Gibraltar & the Barbary Apes

The Rock of Gibraltar is home to Europe’s only wild primate, macaque monkeys, locally known as Barbary Apes. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Aboard Flying Fish, I sense the Rock before I even see it. Gibraltar remains hidden by dense fog until Flying Fish is just a few hundred meters offshore. Then, the Rock appears like a specter off the starboard bow. Huge and close. I have frequently felt the presence of places I have visited on this voyage, but few affect me as powerfully as seeing this monolith emerging from the foggy Mediterranean Sea. A Gibraltar landfall is a rite of passage for many ocean sailors.

Neanderthals walked here, as did the Cro-Magnons. Arriving later were the Phoenicians, Goths, Moors, Romans, and centuries of European powers. Overlapping many of those civilizations, one group of survivors remained established on the Rock–Gibraltar’s Barbary Ape.

The “Ape” is an Old World monkey species, a Barbary macaque, originating in the Atlas and Rif Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, 20 kilometers across the Strait of Gibraltar. Some scientists speculate that the monkeys may also be related to macaques that migrated 5 million years ago across southern Europe. Regardless of their lineage, Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques are iconic to the Rock. Wrote historian Alonso Hernanández del Portillo of Gibraltar in the early 1600s: “There are monkeys, who may be called the true owners, with possession from time immemorial.”[1]

I cannot sail past the Rock of Gibraltar without reacquainting myself with this wild band of free-roaming monkeys I first met some 45 years ago. Much has changed, but the Barbary macaques are still the main attraction in Gibraltar.

A popular belief holds that as long as the macaques exist on Gibraltar, the territory will remain under British rule.[2] In 1942, after the macaque population dwindled to just seven monkeys, Winston Churchill ordered their numbers be replenished from North Africa (in the midst of World War II and Rommel’s Afrika Korps). The monkeys became so important to Gibraltar’s interests that until 1991 their care was entrusted to the British Army, and later, the Gibraltar Regiment. A “Keeper of the Apes” maintained up-to-date records for each macaque, listing births and names and supervising their diet. The War Office in 1944 gave the macaques a food budget of £4 a month for fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Each macaque was issued a serial number with its name. The Gibraltar Chronicle would announce births: “Rock Apes. Births: To Phyllis, wife of Tony, at the Upper Rock, on 30th June 1942— a child. Both doing well.” The names would often be associated with someone of stature in British society, like Elizabeth, named for the Queen, or Winston, for Churchill. If Elizabeth or Winston, or any ill or injured monkey needed surgery or medical attention they were taken to Royal Naval Hospital in Gibraltar, where they received the same treatment as an enlisted serviceman.[3] Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, along with Prince Charles and Princess Anne, met the Barbary Apes while visiting Gibraltar in 1954. A photograph shows the Queen and royal family happily feeding the macaques.


Click on any photo for a slideshow of high-resolution images with captions showing the many personalities of Gibraltar’s Barbary Apes. All photographs © Jeffrey Cardenas


About 250 macaques remain on the Rock. Although the human population of Gibraltar numbers only 34,000 people, this tiny territory of 6.8 square kilometers recorded 11 million visitors in 2019 (pre-COVID). It is one of the highest tourist-to-resident ratios in the world, and many of those visitors come to co-mingle with the free-roaming Barbary Apes. These days if the Queen fed a macaque in Gibraltar, she (or anyone else) could be fined £4,000. That penalty, however, doesn’t stop tourists from acting badly.

Early one morning, I pack a bag of cameras and climb to the top of the Rock at Prince Philips Arch, where I hope to see a troop of Barbary macaques. When I arrive, there is already a gridlock of taxi vans disgorging a mob of tourists insistent on capturing selfies with a monkey. Prince Philips Arch is in the Gibraltar Upper Rock Nature Reserve, an official feeding station for the macaques, and it is stocked today with carrots, corn, and watermelon. The monkeys, however, are more focused on the bags of snack food, candy bars, and surreptitious peanuts in the possession of the tourists. There are squeals of delight every time a macaque jumps on somebody’s head or unzips a backpack. Two young men speaking Russian tease the macaques with a peanut butter sandwich. The men are shirtless and sunburned, and possibly drunk because one man slaps the open face of his sandwich onto the bare back of his buddy, and they howl with laughter as the macaques go berserk and chase them.

