The first month on Cat Ba Island – getting my bearings

My apologies for the long gap between posts, life has been a bit busy.

I recently began a new position in Vietnam, on Cat Ba Island to be specific.  My first impressions are that this is a damp and precipitous landscape.  I have not seen the sun since I arrived in Vietnam on March 4th.  For Cat Ba Island this means a riotous profusion of greenery tempered by the steep terrain and lack of soil.

Where the northern end of the road terminates

Where the northern end of the road terminates

This is a land where Ymir’s bones lie close to the surface, broken and weathered, their calcium leaking back into the waters from which these precipitous cliffs rise.  The geology is the first thing that strikes you here.  The cliffs have been weathered by millions of years of rain, the ever-so-slightly acid rainwater eating into the ancient limestone creating a mature karst landscape.  Like bones, coral, and seashells, limestone is primarily made up of calcium carbonate, which in other forms makes marble and dolomite.  This is probably one of the reasons this is a place where snail diversity is immense, ranging from tiny frilled creatures more akin to limpets to giant land snails, many of which are still unknown to science.  Snails need lots of calcium to make their shells.

Unknown frill terrestrial snail

Unknown frilly terrestrial snail

Land snail shells collected around the office - and a wasp nest

Land snail shells collected around the office – and a wasp nest

The banded limestone found here is a relic of abundant diatom (a type of plankton) skeletons laid down five hundred million yeas ago and subjected to the vagaries of time.  Limestone, while soft to the chisel and hammer, is a remarkably durable stone at the macro-scale, one of the reasons climbers like it, but at a chemical level it is easily weathered.  We are often told that water has a pH of 7, that is it neutral.  Natural rainwater, we then assume, should also have a pH of 7, but it is closer to 5.6 due to the dissolution of carbon dioxide into the water making carbonic acid.  A pH of 5.6 is about as acidic as a cucumber or an onion for comparison.  Of course, other environmental factors can reduce this tremendously, leading to extremely acidic rain.  Rain falling on the limestone erodes small channels in the rock that look like thumbprints in wet clay.

Rainwater erosion on limestone

Rainwater erosion on limestone

Eventually these concentrate water flow, carving small holes in the stone reducing it to a swiss-cheese like structure with an extremely jagged and sharp exposed surface.  These little caves connect into larger caves.  In these protected, damp environments bacteria grow, exuding waste products and creating hydrogen sulfide that mixes with the water and makes a weak sulfuric acid, increasing the chemical weathering.  This cycle persists, eventually leading to enormous caves.

The airflow in these caves evaporates the mineral rich water tricking through the now porous stone and the calcium carbonate re-solidifies into stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, and any number of strangely beautiful and complex cave structures.

Caves often form in weak portions of the stone and, eventually, gravity takes its toll and the weakened rocks collapse leaving behind steep spires and fields of slowly eroding boulders.

Limestone spi

Limestone spire in the north end of Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay are examples of a drowned karst landscape, a mature karst landscape that has been flooded by rising waters.  What little soil does form is washed down into the many bays, coves, and channels of the region, leaving little for plants to sink roots into.  In the shallow waters of the bays mangroves find nutrients, in abundance.  Here mangroves are near the northern margin of their range, their numbers restricted and the trees short, making low dense forests.

Gray mangroves on the south western side of the island

Gray mangroves (Avicennia marina) on the south western side of the island

As in many places, the mangroves are in trouble here, often cut down to make shrimp farms.  This leads to reduction in local fisheries, increased erosion, and lack of protection from storm surges and tsunamis.  The local government is taking steps to protect what remains and to, potentially, restore some of the previous mangrove forests.  In the rich mud of the mangrove regions there are numerous animals, among them one of my favorites, mudskippers, amphibious fish that hop about in the mud protecting their little territories.

Mudskipper amongst mangrove roots

Mudskipper amongst mangrove roots

On the cliffs however there are few nutrients and plants grow in what cracks and declivities they can find.  As per many islands there are a number of endemic species, here one of the most commonly seen ones is the Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), an ancient type of gymnosperm that looks like a cross between a fern and a palm tree.

Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), endemic to a 400km square area, globally rare, locally abundant

Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), endemic to a 400 square km area, globally rare, locally abundant

The season here is shifting into spring and some of the trees have begun blooming, among them the hoa gạo or Cotton Tree (Bombax ceiba), so named for the kapok-like fibers that are found in the seed pod.

Hoa Gạo (Bombax ceiba), Cotton Tree in English.  The Vietnamese name translates to "Rice Flower"

Hoa Gạo (Bombax ceiba), Cotton Tree in English. The Vietnamese name translates to “Rice Flower”

 

I still have not seen the little primates I came here to work with, they are few in number and they clamber about on the vertical cliffs like, well, monkeys.

Soon though.

Pontianak to Sukadana: through the mangroves at high speed

It has been a while since I’ve written a new post.  Quite a bit has happened in the last few weeks, the key bit being that the position in Borneo has fallen apart on me unexpectedly shortly after arriving in Indonesia.

Despite the unexpected disappointment there was a lot to see and experience.  I last left off in Pontianak, a rough and tumble Indonesian city in West Kalimatan, a hardy workman’s city perched on the borders of one of the largest rivers in Borneo.  The name, Pontianak, refers to a specific type of vampire, a woman who died in childbirth, a somewhat strange thing to name a city after.

