Aurora Borealis aka The Northern Lights

Sure. You’ve heard of the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, but have you seen it? If you have a bucket list make sure this one is on it. It’s that spectacular.

The northern lights are a natural lightshow that occurs in the northern altitudes, the higher the better. Charged solar wind particles floating in the earth’s atmosphere collide with atoms and cause the display of colorful lights that spread through the skies at high altitudes.The exhibit is nothing short of stunning and never fails to take your breath away each and every time it happens. It’s ethereal, other worldly and has the distinct ability to make us realize how very small we are in this big universe.

Northern Lights Tromso
Photo By Moyan Bren – Creative Commons

The best viewing times are from September through March under clear, dark skies from 5 p.m. till 2 a.m.. The further you are from artificial light the better chance you will have of being able to see clearly.  Keep in mind, December through February bring the longest nights. That gives you even more chances to get a good look.

You can see the northern lights from the high altitude places in the world. The very best views are in the auroral oval which sits above the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Canada are all easily accessible (relatively) destinations in the auroral oval.

There are many hotels, resorts, festivals and tours in these places dedicated to the natural phenomenon and enjoying it to the fullest. Check out any of the destinations below to see the northern lights in style.

Northern Lights In Sweden

The Swedish provinces near the Norwegian border are some of the very best destinations in the world to view the northern lights. Abisko National Park is a Swedish treasure that was preserved in order to keep a percentage of the unscathed Nordic territories in pristine condition for research and study. Hence, the Abisko Scientific Research Station was developed and it is here, at the world-renowned Abisko Sky Station, that one of the best sightings of the northern lights in the world happens.

Abisko is smack dab in the middle of the auroral oval. There is just no missing the northern lights here. It also helps that the air is so fresh and clear and there is hardly ever a cloud in the sky. These conditions make it possible to see some action out of the aurora borealis practically every night.

The sky station also uses amplifiers during the evening. Strange sounds occur during the aurora borealis which are hard to determine but these “voices from space” make the show that much cooler. Inside the sky station you’ll find special exhibits and displays to help you better understand how the northern lights happen and what they are. Many northern lights vacationers watch the amazing eruptions turn to the calmer, pulsating shimmers and then enjoy a stay at the Ice Hotel; the world’s largest hotel made of ice and snow.

The Ice Hotel offers guided tours each night to various spots to witness the show.

Northern Lights In Iceland

Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland is a perfect spot to see the northern lights in all their splendor. It is a popular travel destination in itself because of the amazing landscape. Mother Nature pulled out all the stops in this place, and that’s before you see the northern lights each night. There are volcanoes and lava fields near glaciers, waterfalls and cascades. The area is startlingly full of nature’s most amazing details.

Aurora Borealis Northern Lights
Photo by Image Editor – Creative Commons

The nearby fishing village of Budir has a secluded hotel with a vantage point to clearly see the northern lights each night. Hotel Budir has daytime activities like snowmobiling, 4-wheeling and skiing but if you plan to take advantage of those get there before solstice, when the polar lights occur, the sun doesn’t rise till 11.40am and is gone again by 3.15pm.

Imagine how amazing it is to watch the aurora borealis from your own private room each night. That would be a vacation worth waiting for.

Northern Lights In Norway

There is never any guarantee of seeing the northern lights anywhere, your best bet of seeing them in Iceland is between December and April when the days are longer but the nights are dry and cloudless. Earlier in the winter season brings a lot of wet weather and a lesser chance of active aurora borealis occurrences. Technically, you can see the northern lights all over Norway. However, even here some places are better than others. Lofoten, Norway and all the way up the coastal North Cape is the best place in Norway to see them.

Another really cool option in Norway is to check out the lights from aboard the cruise ship, Hurtigruten, which travels the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes. Not only are you able to check out an unobstructed view of the magnificent north lights but you can also enjoy all the other shipboard activities.

Northern Lights In Finland

Lapland, known as The North of Finland, has long been held as a perfect spot to see the northern lights. It’s also a great place to check out the phenomenon of the polar lights, or twilight, as its also called. It happens in the Arctic Circle during the winter months when the sun doesn’t cross the horizon. The barely filtering sunlight in those few hours seems magical.

While you’re waiting for night to bring the northern lights in Lapland there are lots of other things to do. Rent a log cabin or a heated glass igloo. Private saunas are available to heat up those chilled bones after aurora watching in the deep, cold night.

Northern Lights In Canada

Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada is an excellent viewing option on this side of the Arctic Circle. Canada is at the southernmost tip of the oval and some say gets the least clear view. It is easier and cheaper to get to than the northern destinations.

The amazing array of colors still ribbon across the sky. You get the same wide-eyed amazement of seeing something so brilliantly breath taking appear before you. You lose a little detail and the sightings are a tad farther between but for many that is a small price to pay.

