Duhkxy and the Sandy Island Rats

Prelude – Catching up

We are still here in Grenada on Ice Floe, moored off Sandy Island within the Sandy Island / Oyster Bed Marine Protected Area (aka Carriacou Marine Park).  We have been here since March 18th when the majority of Caribbean Island Nations closed their borders.  Our June 18th flight was rescheduled for June 16th and subsequently canceled.  The airport in Grenada will open no sooner than June 30th.  We are now rebooked for July 4th.

How do we spend our days under lockdown?

That is a question we hear quite often so here is a description of our typical days.
We are both reading a lot, and of course I write my Blog every so often.  I spend way too much time reading the news and then I feel depressed and play solitaire on my iPad for an hour, or so.
I am heartened that the outrage played out in the peaceful protests following George Floyd’s death has rekindled the Black Lives Matter movement and drawn international attention to the need for police reform.  I track and graph the pandemic statistics every day.  In my humble opinion, we haven’t seen anything yet.
There is the requisite cooking and cleaning every day, 3 times a day.  Now that the Paradise Beach Club has re-opened we treat ourselves to a visit there a few times each week – sometimes for the best rum punch we have ever had, sometimes for the best fish tacos we have ever had, sometimes for the best lamb fritters we have ever had….
I FaceTime with Riley and Tristan on Wednesdays.  They are both reading me a different book and Tristan recently serenaded me on his ukelele.
Our days are frequently variations of the same, with occasional outings to sail, fish, snorkel, watch the seabirds and turtles around Ice Floe, or take a hike around Carriacou.  Many of these adventures are described in other blogs.
We visit Sandy Island almost every evening with Duhkxy and I will devote the balance of this entry to Duhkxy discovery and fascination with the rats on Sandy Island.

Duhkxy and the Sandy Island Rats

Soon after we arrived I saw the first rat on Sandy Island flash past into a pile of palm fonds.  Several weeks later, George and I both caught a glimpse of several surfing along the branches of a sea grape.
The photo of the cute little rat at the beginning of this blogpost was first seen less than two feet from George’s right shoulder.  I said “George, there is a rat – right there – pointing”.  George asked “Where?”, a bit alarmed.  I pointed again and George, now seeing it, quickly retreated to a safer location.  I then kept staring at the rat, who kept very still in hopes I did not see it.  George pulled the camera from our pack and I captured this adorable shot.
 
Now, as rats go, the Sandy Island rats are quite cute – smaller than nasty dump rats, shaped a bit more like a kangaroo rat, with soft-looking brown fur and big round eyes.  George was having none of it – he does not like rats (or snakes).
 
It was not long after that Duhkxy discovered them and for weeks his favorite past time, while visiting the island, was trying to flush them out and catch one.  He is a clever doggie and it was not long before he succeeded.
 
His favorite game is chase.  Unfortunately, he is too fast, and so are the rats, for me to capture that in a photo.  He has treed them as below.
 
I got you
Get down here and play with me (or let me play with you)

And he forced one into the water.  He would have been in there after it if we had not restrained him.

Admittedly, not as cute as when dry and fluffy.  This rat sure could swim.

Each day brings new discoveries and things to see on Sandy Island.  Each evening a new sunset.

 

Footprints in the Sand on Sandy Island

Sandy Island, Carriacou, Grenada viewed from a hilltop on Carriacou.  Ice Floe is furthest to the right.
Duhkxy has become a capable and comfortable swimmer.  He howls with delight when he sees me don my bathing suit and we need to be very careful to make sure he doesn’t land on our heads when he launches himself into the water after us.

Our Evening Routine

Each evening we swim with Duhkxy to Sandy Island to walk the beach, and visit the hermit crabs.  The evening before, they created beautiful new patterns in the soft sand as they travel to and fro in search of food, new shells, and whatever else they have a hankering for.
Their footprints tell the tale of their long journeys, and they leave very little of their terrain unexplored.
An island bird’s footprints lay atop the beautiful quilt-like pattern laid down by hermit crabs
A hermit crab crossroad
Largest land hermit crab we saw on Sandy Island (~3-4 in)

Hermit crabs are remarkable creatures.  They do not have a protective shell covering their abdomens.  They must borrow one left behind by a dead snail or other animal.  Having searched the beach on Sandy Island for months, I can attest to the fact that there are not many shells and the most beautiful ones invariably have been taken by a hermit crab.  As they grow, they must find larger shells and on occasion they may do so in a cooperative manner.

When a hermit crab (Crab 1), in need of a larger shell, comes across one that is a bit too large, it may stay by this shell in hope

that a larger hermit crab (Crab 2) may come along also looking for a new shell. If Crab 2 takes the larger empty shell, its previous shell may be the perfect size for Crab 1.

