All posts by MJ Pramik

My Baby Pyjama Shark

Shark Watch: Citizen Scientist as Ethical Traveler

Cuddling a Leopard Shark The pool has dried up, and the fish is in trouble.

South African Proverb

 

Fish indeed are in trouble and so are elasmobranchs—the fancy scientific word for sharks. According to SaveAnimalsFacingExtinction.org, 11,417 sharks are killed every hour. Shark finning (clipping the fin off a small shark for shark fin soup, then dumping the fatally handicapped animal back into the water) continues daily.

 

For two weeks in July, 2016, I joined the South Africa Shark Conservancy (SASC) in Hermanus, South Africa, to assist in their research in catching, tagging, and releasing small sharks that populate the shallow shores of the Walker Bay Nature Reserve. The data gathered in Walker Bay feeds into an international databank. Scientists worldwide can access this shared information.

 

This expedition was sponsored by Earthwatch Institute, headquartered in Boston, MA. For forty-five years, Earthwatch has connected citizen scientists with leading researchers around the world to join in hands-on studies designed to improve the health of the planet. I’d trained as a biologist as an undergraduate and graduate school and missed hands on ecology.

 

Working with three ‘Shark Women’—SASC founder Meaghen (Meg) McCord, scientist Katie Gledhill, and Tamzyn Zweig—our volunteer team (me and Jeanne Suttie, an 8th grade teacher from Long Island, New York) fished for the smaller sharks to measure, tag, and release.

 

My Baby Pyjama SharkWe spent one stormy day at the Shark Conservancy of South Africa watching footage of an underwater camera or processing shark fin pieces into sample vials for genetic data.  We catalogued the results of our 29 June 2016 GoPro recording session outside the New Harbor. Excitement: a soupfin shark appeared on this video after several hours of tedious watching and recording results. I’d never fished in my life before but in and around Walker Bay, I caught three sharks: one soupfin shark and two pyjama shark, tagged them, clipped a miniscule fin sample for genetic studies.

 

“Hurry, hurry, all this will still be here,” said shopkeeper Lorraine of the Lembu Gallery when the Whale Crier’s horn sounded. She shooed me out to the cliffs where I sighted three southern right whales spouting in the protected waters of the Nature Reserve.

 

A protected marine sanctuary, Walker Bay offers a whale watcher’s heaven where one can follow the southern right whales as they birth their offspring and mate. Humpback whales from Antarctica make an appearance here as well (we witnessed them waving their signature tail flip at us). Whale watching season occurs during the southern hemisphere winter, July through October. Hermanus, a small tourist town, even has its own Whale Crier who alerts everyone with his circle horn when whales enter the bay.

 

We tripped over to Ganns Baai, a hotbed of the Great Whites. In what seemed a natural sequence of events, I joined a boatload of millennials (and one fifty-year-old) in white shark cage diving. About 15 minutes off shore, we met with seven large (six to nine feet in length) white sharks swimming around our boat. The sharks were not that scary, but plunging into the 60-degree waters in the submerged metal cage was. Even with a double wide wet suit, the water temperature sapped my breath.

 

Great Whites are a protected species, cannot be fed, but this tourist venue chummed the waters (dumping chopped up fish/bait around the boat) and teased the sharks toward the cage. Maybe not so “ethical.”

 

Overall, the Earthwatch expedition allowed me to contribute to the knowledge of this world in purposeful way by aiding these scientists in their quest for knowledge about all sharks, big and small.

 

 

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Parahawking in Nepal

To Oldly Go: Seeing the World Anew at Sixty (Parahawking in Nepal)

Published in: To Oldly Go: Tales of Adventurous Travel by the Over-60s

On: November 2015

Parahawking in NepalWhen I hit sixty, my eldest daughter said, “Sixty is the new forty.” These words spawned in me a wanderlust the likes of which I couldn’t believe, and weeks after my birthday I challenged myself to go alone to Antarctica. After cavorting with flocks of frenzied penguins and climbing out of a dormant volcano, I returned to Ushuaia – and an email bearing the news that my 91-year-old father was fading fast. I rushed from Argentina to Ohio to hold his hand for the last five days of his life. I never did tell him, a great watcher of birds, about my adventure with the penguins he would have so loved.

After witnessing his death, I resolved to live more fully in each moment. My happiest twinklings come when I’m somewhere new, moving through uncharted waters. Not only did I commit to hit the road more frequently each year, I pledged to my father’s memory to let go of fears that, at sixty, still held me back.

