The Coolest Thing Eva!

If I had infinite technological resources, time and semi-superpowers, what would be the coolest thing I would want to build?

I would build an autonomous squid simulating remote operated vehicle (ASS-ROV).

Squid are interesting animals for several reasons. As cephalopods (with cutlefish and octopus), they belong to pretty much the only group of invertebrates (animals without backbone) with powerful, large brains. They show an amazing complexity of behaviors, like elaborate mating dances, diverse hunting strategies, and even behavioral mimicking ofdangerous marine animals. They are also social animals, sometimes traveling in groups.A lot of that is written about in this fine book:

My ASS-ROV would be a fast, nimble and noise free minute submarine. It would not be steered by someone on the surface with a remote control; hence no need for a long clumsy cable attached to it. My ASS-ROV would be navigated by an artificial intelligence (ai) program. Not that’s the hard part. That’s where technology would have to advance significantly over the current status.

So, the ASS-ROV with the yet to be invented ai would swim amongst the squid. There, it could record their behavior: film them, record their motions, diving depth, swimming speed, ect. But it would not only swim amongst them inconspicuously. It would interact. The surface of the ASS-ROV would be an lcd screen which replicates the cephalopod skin color changes. A few arms would have to be there for the sake of posturing. The ASS-ROV would try to be one of the squid, and to learn about the squid by communicating with them and by gaining their trust. The ai for this type of activity is far far far in the future! But, there exists no obstacle in principle which makes such a device impossible. It would be like the robotic Jane Goodall of the squid. I mean, seriously, what could be cooler than such an ASS-ROV?

Three Million

I got three million views on my Flickr Photostream as of today! Yeah!  Flickr is a good community, I have received some useful photo advice and some identifications of rare animals I photographed, via Flickr.

It’s also fun to play with Flickr Hive Mind, which lets you crawl through the tag clouds. Most of my pictures on Flickr are underwater shots, with some land-based nature photography as well, some landscapes and some pretty ladies. Check it out!

3million

Why I Left Academia

A few months ago three good mates and I were walking through the halls of the South Australia Museum in Adelaide. It’s a very well done museum, and we enjoyed the exhibition on the Permian reptiles and the mass extinction which annihilated them; this period set the stage for all of later land vertebrate evolution. We also saw an exhibit on the Ediacaran fauna, fossils of some of the earliest multicellular animals, enigmatic creatures found only in a few settings. And for the first time I saw the bones of the extinct Australian megafauna, the cow-sized wombats and huge kangaroos which roamed the land tens of thousands of years ago. The walk through the halls of the museum was truly enthralling. My heart started beating faster from intellectual excitement.

When we stepped back into the hot South Australian summer sun, one of my mates turned to me and reflected. What he said was:

For an hour, I felt like the idealistic 18 year old again who decided to study science. Now it’s back to the bullshit”.

I wholeheartedly agreed. We had come to Adelaide for a conference and we were all university employees. We were mostly not happy campers. What had frustrated us to a degree that such a cynical statement would resonate?

At the core of many problems in modern academia, and indicative of its unhealthy competitive nature, is the competition for grant money. In the old days it used to be that research grants would fund only special and unusually costly projects. Then, holding a grant became such a token of academic prestige that it became a prerequisite for getting a good job, then for getting any job. Especially the growing ranks of the university bureaucrats, increasingly drawn from the corporate world and not from fellow intellectuals, were enthralled by the flow of grant money: it’s a way of relating science to cash and hence prestige. And it allows people who have little clue about science to assign a simple numerical value to a complicated research project. So grant writing became one of the main jobs of any university researcher in the early 21st century in most parts of the academic world.

Besides grant writing, my university employers kept me busy with complex rules regulating my conference travel, committees, updating lists on my committee memberships and errands like filling out an elaborate online system monitoring my progress and goals at work. I could never figure out if the people who run such an online system really thought that a 40 year old intellectual is not self-motivated enough to need such micromanagement or if they simply liked online forms; I could also never figure out if they appreciated the humor when I stated in the “future goals” box of their form that I planned to “not waste time with online forms” next year.