Tourism reached its peak in Gibraltar in 1985, when, after years of hostilities with Spain, the border finally reopened. A flood of visitors poured onto the Rock. Some 45,000 people entered Gibraltar within the first week, increasing to over 10,000 per day. Within six months, a million people had visited. By 1986, five million visitors a year were arriving in Gibraltar. Nearly everyone who came wanted to see the Barbary Apes. To make room for visitors’ cars on Gibraltar’s crowded roads, 1,000 old vehicles were rounded up in Gibraltar and pushed off the cliffs into the sea at Europa Point on the southern tip of the territory.[4] The number of macaques rapidly increased as a result of illegal feeding by tourists. It also led to an increase in aggressive behavior as the monkeys associated humans with junk food. The problem culminated in 2008 with the Government of Gibraltar ordering the culling of a rogue troop of monkeys that was breaking into hotel rooms and scavenging garbage cans. Researchers and animal rights activists protested the cull, but the Government justified it because overly aggressive monkeys would frighten tourists and damage the economy.[5]

More recently, the Government of Gibraltar says it is making efforts to crack down on human interactions with the macaques, including daily patrols and microchips in the monkeys. In addition to fines for feeding the macaques, a new law was passed last year, making it an offense to touch or interfere in any way with the monkeys. In the 20 hours over several days that I recently spent among the monkeys in Gibraltar’s Upper Rock Nature Reserve, I saw many tourists feeding, touching, and interfering with the macaques. Not once did I see any official presence or enforcement of the tourist misbehavior.

Later, I hike to an isolated promontory above Europa Point, between what the Athenian philosopher Plato called the “Two Pillars of Hercules”–the Atlas Mountains of Africa to the south and the Rock of Gibraltar to the north. I think of the prehistoric description of this piece of land by Gibraltar Museum evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson: “While the rest of Europe was cooling, the area around Gibraltar back then resembled a European Serengeti. Leopards, hyenas, lynxes, wolves and bears lived among wild cattle, horses, deer, ibexes, oryxes and rhinos – all surrounded by olive trees and stone pines, with partridges and ducks overhead, tortoises in the underbrush and mussels, limpets and other shellfish in the waters.”

Gibraltar’s Barbary Apes are survivors in a rapidly changing world. Among the dense pines above Europa Point, I watch a troop of macaques interact, away from the melee of tourists. They forage naturally and groom each other, a sign of reduced stress. I watch a female macaque nurse an infant while a male moves close to gently participate in the parenting. This idyllic scene has me questioning whether my presence among the macaques also makes me part of the problem. I may not torment the monkeys with peanut butter, but I am, along with millions of other visitors, encroaching upon the space of a wild thing that was here first. I wonder: How can humans learn to interact with less impact and more equitably share this natural world?

In an 1887 satire by Jules Verne, the Spaniard Gil Braltar invades the Rock with a macaque troop after disguising himself as one of them. Drawn by George Roux. Credit: Public Domain

References:

[1] “Historia de la Muy Noble y Más Leal Ciudad de Gibraltar,” Alonso Hernanández del Portillo (1605-1610)

[2] “The Curious Case of the Last ‘Wild’ Monkeys in Europe,” Atlas Obscura, Dan Nosowitz, 2019

[3] “Gib Monkeys,” Internet Archive, 2011, Wikipedia

[4] “Gibraltar: British or Spanish?” Peter Gold 2012, Wikipedia

[5]  “Tourism Management: An Introduction,” Clare Inkson, Lynn Minnaert, 2012, Wikipedia


Sailing is not just about the wind and the sea; equally important are the places where Flying Fish carries me.

Please click Follow at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and please consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish. I welcome your comments. I will always respond when I have an Internet connection. And I will never share your personal information.

You can follow the daily progress of Flying Fish, boat speed (or lack thereof), and current weather as I sail into the Mediterranean by clicking this satellite uplink: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/FlyingfishClick the “Legends and Blogs” box on the right side of the tracking page for en route Passage Notes. 

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 2021

Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives   –Fr. John Baker

Andalucían Flamenco

Flamenco is one of the symbols of Spanish national identity.
“I’ve often lost myself,
in order to find the burn that keeps everything awake.”

Federico García-Lorca

In the Andalucían city of Granada, one of the birthplaces of flamenco, there is a heightened state of emotion, expression, and authenticity known as duende. It is a “mysterious and ineffable charm” that seems to emanate from the whitewashed walls and ancient cobblestones in the gitano neighborhoods of Albayzín and Sacromonte. Poet Federico García-Lorca said, “To search for the duende there is no map or exercise.” Except when one spends a late night in the hills above the city among the tablaos and cuevas where flamenco is performed with intimate intensity.

All photos and video: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Sailing is not just about the wind and the sea; equally important are the places to which Flying Fish carries me.

Please click Follow at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and please consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish. I welcome your comments. I will always respond to your comment when I have an Internet connection. And I will never share your personal information.

You can follow the daily progress of Flying Fish, boat speed (or lack thereof), and current weather as I sail into the Mediterranean by clicking this satellite uplink: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/FlyingfishClick the “Legends and Blogs” box on the right side of the tracking page for en route Passage Notes. 

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 2021

Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives   –Fr. John Baker

Flamingos of Las Salinas

The earth’s Prime Meridian transits the salt flats of Calpe, where Flying Fish lays at rest after a passage from Ibiza. In a sense, this line of longitude is where time begins and ends each day. Time modifies and reorders the natural world: adaptation or extinction. These random thoughts occupy my mind as I share space on the salt flats with one of the world’s most iconic bird species. The greater flamingo has adapted and survived thousands of years of extraordinary change along Spain’s Costa Blanca.