I have a particular fear of heights. Even Ferris wheels stop me cold. My breath freezes whenever the bucket pauses at the top. I had peered warily at the London Eye, never gathering the gumption to purchase a ticket. I have always adamantly refused to look down from the Empire State Building, and even when flying I automatically select an aisle seat.

But having watched my father face death with grace and courage, I now vowed to face life without the reticence and trepidation that had tugged at me for a lifetime. It was in this spirit of abandon that I pulled a running jump off the 880-foot Sarangkot Mountain in Nepal, parahawking with a bird named Kevin.

Before I went to Nepal, the concept of parahawking was entirely foreign to me. The British falconer Scott Mason and crew created this hybrid of falconry and paragliding in 2001, melding adventure with conservation. The Parahawking Project educates about hawk and vulture flight behavior and how these birds survive in the wild. Through parahawking tandem rides, the organization raises funds to restore the nearly decimated vulture population in Nepal.

Vultures have an enduring image problem. People often envision them circling above a nearly dead animal, ready to dive in once it heaves its last breath. On top of humans’ general distaste for these creatures, a crisis occurred in the late 1990s when Nepalese, Indian, and Pakistani farmers treated their farm animals with the anti-inflammatory diclofenac to reduce their pain as they aged. These creatures eventually died in the open and as the many varieties of Asian vultures rid the streets of the carrion, the diclofenac-laced flesh poisoned the vultures and their numbers decreased precipitously.

Parahawking consists of tandem paragliding while feeding water buffalo meat to a large raptor. I hung suspended in a bag seat while Scott, a seasoned British paraglider and expert falconer, sat behind me and operated the guide lines and controls. On my maiden flight, I paired with Kevin, a trained white-feathered Egyptian vulture whose black-tipped white wings were a stunning sight to behold, spanning five and a half feet.

Choosing to fly off a cliff was not my usual modus operandi. I had required a slight coaxing. Christina, organizer of my Nepal expedition, had encouraged me. ]They haven’t lost anyone yet,’ she said. But there’s always the first time, I thought.

However, my sixty-year-new resolve allowed another rather surprising thought:  If I must die someday, soaring through the unseen wind currents above the white Annapurnas will be as lovely place as any.

And in the days leading up to the event I continued trekking the sites around Pokhara, panting my way up to the Shanti Stupa (Peace Pagoda), the Buddhist shrine on an island in the lake adjoining Pokhara. The stunning view of the Annapurnas kept me in the present.

Kevin is a rescue bird.  The Egyptian vulture, which inhabits southern Europe, northern Africa, and western and southern Asia, is one of ten species nearing extinction.  On Lake Phewa, Scott’s base and home to his young family, Kevin demonstrated his species’ expertise at use of tools by dropping rocks onto an egg to crack the shell. His thin beak and long neck allowed him to claim carrion larger birds cannot.

My only instructions for parahawking were: leap off the cliff and keep running in case the chute doesn’t open.  Right.  My mind tried to force my legs to move though the huge, powerful wind gusts.  I slammed back into my harness seat, and a crew member had to help our tandem launch…and then we were off, circling the Sarangkot area with two dozen other paragliders.

In flight, we soared eye-to-eye with the enormous birds, following their movements to catch updrafts and keep our chute apparatus aloft.  The birds’ eyesight bests that of humans by ten to fifteen times.  Their keen eyes identified the swirls of dust defining drafts and currents that were invisible to me on this bright blue-skied day.

Suspended in the air, time stopped.  Scott swooped up, whistled for Kevin.  The graceful great vulture made his approach to my outstretched, leather-gloved hand that held his treat.  He gently retrieved the fresh-cut water buffalo chunk that would fuel his long journeys through the air. We repeated this scene many times. I inhaled fully each of the thirty minutes aloft.

One abrupt updraft did surprise.  I had to close my eyes and trust my pilot during a quick right jolt and ascent.  We climbed several hundred feet fast, then turned and the entire snow-capped Annapurna range spread out before us.

The sky resplendent with multicolor chutes, I found I had no time to even consider my fear. Our half-hour flight ended so gently.  Much like Kevin, we glided to a small patch of grass bordering Lake Phewa, smack-dab across the road from Maya Devi.  Enlightenment indeed.

I find myself agreeing more and more with my sometime traveling companion, an Australian septuagenarian whose motto is: “Comfort travel doesn’t interest me.”  If anything, I now seek discomfort travel, or travel that offers me opportunities to confront my fears, push my boundaries, expand my worldview and build trust and connections with my fellow creatures on this earth.

