Valerie and Ron Taylor

We met Ron and Valerie Taylor on the first-ever dive abd snorkel expedition to the Galapagos Islands. We were honoured to be with such experienced divers. This was in 1989, and already these Australians had established a worldwide reputation as divers, deep-sea photographers. Their expertise has been called upon for such films as Jaws, and Orca.

You may know Valerie from the cover of National Geographic magazine, where she wore the suit made of chain-mail which Ron invented. “The Taylors are credited with being pioneers in several areas - the first people to film a great white shark without the protection of a cage and the first to film sharks by night. They are also credited with correcting the belief that sharks need to move forward to survive by obtaining footage of sharks sleeping on the sea-bed.” (Wikipedia). Other than the Jacques Cousteau expeditions, they were the first to observe sharks close-up from a submerged cage.

We learned a great deal from Ron and Valerie, including to beware of the lethal Blue-Ringed Octopus, the Stone Fish and Sea Snakes in Indonesia. Both warned us never to float (or wiggle arms and legs) on one of those air mattresses (or surfboard), because this attracts the shark. Although, Valerie told me, these prehistoric creatures don’t really like the taste of humans.


An encounter with two "salties"

We’re house and garden sitting and cat caring. This coincided yesterday with my 79th turn around the Sun. Received a pleasant surprise call from my nephew in Lelystad, Netherlands, but missed another from a fellow Circumnavigator in Athens.

We picnicked at Hope Bay on Pender Island. A sailboat was anchored. Australian, judging by its flag. We met the owners, a couple from Perth. They were sailing the Gulf Islands, then heading to Mexico for winter.
When real nomads meet, time doesn’t exist. We exchanged adventures. “Have you been to Tasmania and seen the “devil?” No. “Have you been to Easter Island, Rapa Nui?” Yes.

“Those Moai statues, staring into nowhere with big eyes, aren’t they something?” And Orongo, the bird cult and the Spring race to return with the first egg where the winner is ‘King’ for the year? And how they ignore sharks, fight each other, then cling to a steep Cliffside where the battle continues, with that egg on their head. All to be ‘King’ for twelve months?

We agreed Rapa Nui is a harbinger of what we’re doing today with the forests globally. They chopped down all the trees, and couldn’t get off the island. No wood to build their boats. Rebellion, wars, then famine followed.

I went on to share stories about sailing, diving and snorkelling. They were impressed I’d met renowned Australian divers, Ron and Valerie Taylor. (We were lucky to have had them as our guides on the first snorkel-dive trip to the Galapagos.).

I asked, “Have you been to the Komodo Dragon island?” They hadn’t. “Now that’s some prehistoric monster. It can run up to 30 km/hr. We witnessed it devour a goat in five minutes, from a safe distance, I might add.”

Duty called us back to the house. To keep the Deer at bay; they eat the flowers! But a pleasant and memorable birthday lunch indeed. Happy and safe sailing, mates! And don’t miss Komodo Island!


Magellan or Zheng He?

In our August 8 post we mentioned the international Circumnavigators Club. I didn’t mention Michael Palin will be recipient of the Club’s esteemed Magellan Award in April 2009.

Speaking of Magellan, someone just asked, “You’ve been on the seven seas often, how do you respond to the claims that Zheng He, the fourteen-century mariner from China, circumnavigated before Magellan?”

Well I am no expert on maritime history, and there is a lot of material out there on this subject, but according to Gavin Menzies’s book “1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered the World”, the answer is “yes”. Six years ago I wrote an article on this topic for the Circumnavigators Club LOG. Menzies is a retired submarine commander in the British navy. He says Zheng He circumnavigated the world in colossal “treasure ships”. His claims are controversial but the book is worth reading.

The Chinese used the brilliant star, Canopus, to chart their course in the year 1421. It’s also claimed the Mappa Mundi (which were possibly made by the Chinese mariners and chartmakers) were used by Magellan and other navigators.

So, were the Chinese first? Were they also in the Americas? Gavin Menzies says they were there before Columbus.

During my travels in South America in the 1960’s I met a Peruvian archaeologist in Cuzco, en route to Machu Picchu. He wondered how Chinese coins he’d discovered had found their way up in the Peruvian Andes. You know, those square ones with the hole in the middle.

On another topic, but staying with the theme of navigation, when I was a young boy, my grandfather told me this rarely heard story. It is about a meeting between Queen Isabella of Spain and Columbus, and took place at the Alhambra in Granada. We know Columbus appeared before the King and Queen of Spain to plead for financial backing for his expedition to the Indies.