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

To get from Pontianak to Sukadana one may either take a round-about bus that runs over poorly maintained roads and may not make it during the rainy season, or a boat that races through broad channels in the mangrove swamp.  The slow boat takes more than a day and the speedboat takes between 5 and 6 hours, more if either of the two massive outboard engines are damaged by the numerous floating logs in the water or fouled by vegetation, old fishing nets, or garbage.

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

I had been expecting the boat to head out into the ocean and run down the coast.  I was pleasantly surprised that the route ran along the interior channels of the Kapuas River delta  instead.

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana.  Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana. Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Mangroves are one of the most mysterious and interesting ecosystems to me, perhaps because I have spent so little time in them and because there are so few intact mangrove forests left in the world.  In terms of carbon sequestration mangroves are one of the most effective ecosystems for carbon storage.  Mangroves are the nursery for many species of fish and crustaceans, and protect coastal areas from storm surges and tsunamis.

The center for diversity of mangroves is in South East Asia where there are some 40 or so tree species from a variety of families that all have adopted the “mangrove” lifestyle.  Trees falling into the general category of mangroves share a number of features despite coming from different families; some form of air-breathing apparatus on the roots (stilts, knees, aerial roots, root spikes that lift above the mud, etc), high tolerance to salt, and floating fruits/seeds.

One of the more interesting plants in the mangrove forest is the Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans).

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

This palm is unusual in several ways.  It often grows in areas where the trunk is completely submerged for long periods, making me wonder how it establishes itself in the first place.  This in and of itself is only mildly remarkable, what is truly odd is that the trunk is horizontal, growing underground, parallel to the surface, with all the greenery visible comprised of individual fronds acting as mini-trees growing from a single stalk.  In some ways the growth habit of this palm is more like that of a fern than a palm.

The fruits form in a large round mass, a little bigger than a basketball, divided into fist-sized floating seeds that break off and float away, sometimes germinating while still afloat.  The flower stalks are rich in sugar and this is one of the palms used to make palm sugar, a laborious process akin to making maple sugar, but limited to collecting sap from the flower stalks rather than tapping the tree.  Some studies indicate that this palm has a promising potential for biofuel production, but the process of cultivating or collecting enough to make this feasible would spell ecological devastation for immense regions of sensitive and already threatened habitat.

Mangrove forests are one of the most imperiled and under appreciated ecosystems in the world.  They are limited to tropical and near tropical regions.

Mangrove forest distribution from Charter Science

Many of the great tropical fisheries of the world owe their existence to mangrove forests; they provide nursery grounds for many aquatic species.  When mangrove forests are cleared to make room for development or for the shrimp farms that feed the developed nation’s voracious consumption of shrimp and prawns, these fish nurseries wither away, taking with them the tropical fisheries hundreds of millions of people rely on for their primary source of dietary protein.

Mangrove forests are found in low-lying, flat areas, areas subject to immense tidal run-ups, storm surges, and, in earthquake prone regions, areas where tsunamis can travel great distances inland.  The presence of mangroves acts as a buffer to these great movements of water, protecting both inland environments and human settlements.

In Southeast Asia the mangrove forests themselves provide a number of immediate resources for local people, including food, building supplies, medicines, and protected navigable waterways.

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

As in all areas people must make a living.  For some the only option is land clearing, whether for agriculture or timber.  In the Indonesian mangrove forests land is cleared for rice agriculture, aquaculture, and logging, primarily illegal.  Logging in this area is an enormous problem.  Large rafts of logs are often seen moored on the banks of the rivers and small-scale loggers carry short logs to local mills.

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

Nearly all the current logging in Indonesia is illegal.  The legal logging concessions have been cleared, in many cases converted to palm oil agriculture.  New land is legally cleared for palm oil, but current regulations prohibit the felled wood from being sold, thus this wood is often destroyed, resulting in an increased spread of illegal logging.

It is a cycle difficult to break.

In these areas dry land is a rare commodity and whole villages rest on stilts rising over the rivers and soggy ground.  Boats and motorcycles are the primary methods of transport, motorcycles being driven over narrow plank walkways with a casualness that makes the uninitiated cringe and wonder how many motorcycles lie in the mud at the bottom of the river.

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

The trip from Pontianak to Sukadana took a little more than 5 hours, an exhilarating 5 hours spent zipping through wide channels amongst one of the more interesting and briefly glimpsed ecosystems it has been my privilege to view first-hand.  I desperately want to go back to a diverse mangrove forest and spend months at a time clambering about, exploring and learning how it functions, but that will now have to wait until some undefined time in the future.

For this job in Indonesia I sold many of my things, put the rest in storage, spent a lot of money I would not have otherwise spent, and tossed my life in the blender with the assurance that the next step on my career path was well and firmly in hand.  Instead of an interesting and tasty life-shake emerging from the blender, the blender was casually and abruptly knocked off the counter, leaving my plans and work spread across the metaphorical floor in a sticky mess from which I am now attempting to salvage what I can.

Back to the job hunt, back to evaluating my life choices, back to laughing at the impracticality of my dreams.

Despite all, I had an opportunity few ever have and was able to see things most never even think about.  For that I am grateful.

Make the jump, take the risk.  If you make that leap you don’t know where you will land, but if you don’t nothing interesting will ever happen.