Articles posted by Renee Bish

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Bespoke Ecuador

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We recently had family visit from the UK. Starting with the amazing churches of downtown Quito, said to be the best-preserved colonial center in the whole of South America. Even for non-religious folks the ostentatious splendor of a multitude of Spanish churches and cathedrals, dripping with Inca gold and Catholic artifacts is always a sensory overload coupled with a deep sense of history and subjugation.

The aim, in part, was to open the eyes of young Katie to a different world where travel and immersion in new cultures goes a long way in educating intelligent young minds – or as Mark Twain once said: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness …

Day two and our sojourn began in earnest. We headed south to one of Ecuador’s highest snow-capped peaks, Cotopaxi (the world’s highest active volcano). With a jeep full of mountain bikes we then headed down the impressive slope of the volcano, from 4560 meters, to the flatter paramo below. A classic cone, Cotopaxi rarely disappoints. Our destination for overnight was to be on the high slopes of Chimborazo Volcano, the peak of which is the farthest point from the center of the planet (due to the bulge in the earth).


On our previous visit, at Christmas with friend from New York, we had stopped at Calpi animal market. With no stalls for the livestock and little or no discernable order we pushed hordes of tethered cattle out of our path to make headway through the throng. The local Indians, dressed in ponchos, felt hats and sandals, joked with us, offering the best price if we would just buy one of their cows. Then we arrived at the pigs. Ten or so piglets per merchant radiated on taught ropes like spokes of a wheel from the stakes in the ground. In a squealing cachophany they were doing what pigs do – all but one – a little chap with a particularly squashed looking face. After some haggling Owen and Ana bought him. Stopping for a few snacks, declining the roasted chicken feet, we bought some fruit, including a few things that the piglet might enjoy. He quickly settled in, as any other passenger might and was quite at home as we continued in the minibus towards Chimborazo. Our quarters were simple and set within a small indigenous community of pastoralists who mostly tended a herd of alpacas. Rosa was our host, a lovely woman whom Renee and I had come to know fairly well over fifteen years of visits. She owned a cow, five sheep, several dogs and now, after a somewhat sad exchange, she owned a pig too. A promise was made that the pig, now named in my honour as Peter, would enjoy a long and happy life and the business of building him a nice place to live was attended to. Many of the human dwellings meanwhile were merely tiny sod huts with a thatched roof, low doorway and a fire set in the middle of the floor, for warmth, cooking and boiling water. The entire insides were blackened with soot.

Arriving back to see Rosa I cautiously asked how was Peter the Pig. “Petercito is wonderful”, she said “And so friendly!”. We were delighted and as soon as we saw him, how he had grown and Rosa’s relationship with him we could not have been more pleased. The following morning Petercito was standing up and leaning over his door. He is keen to go to work she told me. “What work?” I said. He has to go out fertilizing and turning the soil she told me!

We left with a vision of a happy pig in our minds as we followed Rosa, with the communal herd of alpacas in her charge as she led them to the slopes of Chimborazo to spend the day grazing.

Back on our mountain bikes we finished the first part of our tour by riding 35km, all downhill, on a beautiful country back road to Ambato.

You too could join Pete and Renee on a tailor-made trip to Ecuador. Having lived in Ecuador for more than 3 decades they certainly know their way around.

Eagle Hunter Expedition

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Mongola’s weather in the mountains out west might be unpredictable, but the kindness and hospitality of the Kazakhs never waivers. Spending a week exploring their territory involves moving our camp site every day or every other day. Depending on the size of the group we pitch at least a kitchen ger and a communal ger, sometimes two.

These get moved from place to place on an old Russian truck. At night this is a windbreak for the eagles. The food, tents and bedding go in on old Russian ambulance, hailing from world war II. These vehicles can go anywhere. When it is cold you just light a fire under it to thaw the diesel for about 45 minutes and then you are on your way.

We move on horseback riding for up to 8 hours. At lunch we get hot tea or coffee made on a stove that is carried on the back of one of the Kazakhs. Meanwhile our Toyota Landcruisers go ahead to meet us at our next destination (possibly the grazing grounds during a different season for one of our eagle hunters) and all the drivers club in to erect the camp so we can arrive to a comfortable place to eat, drink and sleep.

