Snorkeling Belize

I went snorkeling today off the coast of Belize on part of its barrier reef. I have no true idea where I was, other than they said the boat ride was going to be about 14 miles. So that clears that up. Anyway, I saw several lobsters, a couple of rays, and a couple of nurse sharks. I was super excited by the rays and sharks. The coral was lovely, but somewhat sparse in that area. Also, there seemed to be a bit of what I can only assume was coral bleaching, which was rather depressing.

Nurse shark

Nurse shark

Eagle ray

Eagle ray

Coral

Coral

Ray

Ray

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

Nurse shark

Nurse shark

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Seaweed?

Seaweed?

On the Monkey River

I took a cruise up the Monkey River today. Getting there was an adventure into itself. An hour drive to Placencia, then at least a half hour boat ride to Monkey River Town, to finally then cruise up the Monkey River. The journey ended at a spot in the jungle which is completely overrun by mosquitoes, but there are also some howler monkeys. The howler monkeys are about as loud as you can imagine an animal that gets the name howler would be. The Monkey River flows through a grassy and mangrove area that is quite pretty. There were numerous birds just sitting along the edge waiting to be spotted. Our guide also spotted a crocodile on the way back that nicely ignored us.

Dramatic storm clouds on the boat ride to Monkey River. These would later drench us on the boat ride back.

Dramatic storm clouds on the boat ride to Monkey River. These would later drench us on the boat ride back.

Monkey River

Monkey River

Little blue heron

Little blue heron

Yellow-crowned night heron

Yellow-crowned night heron

Bat

Bat

Focus tree strangling another tree

Focus tree strangling another tree

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Mushrooms growing on a tree

Mushrooms growing on a tree

Palm forest

Palm forest

Making chocolate

I took a tour of Che’il Mayan Chocolate, which included an organic cacao farm and a tiny factory where they make chocolate. I am not sure it qualifies as a factory, but they make do make a small amount of chocolate there as well as some chocolate products like nibs, cocoa powder, and cacao tea. The tour was fascinating, and the following is a brief synopsis. It all starts off with a cacao tree.

Cacao tree

Cacao tree

The beginning of the deliciousness that is chocolate starts with a tiny, little flower.

Cacao flower

Cacao flower

When the flower is fertilized, a giant fruit or seed pod forms. The flowers bloom for months, and hence seed pods form and grow at different times.

Unripe cacao fruit or seed pod

Unripe cacao fruit or seed pod

The seed pods ripen to a yellow or red color depending on the specific cacao tree species.

Ripe cacao fruit or seed pods

Ripe cacao fruit or seed pods

Inside the seed pods are cacao beans covered in a white pulp. We got to take a bean and suck the pulp. The pulp was quite tasty with sort of a creamy, light fruit taste.

Cacao seed pod with seeds covered in white pulp

Cacao seed pod with beans covered in white pulp

The beans have a dark brown interior.

Cacao seed pods with seeds covered in pulp in upper half and seeds we sucked pulp off of in lower half

Cacao seed pods with beans covered in pulp in upper half and seeds we sucked pulp off of in lower half

The beans are first fermented in a box for several days. They are then roasted over low heat. In the photo below, the light beans (on the traditional Mayan grinding stone) are the beans that have not been roasted. The dark ones in the middle front bowl have been roasted. Cocoa butter is in the white bowl, and the bowl right in front of it are the shells from de-shelled beans. The shells are removed from the beans before roasting. After roasting the beans, they are ground into nibs, which can be seen in the bowl to the left of the cocoa butter.

Cacao seeds

Cacao beans

The nibs are placed on the stone and crushed.

Crushing cacao nibs

Crushing cacao nibs

Crushing cacao nibs

Crushing cacao nibs

The grinding motion with the stone pulverizes the nibs, and the pressure causes heat, which starts to melt the oils in the nibs. We got to taste it at this point, and the chocolate is rather bitter.

Crushing cacao nibs with liquid starting to form

Crushing cacao nibs with liquid starting to form

After quite a bit of grinding of the nibs, only liquid remains. Sugar and cocoa butter is added.

Adding sugar and cocoa butter

Adding sugar and cocoa butter

The mixture is ground more to mix everything. We got to taste the finished chocolate at this point again. It definitely was sweeter with the sugar, but to me, it still had a bitter after taste.

