Rescuing A Dolphin

Rescuing A Dolphin

Do NOT try this at home.

A blog post by Felicity

Many of my blogs tend to focus on nature, animals and marine life in particular. If you have read any of them you will already know this. I have such a fascination for the sea and a love of the creatures who live there, that my husband and I set up a marine based conservation show called Curios Aquatica in the hopes that through education and entertainment we can help to make a difference. The plastic, fishing nets and rope, the oil and noise pollution constantly harming the sea and the life within. The over-fishing harming many species, but sharks especially so. The cetacean parks such as SeaWorld imprisoning and torturing these sentient, clever and highly evolved species. We set up Curious Aquatica to raise awareness about all of these and to raise money for marine charities already trying to help save the seas.

The sea is my passion but I would help any animal in need and through the years my family and I have cared for many animals, many of which were brought to us injured. Through careful care and rehabilitation those animals were able to return to the wild once more.

This morning I was browsing on Facebook whilst getting up the energy to clamber out of bed to face the day (not that there has been all that much to do during lock down as we have been in strict shielding in my household!) when I saw a post about a stranded dolphin, less than a mile from our house, uploaded a mere eight minutes previously. I searched the comments to see if the situation had been resolved and upon finding that they were struggling to get in touch with anyone to rescue the creature, I leapt from the bed (startling Greg considerably as I am not in the habit of such lively behaviour first thing of a morning) and started throwing on clothes, explaining to Greg the situation and encouraging him to do likewise.

Once dressed I located some buckets (I didn’t know how ‘beached’ the dolphin was from the sparse information in the post and if the dolphin had been out of the water it would need to be kept moist), and a blanket (we looked for our stretcher too but couldn’t immediately locate it and didn’t want to delay any longer) and off to the site my sister, Greg and I went.

Upon arrival we were met by a few bystanders and one lady trying to get into a dry suit. She explained that she was from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and that she was trying to get in touch with other agencies to help, but she was struggling. While my sister tried to help this lady by trying to phone these agencies herself, Greg and I assessed the situation.

The dolphin (a young bottlenose from the look of it) had been swimming in the causeway when the tide went out, leaving it stranded in a mud bank in the estuary. The dolphin was not, as I had first feared, stranded on the mud and drying out. It was in shallow water, caught in the mud. The biggest problem was that the dolphin was caught on its side. This meant it could not keep its blow hole out of the water and was in real danger of drowning.

Greg took one step towards the dolphin and sank instantly to his knees. It was a long way through this thick muck to reach the dolphin in its shallow bank of muddy water. With some effort Greg freed himself from the mud and raced back to our van for the 100 foot of rope we keep in there (luckily Greg is an escapologist so 100 foot of rope isn’t hard for us to lay our hands on).

I tried again to discover from the BDMLR team member what the plan was, but she was still struggling to get assistance. Her team was meant to be bringing a pontoon and boats to help aid with the dolphin rescue, but we were struggling to find out where they were or how long this would take. In desperation the coastguard and lifeboat station (and RSPCA) had also been contacted. She even asked if any of the bystanders had a boat, but none did. I explained that I was able to get out to the dolphin to support it so it wouldn’t drown, but she told me that the mud is too dangerous and that we had to wait for the groups from the other organisations, or her own team, to arrive instead. By this point she had struggled into her dry suit but felt unable to break protocol and go any further.

At this point I want to make it perfectly clear that rules are usually there for a reason. If someone had become stuck in that thick mud when the tide turned they would have been at real risk of drowning. Also, I am aware that many people panic when they become stuck and that would have made things even worse. On top of that, the dolphin was a wild animal and they can be very unpredictable. Humans need to respect animals and interact with wild animals as little as possible. This is very important to remember – and had that dolphin not been drowning at that moment I would have followed this good advice and left it to the professionals.

In this situation, however, there was no sign of the professionals coming to the rescue. The one person we had didn’t feel able to break the rules and assist us or the dolphin (although when we went ahead anyway, she did offer advice from the bank).

