Mediterranean Lionfish Invasion

Lionfish

This Mediterranean lionfish was one of six hunting together today under a cluster of boulders off Turkey’s Datça Peninsula.  Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

I mention in an earlier post that 130,000 years of human civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean might be a factor in explaining why I have seen so few fish underwater during my first month of exploring this coastline in Flying Fish.

In fact, the species loss here has been exacerbated in only the past decade and a single predatory fish may bear some of the responsibility. The first lionfish in the Mediterranean was officially reported in 2012. Other divers have seen them even earlier. Still, these fish originating from the Indian Ocean are newcomers to the neighborhood. Now biologists fear the population of this predator with virtually no natural enemies may be out of control in the Mediterranean as it is elsewhere in the world.

Marine biologists with the Cypriot Enalia Physis Environmental Research Centre say lionfish first appeared in the waters off Cyprus in 2012. Since then the number of lionfish has exponentially increased not only in Cyprus but now also in Turkey and around some of the southern Greek islands. “Wherever you dive you can now see the lionfish in masses,” reported Louis Hadjioannou, research director at Enalia.

The Mediterranean invasion of lionfish resembles that of the western Atlantic Ocean. Lionfish were first recorded off the coast of Florida in 1994, but only 20 years later it was estimated that there were up to 1,000 lionfish per acre of coastline. A female lionfish can produce two million eggs a year. Marine biologists say they could be reducing Atlantic reef species diversity by up to 80%.

The lionfish’s “exponential rise” in the Eastern Mediterranean was facilitated by the widening of the Suez Canal—completed in 2014—and warming regional water temperatures, according to Jason Hall-Spencer, a marine biology professor at Britain’s University of Plymouth. The cooler waters of the western Mediterranean, he reported, have largely been spared of lionfish for the moment.

Culling lionfish for food has helped reduce their numbers in other parts of the world. I have yet to see a lionfish in a Turkish fish market but stranger things make their way to the dinner table here–Koc Yumurtasi (ram’s testicles), for example. I look forward one day soon to preparing whole fried lionfish to my new Turkish friends.

lionfish cooked

Whole fried lionfish prepared by the Miami restaurant Fish Fish.  Credit: foodrepublic.com


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If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into the Mediterranean, and onward, you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

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My Sea Change

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Flying Fish is anchored bow and stern in the iridescent waters of the Turkish Mediterranean Sea. Photography:  © Jeffrey Cardenas

In the past 30 months, Flying Fish has carried me through the western Caribbean, across the Pacific to Polynesia, south to New Zealand, New Caledonia, Australia, and across Southeast Asia. Within every molecule of water I have encountered a life and landscape that is profoundly different. Now, as I begin my passage through the Mediterranean Sea, I am experiencing another significant sea change. There will be time to reflect and write of these changes, but, as always, my first impressions are visual. Here is a small portfolio of images from the Turkish Mediterranean and some initial thoughts on this exciting new water.


How this gallery works: The text under each image is relevant. Hover the cursor not just on the image, but at the BOTTOM of each image to read the text. When you click on the text it will bring up a full-frame view with a scrolling arrow allowing navigation to each image. Thanks for being interested enough to do this. 

Rock Passage

The landscape is rugged and wild on the Kapıdağ Yarımadası Peninsula of Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline. Photography:  © Jeffrey Cardenas


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If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into the Mediterranean, and onward, you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

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The Fatal Seduction of Oleander

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Flying Fish anchored against a backdrop of blooming oleander in the environmental preserve of Turkey’s Skopea Limani.  Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Beautiful anchorages seduce me. Turkey’s Skopea Limani is one of those places: the bay is protected from the meltemi winds, it is an environmentally protected area (SEPA) with clear turquoise water, and it is rich in archeological heritage. But before I knew of any of those attributes though, Skopea Limani had me at oleander…

It is a good year for oleander in the Eastern Mediterranean. Viewed from offshore aboard Flying Fish, clusters of oleander blossoms paint the landscape of this arid shoreline. The plant beckons like a Siren with pink flowers and the fragrance of a fine Turkish rosé. Oleander is also considered one of the most poisonous plants in the world.

All parts of this beautiful shrub contain poison–several types of poison. According to the American Poison Control Center, the two most potent toxins in the plant are oleandrin and neriine, known for their powerful effect on the heart and brain. Ingestion of oleander can cause nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and internal bleeding. The effect on the central nervous system may include tremors, seizures, and collapse. The poison of oleander is so strong that a single leaf can kill a person.