Finished dark chocolate blend

Finished dark chocolate blend

The liquid is then poured into forms and allowed to harden. These were put into a fridge to harden quickly.

Pouring chocolate into forms

Pouring chocolate into forms

The finished product. The mixture made was 70% cacao. It tasted a bit different from the dark chocolate I have had before. It also melted very quickly in my hands compared to store bought chocolate, which must have stabilizers or something. Interestingly, even though this was the same mixture as what I tasted before it was poured into the forms, after cooling and hardening, it had lost most if not all of the bitter after taste that I tasted with the liquid.

Finished chocolate bars

Finished chocolate bars

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

I visited Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary yesterday. I did not get to see any jaguars, which is the reason the sanctuary was created. However, thanks to the rain the day before, I did get to see some of their tracks, which made me happy. It appears to me the sanctuary actually belongs to leaf cutter ants though. They are everywhere. They have created ant highways across all the paths, and their mounds are everywhere. I am rather in awe of what these tiny insects can do in transforming their environment. Numerous places of the hiking paths have the weeds completely mowed clear by the ants, so they can walk unhindered. The sanctuary is quite pretty, and I admit, one of my favorite things about it was the moss and fungus growing on trees that I became quite obsessed with photographing.

South Stann Creek

South Stann Creek

Huge palms create tunnels with the paths

Huge palms create tunnels with the paths

Shelf fungus on a fallen tree

Shelf fungus on a fallen tree

Jaguar paw print

Jaguar paw print

Moss growing on a living tree

Moss growing on a living tree

Small wetland area

Small wetland area

Leaf cutter ants, including a large soldier ant

Leaf cutter ants, including a large soldier ant

Leaf cutter ants

Leaf cutter ants

Leaf cutter ant highway, the mound can be seen in the far right underneath the dead palm frond

Leaf cutter ant highway, the mound can be seen in the far right underneath the dead palm frond

Fern

Fern

Freshkills Landfill Turned Park

This past weekend, I got to check an item off my bucket list when I got a tour of Freshkills, the former landfill that is being turned into a park. This is probably not an item on most people’s bucket list, but I have heard so much about the landfill that when I found out New York City Parks Department gives tours, I jumped to sign up. The vast majority of the landfill has been fully capped and vegetated. The mounds are dotted by the landfill gas collection system with gas wells popping up from the high grass at regular intervals. The wildlife has already moved in. There were butterflies flying everywhere in the grass, and birds were everywhere. We also saw a family of deer. The wetlands are lovely and evidently filled with wildlife. Also, the view from the top of the mounds is spectacular. It will be a while before the area will be completely converted to a park and open to the public, but the transformation already is incredible. As an environmental engineer, I am incredibly happy to see it and proud of my profession that did it.

View of the last mound that has not been fully vegetated

View of the last mound that has not been fully vegetated

Amazing views with landfill gas well in foreground

Amazing views with landfill gas well in foreground

Landfill gas well

Landfill gas well

Bad photo of a family of deer

Bad photo of a family of deer

Osprey family

Osprey family

View of Manhattan

View of Manhattan

Landfill gas wells popping up in grass

Landfill gas wells popping up in grass

Wetlands in between mounds

Wetlands in between mounds

Cheat Mountain Salamander Train

I went on a ride on the Cheat Mountain Salamander train this morning. Most of the route was along the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. We stopped along the way at High Falls of the Cheat. The train was vintage, and the car we rode in was lovely and vintage with classic fabric seats.

Wetlands

Wetlands

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River

High Falls of the Cheat

High Falls of the Cheat

Shaver Fork of Cheat River, taken at High Falls

Shavers Fork of Cheat River, taken at High Falls

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River, end of train can be seen on right

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River, in background are two fishermen and their dog

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River

Wetlands

Wetlands

Cheat Mountain Salamander locomotive

Cheat Mountain Salamander locomotive

Durbin Rocket

I took a ride on the Durbin Rocket this afternoon. The Climax geared logging locomotive was built in 1910 and powers a vintage train, including an old postal car. The train is indeed a rocket, as it moves along at a whopping 8 miles per hour. At one point a butterfly passed us. The roundtrip route from Durbin, West Virginia, however is gorgeous as it follows the Greenbriar River in the Monongahela National Forest. The only problem is after seeing all the smoke the coal burning created, I feel the need to go plant an entire grove of trees.

