Cocos Island Magic

On the way back to Panama I was lucky enough to stop at Cocos Island.

Cocos Island is located 550 km from the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and is most famous for it's schooling hammerhead sharks. Unfortunately I was not set up for diving, and did not get any amazing pix from my brief snorkel there. But I did see four white tip sharks, two hammerhead sharks and a turtle. The hammerheads were unfortunately too far away and to deep to shoot.

Cocos Island was used as a location for some scenes in the movie Jurassic Park.

It's beaches are pristine.

They call this rock 'Scarface Rock'. Can you see the face? The place is the stuff of legends. It reminds me of the all pirate books that I used love reading at primary school. A Cocos Island National Park ranger told me that since the 1700's there have been over 5,000 expeditions to the island to look for treasure. He added, "We always say that Cocos Island itself is the real treasure". I reckon that may be a bit of a PR line they are told to spin, but that's just me.

This was cool. The park rangers even made a suspension bridge out of all the illegal long lines, fishing nets and buoys that they have confiscated over the years from illegal shark fin boats in the area. Shark finning is a huge problem here. Some scenes in the recent movie Sharkwater were even filmed in the waters around Cocos Island. Much of the shark fin that ends up in the shops along the so-called 'Seafood Street', Des Voeux Road in Hong Kong, is from Cocos Island.

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA COSTA RICA PHOTOGRAPHER

Open Ocean Filthy Algal Bloom Congealed Around Plastic Trash

On the way back from the purse sein fishing carnage, I encountered this.

Red algae feeding off trash. Huge underwater clouds of it.

Algae feeding off organic food waste mixed in with assorted plastic trash, probably chucked overboard by a passing ship.

The location was approximately LAT 04:07 NORTH / LONG 091:28 WEST, in the vicinity of the northern Galapagos Islands. This is more or less where the Equatorial Counter Current lies.

A 'hot zone' for fishing because this is exactly where the cool waters of the Northern Pacific meet the warm waters of the Tropical Pacific.

A perfect breeding ground for an algal bloom of red algae. There were few fish to be seen in the filthy underwater 'cloud', and it just felt like a wrong place to be. It felt like a dead zone. 

After not seeing much floating plastic trash in the Eastern Pacific, all the way from the region of the Line Islands in Eastern Kiribati and the 'Isles Marquises' of French Polynesia to Costa Rican waters, it was a shock to suddenly run into so much of plastic filth all in one go. And believe me I was looking hard.

The 'top side' view. Long brown streaks of the stuff, hundreds of metres long. At first I was hesitant about getting into the goop, but after leaning over the edge of the boat to touch the algae, I realized that it wasn't irritating my skin. So I decided to take the plunge.

I was very careful not to swallow any of it, and I gave the deep inside of my ears a good clean later.

On further analysis of the sample collected, I decided to crack out my macro lens. I had bought it along for precisely this kind of thing.

If anyone can tell me the scientific name of these strange marine organisms, I would be most grateful. 

From my limited experience, apart from this small corner of the Pacific, I would say that the South Pacific Gyre is generally cleaner than the North Pacific Gyre.

Plastics in the Pacific. A fascinating story to be continued.

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA PANAMA PHOTOGRAPHER

The Bloody Business Of Purse Sein Fisheries In Ecuador (PART TWO)

So I decided to get in the water to have a closer look.

Lots of really panicked skipjack tuna.

They know they are going to die.

As the purse sein net gets drawn tighter, the fish start thrashing faster and faster.

The water froths with blood. 

Sharks are never far away.

All the fish gradually became gridlocked.

This mahi mahi was having a bad day. Much as I would have loved to, I couldn't help him.

He was looking straight at me with his beady eye. Contrary to what most people think, I believe fish feel pain.

An Olive Ridley turtle was stuck in the net.

He was flapping like crazy to get out.

Eventually the fishermen let him go. Maybe it was because I of my presence, maybe not. Who knows?

A 'half/half' shot showing the purse seiner at work.

Its time to for the fish to die.