In the greater scientific community, I needed to spend considerable time arguing with the editors and reviewers of the academic journals in which I intended to publish my scientific work. Sometimes actual scientific issues were sorted out during this peer-review process, but often it was an exercise in petty-power by the anonymous reviewers assigned to judge my manuscripts. This does not come as a surprise, since publications provide the fundamentals for winning those cherished, and limited, research grants. Reviewers often had an obvious vested interest in making publishing difficult for me. So, at the end of many academic work weeks I found myself taking a displeased deep breath in my office on Friday around noon, surprised how little actual intellectual progress I had made on my research projects after taking care of all of these non-scientific or tangentially scientific demands.

Such weeks full of distractions then turn to years, and years turn into careers filled mostly with activities other than proper scientific research. As one of my European collaborators put it at the end of a too brief skype conversation about mathematics which he aborted to run to a bureaucratic meeting: “Me, the administrator!”. Many of my former colleagues are chasing a mythical state where they have taken care of all of these distractions and then can do science. Once they realize that they will never catch up with this magic dragon, they either retreat into cynicism, or quit.

Those aforementioned all-important grant applications were not merely a few pages of ideas what research I planned to do. They are thick documents where the scientific section is only a minor part; most of it is the professional record of everyone involved, the budget, and a hyperbolic description of the supposedly superb research environment in which the science will be conducted in. And in a successful grant application the brief scientific part must never be in any way daring or controversial! In a complete misunderstanding how science works some research funding agencies even require detailed statements about the expected outcomes of the planned research. Naturally and sadly, all these issues change the way science is done. Researchers become increasingly risk-adverse in their research, for fear of not having easily publishable results, subsequently not getting the next grant, and eventually missing out on the next job or promotion. Science becomes very incremental and much less exciting than it could be.

I have met many really smart and creative people who have allowed these thumbscrews to restrict their research. One colleague called a computer chip she was working on a “paper generator” – of limited intellectual or technological value, but guaranteed to form the basis of multiple publications in a currently fashionable sub-field. I’ve also had offers for collaboration declined because the proposed project would be mildly unusual and not fit squarely into the interests of one scientific sub-community. During the last 15 years I have done work in experimental and theoretical neurobiology, neural excitability and dendrites, and lately a bit in evolutionary biology. I tremendously enjoyed this interdisciplinary work, but it has actually been quantitatively shown to be a career detriment. In contrast, many of my former colleagues have stuck with one single field throughout their careers, hence maximizing their number of publications. Many academic CVs contain paper after paper with only a few words changed in-between titles, and I honestly doubt the intellectual weight of these redundant contributions.

But besides limiting promising scientists in what they feel that they can do, the current system of academia also attracts un-inspired folks who could equally well thrive as middle-managers in used car dealerships. I was often surprised how little some of my former colleagues were interested in actual science, and how much in grants, positions, and academic gossip. One of those former colleagues introduced himself to international visitors not by mentioning his field of research or country of origin, but by pointing out the administrative committee he was chairing! These are people who don’t “play the game” because they believe they have to in order to have a chance to do research, but they actually enjoy the “grant mill”, petty politics and administration unloaded onto contemporary academics. So besides hindering the work of people who are fascinated by science, modern academia also draws people who don’t have the curious mindset I believe a scientist should have, but instead have a lot of career ambition – and usually that group advances much faster up the university ranks.

As a further consequence of the ruthless battle for resources and a place close to the heart of the powerful university bureaucrats, I observed an embarrassing degree of conformism in academia. In a room full of academics I was often one of only two or three people who voiced their concerns when a bureaucrat came up with a new plan disruptive to actual research. Weren’t all of these colleagues sitting next to me supposed to be critical thinkers and paradigm-destroyers? They surely did not act like that!