Sometimes, a number of hermit crabs line up in size order waiting for the biggest one in the line to start the switch.  Then each crab exchanges its shell for the next larger one that has just been vacated.  Take a moment to see this happen at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1dnocPQXDQ

Recognizing the shortage of shells on the island I felt compelled to return suitable shells from my collection to areas with large populations of the crabs.  In less than 15 minutes, an interested crab came by to look at a three quarter inch blue shell I had returned.  At this point, in the next photo, the small hermit crab has already examined the blue shell, turned it on its side and appears to have positioned itself to line up the shell openings.

In the next regrettably fuzzy photo, the smaller crab has inserted its abdomen in the larger shell.

Within the next several minutes another hermit crab approached and examined the newly empty shell.

However, it ultimately deemed it not a good trade and went on its way.  By the following morning about half of the shells I had distributed were gone, with very small empty shells in their place.

Land hermit crabs mate on land and the female carries the eggs until maturity (~ 1 month).  At that time, she distributes them in salt water and they immediately burst, releasing the immature hermit crab.  Each crab will undergo a number of life stages in the sea, and upon acquiring a shell, they begin to spend some time on land.  Their final metamorphosis occurs buried in the sand at which time their gills are modified such that the hermit crab can breath air.  At this point, a land hermit crab will drown if submerged too long in water.

The approximate size of of the hermit crabs shown below are less than two inches in diameter, but we have seen some as small as an eighth of an inch and as big as George’s fist (first photos above).  All of these hermit crabs are land crabs.  They must periodically replenish a supply of water that they carry in their shells.  A hermit crab without its shell is not only in danger of becoming someone’s snack, they will dehydrate quickly and die.

Tucked all the way into its beautiful shell you can see the brightly colored claws of these Caribbean land hermit crabs.
This odd looking hermit crab shell was wearing the calcareous shell of a tube worm (also photo below)

Our initial encounters were with hermit crabs in the sand.

Later we found them climbing palm trees and congregating and feasting on the foliage of the sea grape.  The following photos are representative of the majority of the hermit crabs we encountered.

Addendum, added June 26 – Shortly after publishing this post, the hermit crabs all but disappeared on Sandy Island.  Most had not returned by the time we had to leave Sandy Island, and those that did were tiny.   We concluded they had buried themselves in the sand and started a synchronous molt.  The time it takes for a crab to complete a molt varies. As a general rule, the larger the crab, the longer the whole process will take. It is not unusual for an average-sized crab to spend about four to eight weeks going through the whole process, during which time it may stay completely buried in the sand.



Stay safe and well.  The worst of the first wave of Covid 19 is passed but new infections are being recorded at a rate around 20,000 per day – BE CAREFUL!!  We may choose to believe that there will be no second wave, but most likely it is at best a few months away.  Try to take these limited summer months to prepare to the extent that you can.

Jjj

Cruiser Debate – Stay safe on boat or head home?

We are heading for home

Every cruiser we have met, who like ourselves had their plans waylaid by the Covid 19 pandemic, has spoken of the pros and cons of either finding a way home or remaining in relative safety on their boat.
 
 
Why stay in Grenada?
 
In the early weeks, those highly motivated to get home had to first get to an island with an operational airport that would let them check in while each day more islands closed their borders and airports.  Quite a few American cruisers headed to Puerto Rico or to the US Virgin islands. These trips took many days with few protected anchorages.  As islands closed their borders, they also prohibited anchoring in their waters.  Once arriving, they repeatedly booked flights that were then canceled.  We chose to stay.
 
Living on Ice Floe has provided us with near absolute safety from the Covid 19 pandemic.  We have an infinitesimal risk of encountering anyone who is infected.  Moored in the Marine Park between the Grenada islands of Carriacou and Sandy Island we engage with only a handful of people – cruisers, like ourselves, who had been cruising in the Caribbean for months and several Grenadian citizens who live on Carriacou and have delivered groceries and other necessities to us.  Carriacou has not had a single Covid 19 infection.  We are safe here.
We love spending time on Ice Floe.  She is a modest sized boat, similar to most cruising vessels we see.   It is not a hardship to spend a great deal of time confined to her space.  We also feel some measure of pride in living and eating simply and leaving small footprints on the environment.  Wind provides the energy for our transportation, both wind and solar to make fresh water, to refrigerate our food, and to power our lights and electrical appliances.
It pains us to consider the possibility that, if we go home we may not be able to get back to the islands next season.
Why return home?
We have now been living in the Caribbean since December 5th, 2019 – in this safe and idyllic setting for over 2 months.  So much has changed since we left home.  We have mourned the loss of lives, livelihoods, and our way of life.  We could not have imagined how quickly so many things we have taken for granted have been lost.
We miss our children and grandchildren, and all members of our family.  We miss conversation and friends.  We remind ourselves these longings will not be satisfied by returning home.
A possible opportunity to fly home has emerged, and we feel drawn to return.  Our rational minds cannot provide a cogent reason for voluntarily returning.  We are frightened. 
On Ice Floe, we have not built up any tolerance to the fear of contracting Covid 19.  The death toll from this virus has slowed a bit in the warmer months, as many coronaviruses do.  We see a window of opportunity and are less terrified to fly to the JFK airport.  We put out of our minds our certainty the outbreak will resume in the cooler months to come.
We are drawn to a home that only exists as the physical structure and gardens and memories we created over the past 3 decades.  We hope we will be safe and find some ways to assist others less fortunate than ourselves.  We are not needed here.
 