Here is a FAD the fishermen were using to attract the fish. It looks like a nice place for the fish to congregate. A genius idea, but an evil deception nontheless.

It reminded me of the Beatles song 'An Octopus's Garden'

A green sea turtle was resident.

He took a great interest in me.

So much so that it verged on the annoying. He wouldn't leave me alone, following me around, nibbling at my wet suit, etc.

A friendly chap, here he is checking out the solar-powered satellite beacon.

And here is a majestic school of passing mahi mahi. It is difficult to gauge the scale from this photo, but each fish is around a metre or so long.

Happy trigger fish, soon to become bycatch.

Salad Niçoise or tuna melt, anyone?

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA ECUADOR PHOTOGRAPHER

The Bloody Business Of Purse Sein Fisheries In Ecuador (PART ONE)

So I got my blood and guts after all.

The purse seiner set it's net at dawn.

Crazy as it sounds, helicopters are used to by purse seiners to look for fish.

As the purse string is drawn tight, the net gradually closes in.

The sea is stained red by the skipjack tuna thrashing about in their own blood.

I saw two boats plundering the ocean today.

On the second one, I counted fifteen bucket scoops in total.

It seems a tad greedy to me.

The guys on deck work incredibly hard.

I'm sure these fish didn't expect a bird's eye view of the ocean from a nylon net in the sky.

Today's bycatch:-

JUVENILE BIG EYE TUNA. Listed as 'vulnerable' (VU) on the United Nations, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 'Red List of Threatened Species'.

BLACK MARLIN. Not listed as an endangered species, but it is widely accepted that stocks in the Pacific are severely depleted due to pressures from commercial fisheries.

GREEN TURTLE. Listed as an 'endangered' (EN) species on the UN IUCN Red List. The international trade in green turtle shells is illegal under international law (CITES).

Stuck in the net, rolling around.

But credit where credit is due. I saw the fishermen actually release this lucky chap back in the water.

The evil empress sails away, ready to devastate the oceans another day.

One more day of chasing fishing boats tomorrow, then it's back to the Big Lychee...

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA ECUADOR PHOTOGRAPHER

Purse Seiner From Ecuador Targets Tuna, But Bycatch Remains A Problem...

Finally. Something.

This morning I woke up in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Ecuador, just north of the Galapagos Islands.

It is here, in these rich fishing grounds, that I had the opportunity of photographing the activity on board a 'purse seiner' fishing boat from Ecuador. It was targeting skipjack tuna. Tons and tons of it. I would have loved to been allowed on board the vessel to shoot fishy 'blood n guts' stuff, but unfortunately the captain wasn't having any of it.

In amongst every huge net of skipjack tuna I saw hauled in, was 'bycatch'. In this case it came in the form of a slender light green coloured pelagic fish called mahi mahi, also known as dorado.

Here are a few shots showing the crew chucking the dead mahi mahi back into the sea.

What a waste.

Not content with hunting the poor northern bluefin tuna nearly to extinction in the Atlantic, the yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna in the Pacific are also just about on the brink. How long will it be until the skipjack tuna is gone too? By some predictions, not long at all. In fact 2048 is the year scientists are predicting for a wholesale collapse in global fish stocks, and empty oceans on planet earth.

The stupidity lies in the fact that as global demand for tuna soars, fishing fleets are waging a high tech war on fish that, one day, they will inevitably win. And when that day comes around, the fishermen who make their living from the industrial-scale pillaging of the oceans will be out of a job. But this is only if current unsustainable fishing practices like purse seining continue. Ever the optimist, I believe it's never too late to do something about it. I certainly recommend everyone watch the movie 'The End Of The Line', in which a bleak future without fish is laid bare. "Grandad, did you ever taste 'fish'? What was it like?"

Here's a shot of this morning's purse seiner next to the fish aggregating device, or FAD, that they were using.

Switching issues for a minute, not content with raping the world's ocean, I was dismayed to see the Ecuadorean purse seiner pumping out huge black clouds of diesel smoke as well.

Thanks, guys. Kill the sea, and kill the air while you're at it, why don't you?