No sooner do we arrive to our new home and visitors from the surrounding area start arriving too.

All eagles need to be fed and put to bed around our gers. After the cooks’ have fed all of us and a mountain of local people most of our Kazakh riding companions disappear to spend the night in local family gers, leaving us to baby-sit their eagles. We have expedition tents to sleep in but in the cold we migrate into the communal ger with our sleeping bags and radiate around the central stove to keep warm. To make sure we have a comfortable night, someone comes in every 2- 3 hours to stoke the fires.

But as we start tucking into bed one of our friends comes in to serenade us with beautiful Kazakh music about eagles and love.

We also have a few of the eagle hunter’s dogs running along for the entire time. Pete’s challenge is to befriend them all so by the end they are eating out of his hand. Your horse just needs to stumble and someone is there to help. If you are not an experienced rider, someone will lead your horse. Where else can you ride for an entire day in the company of golden eagles, in spectacular scenery, crossing over mountain passes and through raging rivers, seeing no vehicles, no permanent homes and no fences. You camp anywhere, you stop everywhere and go into any ger for tea and an unending supply of homemade dairy products made from either sheep, goat, yak, camel or horse milk. These people are generous and fun and could not do more for us if we asked. Can’t wait to get back to Mongolia next year to laugh with and share our experiences and photos with our Kazakh friends who have become like family.
Renee Bish

 

Outer Mongolia

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I remember from my childhood that there were certain places in the world so far out there that they seemed almost mythical; Timbuktu comes to mind. Others were places whose name equated with punishment – to be sent to the Siberian Salt Mines for example. The threat of banishment was reserved for Outer Mongolia. Oh! I wish I knew then what I know now! Having once again returned from this amazing country I wondered how my upbringing would have been different if my parents, at the height of my naughtiness had bundled me up and sent me to Outer Mongolia.

For sure I would have learned at the ‘School of Hard Knocks’, it is a tough place, producing tough people. I would have learned to coax milk from the stubborn teats of camels, the art of extreme horsemanship, a reverence for nature, camaraderie, the importance of family, deep friendships, a sense of welcoming, survival skills to overcome the harsh winters, religious tolerance, minimalist living, an appreciation of the wide outdoors and a constant longing for the taste of hard curd. All-in-all not bad qualities to carry through life.

Regarding education and worldliness it is always a surprise to us how globally aware a herder in the Gobi Desert often is. Many times, for example, in the ‘developed’ world when answering people that I live in Ecuador they ask “Where is that?” In a nomadic herder’s ger (felt tent), through a translator, when learning I live in Ecuador they might say “Oh!” Between Colombia and Peru. “How is your president doing?” One of the positive benefits of a previous Russian occupation being the Russian radio access.

After a short absence since we were last in Mongolia (Reneé and I for a period even had an apartment in Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital, for 6 months) we were keen to see changes. Apart from the heavy increase in traffic made up of a huge influx of 2nd hand Toyota Prius’s from Japan I only have good things to report. The atmosphere was friendly, pleasant and much less ‘Russian’ than before. Eateries were vastly improved as was service, hotels and shopping.

Over our journey through the Altai Mountains in the west with the eagle hunters, to the ever-changing scenery of the Gobi Desert we reaffirmed many old friendships and formed friends from past acquaintances. Mongolia, to us is much closer to heaven than the hell of old.
We are all guilty of something (overwork, succumbing to the pressures of stress etc.) and if anybody out there thinks that they also deserve some time in banishment then let us know!
Pete Oxford

 

The Oceanic Society

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Authored by Wayne Sentman

Established in 1969, Oceanic Society is America’s oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean conservation. Throughout our history we have seen how conscientious nature travel can drive conservation and connect people to nature in meaningful ways. Our Expeditions programs have been a core component of how we pursue our mission for more than 40 years. With our Director, Rod Mast, having known Pete and Renee for over a decade now, and with Pete having worked as an expedition guide for Oceanic Society over the last few years, we are proud to be partnering with Pete Oxford Expeditions to develop truly exceptional expeditions.