The salt flats of Las Salinas were first utilized during the great Roman era of the 2nd century AD. Now, a busy marina and a European holiday center surround the edges of these ancient alluvial deposits. The greater flamingo continues to thrive here despite the high-rise apartments, Jet Skis, and música electrónica that have changed the shadow and sound of its environment. These flamingos are wild birds. Their wings are not clipped. They are not fenced in or fed. That they choose to return to Las Salinas, in the middle of this urban setting, is a testament to how nature adapts.

The salt flats and the city of Calpe are at the base of the massive rock Peñón de Ifach, a 1,000-foot massif of limestone rising from the Mediterranean Sea. Ifach is an important homing beacon for birds. Some 173 species, both nesting and migrating, have been recorded here, including black-winged stilts, avocets, the black wheatear, and the white wagtail. There is some ornithological tourism in Calpe, but most tourists come instead for a different variety of wagtail, and to get sunburned and drink sangria.

Tourists sharing Calpe with the birds date back at least two millennia. Across the sandbar delineating the salt flats and the edge of the sea, archeologists excavated the “Baños de la Reina.” Ancient Roman engineers designed a thermal complex including pools of different temperatures, a sophisticated heating system, and a piscinae for sunken gardens and the farming of live fish. But for whom this ultimate vacation villa was constructed is still unknown. Archeologists know that hidden tunnels allowed private access to the Baths of the Queen, but they do not know who the queen was. Whoever merited this elaborate architecture of marble and mosaics was most certainly “a person with a high purchasing power.”[1] Marcus Aurelius is famously quoted saying, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” Perhaps Marcus Aurelius kept a mistress at the salt flats of Calpe.

The history that has shaped the landscape of Las Salinas has also helped maintain its natural habit and biodiversity. Salt was a necessity for fish preservation, which Calpe used to market its catch. Eventually, salt from these lagoons supplied fishing industries in over 40 Spanish municipalities. At the end of the 18th century, Salt production declined when Las Salinas was thought to harbor yellow fever. In 1993, Spain declared Las Salinas a protected maritime-terrestrial zone.

While many species make up the Las Salinas habitat, the population of flamingos generates the most attention. The coloration of all flamingos comes from the carotenoid pigments in the organisms that live in their feeding grounds. The greater flamingo, one of four distinct species, is less flashy than some of its genetic relatives like the hot-pink American flamingo. That doesn’t prevent them from wanting to look good. Secretions of their uropygial “preening” gland contain carotenoids–red pigments. During the breeding season, greater flamingos preen to spread these uropygial secretions over their feathers, enhancing their color. Ornithologists have described this cosmetic use of uropygial secretions by greater flamingos as “applying make-up.”[2]

The greater flamingo is an enthusiastic eater. It feeds with its head down; its upper jaw is movable and not rigidly fixed to its skull.[3] Using its feet, the bird stirs up mud, then sucks the slurry through its bill to filter small shrimp, seeds, blue-green algae, microscopic organisms, and mollusks. It is a healthy diet. Wild greater flamingos have an average lifespan of 30 – 40 years. The oldest known greater flamingo, named Greater, (duh) lived in an Adelaide, Australia zoo for between 85-93 years.[4] The bird’s exact age is unknown; he was already a mature adult when he arrived in Adelaide in 1933. Greater was euthanized in January 2014 due to “complications of old age.”

It is zero hundred hours, at zero degrees longitude. A full moon has risen in direct alignment with Jupiter and Saturn. Flying Fish is secure nearby at her mooring. Somewhere in the ruins of a partially submerged palace, the legacy of an unknown queen waits to be discovered. And on the salt flats of Las Salinas, flamingos secrete pigment over their feathers. Some days I, too, feel the complications of aging, but I’m not ready to be euthanized yet. There is still so much to see and so much to know.

###


References:

[1] “The Baths of the Queen, a Roman Palace,” The World (2012)

2] “Greater flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus use uropygial secretions as make-up,” . Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, J.A., Rendón, J Garrido-Fernández, A Garrido, M, Rendón-Martos, and A Pérez-Gálvez. (2011).

[3] Flamingo, Wikipedia

[4] “Flamingos at Adelaide Zoo,”  Vaughan Wilson; at Conservation Ark / Zoos South Australia 2008

Ornithologists have described the cosmetic use of secretions on the feathers of greater flamingos as “applying make-up.” Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Sailing is not just about the wind and the sea; equally important are the places to which Flying Fish carries me.

Please click Follow at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and please consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish. I welcome your comments. I will always respond to your comment when I have an Internet connection. And I will never share your personal information.

You can follow the daily progress of Flying Fish, boat speed (or lack thereof), and current weather as I sail into the Mediterranean by clicking this satellite uplink: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/FlyingfishClick the “Legends and Blogs” box on the right side of the tracking page for en route Passage Notes. 

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 2021

Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives   –Fr. John Baker