There are several tours and many hotels and restaurants. There are local attractions and activities for fun during the daylight hours.

The northern lights are something too few of us get to see. An opportunity to see this spectacle is an opportunity to witness the wonders of nature and observe a miracle of the universe. This vacation will make memories unlike any other.

A brief history of Cormorant fishing

Since the dawn of civilization there have been two vocations that man came to rely upon. One of these being hunting and the other is fishing. Up to the discovery of agriculture man’s main food source came from either hunting wild animals or from fishing their waters. Primitive settlements were built around a lake or along a running river, this due to the constant source of water and of food from fishing.

This is A brief history of Cormorant fishing

Around the 6th century AD, a most interesting way of fishing was developed in Japan. This type of fishing involved the use of a Cormorant whereby the bird would be tied with a rope and it would also have a small ring around its neck, which the fisherman relied upon to pull the bird

Cormorant Fishing in Guilin
Cormorant Fishing in Guilin, Photo by Ndecam – Creative Commons.

 

back into his boat after it went off to catch its fish. The fact that the Cormorant had a ring around its neck mean that it could only eat small fish and the fisherman would be left with the bigger fish that the cormorant couldn’t get down its gullet. Although this practice was founded in Japan, it was picked up by Chinese and Korean fishermen and by the 7th century Chinese fishermen were using cormorant fishing techniques in the north and central parts of China.

Evidence has also been found to sustain that around the 5th century in what is now known to be Peru fishermen used cormorants to fish their too, making this one of the most enigmatic ways of fishing on the planet.

Because Native Americans in North and South America originated in Asia, from where they migrated 16 thousand years ago, there might be a possibility that this type of fishing be as old as that, although there has been no substantial proof to support this theory. Something to think about, isn’t it?In Europe, around the 14th century, cormorant fishing had developed independently from the Chinese and Japanese but due to the quick development of industry and improved fishing this type of fishing was soon abandoned, leaving it present only as a tourist attraction in many places, for example Macedonia, and France.

So what’s going on now?

Nowadays, cormorant fishing is a lost art. Fishermen consider cormorant fishing to be nothing more than a useless practice. Why would they waste their time fishing with a bird when they can fish industrial quantities with a big hauler? Well, imagine seeing a bird dive up to 100 meters into water and then emerging with a fish in its beak! That’s something really beautiful to witness.

Cormorant fishing is still alive in Japan in the sense that besides its touristic attraction purpose, fishermen inside the isles of Japan still practice this tradition. Due to Japan having some remote regions, which are hard to access with normal means of transportation, cormorant fishing remained the main food source for small villages deep inside mainland Japan.

But the cormorant population started to diminish in the 20th century, due to the practice of cormorant fishing being pretty much abolished, but in later years Wildlife protection initiatives have started to fill up the gaps in the much needed cormorant population.

Cormorants are not pretty birds, in fact, they are amongst the ugliest creatures you can lay your eyes on, but they are of a true value when it comes to fishing. Cormorant fishing in Europe is a dying tradition, which right now is only kept alive to serve as a tourist attraction.

Cormorant Fishing in China
Photo by HBarrison- Creative Commons

What can you do to help keep cormorant fishing alive?

Well, if you enjoy fishing, then why not give this special type of fishing a try if you ever visit Japan or many of the tourist attractions across Europe and Asia? There’s not much training involved either as you don’t actually have to train the bird, it’s their nature to fish; cormorants know how to fish better than any other bird on the planet.

To sum it up, cormorant fishing is an amazing type of fishing that man has used for thousands of years, and is still as fascinating today as it’s ever been considering our developed world. It is part of various cultures, but unfortunately is a dying art. If you want to help preserve cormorant fishing and those that rely on it then do you bit, raise awareness and pledge your support.

Why not like this article on Facebook, share it your friends on twitter and spread the word about the ancient art of cormorant bird fishing…

How Human-Wildlife Co-Exist in Mara-Serengeti Baffles Many

Photo by Lip Kee – Creative Commons

Mara-Serengeti is a coined word that combines two of the world’s greatest natural wildlife reserves in the Savannah land. Mara-Serengeti is a region that spreads across two East African Countries – Kenya and Tanzania and is one continuous reserve only separated by a common border – The Mara River.  The northern part of this reserve that is within Kenya is known as Mara while the southern part which rests within Tanzania is known as the Serengeti.

The spectacular Wildebeest migration has been termed as a Seventh Wonder of the world, and who can argue. Other than Wildebeests, Mara-Serengeti is a rich natural habitat for some of the world’s most ferocious animals. This is also home of the ‘King of the jungle’ – the lion. Other than lions, we can also find leopards, cheetahs and hyenas. Mara-Serengeti is also home to the biggest land mammal – the elephant and the tallest mammal – the giraffe.