I know I am a good swimmer. I also know how to move across that kind of terrain without sinking or getting stuck (during my years’ training as a ranger I ended up sinking and moving through a lot nastier stuff than this mud!). I know a lot about cetaceans and how to handle wild animals while staying as safe as possible and not causing the animal in question any more harm or distress. I had my husband running down the road with his 100 foot of rope and my sister on the bank ready to assist in any way needed. I had my team and I couldn’t stand by and watch this dolphin drown when I knew we could prevent it.

I tied the rope around my waist and slithered across the mud (to the cheering of the watching crowd and the concern of the BDMLR team member) towards the dolphin. Once there I looked back and found one of the other members of the public had seen me make my move and rushed to kit up in his wet suit and was making his way towards us too, using my rope to guide him as he slid towards us. The BDMLR team member seemed torn between the fact that her job was to stop us, but her passion was clearly to save the dolphin, and so she began to offer instructions and advice from the bank.

Once the man reached me, we positioned ourselves on either side of the dolphin and carefully re-positioned it so that it was resting gently on my legs and its blowhole was finally clear of the water, and it could breathe again at last. Once able to breathe it vocalised gently to us. A few squeaky whistles and I felt as though the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding released (and Greg tells me that the same emotion was felt by everyone on the bank as the sound carried to them). I checked the dolphin over as best I could considering my pinned position and the murky water we were in, but, aside from a few scratches, I could see no injury. The more worrying thing was that the dolphin’s eyes were closed and I could feel that if we let go, the dolphin would have tipped back over onto its side.

Back on the shore some of the bystanders who had been wanting to do something, but were not sure what to do to help, had taken up the rope along with Greg to ensure that they would be able to recover me and the other helper if things started to look dangerous. The lady from the BDMLR continued to point out that she couldn’t physically help us and she had to tell us that what we were doing was dangerous and we should wait for her boat (she later spoke to Greg and told him that she was sorry that she had had to keep repeating it, but it was part of her job). Greg pointed out that we weren’t going to let the dolphin drown while we waited for a boat, which we had seen no sign of, but that as soon as her boat arrived we would be happy to hand the task over to her team. At the moment, however, we were all the dolphin had, as the professionals were either not there yet, or not able to do anything because of their rules.

Once more of her team arrived it was decided that two of them in dry suits would come into the water and take over from us, still using Greg’s rope for safety (my helper and I did say we were still fine to help in any way needed, and were not in any difficulty in the water).

The first of the team had joined us when the Coastguards arrived and the plan fell apart. The leader of the Coastguard would not let another person come out across the mud to us until their ‘mud team’ had arrived from the other side of the Island, nor would they allow one of us without dry suits to return as they didn’t have equipment to allow us to ‘safely’ cross the mud (which we had already crossed).

It was frustrating to me, my helper and the lady from the BDMLR who had joined us, as well as the other member of her team who was kitted up and ready to join us but then unable to do so. Some members of the BDMLR team admitted that while they cannot officially condone my rule breaking, they are glad we did it as the dolphin would most likely have drowned before anyone got to it if I had not.

A lot of movement then occurred on the bank. All the while I was thinking it was finally the team ready to assemble the pontoon or do something, anything, to help the dolphin in my arms but none of it was. Somehow it became an unnecessary mission to rescue us rather than the dolphin – and, Greg told me, as much time seemed to be spent by the leader of the coastguard on making sure that the public were not around as it was on anything else. Greg pointed out to another member of the team that there was no way he was letting go of my safety line while I was on the other end of it, and luckily found that most of the coastguard were much more friendly and prepared to listen than their boss. It still seemed that no amount of reassurance from us that we were fine, we were definitely NOT stuck, that we were NOT cold, that we just wanted the team to take over with the dolphin for us and we would all be fine, seemed to get through to the agencies on the bank.

In the end, boats appeared on the water (we first thought it was the coast guard but instead it was the harbour master) which we thought were the boats we had been waiting for to assist the dolphin – but no, they were there for us. More faffing followed and the result was that I had to let the BDMLR lady take my position while the Ventnor Mud Specialist Coastguard Service took me to shore.