Pliny the Elder, who wrote the epic 37-volume treatise Naturalis Historia in AD 77, investigated natural and geographic phenomena in the Mediterranean. Writing of oleander he said it “…grows in sea-bordering places & in places near rivers. But ye flower and the leaves have a power destructive of dogs & of Asses & of Mules & and of most four-footed living creatures.” But it wasn’t all bad news; Pliny added that oleander was an effective antidote to venomous snakebites if mixed with other herbs.

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Miniature by Andrea da Firenze from an edition of Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder, c. 1457–58, showing Pliny writing in his study, with landscape and animals. British Library —Public Domain.

It was long considered that oleander could even poison a person who simply eats honey made by bees that have digested oleander nectar. Pliny describes a region in Turkey where bees pollinated poisonous flowers and that toxic honey was left as a poisonous trap for an invading army. King Mithridates also used the honey as a deliberate poison when Pompey’s army attacked the Heptakometes in Asia Minor in 69 BC. The Roman soldiers became delirious and nauseated after being tricked into eating the toxic honey, at which point Mithridates’s army attacked. More recent scholars, however, contend that the flowers have been apparently mis-translated. Oleander flowers are nectarless and therefore cannot transmit any toxins via nectar. According to a team of Turkish doctors who in 2009 wrote the wonderfully titled report Mad honey sex: therapeutic misadventures from an ancient biological weapon, the actual flower referenced by Pliny was probably a variety of rhododendron, which is still used in Turkey to produce a type of hallucinogenic honey.

Oleander also has its own record of hallucinogenic qualities. A 2014 article in the medical journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine suggests that oleander was the substance used to induce hallucinations in the Pythia, the female priestesses of Apollo, also known as the Oracle of Delphi.

Pythia

A 19th century vision of how the Pythia might have looked intoxicated by hallucinogenics. Priestess of Delphi by John Collier, 1891 —Public Domain

According to this theory, the symptoms of the Pythia’s trances (enthusiasmos) correspond to either inhaling the smoke or chewing small amounts of oleander leaves. And in his book Enquiries into Plants circa 300 BC, Theophrastus described a shrub he called onotheras, which modern editors render as oleander. When administered in wine, oleander was said to “make the temper gentler and more cheerful.” 

Cleopatra was fascinated with oleander. According to her legend she tested its effects on her servants when she was researching the best vehicle to commit suicide as Octavian descended upon ancient Alexandria. When Cleopatra saw the horrific symptoms of oleander (vomiting, facial contortions, severe convulsions), she opted for a less violent way to die. (Interesting footnote: Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff suggests that it was also highly unlikely that Cleopatra killed herself with the bite of a poisonous snake, as has been suggested for thousands of years.)

So what does the Mediterranean history of oleander have to do with sailing? Nothing and everything. The voyage of Flying Fish is one driven by curiosity. I am attracted to the aesthetics of nature and how nature not only affects me but also those who sailed these waters before me. That said, the research reminds me that I shouldn’t put oleander leaves in my salad, or mix it with my wine. I would never have guessed that just kneeling on some fallen leaves while I crouched down to make a photograph would set my skin on fire. My antidote was far less complicated than in the time of Pliny the Elder–I just popped a double dose of Benadryl and settled in for some nice dreams.

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cleopatra2

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners is an 1887 painting by the French artist Alexandre Cabanel showing Cleopatra observing the effects of poisons, including oleander, on prisoners condemned to death. —Public Domain

  • REFERENCES
  • International Oleander Society: Information on Oleander Toxicity
  • Wikipedia.org: Nerium
  • Pliny the Elder: Natural History
  • Stacy Schiff: Cleopatra

Please subscribe at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish. Readers encourage me to continue writing.

If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into the Mediterranean, and onward, you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020

Of Saints and Lesser Men

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The ruins of the basilica at Karacaören Asadi.  Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

The Byzantine tombs are visible from the sea and even before I set foot on this lonely eastern Mediterranean island I feel the spirit of those who lived, prayed, and died on Karacaören Adasi. I have come to see one tomb in particular. It is not clear who is interred here but I have been told that inside this tomb are remnants of an ancient fresco, a depiction of St. Christopher under a starry sky.

I have rejoined my cutter Flying Fish in southeastern Turkey after the COVID-19 pandemic separated us in March. I quarantined in Key West. Once the initial wave of coronavirus receded in Florida I caught the first flight available from Miami to Istanbul. (Turkey is a non-EU country and at the time of this writing was still admitting U.S. citizens.) Little did I know that the virus in America would return like a tsunami. I isolate now aboard Flying Fish, my immediate future a sea of uncertainty. It is a good time to be among the saints.