Isabella asked Columbus how he could be so sure land and riches were awaiting Spain in faraway places?

In response Columbus presented her with an egg. He asked the Queen to try placing the egg on the table, without it rolling over. The Queen dutifully tried a few times but to no avail. The egg of course simply rolled over. Then Columbus took the egg, and with a simple but firm gesture, made it stand perfectly upright.

Isabella was astonished. “How is that possible?” exclaimed the Queen. “Simple, Your Majesty”, replied Columbus. “It’s a hard boiled egg!”

I just learned the intrepid Gavin Menzies has published a new book, again creating more controversy: “1434: The Year a Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance”. I’m going to get it from the library. After all, as Charlie Chan used to say, “Human mind like parachute, works best when open!”

Floating art class at Sea

What is the set-up for the art classes you give on ocean liners, isn’t it hard to paint in rough seas?” someone asked.

Back in 1974 in my pioneering days of Enrichment Programs of teaching and lecturing art at sea (I was the first-ever professional artist to do this), we had to cope with many novel situations. Natasha and I had to constantly improvise.

First, where to find a reliable and safe class space o/b the elegant Norwegian “ms Royal Viking Sky”. A lengthy voyage of 4 months, so we’d encounter all kinds of weather while circumnavigating the seven seas.

Next we negotiated with cruise director and consult officers to ensure nothing would interfere with onboard discipline.

We found a nice quiet spot, with good daylight. One drawback, no source of water. So Natasha had to take two buckets and walk down one deck to fetch the water. (Our students later dubbed her “Gunga Din”.)

Next problem, no tables. The only suitable ones were being used by the bridge players two decks below. These were not easily surrendered, but after some friendly persuasion, we got use of them for an hour..

Thus after our first “around the world” experience, we knew what to do in just about any situation.

Our recent sailings were o/b the venerable QE2. Classses were held near the Theatre and Crystal Bar. For each class, crew set up five banquet tables. If seas were rough, Natasha taped the plastic water cups, to keep everything sturdy. (But often we’d have several absent students who themselves were feeling wobbly, on what the Captain reminded us was after all, just a “moving platform”.)

We always start off with an exploration of Colour. Maximum results with minimum use of materials using only the three primary colours: Red, Yellow and Blue.

At the end of voyage we’d host an exhibition of their work to share with all aboard, including the Captain, who would usually pass by to give his compliments. Most were impressed by quality of work the students created, many of whom had hardly ever painted before. All done under our baton on the “floating art class”.


Zihuatanejo and the upset butcher

The August 5 post about stopping the Kinetic art show in Paris, 1966 reminded me of another event. It began in good ‘old Mexico in a sleepy village called Zihuatanejo, from a Nahuatl word meaning "place of women" because it was a matriarchal society.
In 1964 Zihuatanejo was unknown. We drove there by jeep from Acapulco through dense forest. The “garbage collectors” were pigs and the only reference to the modern world was a rusty Coca-Cola sign.
We rented a room in a house on Playa la Madera, owned by the lone schoolteacher and his wife. Zihuatanejo has a famous playa, Playa las Gatas. Legend has it that in pre-Columbian times, a Tarascan leader (see illustration) constructed the rock barrier (now also a reef), to provide a sheltered swimming area and harbour for the women and children. 

At night Manta Rays would come into the bay to play, giving a magnificent phosphorescent display. Coconut palms grew almost to the shoreline; the beach was a very fine, white sand. Mostly I slept in a hammock tied between two coconut palm trees.
Another beach, Playa la Ropa, had a few houses plus one building that looked like a small factory with chimney. Intrigued by the idea of a “factory” in such a location, I strolled over to check it out. To my dismay I noticed a contained ‘sea-pool’ which had dozens of Green Sea Turtles. Each was tied by one leg on a string.
The owner, a German and his wife, were producing Turtle Sausages! He hired young Mexican boys to catch them and wages were $1 per turtle. For the youngsters, a fortune in those days.
Back at our room, my landlady did a lot of sewing and had some scissors. That night (the moon was only a ‘fingernail-clipping’), I quietly approached the sea-pool, and cut off the strings from the turtles’ legs. They all scurried back into the ocean, free! while I slept the sleep of the innocent in my hammock.
Early next morning I heard the German screaming, “What has happened to my Turtles! Who the (blank) has cut these strings? I’ll get them! I am ruined!” etc, etc. Because I speak German, I went over and quietly asked, “What’s all the commotion?” They never knew who the “culprit” was. Adios.