They did not ‘rescue’ me -despite what they apparently told a member of the press later. I had informed them that I was fine, and both of us in the water (and, I later found out, Greg on the bank), made it clear that I could get myself to shore, but would be happy to allow them to take me themselves if they preferred (I had been in the water over an hour and could understand their concerns on that score), but only once we knew that the dolphin was not going to be left without care. There was only one thing in that estuary who needed rescuing, and that was the dolphin.

After being checked over and the Coastguard team agreeing with my assessment that I was fine, I was sent home to shower and warm up. Watching the news streams for updates afterwards, the hours passed so slowly and with such slow progress with the dolphin. Eventually they got it onto a pontoon and onto the bank to be assessed by a vet, before the decision was taken to put it down. We still don’t know the reason why it was put down, although we will update this blog if we discover the reasoning behind it.

I guess my reason for writing this particular blog is largely down to frustration. We try to raise awareness and money for charities like the BDMLR whose mission it is to save these amazing creatures, yet due to endless rules and regulations with regard to health and safety, today we saw them having to stand by, not only unable to assist in saving a dolphin, but actually having to try to tell us not to. Of course, there must be rules, but there should also be the possibility to treat each circumstance on its own merit. The professionals I spoke to all truly seemed to care as I do for these animals and yet they could not act to save it in time. Members of the Coastguard, BDMLR and the public thanked and commended me for what I had done once I was out of the water, and yet the members of the organisations had been required to try to stop me from doing it. I find it so disheartening. One of the BDMLR team even said that she would like me to do the training and join their team and I was tempted… until I realised that then I would also be bound by their rules and would have been sacked today as I would have still been unable to sit by while this dolphin drowned.

It is so difficult to do the right thing when there are rules which were designed to keep you safe, but would require you to go against your conscience and heart to follow. It is so hard.

I would like to make it clear that I am not having a go at the people who came to help. Almost without exception the BDMLR members and Coastguards were friendly and seemed torn by the problem of wanting to help save the dolphin and wanting to follow the rules. The problem comes with the lack of possibility for these people to adapt the rules to suit the situation.

Thank you for reading, stay safe,

Felicity

P.S. If you would like to see us with cetaceans in happier circumstances, do watch our visit to the grey whales of Magdalena Bay, Mexico below.

 

Pyramid of the (Dwarf) Magician

Pyramid of the (Dwarf) Magician

The Magic of Uxmal

A blog post by Lady Felicity

Back in February 2019 Greg and I went to Mexico on our honeymoon. If you have read some of our previous blog posts you will likely already know this. We chose Mexico as our destination as I was desperate to see the grey whales of Magdalena Bay and Greg favors any excuse to act like Indiana Jones (just look at the hat I got for him!).

Our honeymoon therefore had two parts. The first half of our adventure saw us climbing ancient Aztec and Mayan Pyramids in deserts and Jungles while the second half involved our quest for marine life and water based activities. (If you look back through our past blog entries we go into a few of these things in more detail.)

It is usually Greg who writes about the ancient ruins and Pyramids we have explored on our travels, him being the human history enthusiast while I either go for the prehistoric history or, more often, the nature and wildlife we have been fortunate enough to encounter. On this blog post, however, I am actually going to combine the two.

Uxmal is an ancient Maya city of great significance. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it is considered (along with Palenque, Chichen Itza and Calakmul- all of which we visited during our time in Mexico) one of the best examples of the regions dominant architectural style. The buildings are noted for their size and decoration. They are typical of the Puuc style and you can often find decorative serpents and masks to represent the rain god, Chaac. There are also skull carvings, geometric patterns, lattice-like stone work, as well as carved birds and jaguars. One particular building attracted me- it is a temple known as ‘House of the Turtles’ and was adorned with decorative stone carved turtles – an instant hit with me!

The name of the site, Uxmal, likely derives from Oxmal (meaning three times built) or Uchmal (meaning ‘what is to come, the future’).