I was also increasingly disgusted by the lack of inhibition of taking military funding. This eagerness to work on weapons systems or their possible components was not motivated by a misunderstood but honest patriotism, and a believe that a nation must defend itself well in a dangerous world. That’s a belief I don’t share, but respect. No, my “colleague’s” motivation was simply the greed for grant money paired with a lack of any morals. Jokes in poor taste about killing people, followed by uncomfortable laughter, at lab meetings made it quite clear that they understood what they were doing, but prioritized grant money higher than morally sound decisions.

At this point I have to take a step back in my rant and state: Not all was bad, of course! I learned a lot in my years in academic research, I got to travel to cool places, and I met very interesting people. I hope to stay in touch with many of them, and want to thank them for all the intellectually stimulating discussions if any of them are reading this! Many of these real scientists I met in academia (as opposed to the academic careerists faking to be scientists) tend to mostly agree with my lament here.

And of course I still feverishly love science. Every single day I am absolutely fascinated by the insights modern science has brought humanity. I don’t want to be misunderstood as arguing that academic science is simply a crooked business producing pseudo-insights only serving the career interests of its practitioners. Creepy anti-science campaigners like the proponents of creationism or anthropogenic-climate-change-denial seem to be convinced of some kind of conspiracy like that. This is absolutely not what I think is the case – rather, I believe that the results of modern science are for the very largest part correct, and often very, very interesting. However, science could be advancing faster, and with much less frustration and better working conditions for scientists world-wide, and it should advance in a more fundamental, less incremental way.

I am in fact rather surprised by the amount of good science which is still being done. I partially attribute this to the stubborn persistence of a number of top researchers. They are doing quality science despite the current system in which research is organized. I also do think that a few top institutions are still functioning in the interest of scientists and science. There are, to be sure, significant differences between different institutions. I personally had a great start at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and the Salk Institute in San Diego. These are great places full of top intellectuals, and the Salk is even in an astonishingly beautiful location on the top of cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I cherish the time I spent at Max Planck and Salk.

I then got a faculty position at newly founded research university in Japan. But while the place billed itself as international, few of my Japanese “colleagues” spoke reasonable English or were even interested in intellectual exchange with a foreigner. The amount of micromanagement was truly Kafkaesque – I will never forget the faculty meeting where we discussed the proper type of door for the women’s toilets. The xenophobia in rural Japan made it hard to recruit people, and frankly made it less than enjoyable to live there. So I did something unfathomable to most academics: I left a tenure track position over such minor issues like scientific climate and intellectual stimulation!

I next joined a University in Australia. While the place was not at the level of Max Planck or Salk, I met a number of very interesting colleagues. The new position I took was fixed-term, but with a chance for promotion to a continuing position. I had this written out in my contract, and I was assured in no uncertain terms that such a promotion should be no problem if I published well. However, two years, some respectable publications and a grant later I was told by the Deputy Vice Chancellor (only one of many absurd titles of the university royalty) of our university that he did not believe in converting positions like mine and that he has no intention of honoring the assurances the university had given me. According to him there was not enough funding to secure my position in the future, an interesting statement to hear from him, a member of the massively over-paid university upper-class. It turned out that my contract was written in a way which allowed the university to act like that. Quite simply, modern universities are run by bureaucrats, for bureaucrats.

I also had no success in subsequent months with my applications for other academic positions, and I seriously started to doubt if I even wanted another such position. As the idealistic 18 year old conjured by my mate, I expected to trade lesser income and job security in academia for intellectual freedom and the leisure to intellectually explore. Academia had delivered quite well on the lesser income and the lacking job security – but failed to deliver properly on the intellectual freedom. The freedom to show up in the office late and a certain amount of social recognition and was pretty much all that was left for anyone hoping to remain employed in academia. To that I say: My ego can very well do without someone remarking at a party how smart I must be since I am working in a neuroscience lab.