On a lighter note, it was great to see a red-footed booby soaring alongside the ship on the sea breeze. What a beautiful face...

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA ECUADOR PHOTOGRAPHER

Still Nothing...

South of the USA, west of Colombia - that's where I am.

Open ocean.

Miles and miles of it, all around.

And yet, still nothing.

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA PACIFIC PHOTOGRAPHER

Nothingness In The Pacific

Every day is the same.

I've been at sea for two weeks now, and I haven't seen another boat in that time.

Or land.

Just the occasional flying fish and sea birds. Other than that, nothing.

Pure featureless neutrality.

Real oceanic desert.

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA PACIFIC PHOTOGRAPHER

Looking For FADs In The South Pacific...

This week I am in the South Pacific looking for fish aggregating devices, or FADs.

These are artificial constructs designed to create mini-eco systems for fish in the wide open ocean. Fishermen use them to gather their prey into one place, making them an easy target. FADs can be made from a variety of materials, and like this one, they are quite often they are made out of a bamboo poles, fishing buoys and fishing nets. This FAD looks abandoned, judging by the amount of gooseneck barnacles which have attached themselves to it.

Sometimes FADs are made from empty oil drums or even uprooted trees. Like an oasis in the desert, fish and sharks are drawn to FADs, as there really is nothing else around for hundreds of miles.

And here is part of an old fishing float which has unwittingly transformed itself into a 'mini-FAD'.

The foamy plastic object has also become encrusted in gooseneck barnacles, even picking up a crab and a wormy thing or two along the way. The main problem seen here is a process known as bio-accumulation. This is the process whereby floating plastic debris in the oceans absorb harmful chemicals like pesticides, runoff, and fuel that come from our rivers and ships. Those harmful chemicals are then ingested by marine creatures such as the gooseneck barnacle, which in turn are then eaten by fish, which are eaten by bigger fish, and eventually get eaten by us human beings. The long term health consequences of bio-accumulation entering the food chain are currently being studied by Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Fifty or so years after the invention of plastics, the threat plastics may be posing to our health is becoming clearer. For example, here is a link to a BBC article published on their website yesterday which outlines the potential dangers that plastics could be posing to an unborn child's hormone balance.

All of these photos were taken at sea in French Polynesian waters. I am currently on the high seas somewhere near Kiribati, approaching the equator.

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA FRENCH POLYNESIA PHOTOGRAPHER

Chinese In Papeete, Capital Of Tahiti, French Polynesia...

For reasons that will become clear later, I'm in French Polynesia this week. The island of Tahiti to be exact.

It was Sunday when I arrived. All the shops were closed. France, the colonial power here, is a Catholic country so it is against the law for shops here to be open on the holy day. That's why these photos, which were taken in the downtown area of the capital Papeete, are almost all devoid of people.

A government building.

A war memorial to the French and their Polynesian subjects who died in the First World War. This monument could quite easily be in Paris.

Notice the signature Tahitian flower in the bronze statue's hair. A nice touch.

Tahiti is very Americanised, I even saw a Hummer today. This island, part of French Polynesia, is 2,724 miles pretty much due south of Hawaii. In terms of spheres of influence, we are a lot closer to California here, than we are to Paris.

I did find some locals though. Here they are playing ball.

And these guys were playing with their remote control cars in front of the 'Residence du Haut Commissaire', the colonial governor's residence.

There is a big Chinese community in Tahiti. Here is the local KMT office. Many Chinese came here to work on the plantations during last century, and more than a few more came to escape China after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949. I would have liked to stayed here a bit longer to annoy them with a few questions about shark-finning around here, but I'm leaving today.

Note the French colonial ballustrade.

Some French signage near the port. A boring image, but I wanted to show how the infrastructure in Tahiti is just like it is in France.

Pacific Islanders sleeping. Life moves slowly in these parts.

Here's the 'Arctic P', Australian tycoon James Packer's sumptuous ship which has a quite number of very blingy launches on board (you can see two in this photo). He can afford to have luxury fun in the sun, owning, as he does, one of the largest casinos in Macau along with Lawrence Ho, the eldest son of the Macau casino kingpin, Dr Stanley Ho.