As a non-profit we are mission driven, with our expeditions we hope to offer world class experiences in nature, both in the sea and on land. We also hope to inspire our travelers through the first hand experiences and education these types of immersive expeditions can deliver, but also wanting everyone along the way to simply revel in the “art” that nature’s beauty provides and nurtures us with. In that spirt we believe partnering with Pete and Renee on select expeditions will allow us all to offer our clients more passion-filled experiences, and allow both of our organizations to become stronger story-tellers so that we can inspire a larger following to create the lasting changes that are needed to improve the health of our environmental.

Declining ocean health is a worldwide problem whose causes—including overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change—are diverse and difficult to quantify. Yet they all share a common cause: human behaviors. Simply put, people put too much in and take too much out of the seas. Fortunately, we have the power—individually and collectively—to improve ocean health by making simple changes to our daily habits. By taking action to reduce our personal plastic consumption, to make better seafood choices, to participate in beach cleanups, to reduce our carbon footprint, or to support ocean-friendly legislation, we all have the ability to improve ocean health.

Each of our expeditions is designed with the intention to positively impact the natural areas and human communities we visit while also delivering transformative nature experiences for our travelers that deepen their connections to nature and promote the adoption of ocean-friendly “blue habits.” Moreover, any profits we earn are invested directly into our ocean research and conservation programs worldwide. Here’s how it works.


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ILCP

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Authored by Susan Norton, Executive Director

Pete Oxford is a Founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). In 2015, Pete presented at iLCP’s annual conservation communications event, WildSpeak, on Yasuni National Park’s unfathomable biodiversity and valuable natural history while raising awareness for the threats of oil extraction and road development. Pete was also part of a team of iLCP Fellows on an expedition to the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) to support the health of the reef ecosystem through visual media. The trip helped educate local fishermen about the benefits of adopting digital technologies, specifically OurFish App, for improved small-scale fisheries management.

As one of the most influential wildlife photographers in the world with an outspoken passion for conservation, he was a pivotal player in the formation of iLCP’s mission in conservation photography. With his involvement in the iLCP and through his diverse and dedicated work in nature conservation, he remains a key voice and leader in the field of conservation photography.

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Quito Vivarium

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Pete Oxford, has always maintained a strong conservation vision. He has been a permanent presence in the Fundación Herpetológica Gustavo Orcés (Vivarium de Quito) since its creation. The vision of the FHGO being to contribute to the conservation of Ecuadorian amphibians and reptiles through research and education, Pete continues to donate a large number of valuable, professional images to the foundation.

Always available to collaborate and advise on projects managed by the foundation he has been on the board of directors since August 2009. In this capacity he has been active in many areas within the organization.

Maria Elena Barragán Executive Director FHGO

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Plastic Pollution Coalition

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Pete was part of an eclectic team working with Dianna Cohen, CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition in Indonesia. Consisting of scientists, artists, photographers, film makers, activists and conservationists the team was studying ways to address the massive marine plastic pollution problem in Asia.

The Orianne Society

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Authored by Amanda Newsom

This December, the Orianne Society is profiling Pete Oxford, an exceptional wildlife photographer that we began partnering with in 2011. We are grateful to have a wonderful friend, partner and supporter in Pete and are truly appreciative of the work he has done for our organization and for conservation across the world.

Pete originally trained as a marine biologist but now dedicates his career to full-time professional photography along with his wife, Reneé Bish. His images have been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Time, Smithsonian, Life, Nature’s Best, International Wildlife, Ranger Rick, BBC Wildlife and more. Pete is a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and has been recognized by Outdoor Photographer Magazine as one the top 40 most influential nature photographers in the world.

Though Pete predominantly photographs wildlife and wilderness areas, he also enjoys focusing on indigenous cultures and their inextricable link to conservation efforts. He combines his photography expeditions and interest in conservation to write books, as well. Most of his 12 published books are about conservation and biodiversity in Ecuador, the country where this British photographer has lived for the past 29 years.

Pete is a man of many talents, and we at the Orianne Society are proud to partner with him to photograph the species and landscapes we are working to conserve. His work allows us to present our science-based projects with images that encompass the nature of amphibians, reptiles and ecosystems in a stunning and sophisticated manner. He has a talent for photographing animals that can sometimes be challenging to showcase, particularly snakes. This talent likely stems from his innate fondness for the animals—his first pet at age four was a snake—and enjoyment of working with them.

