Irma’s Wreckage: Remembering Barbuda and St. Maarten

Hurricane Irma caused irretrievable damage to the very islands in the Caribbean we had spent many wonderful days on last year. We had met some amazing people on the trip and the devastation is hard to imagine.

Our first and last stops on an 8 day sailing cruise were St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island. Watching the news and seeing how badly the French side was damaged was heartbreaking. I nearly lost it when I saw the photos of the St. Maarten airport. My preview of the trip included this article about how low the planes fly over the beach to land.

Now that famous beach looks like this.

St. Maarten airport after Irma 2017

The area to the right is the ocean, the left is the approach to the runway. We had drinks at the bar where the shoreline meets those red-roofed buildings. The bar itself is no longer there. All that sand on the left side of the road, sprayed up on the end of the runway; that sand used to be a beach on the right side of the road. Now only rocks remain. Over in the central town, much of the area where we stayed in a small hotel along a restaurant-lined boardwalk and beach has been destroyed, or at least ravaged.

Another island we visited was Barbuda. It has an amazing frigate bird rookery, which I wrote about here. Before the storm the frigates outnumbered the human population of Barbuda. Today, Barbuda is uninhabited by people. Every single one of the 1800 people have been evacuated, mostly to Antigua.

Barbuda after Irma 2017

Virtually every building was damaged; most were destroyed. At this point I haven’t been able to find out how the frigate bird sanctuary fared.

Other islands we visited were also severely damaged by Irma. Hurricane Jose, following along right behind Irma, seemed at first headed for St. Maarten and Barbuda, but luckily veered north and spared them a second direct hit. It will be years before the islands are restored. For Barbuda, it might be never.

As heartbreaking as this is, I have fond memories of these islands. Once they recover I would like to visit again. I hope I have that chance.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Barbuda – The Flat Land of Frigates

On my recent sailing cruise to the Caribbean I spent time on seven islands, six of which have volcanic origins and have mountainous geographies. Barbuda is the exception. The first feature that makes it stand out from the rest is that it is flat. So flat that the one tiny point on it that stands 125 feet above sea level is called the “highlands.”

Barbuda

Part of the twin-island country of Antigua and Barbuda, there isn’t much to see beyond its flatness. Only about 1600 people live here, with at least two-thirds of those living in the main town of Codrington, named after the former slave owners who maintained a “slave nursery” in the 1700 (slavery was finally outlawed in 1834). Tourists who wander here in small ships can view the Martello Tower, all that remains of an old fort, and stroll on the miles of pink sand beach.

But we were here for the frigate birds.

Frigate birds Barbuda

Frigate birds Barbuda

Barbuda hosts one of the most accessible frigate bird sanctuaries in the world. Speed boating across the flat lagoon from Codrington gets you to a low-lying area inhabited by over 5000 frigate birds. As you approach, hundreds of these huge birds – wingspans can reach up to 7 feet or more – fill the skies.

So many birds that they crowd the available branches.

Unlike most seabirds, frigates don’t ever land in the sea. With the largest wing-area-to-body-weight ratio of any bird, along with the characteristic “W” shape of their wingspread and long forked tails, they can remain aloft for hours. With only minimal oil produced to protect their feathers from getting waterlogged, they aren’t built for swimming. Even walking is problematic, which is why they flop down into the nearest low branches when they need to rest. The reduced webbing on their feet frees up the end of their toes, just enough to hang on to the branches.

As the photos show, the females are larger than the males and have whiter underbellies. Juveniles remain all white for some time, taking up to eight to eleven years to reach sexual maturity. Males are all black but have the most distinct feature – a red gular pouch.

Frigate birds Barbuda

The brilliantly scarlet throat pouch can be inflated by the male to attract females during the mating season, which is pretty much all year long. Once inflated it takes a while to deflate, so you’ll see a lot of red pouches even when the male is finished his display. Most often the males sit in the branches, turn their beaks skyward, and vibrate their bills to make a drumming sound in an effort to lure the females flying overhead. If startled, the males may fly off with their pouches still inflated. Females do the choosing of mate, signifying her choice by engaging in mutual “head-snaking” and allowing the male to take her bill in his. Females lay only one egg at a time and both parents take turns incubating it for up to 55 days, after which they feed the young for many months (though the male usually becomes bored after about 3 months and wanders off). Because young frigates take so long to mature, females may breed only once every two years.

As I made my way back to the ship I couldn’t help wondering what impacts climate change would have on Barbuda in all its flatness. The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that Barbuda is in grave danger from rising sea levels and ocean acidification. Estimate sea level increase of between 2.6 to 6.6 feet would swamp this tiny island, while changes in weather patterns could decrease the availability of fresh water and enhance the extremity of the periodic hurricanes that plague these islands. Clearly there is a dire need to take action.

Future impacts on the frigate bird sanctuary are unclear. The particular species seen on Barbuda is Fregata magnificens, the Magificent Frigatebird. It would be a shame to see such magnificence perish from the earth.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Being Inside the Fish Bowl of St. Barts (aka, We All Live in a Yellow Submarine)

As an aquarium nut I’ve visited over 40 aquariums around the world. Last week it was me inside the fish bowl with the fish outside looking in at me. Welcome to St. Barts and the Yellow Submarine.