What really resonated with Greg at this site was its link to the Dwarf King. A magician. It is actually said by tradition that Uxmal was meant to be an invisible city, built in one night by the magic of the Dwarf King. (Perhaps the magician-god named Itzamna)

One of the popular legends about Uxmal is told beautifully by Greg in our video ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’ which you can watch in our video here:

There are various legends told by the indigenous Mayan people. A lot of them talk of a boy (or dwarf) born from the Iguana egg, cared for by a witch. The ruler feared this boy and in some stories the boy had to complete various tasks (such as building the pyramid later dedicated to him) or be executed. In some versions he was in competition with the King and through the clever sorcery of the witch the Dwarf defeats the ruler and takes his place. We enjoyed researching these folk legends, but in truth I suspect my vertically challenged magician, juggler and escapologist entertainer of a husband most enjoyed the fact we had found a pyramid which could have been named after him…

One of the most impressive structures in Uxmal is the Pyramid of the Magician (In Spanish it is Piramide del Adivino, the Pyramid of the Foreteller). It is also referred to as the Pyramid of the Dwarf or the Pyramid of the Soothsayer. Standing taller than any other building in Uxmal, it is the most recognizable and famous structure in Uxmal and considered unique because of its rounded sides, great height, steep slope and elliptical base. It stands at about 115 ft tall and 166 ft wide. The building of this incredible pyramid was completed in several phases over three centuries.

Uxmal was once home to about 25,000 Maya and flourished from 600-1000 AD. The first pyramid temple was constructed in the 6th Century AD and it was expanded over the next 400 years. It fell into disrepair after 1000 AD and was later looted during the Spanish Conquest. It was rediscovered in about 1838 and restoration efforts began in the mid-19th century.

The site of Uxmal is amazing. We had hours to explore it before we had to get back on the road and move on to our next destination, but we both agreed that the hours we had there just didn’t feel long enough. It was the one ruin where we felt pushed for time, we could have happily spent hours more exploring and admiring the place. The buildings and their decorative carvings are beautifully preserved, there is so much to see. While some sites (like the famous Chichen Itza) have the buildings roped off so you can see them but not interact with them, Uxmal was one of the more interactive places. You can go inside many of the buildings and properly explore. You can immerse yourself in the history and feel like you are part of the site while you explore it. You can almost imagine yourself as one of the citizens who once inhabited Uxmal all those centuries ago or one of the archaeologists who worked on restoring it all those years later.

I am fascinated by the history. My imagination often runs wild with me and I truly end up getting immersed in places like Uxmal. Greg’s knowledge and enthusiasm for these places adds to and fuels my own and the hours just disappear as we explore them together. With the right company, sites like these feel truly magical to me. Uxmal had an extra layer of magic though, all its own.

When we explored Teotihuacan (you can read Greg’s blog about that site HERE) we felt that the stray dogs who now inhabit the site felt, to us, as though they could have been guardian spirits, watching over and protecting the site.

When we visited Xel-Ha there is actually a legend about the gods creating Xel-Ha and appointing three guardians, an Iguana, a Pelican and a Parrotfish, to watch over their beautiful creation.

We discovered Uxmal has its own guardians too. Uxmal is teeming with lizards and alive with birds. As the buildings are largely open to the public, they are open for the wildlife too. In many of the rooms we discovered swallow nests high up in the walls and Iguana (as well as a few other species of lizards) lying on the sun-kissed stone floors.

The birds create a beautiful, undulating, dancing cloud above the main square which is mesmerizing to watch. As we walked around the site it almost became a game of spot the wildlife! The lizards really were everywhere. Not just on the ruins or inside the rooms, they were running across the grass and land between the buildings and basking in the sun just about everywhere we looked. They were fantastic! The Uxmal swallows are guardians of the air while the Iguana were guardians of the land. It felt wonderful to me that Uxmal is inhabited still. What a stunning place these creatures call home.

If you are scared of birds or lizards, it would be a real shame but you should probably skip Uxmal. Otherwise, if you find yourself visiting Mexico and the Yucatan region, make sure you visit Uxmal. It really was a magical place, dwarf or no dwarf.