The habitat is also home to some of the most poisonous snakes around such as the puff udder, cobra, and black mamba and its river is dotted with a most ferocious fresh water reptile – the crocodile.Indeed, the Mara River works the same way for the Wildebeests as the River Ganges does to the Buddhists or even as the River Jordan did to the Israelites during the Exodus. It is a kind of a ‘holy river’ to freedom.Other than the wildlife, this habitat is also endowed with ably gifted people – the Maasai.

The Maasai community blends so naturally with the wild of Mara-Serengeti. The Maasai are one of the most versatile, brave and wildly of people not only in East Africa but almost the entire African continent.Many people who visit the Maasai Mara are always puzzled: How have the Maasai managed to adapt to this tough environment where not only dangerous animals inhabit but also living under a scorching? On close examination it would seem the Maasai have adopted some of the wildlife habits themselves, not only for survival but also for leisure and enjoyment.

For example, in this photo, you can see how tall a Maasai can jump fixatedly.

Maasai Jumping High
Photo by Wendylin20 Creative Commons

Observing the movements of a jumping Maasai, you would realize that they do have striking resemblance to the movement of a giraffe. Before a Maasai makes this jump, he vigorously thrusts his chest in back-and-forth motion as if inhaling and exhaling while at the same time he moves the head up and down rhythmically to coincide with the chest motion.When watching them dance there is striking resemblance in their body motion to that of a giraffe except of course that they are jumping on two legs and not walking on four legs, as a giraffe does.Other than their jumping styles which mimic those of a Giraffe, attending a Maasai initiation ceremony(if you’re fortunate enough!), you will also discover that the Maasai initiation ceremony works more or less the same as that of congregation of Wildebeests before crossing the Mara River. They gather together in the same way wildebeests do.

 

And as the Maasai engage in the rite of passage into adulthood where they are expected to be ready for procreation, so do wildebeests migrate to greener pastures where they can mate and reproduce. The purpose for the rite of passage of the Maasai – procreation and that of the Wildebeests – reproduction are strikingly similar.Though the initiation of the Maasai into adulthood involves circumcision, after which both the Maasai men and women are left to inhabit the open field with freedom to hunt, gather and mate.

Same wise, Wildebeests migrate from Maasai Mara into Serengeti to gather greener pastures and mate. A noticeable difference being that Wildebeests do not hunt as they are herbivores.When it comes to devouring their hunt, the Maasai has been known to mimic the habits of  lions, as can be seen on YouTube (a bit too graphic to post here!).  The Maasai are known to feast on raw blood and milk from live animals as they herd them too. In fact, a Maasai Moran (A Moran is a young male Maasai) can herd cattle more than 100 miles away from their home and can take several months without getting back home. While on herding mission, the Moran only carry a gourd for fermenting milk and a special handle-held shield-like stool for both defense and sitting in the grazing field.As you can see the Mara-Serengeti is such a diverse habitat, one where man and beast co-exist to this day, without the trappings of modern western civilizations.

I’d encourage you to check out the various Maasai rituals, hunts and initiations on YouTube, they make for wonderfully watching.

Tiger’s Nest – Taktsang Monastery in Paro, Bhutan

If you’re looking for James Hilton’s elusive Lost Horizon, Tiger’s Nest Monastery, still somewhat isolated from the modern world, might momentarily transport you to a mystical Shangri-La.

Located in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Tiger’s Nest is a truly awe-inspiring place that awakens legends and even the greatest skeptic’s sense of wonder.  Perched in the lush green mountains of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a place of striking beauty and cultural significance.  The monastery is surrounded by the stunningly green, fertile Paro valley, which is a site to see in itself for its pristine environmental conservation.

According to Bhutan’s tour operators website, 72% of Bhutan still remains under forest cover, and is home to unusual and endangered flora and fauna, such as blue pine and the fabled blue poppy.

The temple sits precariously on the edge of a vertical rock cliff, and can be reached only by foot or mule, at an elevation of 3120 meters, about 700 meters (2000) above the Paro valley.

Once geographically isolated from the rest of world, Tiger’s Nest is regarded as a unique spiritual place, and is the site of many Buddhist pilgrimages.  According to Bhutan’s tourism counsel website, Taktsang Palphug Monastery locally referred to as Paro Taktsang, or in the Tibetan language, stag tshang “tiger’s lair”, is a scared Himalayan Buddhist site.

The history of Bhutan is largely intertwined with that of the figure, Guru Padmasambhava, as he is venerated as Bhutan’s tutelary or protective deity.  He is said to have meditated in the thirteen caves surrounding the temple for three months.  In 1692, a temple was completed under the direction of a monk near the scared caves to honor Padmasambhava, also known locally as Guru Rinpoche. Rinpoche was responsible for bringing Buddhism from India to Tibet, Bhutan and surrounding countries in the 8th century.

Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan
Photo by Douglas J. McLaughlin (Photograph edited by Vassil) from Wikipedia commons.

According to legend, the great Guru Rinpoche flew from Tibet to these Cliffs on a flying tigress to subdue the demons and evil deities.  These local deities were said to oppose Buddhism.  Guru Rinpoche is known as Padum in Tibet, and followers of the Nyringma school, refer to him as the second Buddha.

The guru transformed himself into a tiger to fight the demons and emerged in 8 incarnations representing eight forms of his being to bless the sacred place.  More about the symbolism of each incarnation can be learned from a visit to Tiger’s Nest, as you will find several frescos dedicated to this story.  A Buddhist monk later built the temple, an act that united Bhutan and spread Buddhism to the valley.   It is a bit reminiscent of a Catholic counterpart in Europe, a cathedral located in the mountains of Asturias, Spain dedicated to where the protective Virgin Covadonga was said to have appeared in local caves to Don Pelayo in the battles of the Crusades.

Statue of Padmasambhava

Statue of Padmasambhava 123 ft. (37.5 m) high in mist overlooking Rewalsar Lake, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Image by John Hill from Wikipedia Commons

According to the National Geographic Book, 500 Most Scared Places of a Lifetime, Tiger’s Nest is one of the most powerful places you will ever visit. You may find the complete silence of nature positively haunting or meditate with the tantric chanting of Mahayana monks, who practice in solitude for up to seven years.

According to travelers, seeing the site in person is more moving than they had anticipated, perhaps due to the cliff’s sheer danger and high altitude. The temple, perched in a seemingly impossible location, seems to achieve unity with nature. It may awaken spirituality or a profound admiration of the majesty of nature, appreciation of culture, or splendor of art and architecture.

Once at the monastery, you might explore the surrounding forest trails or quietly mediate inside the temple.  On the way, you will find prayer wheels, which are said to spread blessings.

In a secular manner, Tiger’s nest stands a firm testament to the power of human ingenuity and is a worthwhile study of the greatness of nature.  In fact, according to Artists for Conversation, in “An Artist’s Journey through the Land of the Thunderdragon”, Bhutan, which is the most remote of Himalayan countries, is revered for the preservation of biodiversity, with 26% of the country as protected wilderness and accounts for 50% of the earth’s terrestrial diversity.

Paro Taktsang, Taktsang Palphug Monastery

 

Painting of Paro Taktsang, Taktsang Palphug Monastery, The Tiger’s Nest

Lama G’s Cafe, Fremont, Seattle, Washington, USA   Image by Wonderlane

If you plan on visiting Tiger’s Nest be sure to arrange a special permit through a guide with the National Commission for Cultural Affairs.  On your trek, you may notice uniform local dress: Bhutanese women must wear Kira, and men, the Gho dress.  The national attire is required under law in government buildings.   Bhutan’s Prime Minister proposed a measure to value Gross National Happiness or GNH, which surpasses the nation’s GDP in importance and places an emphasis on spiritual development and cultural preservation, such as through dress.   GNH is taken seriously, for example, environmental conservation is central to the country’s philosophy.  In 1998, a fire nearly destroyed the main monastery but it was later restored completely in 2005 by the Bhutan government.  Bhutan’s leadership has recently opened its doors to investments and democracy.

Here a few tips if you decide to arrange a holiday to Bhutan:

•       The official tourism board of Bhutan is the best source of information.

•       Travel must be arranged by a local tour operator or international partner.  You may visit the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators.

•       Druk Air is the only airline operating into Bhutan.  However, plans are to add one additional airline in 2012.  Bhutan is accessible by connecting flights from Bangkok (Thailand), New Delhi, Kolkata, Gaya, Mumbai, (India) Kathmandu (Nepal), Singapore, and Bangladesh.

•       There is a government policy that all visitors pay a daily fee of approximately USD $200-$250.  The daily fee includes all internal transportation, accommodations, organized meals, camping gear for treks, all taxes and fees, and a licensed tour guide.  Full payment via wire transfer is required before obtaining visas.

•       Individuals and couples pay an additional surcharge of $30-$40.

•       Bhutan was once only accessible via foot through the high passes of Tibet and Plains of Indian.  Travel to Bhutan opened in the 1970’s, largely due to the construction of a road on the Indian border and an international airport in Paro.

•       A guide is required and independent travel is not permitted through Bhutan.  However, tourism is largely supported by the government and visas are easy to obtain.