When asked about his time spent with the Orianne Society, Pete says: “Working with the Orianne Society ticks a lot of boxes for me. It is both a pleasure and an honor to work with their small, expert, highly-dedicated and efficient team. As one of the directors of a public display and outreach facility working to preserve reptile and amphibians in Ecuador, I share Orianne’s infectious passion for this group of often maligned animals. It is our hope that using photography as a tool we can reach a greater audience, endear them to the cause and eventually infect them with the same passion.”

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Ecuadorian Volcanoes

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Over the past few weeks we have been doing something that perhaps we should all do more often: take time out and explore locally! Lucky for us, here in Quito, Ecuador our ‘back yard’ includes Cotopaxi National Park, Antisana Ecological Reserve and the Chimborazo Forest Reserve. We have photographed, hiked, cycled and actually relaxed – all in the company of these Ecuadorian volcanoes!

Cotopaxi National Park

We were lucky at Cotopaxi National Park to have a beautiful clear day in a typically cloudy season. The perfectly symmetrical volcano was fully exposed, spewing clouds of vapour from its caldera, there were blue skies above and even the occasional puffy white cloud. Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world and a personal favourite of ours. Many a fond memory returns as we set foot into the biome. We remember spending a lot of time camping with Chagras (Andean, poncho-clad cowboys who range the high paramos to round up fighting bulls). Indeed we published an entire book on the Chagra culture, entranced as we were with their incredible unsung way of life. This visit was no exception, we got to ‘hang’ with them again, marvel at the horse tack, the stirrups and longest lassos in the world.

Antisana Ecological Reserve

The Antisana Ecological Reserve is an area well known for having a healthy population of Andean condors. Incredible birds they have a rich history in Inca and Ecuadorian culture. During our time in the park the low cloud cover, brought the condors lower to the ground. Once almost extinct in Ecuador, condors are thankfully beginning to make a comeback, I have even seen one over Quito before now! Nevertheless our highlight of this trip was in fact another bird – the carunculated caracara. These curious and intelligent birds of prey were seemingly everywhere. We were even able to walk up to one with a freshly killed Andean lapwing that it was ripping into. The peak of Antisana Volcano teased our visual sense as it shyly offered glimpses between the clouds, enticing our promise to return again soon.

Chimborazo Forest Reserve

Our most recent trip brought us into the home of indigenous people living in the shadow of Ecuador’s tallest volcano. Chimborazo which stands at over 6,200m and is in fact the farthest point on the planet from the centre of the Earth! Not only were we welcomed by such a warm community but in our travels we were also greeted by another group – though this one much more tentative. We were very pleased to see the population of wild vicuña now thriving after a reintroduction to its native landscape some twenty-seven years ago. The vicuña, for those of you that may not be familiar is a species of camelid which was bred by the Incas to create a famous domestic hybrid – the alpaca. The only wool collected from a vicuña is from its wispy chest hair, one of the finest wools known from the animal kingdom, it is extremely valuable and soft. As opposed to the other domesticated camelid from South America, the llama, (which was bred from the more coastal guanaco to be used as a pack animal) the alpaca also has an abundant fleece of fine, soft and warm wool.

Now, we admit that part of the reason for visiting these areas was purely selfish – we love being outdoors and any opportunity to take new photos of Ecuadorian volcanoes is always welcome. However, there are ulterior, Pete Oxford Expeditions motives at work as well. In just under 3 months we will be leading a couple of 14 day expeditions to the Galapagos Islands, and we have been scouting potential pre or post expedition adventures to share with our friends that are coming! I would say that any of the above would serve as an exciting balance to any Galapagos itinerary, now the challenge presents itself: which do we choose?

As an aside we have only two spots left on the November Galapagos expedition so jump aboard the S/S Mary Anne with us, spend 14 days exploring the landscape and wildlife that inspired Darwin and then maybe explore mainland Ecuador for yourself for a few days in the Avenue of the Volcanoes all close to Quito.

Until next time, keep exploring!