Thanks for reading, stay safe,

Felicity

 

Italian Origins

Italian Origins

A blog post by Greg

It seems odd this week to write a blog which is supposed to be about the places we have visited for our travel adventure videos by writing a post about a place which Felicity and I have visited, but in the days before we had decided to make travel videos into a career for ourselves. Despite it falling outside of the travels we have had for our videos, however, today’s blog post will feature Italy, and two very special visits over there made a little over a decade apart – my first trip to Italy in 2007, and my first trip to the country with Felicity made in 2018.

Let me take you back to May 2007. Tech savvy folk were awaiting the release of a newly announced gadget called an ‘iPhone’. A new television show called ‘Big Bang Theory’ had just been commissioned in America. The third Shrek film had its premiere. All this, however, was completely missed by a 21 year old Greg embarking on his first international tour in Italy.

I had previously toured in one ultra low budget pantomime in the winter of 2005, and I had spent a week in the winter of 2006 performing in Lapland. The experience in Lapland had been amazing, the experience with the pantomime decidedly less so. So I’m sure I should have felt nervous when, having applied for a job with a company named ‘Action Theatre in English’, and met the company director Rupert once for an audition in London, that I then found myself in May 2007 arriving in a country where I did not speak the language and was picked up at the airport by a man I had met once, and driven off to his house in the middle of nowhere where the two of us would be living and rehearsing for the next week, and then heading off on tour together around the country.

What is odd to me in a lot of ways is that I have no memories at all of being nervous. From our first emails, and particularly in the first audition, Rupert and I got on, and although I was initially only going out there for five weeks, the conversation and artistic discussions we had in my first week in Italy would be the basis of us working together as I toured Italy on and off for over a decade until my last tour with the company in 2018 (and when I say last tour, who knows! At the moment we can’t commit, between our travels and my shows and Felicity’s fossil tours in the UK, to months of touring in Italy, and they need to have longer tours – but who knows if we’ll be able to tour there again sometime!).

A 21 year old Greg on tour in ‘Here Comes The Train’.

Over the course of that ten years a lot changed with the company and touring for me. The company grew from having just Rupert and I touring every day in a five week season, to me touring almost constantly from mid-October through to mid-June most years, and multiple groups of actors on the road at the same time.

For me, personally, it changed from touring mostly with Rupert, to touring mostly with Rupert and one other actor, to, from October 2008, touring almost exclusively with one man shows. This solo touring was, I thought, the perfect way to tour… until I met Felicity.

Over the course of the decade that I toured with Action Theatre I had the opportunity to see a lot of the north of Italy, learn the language, and also experience more than a few of the difficulties and joys of travelling life.

For example, arriving in Venice for a show only to realise that you have to carry your entire set through the city (with, on that occasion, the assistance of a pregnant teacher and a nun!) trying to wind down narrow streets full of people with large, heavy set pieces without toppling into a canal. On the flip side, the following day one of the parents from the school arrived in a boat to take me back, and I got to experience standing on the bow of a small boat cruising through the canals of Venice and up the Grand Canal – quite an experience which would probably have cost a fair amount to arrange as a tourist!

There was also the time when the steering wheel of the car I was driving suddenly stopped working halfway across a roundabout, and I was lucky that the roads were clear and the exit was right ahead when it went so that I had space to stop the car safely. This left me stuck, and with no way to return to base that night, and unfortunately the only hotel available was a luxury hotel nearby.

I came to learn that there was always a solution to a problem on the road, and, in the words of Douglas Adams:

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

Nothing made this truer than 2013, when because of a major change in the way taxes worked in Italy, I had to reduce the number of weeks I would be touring quite drastically at the last minute. This meant that I suddenly found myself with a lack of work, and took a job at the ‘Isle of Wight Pearl’ shop on the Isle of Wight – where I met the ‘girl next door’ named Felicity… and that was definitely where I needed to be.

I had originally decided to stop touring in Italy at the end of 2016 – my own show commitments were too many for a long tour over there, but then in January 2018 I managed to negotiate a short tour in Italy for a month… with the agreement that Felicity would come along with me to assist on the tour.

