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.

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The Jaws that Bite…

A little while ago I was invited to participate in a wildlife conference in Ontario, Canada (as opposed to the Ontario, California where Mag-Lights are manufactured).  The conference took place on a geologic feature called the Frontenac Arch, a narrow finger of the Canadian Shield that reaches south past Ottawa to the St. Lawrence, separating the calcium rich sedimentary rock formations of south eastern Canada into two portions.

The land here is flat scoured by billions (yes, billions) of years of weathering, and is littered with with numerous lakes, bogs, and marshes that pool on the surface in the wake of the most recent glaciation.  These wetlands are home to a wide variety of animal life, a reptilian subset of which was studied by one of the conference attendees.  He was conducting turtle surveys, looking for stinkpot, or musk, turtles specifically, but interested in all the rest as well.

In one of the wetlands he pointed out two large snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and, to our surprise, reached in and pulled one out so we could see it better.

25 pound male snapping turtle

Assuring us, over our skepticism, that the snapping turtle wouldn’t bite while it was in the water this bold fellow picked up the large male turtle and held it for us to see.

Snapping Turtles are the largest of the freshwater turtles north of Mexico and range from east of the Rockies though southern Canada and down to Florida.  In the wild they live up to 30 or 40 years and eat pretty much whatever they can fit in their mouths, plant or animal.  Their scientific name, Chelydra serpentina, roughly translates into “serpent like turtle”.

Unlike many turtles, snappers cannot fully withdraw their heads unto their shell.  Instead they have evolved long, flexible necks and sharp, powerful jaws with which they both feed and discourage other curious animals.

An upset snapping turtle

Getting bitten by a snapping turtle would be an extremely unpleasant experience, but contrary to popular belief, they are unlikely to be able to sever fingers or toes.  That being said, having been bitten by other animals with beaks, I am not going to volunteer to be bitten by any turtle, let alone a snapping turtle.

Like other predators, snapping turtles are blamed for much more damage to wildlife than they are actually responsible for.  The public misunderstanding of their impact on duck and fish populations results in little support for conservation efforts aimed at snappers.  On the whole this is not a problem, their numbers are good and the IUCN considers them a species of least concern, and in many areas they are caught for soups and such.

Like other turtles, snapping turtles are extremely sensitive to habitat disturbance.  Indeed turtles in general are good indicator species for assessing wetland habitat conditions, and snapping turtle eggs have been used as indicators of environmental contaminate levels.

Snapping turtles will travel great distances overland while dispersing, searching for a wetland that matches their needs.  It is common to find them crossing roads in the spring and summer.  If you do encounter one crossing the road and desire to move it to a safer place, great care must be taken, both for your own safety and for the safety of the turtle. The best place to pick one up from is the rear of the plastron, the lower portion of the shell (see how the turtle is being held in the first photo).  Grabbing from anywhere else can result in injury to both you and the turtle.

When snappers are young they are tiny, extremely cute, and subject to predation from a wide variety of other animals ranging from birds to raccoons and fish.

Baby snapping turtle, shell about 2 inches long

Snapping turtles have been around for a long time without changing much.  Modern snapping turtles are about 40 million years old, but their ancestors looked much like the modern ones and have been around for 215 million years.  That is nearly a quarter billion years.  Pretty much everything that has ever lived is a passing fad to the snapping turtles.

Admire them, show some respect, and keep your fingers clear.