Whatever you reason for visiting, you will surely find a once in a lifetime experience at Tiger’s Nest.  While attending Cornell University, I explored Eastern religions, particularly Tibetan Buddhism.  I attended a traditional Tibetan meditation, which awakened my interest in the history of Buddhism.  Tiger’s Nest is a place that I would love to visit, as it is central to the history of the proliferation of Buddhism.  I believe Buddhism provides a distinct door into understanding many of life’s mysteries.  One experience I remember vividly was Tibetan monks creating a large, intricate sand painting, to later (to my complete disarray) completely destroy it.  I asked why they had done this and they explained it was to show the transient nature of life and inability to achieve permanence.  Similarly, this remarkable place will probably pose many questions and perhaps provide some answers for you too.

 About the Author

Miriam Clifford holds a Masters in Teaching with Honors from City University of Seattle.  She completed her Bachelor in Science at Cornell University and majored in Human Biology, Health, and Society. She loves to travel and is passionate about education.  She is a foodie and on her time off enjoys cooking and gardening.

Azerbaijan’s Rare Geologic Prize: Mud Volcanoes of Gobustan

Think about a volcanic event and one might envision the fiery red lava spewing from a Hawaiian eruption at Kilauea or a Strombolian hotspot like Mr. Etna in Sicily; or perhaps even a more massive pyroclastic flow that devastated the northern flank of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980 or lopped almost a thousand feet off Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

But volcanic activity emerges on the surface of the Earth’s crust in a variety of forms that don’t necessarily make the front page news, and which often look more similar to a 7th grade science project—such as the mud volcanoes that lie within Azerbaijan, a Central Asian nation that lies near the heart of the Caucasus. Known for its status as an oil-producing nation, Azerbaijan put itself on the map in 2012 when it played surprising host to the 2012 Eurovision contest.

However, it’s country’s remarkable cultural history and natural beauty that are attracting the eyes of intrepid travelers who want to be among the vanguard of explorers to an often forgotten region of the world.

What Exactly is a Mud Volcano?

Formed by liquids and gases found in shallow pockets or vents just below the earth’s surface, mud volcanoes, or mud domes, are simply geologic formations in which hot water mixes with surface deposits such as loess or ground soil.

Mud Volcano
Photo by peretzp – Creative commons

Mud volcanoes are commonly associated with deposits of hydrocarbons such as oil, natural gas, and methane. In fact, over 85% of the gas released from mud volcanoes is methane, followed by carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Unlike the intense heat we associate with other eruptions known as igneous volcanoes, these mud structures emit slurry that is actually cool—sometimes only degrees warmer than the ambient surface temperature.

Why Are Azerbaijan’s Mud Volcanoes Unique?

Gobustan, a region in Azerbaijan that sits near the Caspian Sea, is home to between 300 and 400 different mud volcanoes, which make up approximately half of the world’s total. Needless to say, Azerbaijan holds the market on mud volcano activity. As a result, the country has gently pushed tourism to this area (mainly because of these geologic sites, but for other reasons we’ll explain below) with visitors observing these quiet, bubbling pools of mud by the carload.

Visitors to these volcanoes can also try and take advantage of the alleged mud’s therapeutic properties. As it oozes from the earth, the mud can form pools in which individuals can immerse themselves in, much like a mudbath you might find at a local spa. The relative calm of these pools, along with the comfortable temperature of the mud, make the area a veritable natural paradise for people seeking natural healing properties, or perhaps for those who just want to take a relaxing dip in the mud.

Of course, this isn’t entirely always the case. In 2001, a mud volcano a mere 9 miles from the Azerbaijan capital of Baku started to erupt violently, ejecting flames and spewing gas up to 50 feet in the air, and depositing tons of mud throughout the area. Geologists believe these mud explosions occur once every 20 years or so—allowing visitors to hedge their bets if they feel like they want to explore the area up-close.

Is There More to Azerbaijan than Just Cool Vents of Mud?

Aside from the region’s unique geologic activity, Gobustan is even more well known for thousands of petroglyphs, or rock carvings, depicting ancient scenes of the area’s rich culture, some of which date back over 10,000 years. The carvings offer insight into the lives of a thriving population in vast scenes that show rituals, battles, trade and commerce, astronomy, and the daily lives of a population that has since disappeared.

Both the volcanoes and the petroglyphs are protected by the Azeri government within the Gobustan National Park, which lies close to the western side of the Caspian Sea and approximately 40 miles from the Azerbaijan capital, Baku. Because of its historical and nature value, Gobustan National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Photo Credit , by Peretzp – Creative Commons

Sicilian Caponata

Caponata, a traditional dish of aubergine, onion, celery and tomatoes, is Sicily’s national dish, which, when made well, epitomizes Sicilian cooking.

Sicily is incredibly rich in fruit and vegetables, and the caponata illustrates the diversity of this island sitting at the crossroads of Italian and Arab cultures: Sicilians take great pride in the fact it is made with produce in such plentiful supply on their own island. With its beautiful rich red tones of tomato, it’s a vibrant, colourful dish that can be enjoyed hot or cold, but if staying true to its roots, should be eaten at room temperature.