Italy, therefore, became both the first country where I toured abroad, and the first country that Felicity and I toured together – and I was very keen to see how she would take to it. We didn’t select our own route or hotels (on the main), so it would be a case of staying in the places that the company had arranged for us (which I was not worried about, as the team at Action Theatre had usually been very good at finding accommodation, and they even went so far as to try to arrange the tour in such a way that our weekends were spent in some of the scenic parts of Italy, such as Lake Garda and Venice).

There is one moment from that tour which will stand out in my mind forever, the moment that I knew that we could travel and tour together (we had started booking our honeymoon in Mexico at this point) and that Felicity would also be able to cope with whatever was thrown at us.

It happened just outside of Cremona, when we were looking for our hotel for a couple of nights. We drove up and down the autostrada trying to find a turnoff which the sat-nav said was there.

Felicity spotted the turning – although it was questionable whether one could really have defined it as a road. We pulled off the autostrada, and started to approach the town in the middle of nowhere. As we looked out the windows of the car, the town looked a little dishevelled, but as we drove into the town it looked abandoned, and like the set of an apocalypse or monster movie.

Houses were collapsed or grown over, shutters and windows were broken. A side road once paved had grown over to the extent that the road had disappeared. Our hotel was somewhere in this.

I looked at Felicity, wondering whether she was going to say that we had to leave immediately, or whether she was prepared to carry on and find out what the hotel itself was like. Then she spoke.

“Can we leave the town…” she said. “And come back in again so that we can film it?”

It was in that moment that I knew we would be fine on tour together. That we would cope with anything that got thrown at us on the road. It spurred us on to create Curios Aquatica (see Felicity’s blog on that here) and was the moment that I could cling to when we were planning everything in our Mexico adventure (which was to become ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’, which you can watch the video for here).

If you would like to see our arrival in the town, watch that here:

It is also why, although the current world situation makes travel more difficult right now, we know that we will be back up and running with more travel adventure videos as soon as it is safe!

Visiting Venice Carnival together in 2018.

For now, thank you for reading, and please take very good care of yourselves, and of each other!

Greg

 

Expect the Unexpected

Expect the unexpected.

A blog post by Felicity.

I like organisation. My friends and family often joke about how my lists have lists. Not only do I list, research and plan everything, I also often put little picture icons next to each thing on my list so I can know what I’m looking at with a quick glance. I like to be prepared. I like schedules. Even when booking our wedding and honeymoon, some of the people we booked with were amused at how far in advance we were booking them!

My husband is not usually what I would call organised. I sometimes call him ‘last-minute.com’. He copes well under pressure and can make something up last minute. His shows don’t need the scripts and weeks of rehearsals I would need were they mine.

I have come to realise that, although it’s a bit of a cliche, in life you should expect the unexpected.

Despite what most people likely think, I consider myself a bit shy. I was worse as a child. I’ve always been chatty and a bit hyper behind closed doors but in public I was well behaved and quiet. I’ve never been a fan of huge crowds and if you had told me back then that one day my job would involve public speaking to large groups of adults as well as school groups…. I would have laughed and then freaked out when I realised you’re not joking. Yet that is what the fossil hunting side to my life involves. Despite the idea of public speaking still knotting my stomach, I do actually enjoy that job. (Most of the time!)

My point is, you can’t always predict and plan for things. Expect the unexpected. This is very much true with the travelling part of my life too.

Greg and I plan our adventures. We research what we want to do or see in the country we are heading to. We find prices, opening days and times, nearby hotels, how long it takes to get everywhere, how long each thing usually takes to do or explore… everything we can think of, we plan for. It doesn’t mean the trip will go as planned and I’ve learned to expect that. All sorts of things can and often will go wrong.

When we were in Mexico we struggled to find a few of the hotels and attractions which hurts the timings (If you haven’t yet watched ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’ and want to do so first without any spoilers, you can below!).

One accommodation in Palenque was not a private bungalow as the website had described. Instead they tried to put us in an upstairs room of a back packer hostel which had a broken door, floorboards we could see through the cracks to the room below and no glass or anything in the window frames… I didn’t even need to see the shared bathroom before deciding to leave!

By this point it was after dark, in an unfamiliar country where most people didn’t understand English and our Spanish was rudimentary at best.