Saint Barthélemy, commonly called St. Barths (or by Americans, St. Barts) was the last stop on my recent sailing cruise in the Caribbean. It was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus, who named it after his brother Bartolomeo. With a complicated history that includes slavery up until 1847, this tiny island (< 9 square miles; ~9000 people) is a haven for the unnaturally wealthy. The number of yachts bigger than my house was astounding to see.

Its long volcanic history heightens its mountainous charms and led to the rise of its encircling coral reefs. It was to these reefs I headed with the Beatles song humming in my mind…aboard a yellow submarine.

Yellow submarine

Technically it was a semi-submersible (or semi-submersed) and not a submarine, but the gimmick was an effective way to introduce people to the reef corals and fishes. Once out of the marina you move from the stylishly yellow surface deck to a long tube-like below deck. Essentially, you’re now inside the aquarium looking out at the inhabitants in their natural world.

Yellow submarine inside

As the submarine moves out of the harbor you start to see tons of fish. A handy fish guide helps you with identification, though the numbers of yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus for you nomenclature nuts) and Sergeant major (Abudefduf saxatilis). I’m sure you can figure out which is which in this photo.

Yellow Submarine fish

There were also several species of Caranx, various grunts, the occasional pompano, angel fish, surgeon fish, parrot fish, and even a barracuda. We even saw a shipwreck. One highlight was a quick view of a hawksbill turtle:

We saw another sea turtle swimming on the surface as we took the tender back to the ship. There were also pelicans and frigate birds in numbers I usually see only for seagulls.

Somehow being inside the aquarium seemed appropriate. The trip took us to seven different islands, each of which offered its own unique character and excursions. I’ll have more on other facets of this science traveling in future posts. For now, it’s back to dry land to plan the next adventure.

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, scheduled for release in summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Science Traveling – The Sailing Cruise

One of the joys of science traveling is the opportunity to try new adventures. I started my career as a marine biologist so spend a good number of hours on boats and ships, but it was only a few years ago I took my first actual pleasure cruise (a gift to my parents). That ship was a huge cruise liner the size of a large hotel or two, with stops in Roatan (Honduras), Belize City (Belize), Costa Maya and Cozumel (both Mexico).

This one is different. The ship is smaller (300 guests instead of 2300) and has sails. Yes, sails.

Wind Surf

The cruise starts in St. Maarten, sails each night, and stops each day at a new Caribbean island, none of which I’ve ever seen before. Between margaritas on the terrace bar we’ll have excursions into the rainforests and beaches and mountains and reefs of Barbuda, Dominica, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, St. Kitts, and St. Barts, before heading back to St. Maarten (where we hope to see the planes land over Maho Beach).

Caribbean

I’ll be taking tons of photos and collecting more than a few stories. I’ll also be on the lookout for remnants of the slave trade, of which most of these islands played a significant role in the decades leading up to the U.S. Civil War.  The information is important for my Abraham Lincoln research.

More soon.

David J. Kent has been a scientist for thirty-five years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (now in its 5th printing) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His book on Thomas Edison is due in Barnes and Noble stores in spring 2016.

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St. Maarten – The Most Interesting Airport Landing in the World

One of the great thrills of science traveling is to experience interesting new places. If you watch any travel programs you may have seen something like this landing:

St. Maarten landing

Yes, that ‘s a real plane and real beach and real road; no photoshop. Maho Beach sits at the base of the runway for Princess Juliana International Airport on the Dutch side of the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean. The beach has become a planespotter’s paradise because you can almost reach up and touch the landing gear of planes as they land. The History Channel in 2010 voted it the fourth most dangerous airport in the world. Check out this landing:

You can watch a longer series of clips here.

Princess Juliana is the gateway to the leeward islands, where I’ll be starting my sailing cruise shortly. Stops will take us to Barbuda, Dominica, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, St. Kitts, St. Barts, and back to St. Maarten. The plan is to spend a day in St. Maarten before the cruise and make our way to Maho Beach before flying out.

Warning sign

As exciting as the landings are, the takeoffs can be interesting as well. Despite warning signs, beachgoers are known to stand in the jet blast zone, with not unexpected effect:

I’m not likely to be one of them. What interests me more is the science behind such a flight path. Coming in at a a 3° glide slope angle, the plane’s gear must touch down quickly to ensure a safe landing on the 7500-foot long runway. Take-offs require a quick turn to avoid the mountains rising into the departure path (you can see the mountains in the above video, which has the plane taking off over Maho Beach instead of the normal flight path).

I’ll dig up more science once on the trip. On most of the islands I’ll be doing tons of science-y hikes in the rainforest, snorkeling, kayaking, and more. During the trip I’ll be on complete “radio silence,” with no phone or internet at all, but expect some pre-scheduled posts while I’m gone and plenty of updates when I return.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

Follow me by subscribing by email on the home page. Share with your friends using the buttons below.

 

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