For me, it was time to do something else. Fortunately I have other qualifications and passions: I am a scuba instructor, hold a number of additional advanced diving qualifications, plus I have had some success in underwater photography. I also have no mortgage to pay off, so I could switch careers without drastic consequences, and I did. But for a lot of other academics, this is a serious situation, both financially and in terms of their self-worth, which has been closely tied to their academic success since their graduate student days in their 20s. To me, these financial and psychological dependencies explain why such confident and bright young people are willing to put up with so much systemic harassment from university superiors and funding agencies.

Can it be beneficial for society if smart and motivated scientists are driven out of research institutions by the difficulties I described? Does it make sense that our intellectuals are becoming mid-level administrators, and our universities are mainly geared towards the careers of their top-tier administrators? Some of my former young colleagues from Max Planck and Salk ended up becoming language tutors, stay-at-home dads, entrepreneurs or business consultants. Few of those are careers where they are using their specialized knowledge in brain research. Many of them are personally quite happy, but they are not putting their lengthy education and brilliant brains to use for the improvement of human knowledge in their field.

It can be reasonably argued that ancient Chinese science and technology were suffocated by overt bureaucracy. The ancient Chinese invented a number of things centuries before Europe, most notably gunpowder and the printing press. But their science failed to take off the way it did in Europe in early modernity – the question why that is the case is known as the Needham question, after Joseph Needham, an American biochemist with great interest in Chinese culture and history. One reasonable answer to the Needham question is that a massively overburdening centralized bureaucracy was to blame for the technological and intellectual staling of the Chinese civilization. We might be well on our way to follow their example.

To be clear, I am quitting academia, not science. There is no need to be on the payroll of a university to think. In recent years, I have increasingly found myself doing actual scientific work on weekends, after a work week full of the aforementioned distractions. The days off and evenings will still be available for scientific work once I am working in my new career. A number of notable greats in the history of science, such as Alfred Russell Wallace (not that I mean to compare myself to him!), have never held a university appointment, while rightfully forgotten men sat on professorial chairs during their times. Hawaiian surfer and theoretical physicists Garrett Lisi is a modern example of a productive intellectual outside of academia. Theoretical work like the type I am doing does not need expensive gear and equipment. I will certainly keep trying what I wanted to do since my 20s – not to publish in a prestigious journal, not to get a grant, not to win an academic award and not to chair a university committee – but to find out how things in nature function.

Pacificklaus goes Closed Circuit

I have gotten at a point in my diving where I am still enjoying the sheer beauty of the underwater world, but not only. I have also acquired a keen eye for the more subtle things going on on the reef: damselfishes defending their territories; cuttlefish changing their skin coloration in a carefully choreographed mating ritual; shrimp and shrimp-gobies communicating with the nuances of their body language; and sharks spreading thier gills when they arrive at a cleaning station. It’s animal behavior which interests me.

Unfortunately the bubbles caused by exhaling from regular scuba gear cause a lot of disturbances to the marine life! What’s the solution to this unfortunate dilemma: A rebreather. A closed circuit scuba device!

Pacificklaus

What do “open circuit” and “closed circuit” mean in this context? With normal scuba gear, with a tank and a regulator, you are going to breathe one breath of air (or nitrox or trimix …) in, and then inhale it into the ocean. The breathing gas is lost through the open end of the breathing loop, even though it still contained some oxygen and all of the nitrogen (not used by our bodies). A rebreather fixes this waste:

One question at this point was: Which rebreather to get? There are a number of different rebreathers on the market. In some of them use only one gas and vent excess gas periodically. In the more complex rebreathers, the diver adds a diluent gas and oxygen and bubbles ideally come out only during descent and ascent. There are varying levels of electronic controls and alarm systems in different models.

I believe many of the available units have justification, with the more recreational semi-closed units like the Hollis Explorer fitting the diving needs of people who are eager to dive longer and with fewer bubbles, but without the extra complications of a closed circuit rebreather. I decided to go all out and get a unit which I can use now, and use in the future for challenging, deep technical dives.