Under the watchful eye of the imposing peak Babadağ (Big Papa), I am aware that I will tread on consecrated land when I go ashore at Karacaören Adasi. It is not forbidden but still I feel compelled to tread softly. There is no tourism on this tiny island. No beach, resorts, villas, or roads. There is not even a boat landing on Karacaören Adasi. It is an imposing fortress of rock shards rising steeply from the sea. I anchor my dinghy offshore of the island, put cameras into a waterproof bag, and swim to the rocks. There is no evidence of a living soul on the island but still I sense that I am being watched.

Ruins are visible on many islands in this area of the Turkish Mediterranean. Ancient civilizations existed along the Lycian coastline for millennia. One island nearby, Gemiler Adasi, is a popular destination for large Turkish gulets (tour boats) that bring hundreds of tourists daily to its ruins. Gemiler Adasi is also consecrated land with dozens of ecclesiastical ruins and over 50 Christian tombs. It is thought that Saint Nicholas (Father Christmas) was buried on Gemiler Adasi in the 4th century AD. If so, Saint Nicholas must now be rolling over in his grave. The gulets arrive each morning blasting Turkish hip-hop from speakers loud enough to wake the dead. The day trippers pour out of the gulets and onto the island leaving in their wake soda cans, cigarette butts, and dirty disposable diapers. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, and pawnbrokers. Saint Nicholas must also be a very forgiving soul.

I escape the noise of Gemiler Adasi and choose instead to explore uninhabited Karacaören Adasi. As I climb ashore I find a foothold in the 1,500-year-old steps cut into solid rock. The island is only a half-kilometer square but nearly every part of it contains evidence of a Byzantine civilization destroyed, presumably, by the earthquakes that frequent this part of the Mediterranean. In my periphery I catch a glimpse of something else. Something–or somebody–is moving among cedar trees and densely growing macchie shrubs.

On Karacaören Adasi I am thinking about the martyr St. Christopher. According to the legendary account of his life, Christopher was a Canaanite 5 cubits tall (7.5 feet) and said to be cursed with a fearsome face. The mythos of Christopher tells of one day when a child approached him and asked, because of Christopher’s great height, to be helped across a river. Christopher obliged. However, as they entered midstream, the river rose and the child’s weight increased. It was only with great effort that Christopher safely delivered the child to the other side. When he asked the child why he was so heavy, the child explained that, “He was the Christ and when Christopher carried Him, he also carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.” Afterward, Christopher traveled throughout Lycia proselytizing to those he met. This was unacceptable to Roman Emperor Decius, and in 251 AD he ordered the pious giant beheaded. Christopher was ultimately beatified and he became the patron saint of travelers.

The steps to the ruins of Karacaören Adasi lead to what archeologists have identified as a three-aisle basilica with a baptistery to one side. I walk amid the rubble, the ground littered with chunks of white marble, terra cotta, and mosaic. Round arches and domes that once brought light and warmth into this basilica still stand along the edges of the ruin but this house of worship is now open to the sky. Behind the basilica is a deep cistern cut into the ground. It is dry and bones are visible amid the debris at the bottom. Behind me I hear a quiet footstep, and then the displacement of small rocks.

There are two rounded crypts together just outside what may have been the sacristy of the basilica. The rock doors of the tombs have been breached and the burial trenches unearthed. The domed ceilings are still largely intact. Inside one of the crypts, above the grave of an unknown Lycian, is what remains of the centuries-old the fresco said to be the image of St. Christopher rendered under the stars a Mediterranean sky.

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The excavated tomb. Is this the storied fresco of St. Christopher on the island of Karacaören Adasi?  Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

It is gratifying to see something this ancient, free of graffiti and garbage, and to think of the hands and souls that created the artwork so many years ago. This is pure unrestored history. I cannot clearly make out the image of what may or may not be St. Christopher but the red pigment depicting the flowing robes of this subject is clearly visible on the walls. Did the artist who painted this sit on the same stone that supports me now and admire the work? And who was privileged to be buried under this fresco? A high priest, a nobleman?

I am lost in quiet reverie until I hear–definitively–the sound of movement just outside of the tomb. I stand quickly and strike my head on the wedged-shaped voussoir stones that support the ceiling of the crypt. For a moment I see my own sepulcher stars… Then, outside, there is the sound of footsteps running away. I quickly emerge from the tomb. Who’s there? It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright Mediterranean light. And then I am face-to-face with my apparition. A white goat stands atop the ruins, smiling at me. 

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The Karacaören apparition, a happy white goat. Photograph: Jeffrey Cardenas

 

Please subscribe at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish. Readers encourage me to continue writing.

If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into the Mediterranean, and onward, you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

To see where Flying Fish has sailed since leaving Key West in 2017, click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

Instagram: FlyingFishSail
Facebook: Jeffrey Cardenas

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020