 
 

Under Lockdown Moored off Sandy Island, Carriacou, Grenada

Our mooring off Sandy Island, Cariacou, Grenada has served as our home from the day we checked into Grenada on March 18th.  We could not have asked for a more ideal location to quarantine as the course of Covod-19 unfolds.

At any one time, we had as few as 3 other boats as neighbors, and as many as 7.  Some came and went and came back again.  There was no place we would prefer to quarantine so we remained.

We have been provided with a service to secure groceries, as we are not permitted on land in Cariacou.  We place our order with Alison, a proprieter of the Paradise Beach Club restaurant on Cariacou.  The restaurant is closed, but Alison oversees efforts to ensure cruisers are provisioned.  Cariacou receives its groceries from Grenada (the big island) and there is no way to know what will be available on a given day.  Alison stands in lines with people in masks keeping 6 feet apart, sometimes for hours.  She has invariably brought us as many of the items we requested as possible, and does a great job of substituting when necessary.  We eat well – never better than on the occasions a blue marlin has been caught.

Things to do while moored off Sandy Island – Underwater

You may think that remaining on a boat such a long time in one place would be tedious, but we are never bored.  There is a very lovely reef within swimming distance from Ice Floe and our snorkeling has rewarded us with views of frightening moray eels, a small yellow snake head peeking out of a hole, slipper and caribbean lobsters, two types of sting rays (yellow and southern) a spotted eagle ray, a host of vibrant corals and other sea invertebrates and many species of fish.  Every visit reveals something new and we never get tired of snorkeling on the reef and along the island shoreline.

We often catch glimpses of fish backed into a crevice like this one that is either a spotted burrfish or a porcupine fish.    They look a bit like ET with their big eyes and wide mouth.  When they are threatened they blow up into a big fat ball with spikes sticking out.  It is hard to get a photo because you need to dive down and they usually back further into their hole.
This fish is likely the same type as the one above, but not the same fish.  This was my third attempt to get a photo – very proud of myself.
Glasseye Snapper
This is the West Indian Sea Egg, a very common type of sea urchin.  They have the curious habit of collecting seagrass and small shells.  Sea urchins are part of the broader category of sea creatures Echinoderms.  Echinoderms include starfish, brittle stars and feather stars and sand dollars.
French grunt fish swimming near what I believe is Smooth Star Coral
Juvenile Mahoghany Snapper
Blue Tang
Identifying coral is difficult as their color may vary depending on what algae grow inside the coral polyp.  Relying more on shape of the total colony and the individual polyps, my best guess is that this is a Great Star Coral.  Those, in very shallow water, which this one is, tend to collect green symbiotic algae.
The blue dotted fish is a juvenile yellowtail damselfish.  The Yellowish tan coral in the background is a type of fire coral.  The red is likely a sponge.
School of French grunts
Trumpet fish
George
Southern Ray

Above the water

While sitting in our cockpit, we have been surrounded every day by the heartless slaughter of small and juvenile fish.  We see large fish as they decimate the huge schools of tiny and young fish.  We have observed a progression of the type of predators, as well as the seabirds who take advantage of the disorganized fish that come too close to the surface.

Underwater predators

Underwater predators we have observed include redfin needle fish, barracuda, and jacks.  It is common for the predators to launch themselves from the water, especially in the initial attack.  At times this is a single predator – they may fly straight up in a tight arc or cross an amazing distance.  Sometimes groups of predators come by in what looks like an underwater airplane configuration.  They will suddenly erupt just above the surface.  We believe all of these tactics help them disorganize their prey making them easier to catch.

School of horse eye jacks

Predators from above

Above water predators have included terns, laughing gulls, brown-footed boobies, and pelicans.  They continually keep a watch and when the fish strike, the birds are right behind them.