Thresher Shark by Pacificklaus

I chose the Pelagian, a rebreather manufactured by a Swedish guy in Thailand. It’s a diver controlled closed circuit rebreather – the diver is the one regulating the oxygen partial pressure in the breathing gas. So, oxygen partial pressure should not be an abstract concept to you which you once learned about in your nitrox class. The Pelagian is, to quote my mate David Joyce, a “thinking man’s rebreather”. I am now living in a location where I can get quality training for this unit, have other Pelagian divers nearby, and I got a good deal on a used unit. A Pelagian it was!

I did 6 days of excellent training with my mate Matt Reed at Evolution in Malapaacua. I had to learn some theory and some procedures for rebreather use. The counter-lung are the bags which fill and empty with each breath of the diver. Putting gas into them now influences my buoyancy and the amount of oxygen I am breathing. At the same time, if they are too full or too empty, it’s difficult to take a comfortable full breath. These are quite a few things to juggle at once. It took me a few dives to develop an intuition for this juggle. But once I had that down, rebreather diving became a real pleasure.

The 4th and 5th dives of the course we did at Monad Shoal, the place where the thresher sharks, which have made Malapascua a recognized diving location, convene every morning. These pelagic deep water sharks are eager to get cleaned of parasites by symbiotic wrasses resident at Monad. I’ve been there before, many times; it’s a really cool dive. But this time, without bubbles, it was an unbelievable dive. One of these magic moments nature junkies like me live for! The thresher sharks came up to the top of Monad and circled in front of us and right above us for a good ten minutes. They probably realized on some level that we are there – their big eyes must have picked us up as unusual figures; but we were barely moving, which might have made it harder for them to perceive us. So either they saw us and did not consider us a bubbling nuisance, or they failed to perceive us at all. The sharks were within an arm’s length of myself and came back multiple times. I could identify their sexes, they were so close above me. One of them came back with an open mouth during each pass, to open the way for the cleaner wrasses to its gills. The wrasses were cleaning other fish, like parrot fish, when no shark was around, but immediately turned all their attention to the Masters of Monad when they swam close to their cleaner station. I looked deep into the huge dark eyes of the thresher sharks – it’s rare to catch a look from these aliens of the deep, highly sophisticated, highly evolved vertebrates which split lineages with us more than 400 million years ago.

by Pacificklaus

A thresher shark at Monad shoal, really up close.

Before that dive the battery in my camera had run out, but it was an enthralling experience regardless, the unaided direct observation might have made it even more superb. The pictures here are from the dive before when the threshers came equally close, albeit for a shorter time.

I am only starting to contemplate the new photographic and scientific opportunities my rebreather will provide me with. Being so much less obtrusive, and at the same time having so much more bottom time available will allow me to shoot, observe and maybe sample animals in new ways.

Living on the Crinoid

There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seeing things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t His
It sure ain’t no surprise

 We’re livin’ on the crinoid
We’re livin’ on the crinoid
We’re livin’ on the crinoid
We’re livin’ on the crinoid

- modified from Aerosmith

Recently I spent about 20 minutes observing one crinoid and its inhabitants. What is a crinoid you might ask? It’s an echonoderm. What’s an echinoderm you might ask? It’s an invertebrate (an animal without a backbone), belonging to the larger group of sea stars, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. This animal does not have sturdy arms like sea stars, but fine, feathered ones, which it spreads out in the current to capture plankton.

by Pacificklaus

Once in a while, you can find small crustaceans living on these crinoids. Once in a while, that is, in common diving locations. In Dauin, where I live and dive, I find that all the time. The crinoid I recently found harbored a crinoid squat lobster AND a crinoid shrimp. Both animals were painted in black and white, exactly like their crinoid host – a great example of co-evolution. I believe that the small crustaceans don’t benefit, but also don’t harm the crinoid. They in turn surely profit from the hiding place. This one-sided relationship is called commensalism.