The locomotive

The locomotive

A look inside the locomotive

A look inside the locomotive

Greenbriar River

Greenbriar River

An old telegraph pole

An old telegraph pole

Greenbriar River

Greenbriar River

Locomotive and coal supply car

Locomotive and coal supply car

Coal fired steam engine blowing smoke

Coal fired steam engine blowing smoke

Irises by the Greenbriar River

Irises by the Greenbriar River

Greenbriar River

Greenbriar River

Durbin Rocket traveling by a field

Durbin Rocket traveling by a field

Refilling the locomotive with water on the return trip

Refilling the locomotive with water on the return trip

Stream where train stops to refill water for engine

Stream where train stops to refill water for engine

Greenbriar River

Greenbriar River

Balboa Park Plants

While in San Diego, I spent an entire day in Balboa Park and didn’t go inside one museum. I was too fascinated by the plants. There are beautiful tropical plants in the Botanical Building, but there are just as many beautiful plants outside. Colorful plants are everywhere, including the Desert Garden, which has many plants that I loved photographing while ever mindful not to get too close, or else ouch.IMG_4390 IMG_4440 IMG_4470 IMG_4499 IMG_4552 IMG_4591 IMG_4633 IMG_4670 IMG_4737 IMG_4801 IMG_4838 IMG_4847 IMG_4871 IMG_5023 IMG_5081 IMG_5110

Cabrillo National Monument

While in Sand Diego, I visited Cabrillo National Monument. Actually I visited it twice. I went in the morning, and the entire area was covered with thick fog. I explored the tidal pool area and met some cute crabs, limpets, and snails. I then went to the peak area and tried to view San Diego underneath the clouds. It was kind of amazing to be on a peak about 400 feet above the ocean and look at a giant fog encompassing almost everything below. I then came back in the afternoon and was finally able to get some good views.

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Colorful, rock layers

Colorful, rock layers

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Colorful, rock layers

Colorful, rock layers

Colorful, rock layers

Colorful, rock layers

Chiton

Chiton

Snails and limpet

Snails and limpet

Snail

Snail

Crab

Crab

Crab

Crab

Anemone

Anemone

Gooseneck Barnacles

Gooseneck Barnacles

View across bay

View across bay

View out to sea

View out to sea

Cueva Ventana

I got to visit Cueva Ventana (Window Cave) today in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The tour starts by walking by Pee Wee Cave, which only meets the bare minimum requirements of a cave.  You don’t go in. There is no point or room really. There is a short walk through the forest, which when I visited meant getting to see among other things a bunch of giant snails on the trees. Then you walk through cave number two, which I don’t think they actually named. The middle portion of this cave is, well, cavernous, with huge ceilings and wide walls. However the walk through it is fairly short. Then you walk down an extremely steep path to get to the actual Cueva Ventana. There are bats living in there among the limestone columns. At the end of the cave is the Ventana. It has amazing views of the Arecibo River valley. The valley is gorgeous, and you can see the mountains beyond. The tour is worth the view alone. However the caves are really neat to see also, and I love bats, so getting to hear and see them was also a highlight. Sadly while there, you can see vandalism from years past, but tourism is now helping to support security and clean up for the site.

Entrance to Cave 2

Entrance to Cave 2

Entrance to Cave 2

Entrance to Cave 2

Entrance to Cave 2, at very lower left side of dark cave area, opening on other side of cave is visible

Entrance to Cave 2, at very lower left side of dark cave area, opening on other side of cave is visible

Cave 2

Cave 2

Opening to Cave 2

Opening to Cave 2

Entrance to Cueva Ventana

Entrance to Cueva Ventana

Columns in Cueva Ventana

Columns in Cueva Ventana

Stalagmite in Cueva Ventana

Stalagmite in Cueva Ventana

Ceiling of Cueva Ventana

Ceiling of Cueva Ventana

Floor and side of Cueva Ventana

Floor and side of Cueva Ventana

Cueva Ventana's Window to Arecibo River valley

Cueva Ventana’s Window to Arecibo River valley

Arecibo River valley viewed through Cueva Ventana's Window

Arecibo River valley viewed through Cueva Ventana’s Window

Arecibo River valley viewed through Cueva Ventana's Window

Arecibo River valley viewed through Cueva Ventana’s Window