I learned then that Greg and I make a great team. Our travel adventures are well organised and structured thanks to the advanced planning but when things go wrong, Greg can fix them! That night I picked a hotel I liked the look of (likely the most expensive one in the area!) and Greg went in and (with the help of a lovely American guest who helped translate our situation to the hotel desk staff) got us a beautiful room at a great price.

We had a similar story in our recent trip to Romania- we had a gorgeous looking hotel booked but, thanks to some unexpected road works, we couldn’t reach the hotel without getting stuck in about a mile of deep mud!

That night we changed our schedule and drove a few hours to the next destination and picked a hotel at random. It happens.

If you haven’t watched ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’, you can do that here:

 

Another big change was in Mexico – we had a full schedule planned, but we hadn’t allowed for us catching a delightful bug known as Montezuma’s Revenge. A lot of travellers get this bug. It is caught when you drink contaminated water (it is best to try not to think about what it is contaminated with!). We were well aware of this and tried to be very careful. So much so that I know when and where we caught it – in one of the cafes in Isla Mujeres. I always stressed when ordering a drink ‘no ice cubes’ and only half of the places actually listened. I always fished them out and disposed of them. This cafe was the only place where they weren’t proper ice cubes but shards of ice – they apparently didn’t use bottled water and I wasn’t fast enough at fishing them out.

Montezuma’s Revenge caused me to be violently sick and unwell for a week or so (despite having the antibiotics with me to clear it up) and Greg had a bad stomach for a few days. While laying in bed sick all day Greg went through our schedule, contacting people and rearranging everything so we missed out on only two activities rather than a whole weeks worth. It meant longer days with extra driving and hassle later but was well worth it so as not to miss out on anything. The man is a genius, even when locked in a bathroom for most of the day!

Then on another occasion, when in Romania, I mentioned how I wished we could include the country’s large bear population and explain about some of the conservation issues the country is facing and Greg then spent an evening researching how we could add them to our video in a sanctuary as we had been unsuccessful at finding them in the wild. More shuffling and rescheduling followed and it was so very well worth it to be able to include them.

There is also always the weather to consider. When on the Isle of Man, for example, Greg was in charge of the schedule (such as it was!) and even he had to rearrange a few things as he had planned for us to explore a castle (Castle Rushen) and on one occasion we had to reschedule due to a heavy downpour and on another as he couldn’t drag me away from the Seals at The Sound quickly enough but that’s another story!  (If you want to watch ‘The Isle of Man: Railways, Castles and Seals’, you can do that below. To read about the gorgeous seals, click here!)

The weather even affected our visit to Turkey. One very memorable morning saw us walking around the ruins of Heirapolis and the Cotton Castles of Pammukale or at least they would have seen us do that had anything at all been visible through the incredibly dense fog which cloaked just about everything that morning!

We squeezed our afternoon plans into the next morning’s already busy schedule in order to stay at the Cotton Castles long enough for the conditions to improve so we could actually see this incredible natural wonder (you can watch our adventure in Turkey below!).

Thick fog also nearly caught us out on the Isle of Man when we tried to admire the scenic view from atop the Snaefell Mountain. Luckily the fog cleared while we enjoyed a slice of cake in the café, so that in the end we did get to admire the view before catching the tram back to the bottom. You get the idea, weather is bad when trying to plan in advance. Naughty weather!

Speaking of naughty things, another unexpected thing which can catch you out is when you have booked diving experiences for your honeymoon, have organised things so that you can qualify to Scuba dive before said honeymoon and then your husband gets an infected ear which results in a blown eardrum. This too required much rearranging and rescheduling for our honeymoon. Luckily in most places we had planned to dive, we were able to snorkel instead. This seemingly devastating (not to mention very painful for Greg!) situation actually led to one of my favourite memories from our honeymoon.

When initially researching Mexico I discovered that you can swim with whale sharks there but found that this is usually done in the summer months. We were due to be there in February and March as this is the time the grey whales are there. (To read about the whales click here)

Disappointed that we couldn’t swim with my favourite shark species I kept researching to see what we could swim with instead and found that it is possible to dive with bull sharks. One of the few shark species which makes me somewhat nervous. Naturally we booked this dive experience.