Sicily is incredibly rich in fruit and vegetables, and the caponata illustrates the diversity of this island sitting at the crossroads of Italian and Arab cultures: Sicilians take great pride in the fact it is made with produce in such plentiful supply on their own island. With its beautiful rich red tones of tomato, it’s a vibrant, colourful dish that can be enjoyed hot or cold, but if staying true to its roots, should be eaten at room temperature.

To many with fond childhood memories of the dish, caponata is the ultimate comfort food, spooned straight from the bowl onto crisp bruschetta, tender, but not mushy. Some will remember eating it direct from little cans – Italian company Progresso’s canned caponata is an oily version of the classic dish that is certainly convenient, but can’t touch the homemade version.

Often mistakenly described as an aubergine stew, an authentic caponata is in fact a cooked salad, each individual ingredient clearly discernable. Made well, a good Sicilian caponata should have a lovely, creamy texture and a beautiful rainbow of colours, from the glossy purple skin of aubergine to the shiny red of the bell peppers and the ripe tomatoes. This slow, deliberate layering of many flavours requires time as well as patience, but it’s all worth it, transporting you to a late summer day gazing at the Ionian Sea.

Caponata utilises a traditional sweet and sour sauce used in the Italian kitchen, agro dolce (agro means sour, dolce, sweet), made with vinegar and sugar and believed to have been brought to Sicily many centuries ago by the Arabs. With the optional addition of olives, capers, basil, raisins and pine nuts to caponata, the Arab influence is clear.

The dish is thought to date from the ninth century, when the aubergine is believed to have been introduced to Sicily by the Saracens. Back then however it was not made with tomatoes, as they were brought over to Europe by the Spanish much later, in the 1500s; caponata in its current form has been a staple of southern Italy since the 18th-century.

The Sicilian caponata makes a great cold antipasto starter as well as a delicious main dish for vegetarians, but is typically served today as a side dish for fish dishes. It’s also an ideal bet for a dinner party, as you can easily make it the night before and the flavours just keep on getting better when left overnight.

A versatile vegetable, the aubergine should however be treated with tender care. If you can, try to find a nice, firm one with few or no seeds, and don’t cut the pieces too small. Always let the salted, cubed aubergine sit for a while before you start cooking; some people leave it an hour, others manage with less. The aubergine has a tendency to soak up the olive oil like a sponge, but try not to let it absorb too much, as it will become too heavy and lose its creamy flavour and firm texture.

Enjoy a good caponata, hot or cold, with fresh, crusty Italian bread or another regional favourite, polenta.

Sicilian Caponata Photo By Massimoweb – Creative Commons License

 

The Red Panda

Shining Cat, Firefox, Himalayan Raccoon, Red Cat-Bear – the poetic-sounding names which have been given to the red panda lend as much to the mystery of this species as the secretive nature of the animal itself.

The Origins of the Red Panda Is it a cat or is it a bear, and why are some people concerned that the red panda will become extinct? To find out, we have to start by looking at what we know about the origins of this species.

Frederic Cuvier, a French zoologist was to take the honour of giving the red panda its scientific name in 1825 (Ailurus fulgens), although it was another European who first described these mysterious animals. English Major-General Thomas Hardwicke resided in India between the late 1770s to 1823. Throughout his military service, he was able to observe a vast number of species in various regions of the country. It seems that the keen naturalist was one of the earliest

Westerners to see the red panda, and although his paper on the species (which he called the Wah , a local name given for its call) was written before Cuvier’s description, it was not published until much later. Hardwicke is also given credit for noting that the Nepalese called these creatures “nigalya poonya”, meaning eater of bamboo. Etymologists think that, like the old game of Chinese Whispers, poonya became panda as the word was passed from one person to another. Incidentally, this is probably where some of the confusion over the connection between the red panda and the giant panda lies – both of these species eat bamboo, so logic says they both must be pandas, right?

Various theories have been presented as to which taxonomic group the red panda fits into as scientists have tried to solve this riddle. Originally, naturalists believed that the red panda was part of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) due to shared characteristics including jaw-shape and distinctive ringed tail.

After the discovery of the giant panda in 1869, similarities between the two species led some to hypothesise that they were the same family and both should be classed as bears (Ursidae). This theory was accepted until fairly recently, when evidence to the contrary was unearthed. Fossilised panda remains dating back to 25 million years ago have shown that the red panda’s predecessors range was much more extensive than it is today. Studies into these fossils suggest that although the red panda and giant panda do have certain connections, it is a case of convergent evolution (originating at the same point but evolving in two distinct and different forms).

Most taxonomists now agree that the is now the only living red panda representative of the family Ailuridae. Furthermore, two sub-species of Ailuridae have been identified. Ailuridae fulgens, the variant which was named by Cuvier, which is slightly smaller and darker red colour with distinctive facial markings, and Styani with its thick winter coat and black markings, which was described by FW Styan.