Pete & Renee

Sailfish – Ocean’s Ambassador

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I was just inspired by a similar piece published by Paul Nicklen, a good friend and hero of ocean conservation. Below is a similar piece I wrote some five years ago, and have to concur with Paul that my experience with Sailfish was as surprising, emotional and exhilarating as anything I too have ever experienced in Nature.

We must learn to respect and conserve our ocean’s predators.

“Don’t end up as a kebab!” my friend Pete Atkinson Skyped me after I’d told him about my upcoming adventure.

It was March, in Mexico, off the Yucatan Peninsula on Isla Mujeres, and it was six o’clock in the morning. I was on the dock, ready to board one of the fleet of a dozen high-tech, game-fishing boats, each bristling with fishing poles, out-riggers and antennas. Clients and crews were cocky with anticipation. Fishing was good – the annual migration of sailfish was in full swing.

Sailfish are one of the most highly prized gamefish in the world. The sport fishing industry sells them as “providing thrilling leaps and a powerful and acrobatic fight”. Personally, I have to admit that I just don’t get it. I fail to understand how the terror of a magnificent, hooked fish, in its desperate attempts to evade death can be entertaining, whether it leaps out of the water or not. Nor do I understand how we view the fish as “providing” such a show as if it were doing it obligingly to please a human audience.

Nevertheless my three compañeros and I were no exception, we were also there to get amongst the sailfish. Our intentions however were different. We wanted to peel back the barrier and witness one of the world’s most incredible fish in its natural environment – from underwater.

Sailfish are members of the billfishes, Istiophoridae, family (which includes all the marlin, the spearfish and sailfish). They are a designated Highly Migratory Species (HMS) and will swim an average of 200,000 miles, through international waters, in their 16 year lifetime. They can grow quickly in their first year reaching up to five foot in length but from then on their growth slows considerably. They are one of the most inshore ranging of the billfish feeding on flying fish, halfbeaks, sardines, small tuna, squid and octopi.

The problem of course is how do you find a few sailfish in a vast expanse of open water. Despite their size of up to nine feet in length and in excess of 120 pounds, they remain elusive. Except that is when they gather to feed.

We slipped away from the dock, scanning the surface out to the horizon in earnest as we motored into blue water. We were not in fact looking for the sailfish themselves – but frigatebirds. With a 6-7 foot wingspan and only a 2-3 pound body weight these aerial masters dotted the sky, lazily cruising on outstretched wings. They were hungry and they too were, indirectly, looking for sailfish.

Then, a mere hour into our day, on the horizon we spotted what we were looking for – more frigates. This time, the birds were flying in a concentrated funnel, swooping down to the surface to snatch sardines from the water. We were already kitted up in wetsuits, weightbelts, long fins, masks and cameras and excitement levels were high. By the time the skipper had reached the meleé and turned our stern into the action, we were lined up on the back rail, filled with anticipation ready to jump.  ‘Délé, Go, Go!” shouted the skipper and we launched ourselves in to the water. The difference between what we had seen in air, watching the frenzy of the frigatebirds, coupled with the occasional, tantalizing glimpse of action below, to what we witnessed as we passed through the invisibly thin surface, was, quite literally a world apart.A large, living, silver ball of polarized sardines was being kept pressed against the surface by as many as 50 swift, dark shapes criss-crossing below and to the side. Sailfish! We kicked frantically, cameras at arms length aiming at the action and firing away with super wide lenses. We were lucky so far but this could well be our only encounter of these elusive fish. The sardines were trapped and the frigates were maximizing on the bonanza held within their reach by the hunting sailfish. As we sped forward, the closer our approach, the more awesome the spectacle became. The whole group was working like a pack of wolves, they were cooperating in the hunt in the typical manner of other apex predators. Lions cooperate, wolves do and so do wild dogs and hyenas, yet for some reason we don’t normally associate fish with any character or individuality but merely within the limitations of ‘tasty’, ‘tonnage’ or ‘something to hook’ – let me tell you, now is the time to take another look.

Indeed, humans largely view fish as a resource. We continue to pull them out of the ocean as if the old adage were really true “That there are plenty more fish in the sea.” That may have been true a century ago when fishing pressure was low and the playing field was more level, when we did not totally outcompete the fish with advanced technological capabilities to find and catch them by the hundreds of thousands of tons, and, also, in a time when there were only 2 billion not 7 billion people on the planet. Today however all the billfish populations are at an all time low, several species may already be close to a non-viable population number and may not recover sufficiently once the present long-lived adult population begins to die off while the current kill rate is maintained.