It was hilarious to see how the squat lobster was struggling to hold on when the crinoid took some slow steps over the dark sand underwater in Dauin. It had to run from one arm to the next, and crawled from the arms’ underside to their side facing upwards. The crinoid was by no means sprinting, but it was fast enough to challenge the tiny lobster.

For the crinoid shrimp and the crinoid squat lobster, their whole world consists of the arms and the mouth disc of that crinoid. They will likely never set foot onto anything else, and all they see up close is the much larger invertebrate they inhabit. It’s like having a living, moving house which is painted like your skin; a living house which you never leave any time! What a life.

by Pacificklaus

Pacificklaus News January 2015

What’s new …..

Lots of good underwater photography from Dauin, check it out here!

Good times at Amontillado – our guests are really enjoying the top diving here. And in February we will have a 2 1/2 day photo workshop for all of those who don’t just want to look.

I am slowly but surely improving my Visayan! This is a fun place to live.

And, today seemed to be the right day for some crass parody.

Amontiphoto

Feminists Demand Hen Involvement in Cockfights

All over the Philippines every Sunday afternoon a spectacle takes place which at its core involves men and their cocks: cockfighting. Male chicken are pitted against each other, to the gaudium of the typically less and less sober crowd as the afternoon progresses. The loosing chicken ends up in someone’s pot, and the owner of the winning bird with a sizable cash prize. Most guys bet on the outcomes of the fights, and everyone has a great time. Anyone who objects but who also eats Western tiny-cage-industrially-raised chicken is a hypocrite.

The cockfights are so popular here that some of the best chickens fight live on TV and there are specialized magazines for the hobby. Every little town has specialty shops with vitamin powders to get the roosters in fighting shape.

by Pacificklaus

This chicken also ignores the gender equality problems in Filipino cockfighting.

One thing, however, is conspicuously missing at the Filipino cockfights: hens, female chickens. This will change in the near future according to German feminist activist Murtraud Whiter. During a recent visit to the Philippines Ms. Whiter observed a cockfight and immediately objected to the lack of gender equality in “sabong” (the Filipino word for cockfight). “How will young female combat athletes relate to these famous fighting chickens as role models if these are all male?” Ms. Whiter questioned in a serious, yet mostly calm voice when she addressed the press in Cebu City over the topic this Monday.
Preliminary efforts to square off two hens against each other in a fighting arena produced at best mixed outcomes – the birds mostly ignored each other and inflicted little, and then only psychological damage over the course of thirty minutes. “Naturally, that’s all a result of cultural imprinting. It’s the current anti-hen attitude in Filipino cockfighting which made these female birds poor fighters. They simply grew up with the image of females as non-fighting birds.”

The Filipino cockfighting association could not be reached for comment.

A Glance At Dauin Macro

So, here I am in my new diving home: Dauin, on the island of Negros in the Philippines. It’s pronounced N-E-gros, not N-ii-gros, like the plural of the outdated word for black people.

It’s a top macro spot, meaning that there are many small animals to observe and photograph. The area is really rich in gobies, my special interest. Also, there are many pipefish, anthias, wrasses, and buttereflyfish around. Above the “macro” size of underwater photo subjects are some emperors, angelfish, large pufferfish and an occasional ray in the sand. Also many back bone-less animals populate the dive sites in Dauin: a number of different shrimp, crabs and nudibranchs. It’s a macro wonderland.

The dive sites here are laid out on an even slope of dark volcanic sand, with either natural boulders or a variety of man-made structures like sunken dive boats or bamboo scaffolds serving as attachment points for sessile marine organisms. The dark sand gives a nice contrast in photographs.

What I like to observe very much, but what I have not yet photographed well are the large fields of garden eels, thin eels which never leave their home burrow, always keeping the posterior parts of their bodies in the sand. What a life! Not much travel for Mr. gardeneel.