The Red Panda in the Wild

Both red panda sub-species are very similar in appearance with subtle differences in size and colouring. Weighing in at between three and six kilos, an adult red panda has a head and body length between 56-52cm in length, with the bushy tail adding between 28-49cm. The distinctive mask-like white markings on the face, whiskers and triangle shaped ears are reminiscent of a cat, while the reddish colouration of the fur is fox-like , so it is not difficult to see why the origins of the red panda have been so difficult to ascertain.

While red pandas once may have roamed throughout Europe and America, the population of this species is now lives in a very limited range. The sub-species Styani is found in Northern Myanmar, the Hengduan Mountains and East Nuijiang River in China, at elevations of approximately 1,500 – 4000m. In Nepal, North East India and Bhutan are home to the red panda sub-species identified as Fulgens. These regions are mountainous and cloaked with forests with abundant bamboo, which is the staple food-stuff for this unique creature.

are red pandas endangered
Photo By Adrian Pingstone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In terms of behaviour, red pandas are tree-dwellers which tend to be most active at night. Feeding mainly on bamboo shoots supplemented by berries, flowers, bird eggs and insects, the red panda spend nearly half of each day foraging and much of the remaining time resting. Bamboo is a foodstuff which is low in nutrients and only a quarter of the food consumed is absorbed, so red pandas need to eat around one third of their body-weight daily. Surprisingly, considering their diet, a red panda’s digestive system is closer to that of a carnivore. The gut is short, allowing food to pass through the body quickly, whereas herbivores usually have a longer gut which contains microbes to aid digestion. However, the red panda does have some physical adaptations which have evolved to improve its ability to eat bamboo – from the strong jaw and heavy molars which allow them to crush and chew tough shoots to a “thumb” bone at the wrist which allows them to grasp stems more efficiently.

In general, red pandas are a solitary species and each adult has its own home territory with an area of between two and five kilometres. Little is known about the reproduction and breeding of red pandas in the wild, though it is thought that this is one of the only times when this species spends time in groups. Both females and males employ courtship behaviour, leaving olfactory messages with their scent glands and performing a variety of twittering calls to attract a mate. After mating, the female builds a nest and following a pregnancy of around 135 days, the cubs are born.

Litters can vary from between one and four young, with the average number of cubs produced by captive red pandas being two. The young stay with the mother until the next breeding season, by which time they are fully grown and ready to survive alone.

Sound of a Red Panda Twittering 

Threats & Conservation
The red panda is now classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and the available data suggests that the number of this species are in decline. While zoos across the globe have had varying success with red panda breeding programmes, wild red pandas face a number of threats and estimates of the total population stand at less than 10,000. Some ecologists believe that the true number of individuals left in the wild is closer to 2,500.

Asian Red Dog Threat to Red Pandas
Photo by Ralf Schmode

Predation by species including the Asiatic wild dog, eagles and leopards is natural – after all, red pandas are below these species in the food-chain. Competition for food is also a factor to be considered, with bamboo rats and macaque monkeys amongst those who also rely on bamboo to survive. However, by far the greatest dangers to the red panda are as a result of human behaviour.

Illegal hunting of red panda for their pelts(even within protected reserves) is of extreme concern to conservationists and although the practice of gifting red panda fur hats to newly married couples has almost died out, it does still continue within certain religions. Some reports also suggest that red panda is now being served as a delicacy in Chinese restaurants. Logging and clearing of land for farming and construction has also played a significant role in the destruction of the red panda environment. In the meantime, the effects of global warming and climate change have had an impact on plant growth in the bamboo forests that these animals rely on to survive.

The Red Panda in the Future
As the habitat of the red panda becomes smaller and their food supplies become more limited, it may seem that there is little that can be done to help this unique species. Despite this, growing awareness of the red panda in the Western world – from providing Mozilla’s inspiration for the name of their internet browser Firefox to the option of choosing to be represented by a red panda character in the role-playing game World of Warcraft : Mists of Pandalia, means that more people are learning of this species predicament. Zoos, animal sanctuaries and wildlife charities are also doing what they can to educate the public about the red panda, in particular running donation schemes with the aim of making funding available to employ local rangers to implement anti-poaching laws in the reserves where the red pandas live.

We still know relatively little about the red panda’s life in the wild and only by doing what we can to preserve their habitat and prevent poaching will we ever get the chance to discover all of their secrets once and for all

Main photo credit by By Dave Pape (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Narwhal

The Mysterious Narwhal.

Opening statement: Reticent medium-sized tusked-whale causing no end of mystery.

Name: If you’re named by the Vikings chances are you’ll have a rather foreboding moniker. The word narwhal comes from the Viking nar, meaning corpse, referring to the narwhale’s mottled grey skin.