I hear some people speak of bucket lists and thousands of places to see before they leave this earth as if travel exists as a checklist to complete.  I find that each second spent traveling breathes life into the following moment of time and place.  I now see the distinct shape of each leaf on the trees lining my street and inhale the scent of cantaloupe in my local market with gratitude.  I meditate while watching the birds gliding above my San Francisco home.  Traveling deepens one’s senses and sense of self.  It lengthens and stretches out the time we have to challenge ourselves to begin anew, each day to rise above this earth.

 

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Shoe Money: The Price of Admission

“You must give him twenty-five rupees to guard your shoes while you view the Avukana Buddha. You can pay for my shoes as well.”

“But, Shirly, there’s no one visiting the Buddha but you and me, and that young fellow far off with the umbrella.” I sputtered under the thick drizzle. My protest that only three humans and the shoe guard stood at this World Heritage site during a major storm and one of them did not have to protect my sandals. Shirly was resolute that I pay the shoe guard.

My guide, Shirly Fernando (in Sri Lanka, Shirly is a man’s name), commanded me to remove my sandals and hand them over to the elderly gentleman whose face wore its ruddy complexion with dignity. The shoe guard, garbed in plain white shirt, bedraggled beige trousers, and errant flip-flops squared his shoulders with an air of importance. Next to his hand ancient folded hands resting on the counter a sign declared in Sinhalese and in English: “The Office.”

I forked over the fifty rupees, the equivalent of thirty-eight cents US. The Buddha guard nodded and smiled. He accepted my designer sandals and Shirl’s worn brown loafers with reverence. He placed them softly on a shelf behind him. He then nodded for us to proceed to the Buddha.

The Office, as the placard indicated, represented an all-ramshackle stall, with shelving for tourist and devotee shoes and other items. The shelves, currently the palest of blue, needed paint. Fronted by a short concrete wall and worn out board counter, the Office served as a locker room of sorts for visitor valuables at the Aukana Buddha near the village of Avukana in north central Sri Lanka. Atop the bleached board an alabaster Buddha statuette relaxed in full lotus surrounded by yellow mum-like blossoms. An odor of must and mildew permeated the atmosphere, wetted by the current continuous deluge. A basket marked “donations”, again in Sinhalese and English, rested next to the Buddha. The stubble-faced, toothless old man, thin and clearly weighing less than me, also guarded the wicker container.

We waded through puddles formed by gigantic fat drops dumping from the sky, Shirly proffering me the large white and green stripped golfer’s umbrella while he shielded his body with a piece of cardboard. The shoe guard immediately ran after him with a very collapsible parasol.

At first, the monsoon downpour warmed and cleansed my bare feet. I stepped gingerly on the gravel path to where the carved Buddha nestled with a large image house, as if framing the magnificent statue. But the morning’s short trek to this “sun eating” Buddha was anything but luminous and bright. The guide books and postcards promised the Aukana Buddha as the “most perfectly preserved ancient statue in Sri Lanka.” The nearly thirty-nine-foot high carved figure, depicts a variation of the Abhaya mudra pose, standing with right hand up in greeting and the left hand on its shoulder easily holding up the thirty-five-foot high pleated train of its golden granite robe. The Aukana Buddha seems to pause on the three-foot pedestal, raising its grandeur quotient. Facing the Kala Wewa reservoir, the Buddha gazes at all supplicants and visitors with a face lost in tranquility. Still tethered by stone to its back, the Avukana Buddha stopped me and my grumbling. In glorious sunlight, it’s said to shimmer.  In heavy rain, it shimmers still.

This day, the walls of monsoon rain created a different feeling. Unseasonal showers may have changed some of the experience of this grand site. However, the “sun eating” Buddha stunned with his massive thighs sensually outlined by carved pleats, his pouting lips and tight coiled hair adding a radiance to his presence, even in the downpour. Standing barefoot, my cold slippery soles squishing in the surface mud, I forgot my irritation for the show money shakedown. It was then I notice the Buddha wore no shoes.

Shoe money became routine requirement on my journey around Old Ceylon, that teardrop of an island off southeast India. At the Golden Buddha, at Polonnaruwa, at every Sri Lankan ancient Heritage site, Shirly reminded me to pay this stipend. As pilgrim tourist, I repeatedly removed my shoes, and tread over sharp shrine stones interstrewn with spiky pebbles, bird feces, and random insects dead and alive.

“Every rupee helps my countrymen and countrywomen,” Shirly was a one-man save the Sri Lankans campaign. He shared his rationale for shoe money more than once. Every rupee helps, he said, with taxes increasing, gas price rising, a repeated refrain at each shrine.

“How can you save everyone here, Shirly? What is your government doing to help the people?” Shirly looked over his right shoulder, then slowly to his left.

“The government does some, but not enough. It’s better now after the war with the Tamils ended last year. The Tamils who pick tea in the mountains where we will go now have cement block houses, no more mud and waddle that wash away with the monsoons.”

At Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, the city in the sky built by King Kasyapa in the fifth century CE (Common Era or AD), I spied a stack of unguarded miscellaneous shoes, sandals, and flip-flops.

“Shirley, who would ever dig through the pile of footwear at a hole, or a tourist, site and take a pair of shoes,” I again argued with my intrepid guide.

“It happened once with one of my guests.” Shirly’s faced flushed with remembrance. “We came back from the temple at Anuradhapura and a gentleman’s shoes were gone! I had to replace them with the help of my company. It is my responsibility to ensure nothing like this happens to those in my charge. Never again, I said.” Shirly appeared distraught even now years later that such an event happened on his watch. And that one of his countrymen would do such a dastardly thing.

After the eighth or so time of pulling rupees out of my back pocket, I resigned myself to Shirly’s stalwart care and courtesy. The gaze from the Aukana Buddha in a deluge cleared major grumping from my mind. I may have paid more for that pair of sandals watched over by the old guard than he would earn in his lifetime. Moreover, it was worth it to ensure my faithful guide could walk relaxed and unworried as he explained the history, moral meaning, and lesson learned about life at each site. It was worth this price of admission to Sri Lanka.

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Climate Change Hits the Himalayas

Author with Wang Yongfeng_Kathmandu_DEC2015Jarred by the 13 or more Sherpa deaths in Mt. Everest avalanches in April 2014 and the over 40 trekkers perishing during the following October, I made a pilgrimage to the Annapurnas in central Nepal to ask why. Why this sudden change, why so many family catastrophes in one year?

Sherpa is a family name in eastern Nepal. The 2014 spring deaths rocked their closed community. They honor their reputation as guides through the mountains. Guide deaths affect their livelihood as well.

The autumn’s disaster resulted from a sudden snowstorm in the country’s Annapurna region that trapped hundreds of trekkers at altitudes of more than 5,000 meters (16,500 feet). Some blamed the severe weather on Cyclone HudHud. Some Nepalese officials reprimanded the practice of budget tourists not hiring guides to cross the mountain pass.

Yes, climbers, trekkers, and guides have died in the Himalayas in the past but never so many in one year.

My short trek up slick slate stairs and rugged rock trails created “Michael Jackson legs” (quipped my guide Lal). We ascended to only 4,500 feet through the rugged Gurung area, a 90-minute ride from Pokhara. Watching the sunrise on the Annapurnas—white to orange to a red glow—the mountains are blameless.

By chance, my return flight out of Kathmandu through China to San Francisco was canceled. Horrendous weather over the Himalayas. Rumor had it that Kathmandu Airport closed overnight. My AirChina flight had actually taken off from Chengdu in Western China (panda land), but turned around after reports of difficult weather. Through this happenstance I met Wang Yongfeng, a celebrated mountaineer who has climbed the Seven Summits, the seven highest peaks on the seven continents.

Wang, vice president of the Chinese Mountaineering Association and a mountaineering team captain, and his colleagues had just attended a meeting in Kathmandu of four Himalayan countries: Nepal, China, India, and Pakistan. They shared data about the snow destabilization due to climate change (global warming). A team colleague said their research shows the snow is not as solid as previously, and as a result avalanches have increased in frequency. The attendees agreed to share more climate information to further analyze the year’s trekking disasters.

My own meeting with the Annapurnas provides one science fact: before walking out the door in Nepal, check snow conditions.

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“Nepal’s Best Writing Town” published in REPUBLICA

My writers collective at work while Nepalese children look on. I am pictured in my signature red hat and orange jacket.
My writers collective at work while Nepalese children look on. I am pictured in my signature red hat and orange jacket.

Leading Nepalese newspaper REPUBLICA has published an article written by my travel writers collective after our recent trip to Bandipur, Nepal. From REPUBLICA:

“‘Come back, come back! The Inn is here!” Ram, Innkeeper of The Old Inn, chases after me in the fog. He has been waiting for me with hot chia, crisp pakoras, and a perfect dal set with red wine, followed by apple-mango fritters and ice cream. He deposits me first in the Ganesh Room. I’m to sleep in a hobbit-like lair blessed by the Elephant God. What more could a writer need for inspiration and dreams.’ Mary Jean Pramik, a novelist, poet, and an award-winning travel writer specializing in earth justice, climate change and travel science.”

Read the full text of the article on the newspaper’s website.

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