Dirty, dirty marine air pollution from a cruise liner, the 'Pacific Princess'. They are using high sulfur diesel, which is bad, bad, bad.

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA TAHITI PHOTOGOGRAPER

Guangzhou's New CBD, A Sneak Preview...

Guangzhou, the capital of China's southern Guangdong Province is undergoing an unprecedented construction boom.

And during these difficult economic times I had no idea that our neighbours to the north have been quietly and busily rebuilding their Guangzhou city centre. Except it's not really in Guangzhou any more. It's somewhere else. Actually, its closer the manufacturing hub of Panyu than it is to Guangzhou. The exact location of the city's new CBD is in Zhujiang New City, to be precise. But none of that matters at all. What matters is that land is plentiful and abundant at the new site. The open spaces earmarked for development are green and wide. Perfect, in fact, for pouring fresh concrete all over.

China is reinventing itself at break-neck speed, so it needs shiny towers of glass and steel to accommodate it's new corporate elite. It's a cliche to say it, but a mega-city is in the making. And in the wake of China's accession to the WTO in 2005, Guangzhou aspires to making sure it's door is open to every major global corporation who wants to set up shop in the Pearl River Delta. It wants to be up there as a commercial hub with Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. It has designs on the world stage too, hoping one day to be in the same league as, even surpass, New York, Frankfurt, London or Tokyo.

But Guangzhou's new CBD needs good transport links too. And the high speed rail link that will join the city to Hong Kong is scheduled to be completed in 2014. The spangly new rail link is controversial because of it's exorbitantly huge projected costs, (HK$1.50 per micron of railway track according to Hemlock). And its also a political hot potato because the future terminus of the High Speed Rail Link lies in Shibi, (near Zhujiang), a full forty-five minute taxi-ride away from Guangzhou's current CBD in Tianhe. The current commercial heart of Guangzhou in Tianhe is to known to most travelers in Southern China for it's 'Guangzhou East' railway station. Trains from here can take you to Hong Kong in under two hours. And so the argument goes something like, "What's the point of building a multi-billion dollar High Speed Rail Link if once you arrive at you arrive at your destination you still have to catch a forty-five minute cab ride to the city centre? It makes no sense at all, as it the future journey time will match the current journey time, so what's the point of building it?"

But the fact is that most people don't realize the centre of Guangzhou really is shifting to the south. And its getting closer Hong Kong. Maybe this is what 'Pearl River Delta integration' is all about? In reality, when the new CBD at Zhujiang City is fully up and running, business types will no longer need to catch that forty-five minute cab ride up to Tianhe. All the action will be at the new CBD at Zhujiang. The tatty buildings of Tianhe that were built in the 80s and 90s and the businesses located there will be marginalized. London tried to do it with the 'Docklands' and Paris succeeded with 'La Defense'. And I'm sure there are plenty more other examples of cities around the world who have tried relocating their CBD, successfully or not.

But this post was never supposed to be a lesson in urban geography. It was supposed to be about an office building which is still under construction in the new CBD. This building's walls curve gracefully inward, and it's architects make of it the grand claim that when it is fully built it will be "the most energy efficient supertall tower ever built".

The Pearl River Tower is designed by an American archtect firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merril (SOM.com). The curved outer walls will cleverly funnel the prevailing wind inwards. Not only is this for natural air conditioning, but also for power generation, as wind turbines will be incorporated into the tower's structure. The building will also integrate solar panels onto it's exterior. And there's more, but I'm not going to go into it here.

For those who are really nterested in 'green buildings', here's a link to the BBC's Roger Harrabin's blog post about the Pearl River Tower which goes into all the miniutae of the cutting-edge environmental architecture used in the tower's design. SOM.com's own website call it 'Net Zero Energy Design'.

For the record, these photos were taken on Tuesday, 3rd November 2009.

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA PHOTOGRAPHER

All images and text © Alex Hofford / Image Solutions Ltd. 2011 | Web design in Hong Kong by Ugli © 2011