As we moved in yet closer to the hunting pack we began to make sense of the apparent chaos. The prey were being herded into a tight bait-ball. Sailfish would swim close and flick up the huge sail-like dorsal fin like a fence to consolidate the sardines, another would work the opposite side while others stayed below. Colour patterns instantaneously flashed on the bodies of the hunters from a purple-with-blue-spots, to a dramatic silver-and-blue-striping, to a stunning coppery-bronze colour; the revelation was that they were actually communicating. Reminiscent of squid or cuttlefish (mere mollusks), they appeared to be using a kind of chromatic semaphore. The meaning was lost on us except that as they turned in, one at a time, to the bait ball to feed, they most often lit up with a metallic bronze as if signaling “It’s my turn, I’m going in!” Their sails would erect explosively with the whooshing sound of a zip fastener and they would swim until their bill was inside the bait ball. I had been told that they would slash at the sardines with their rough-edged bill and stun a few fish to pick up later. The truth was so much more elegant as, with an almost imperceptible sidewise motion, (virtually only a vibration) it was enough to knock a sardine senseless which was scooped up there and then on the fly. The satisfied sailfish pulled out, the sardines baled up tighter and then another hungry hunter would flash bronze and move in effortlessly to the bait ball to grab itself a bite to eat. Through close observation one could see that the whole process was in fact ordered, refined – gentlemanly almost.In all my travels and close encounters with nature, to be in the intimate company of 50 Atlantic sailfish, in blue, oceanic water was already, after 45 minutes, a major wildlife highlight in my life. Part of the beauty of the experience was the fact that these top predators, who knew exactly that we were there, accepted us completely and let us simply observe.

Yet, these ambassadors of the high seas are threatened, like so much else in the oceans of the world. Even before humans have learned enough about their basic biology, from the moment we have been able we have rapidly and very effectively, been systematically ridding the planet of sailfish. Nor do we understand the consequences. We do know that apex predators in general are the keystone species of ecosystems and without sailfish being present in their pivotal role anything could happen. Maybe no billfish would mean that baitfish numbers exploded, just as no lions results in too many grazers and bush turning to desert so, an explosion of baitfish might eat all the plankton. But, guess what, 50% of the planet’s oxygen comes from oceanic plankton. Who knows what will happen? Whatever happens, if the trend continues, it will not be good.

Why are they threatened? Throughout their range sailfish regularly encounter 30-40 mile long lengths of monofilament nylon, laced with tens of thousands of baited hooks. Easy prey, the sailfish take the bait and drown on the line. The cruel irony is that these highly NON-selective fishing methods are actually targeting tuna and swordfish, yet alongside the dead sailfish may hang a drowned turtle or albatross. Sailfish have a rather tough, undesirable meat and are not even allowed to be landed commercially in the USA. When the fisherman comes to haul in the longline he berates the catch of “trash” fish, turtles and birds as a waste of hook space and they get tossed overboard to pile up on the sea floor. Unbelievably these incredible fish are caught for no other reason than to be thrown away as “by-catch” – a politically correct euphemism meaning carnage and waste.

I could no more imagine killing one of these animals as I could a lion. Of course there are people who would like to do both and I would say to those people “What’s the point? Haven’t we done enough damage to the planet, our home, already?” “Why not just trash your bedroom, your living room or your back yard – surely it’s the same?”

As the bait ball was being eaten smaller and smaller, the desperate sardines became individually more and more vulnerable. Occasionally one would break out from the ball and try to take sanctuary in our wetsuits or use us as a shield. An alert sailfish would soon swerve in perilously close to catch the errant sardine and, as thin as a knife would flex its body and shy away at the last instant in a supreme show of athleticism, the long, pointed bill missing my face by a foot or less. It was then I remembered Pete Atkinson’s comments and knew that if a sailfish had the will it could pierce my body with it’s sword, like a hot knife through butter. Malice was absent however and I felt guilty on behalf of those of my species whose only thought was to wrangle a hooked one.