Here are some of the shots I got in my first few dives after moving here:

 

A male anthias in mid water.

A stick pipefish coming at me.

A very translucent shrimp.

 

There is also macro on land! Click on the images to go to their Flickr page for more information.

 

Dumaguete!

So it’s my first 2 weeks in Dauin, just a bit south of Dumaguete, on the lovely island of Negros, Philippines!

As you know if you are reading my blog, I am now at a scuba diving resort right on the beach under palms! The first 2 weeks were intense, with the resort’s owner, Silke, showing me where to find everything and how to do this and that and get the dives organized and so on. Many thanks for the good introduction! The resort staff also has been great so far, friendly and fun to work with. The guests are really nice to chat with.

Dumaguete is a fun little city, on the coast of Negros facing the southern tip of Cebu. A nice boulevard runs along the ocean, with large trees giving shade and vendors selling roasted peanuts, balloons or souvenirs. A large “I heart Dumaguete” sign is constantly used as a portrait background in the evening.

There is a sizable expat community in the city, mostly retirees. They like to eat their homecountry’s food, and you can get really nice pastries and Swiss/German/Austrian food in some of the specialty stores along the boulevard. One place had Brezen and Weisswurst (pretzel and the traditional Bavarian white sausage) as well as Bavarian wheat beer on offer. When driving out of the city to the south, the volcanic chains of Negros’ interior tower over coastline – can you name another place where you can eat Weisswurst under a volcano?

The Philippines are such an alive place! The city life is buzzing with activity. It’s full of people on every corner. Old folks with long beards and their fighting chickens, schoolkids, pretty ladies, cool dudes in NBA jerseys. There are markets with toys or exotic fruit, and lots of tricycles and mopeds on the road, sometimes with riders seemingly relatively uninterested in remaining among the living. Hoking is standard practice; as a pedestrian no one will try to kill you but you also have to get out of the way sometimes!

The jeepneys, delivery vans changed into public buses, must be the most fun type of public transport to watch In the whole world. They get top paintjobs, but not according to some boring-ass corporate scheme, rather just like the owner feels about his vehicle and the world. Today I saw one which said “In God we trust” on the top and “Very Sexy” on the bottom of the back of the car. That kinda sums the Philippines up in a way.

This morning when I stumbled into the bathroom still half-asleep, a good sized gecko – about the size of a kitten – fell from the ceiling on top of my left shoulder. What a way to wake up. I love to be immersed in nature. It was a really pretty animal too, with orange spots all over. I was still too sleepy to take some pictures of it, unfortunately.

Right now we are waiting for the arrival of the powerful typhoon Ruby – which has slowed down on its approach to the Philippines. It’s amazingly calm right now, and the ocean is flat like a mirror. That might change in a few hours, but hopefully not too harshly!

Pacificklaus Island Review: Camiguin

On the north side of the large Philippine island of Mindanao lies much smaller Camiguin, a green spot in the Bohol sea, and almost the archetypical tropical island paradise. It has it all: several cloud-covered volcano peaks, stunning coral reefs and enigmatic historical sites. The people of Camiguin speak Visayan, as on the island to Camiguin’s northwest. As in all of the Philippines, folks also speak at least reasonable English and they are friendly and easy-going. A couple of people jokingly offered to hook me up with a new girlfriend, and one market lady laughed wile offering to get me in touch with a potential boyfriend. And all I really wanted was some pineapple!

I hiked up one of the volcanoes of Camiguin, mount Hibok Hibok. I think I am in reasonable shape: I usually train a few times a week, even if it is mostly strength training, and not cardio. And even cardio-wise, I walk a lot, and occasionally go for long ocean swims. Still, Hibok Hibok kicked my lobot (ass). My guide was a small dude in his 50s, one of these guys with veins running all across his legs. He was moving a bit faster than myself. The hike led us through tropical agricultural areas with coconuts and banana plants, then into a low-land rain forest, and then into some magnificent highland rain forest. The vegetation was so dense that we had to push it aside on some parts of the track. Mosses were hanging from the trees like the beards of old very old men. Birds were singing, but rarely seen in the dense forest. Just from the fog I was completely soaking wet.

After about 5 hours of hiking up through steep muddy narrow paths, we reached the caldera of the volcano, which was mostly filled with a lake. We rested and ate. One minute the sky was clear and sunny, only minutes later clouds dropped in from over the crater’s edge and filled the whole caldera. What a spectacle! When the skies were clear again, I could observe a young fishing eagle hunt for frogs in the volcanic lake.

After the hike I was about as exhausted as I had ever been. I had fallen about then times on the slippery way back. My legs felt like sour lead. In my 20s, the American Football team I was playing on had not enough linemen, so I played offensive and defensive line during one game held in the intense summer heat. In the third quarter I collapsed from overheating, took a few plays off, put my helmet back on and finished the game. I had two sacks in that game and allowed none myself. I was more exhausted after the Hibok Hibok hike than after that game.

There are public hot springs in Camiguin, in a wonderful open air setting with tropical tree giants on the slope of the volcanic mountains. The hot springs are a fun place to chill, even though they are not particularly hot.

Also definitely worth checking out: A church, destroyed by a volcanic eruption, now overgrown by tropical vegetation. It looks like right out of the Indiana Jones movie. There is also a via dolorosa, Jesus’ walk to his crucifixion, re-done with life-sized concrete models of Jesus, the Romans, Pontius Pilatus ect. All of that is set on the slopes of a walk up an older, lower volcano. A bit tacky, for my taste, some of the Roman Legionaries look stoned or on downers. But it’s certainly a unique thing to see, some Middle Eastern fable happening all over again on a Pacific volcano. These are the things which make the Philippines so charming: islands not only have pretty beaches and great reefs, but often unique bits of local history and natural history.

Dazed looking Roman.

The diving in Camiguin is quite superb: extensive, healthy hard coral reefs, populated by a large variety of fishes. I was especially taken by the diversity of the wrasses and damselfish playing between the abundant finger corals. The marine co-system is what could be called mildly disturbed: no masses of sharks like on completely pristine reefs (but that is rare on Planet Earth in the Anthropocene), but very diverse corals, diverse fish, and lots of medium-sized predators like snappers and emperors. Turtles, too.

There is a sunken cemetery, which slipped into the ocean during the 1871 volcanic eruption on Camiguin. It’s a top dive site, but none of the gravestones are visible anymore. A stone cross was sank at a later time, and the corals have also started to overgrow it. A large cross, above the water, on a small artificial island just off the coast commemorates the location of the cemetery.

I originally had planned to dive with Dive Special Camiguin, but the owner who was supposed to dive with me got sick and was so friendly to hook me up on short notice with Johnny’s. A good dive operation; we did long, relaxed dives, and they picked me up from my accommodation by boat.

I stayed with July’s Seaside Heaven, which is a very friendly budget place right by the sea. They own a Palawan Hill Mynah bird which would say “guapo” (handsome) when I walked by. Clever bird. There are also a number of up-market places available.

I was mainly spending time in the barangai (district) Yumbing, where my accommodation was located, and I didn’t find anything special dining-wise. That might be better in the main town of the island. The traditional little corner barbecues were just fine, though, if you like bbqued chicken, which I do.

Camiguin gets a Pacificklaus island rating of 4.26 out of 5 gobies.

If you would like to tag on a visit to Camiguin after a stay with us at Amotillado, we’ll be happy to make the arrangements for you. Since Cebu is both a convenient hub to reach Dumaguete and Camiguin, a visit towards the end or in the beginning of your vacation makes sense. The flight from Cebu City, with Cebu Pacific, is scheduled for 50 minutes, but curiously only takes about half that time. Happy diving!