Royal Tern
Laughing gull
Brown footed Boobies
Pelican

 The prey

The innocent prey are generally schools of silversides or young fish.  The predators have varied over the weeks – most recently the horse eye jack, perhaps as some of the prey has grown from half inch to several inches.

A school of silversides just below the surface of the water
An enormous, dense, school of silversides we swam through while snorkeling

The play unfolds

Jacks, erupting at the surface of a school of prey
Several laughing gulls are next on the scene of carnage
Birds assail from above as jack (center bottom) attacks from below
This scene plays out dozens of times a day

Initially Duhkxy reacted to every loud splash from the attacking predators.  As he has grown accustomed to the behavior, he reserves his barking to instances when he becomes bored or the attack is particularly loud and close to the boat.

Duhkxy maintains vigil.

Watching the birds can reveal some behaviors you cannot imagine.  Have you ever seen a seagull stand on the head of a pelican?  WE HAVE, many times.  After a pelican catches a fish, it also takes in a large amount of seawater.  Before swallowing, the pelican allows the water to drain out of its pouch.  In this interval, gulls hang around and often stand on the pelican hoping they can snatch some of the catch.

We often watch laughing gulls stand on top of a pelican’s head immediately after the pelican catches a fish

Many larger birds of prey routinely steal fish right out of the mouths of others.  We have observed that here, with frigate birds taking fish from boobies.  In other locals, we have seen eagles and osprey do the same.  We wonder if this is the main way frigate birds satiate their hunger as we routinely see them soaring above but have only rarely seen them catch a fish.

Our neighbors entertain us with their water activities.  Some paddle board, some kite sail, some kayak, and once, we watched a cruiser successfully use his hammock as a sail for his kayak.  He had a little better luck than Marilla when she tried this in the Boundary Waters.

Marilla, in Boundary Waters (1989)

At the end of day, we sit in the cockpit and watch the sun go down.  No two sunsets are the same.  Each is a peaceful, end of day, experience.

Our loved ones and humanity as a whole are never far from our thoughts.  Stay well.

Self-Quarantined in Paradise

Sandy Island, Carriacou, Grenada

We celebrated the 2020 New Year while anchored off Sandy Island (Blogpost Sandy Island, Carriacou, Grenada).  The island and its surroundings are a treasure; rescued at one time from obliteration, it offers a quiet, protected and uncrowded anchorage, unspoiled beauty, a lovely beach with a back-drop of coconut palms, and a vibrant, shallow, reef to snorkel.  The water is a deep turquoise that reflects onto the undersides of the beautiful white terns that fly above us.  We knew we would visit again and again.
We arrived again on March 18th, under circumstances we could not have imagined.  The first confirmed case of the coronavirus infection (Covid-9) in the Caribbean Islands was reported March 1st, and by March 16th 90 cases were confirmed (https://buzz-caribbean.com/article/coronavirus-update-in-the-caribbean).
In the interim 2 weeks a swift series of actions were taken.  First, some islands turned away cruise ships with passengers who had recently been in countries reporting a high incidence of infection.  There was an uproar and strikes in Martinique when St. Lucia turned a cruise ship away that was subsequently accepted in Martinique.
Within days an increasing number of islands had instituted bans for all cruise ships.  By March 17th many islands had reduced the number of points of entry and instituted health checks and quarantines.  St. Lucia, Martinique, and the Trinidad and Tobago went further, banning all foreign cruising vessels.
We recognized that if we stayed in St. Lucia any longer we could wind up there indefinitely.  We had space reserved in Clarks Court Marina in Grenada for Ice Floe to be hauled for the summer months.  In Grenada we would have options.  We left St. Lucia mid-day on the 17th sailing through directly to Grenada, arriving March 18th late morning.  We learned that at midnight a 14 day quarantine would go into effect in Grenada – we dodged that small bullet.
We are checked into Grenada.  The process took several hours and before we were through the number of boats that had arrived to check in was over 50.  A Grenadian pulled his T-shirt over his mouth and nose as he passed the line.  We brought this here.
Everyone checking in had a story.  Some were desperate to get home before flights in and out of the islands were cancelled.  Families and friends who had chartered boats were being forced to cut their cruises short – a sad and costly end to a dream vacation.  Cruisers on their own boats were struggling with the choice between getting home and staying for the perceived safety of isolating themselves here on their boats.
Our lives have been turned upside down – not just ours – the whole of humanity.  By self-quarantining ourselves on our boat, we have chosen to relieve the islands and the United States of two “elderly” retirees who might otherwise add to the burden of dealing with the enormity of this tragedy.  We have been granted the gift of options and of idle time.  How often have I wished for more time with a smaller list of things to do.  How difficult it is to conceive of how I might find enjoyment in this twisted granting of this wish.
No Covid-9 infections have been confirmed in Grenada as of this writing.