Narwhals breach
Photo By Glenn Williams (National Institute of Standards and Technology) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Aliases: Monodon monoceros; a.k.a. Moon whale; a.k.a Unicorn of the sea. Neighbourhood: The Arctic.Distinguishing features: The tusk sticking from its snout is an elongated tooth. The narwhal then is a toothed whale or odontoceti (see also dolphin, sperm whale). But what a tooth. All males have these ivory ‘tusks’ that grow to about half the length of its own body, and about 15% of females have them, which are much shorter.(For more amazing tusk facts see ‘More amazing tusk facts.) It is important to understand all numbers are educated estimates because much of what the narwhal does is in inhospitable areas for human study. Furthermore, the narwhal’s skill-set is very niche-specific; any taken into captivity have subsequently died.Vital statistics: Full-grown narwhals can grow between, approximately, 13ft to 18ft in length. Thus with tusks, males can measure between 18ft to 28ft which, in the language of the deep, is ‘as long as the longest killer whale.’ Adult body-weight ranges from 1,500 to 3,500 lb. Again, in the language of the deep this is ‘up to four massive jetskis’, or if you prefer in metric, ‘20 pirate’s treasure-chests’. Me Hearties.Behaviour: The narwhal is migratory, at least until it dies when it becomes transmigratory (citation needed).  A good poem is transmigratory and here is an excerpt of ‘Enigmas’ by Pablo Neruda,You question me about the wicked tusk of the narwhal,
and I reply by describing how the sea unicorn with the harpoon in it dies. The narwhal spends winters in small groups (5 to 10) beneath deep pack-ice hoping polar bears don’t bop them on the head when they come up for air. Summers are spent in large congregations (500 to 1000) in the shallower waters off coasts (Canada or Greenland) where they’re prone to Inuits on a subsistence hunt for whom narwhal skin has vital fats and vitamins. 

Shelf life: It is estimated the narwhal can live up to 50 years.

Arctic-shelf life: Well funnily enough, 50 years. It is estimated arctic summer ice will hang around until 2060, maybe 2080, then all bets are off. Whether you believe global-warming is man-made or actually a conspiracy of the gods against the narwhal, the fact is that the narwhal’s habitat is about to change for good. A narwhal born today, all 5 ft 175 Ibs of orca food, and that lives to 50, will see more change in its life than all its ancestors put together (citation needed).

The 21st century theme: Potential catastrophe for the narwhal will be the result of a, probably short-lived, battle between Evolution and Revolution. Let’s break it down: the narwhal is a concoction of specialized evolution. It has a very narrow diet of halibut, cod, shrimp and squid and in their pursuit has become a streamlined, super-sleek sea-predator that can dive as far as its vegetarian whale counterparts (800 to 1,500m).

It’s, take a bow narwhal, the only predator to triumph in the deep beneath the vast swathes of pack-ice with as little as 5% open water. Evolution has made a beauty, but evolution’s slow place and tinkering for millennia is doubtless no short-term match for the speedily approaching revolution in the planet’s ecosystem. 

Pessimistic much? The human response to the melting arctic has been decadent to say the least. Unfortunately for narwhal fans everywhere, and of course fans of as much world peace as possible please, the arctic looks set to become a theatre in which empires play for resources. There has been a recent breach in the arctic’s neutrality and flags nailed into the ice as competing empires and their resource-extraction companies circle the territory, fins out.In the meantime, peer-reviewed scientific evidence regarding systemic catastrophe gets distracted in abstract fisticuffs with other theories pushed around by vested interests. For example, the discovery of an ancient narwhal fossil in deep pack-ice suggests the arctic used to be warmer and means global warming is part of nature’s cycle. Hurrah for the oilmen!

Some timely fantasy: Throughout the middle-ages anyone who was anyone wanted a unicorn horn. Unicorns had all kinds of magic powers and short of riding one bareback to Arcadia, owning the horn was the next best thing. This was lucky for traders of the narwhal tusk which sold for loadsamoney; Queen Elizabeth had one, and most of the unicorn horns displayed in the many and very popular ‘cabinet of curiosities’ touring Europe at the time have later been identified as narwhal tusks.

Narwhal Horn
Photo by Brian Suda

More amazing tusk facts: Hollow, slightly flexible, very mysterious. What’s it for? At the theories pick n’ mix you can choose: establishing dominance in groups; breaking sea-ice; or my favourite, for better picking up song – in the underwater X Factor narwhals are among the most accomplished, their song a complicated come-hither of clicks, whistles and pops.

Closing argument: The narwhal teaches us that less is more. Save the Narwhals, Long live the Narwhal.Narwhal Breach photo by Glenn Williams (National Institute of Standards and Technology) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons