followed, someone came upon the idea of enrolling us in the seamans’ union and then signing us on as members of the crew.  We dashed to the relevant maritime offices, signed various forms, and were officially listed as “supers” aboard the Nordvaer.  The title seemed a bit exalted to us, until, later, we learned “super” stands  for “supernumerary”, and meant we need not stand watches nor handle the engines, but at least we could ignore signs that read “no admission except for crew”.

Mom with the freighter Nordvaer

Stay tuned for the next installment of Aldabra Journals! (Or, as I like to call them, “Where In The World Are Peter And Martha Klopfer?”)