Greg’s blown eardrum took this dive experience off the table. On our third round of research Greg found a review for swimming with sealions which mentioned whale sharks. Deeper research revealed that in this one location you can swim with both the sea lions and the whale sharks during the winter months! Elated we booked this experience instead and it is now a treasured memory which shall be with me forever (plus Greg made a full recovery if any of you were wondering!?)

To read more about the shark experiences or about learning to dive, see our previous blog posts.

At the end of the day, I love travelling. It can be stressful, things can go wrong, the unexpected happens and sometimes you weren’t strict enough and you can end up spending more of your trip in the toilet than you hoped… but it all adds to that sense of adventure and so long as you have a positive outlook (being with the right traveling companion works wonders too!) every moment is worth it. That goes for life too. Take the unexpected and run with it wherever possible.

Thanks for reading,

Felicity

P.S. If you have enjoyed this blog, or any of the videos within it, please consider commenting below, or on the YouTube videos which you enjoy, as this really helps us spread the word about what we do!

 

 

 

Like A Puppet On A String

Like A Puppet On A String

A Blog Post By Greg

This blog will be about our recently started, ongoing series of short marionette films – if you want to watch the series so far before reading the post so you can watch it ‘cold’, then you can do that here:

I can’t remember the very first time my Dad sat me down to watch Gerry Anderson’s series ‘Thunderbirds’, but I can remember spending hours watching that series, as well as ‘Stingray’ and ‘Captain Scarlett’.

We had all of the toys – my mother made Thunderbirds outfits, and we were given toys of the Thunderbird craft (Thunderbird 2 was always my favourite). One of the first toys I remember saving up to buy myself was a toy vehicle from Captain Scarlett (I actually remember after getting it that I kept waking up in the night and checking it wasn’t a dream!).

Most of all though, I remember watching the series, and enjoying seeing the puppets. It’s not that we were young and didn’t mind seeing the strings – the strings and the puppetry were all part of the magic.

That was over a quarter of a century ago. I grew up (an arguable statement, I acknowledge), to become a showman and performer, and I always had those Thunderbirds lurking in the back of my head, but I could never quite figure out how marionettes would fit into my shows and so while I looked at them often while looking for something new to add to the shows, I never actually ordered one.

I came close in 2019. I had found a company in Prague named Czech Marionettes, and I had been looking through the marionettes on their website. So many marionettes leapt out at me – a marionette you can buy to assemble yourself named ANY, a beautiful Charlie Chaplin character with moving eyes, an absolutely incredible dragon called Spike and… well I could go on for a long time (I have a large ‘wish list’ tucked away in my head). I very nearly bought a skeleton marionette named ‘Baby Bonnie’ to dance around at my shows, but that was just as we were on the verge of releasing our first travel video, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’, and our funds had to go towards booking our travels, so that we could build up our travel films and make that the focus of our career.

I ought to point out at this point in time that the Czech Marionettes company have not asked us to write this blog, nor have they paid us to promote them – so although they are being incredibly supportive of our entry into the world of marionettes, any gushing about their work here is all my own!

This brings us to this year and the arrival of Covid-19, which, as well as leading to the tragic loss of so many lives, has also been a  game changer for so many people. For us that meant that live shows disappeared, at least until the autumn, and so I moved my shows online to create a fortnightly comedy and magic show.

Suddenly with the need to create a lot of new material, and a lot of that in the form of new short films, it felt like it was finally time to realise the idea which had been hovering in my mind for the last twenty-five years and take my first steps into the world of marionette filmmaking. We weren’t looking to make the Thunderbirds – this would be something smaller in scale and more intimate feeling – but would be an ongoing series of short films starring a marionette. All we needed was a star.

I got in touch with Czech Marionettes to speak to them about their marionettes, and they understood what we were planning to do in our series and were really supportive of our ideas. Not long after that our first marionette arrived.

The first marionette which we received from the people at Czech Marionettes was a wonderful creation. Named ANY, it is a hand-crafted wooden marionette designed to be ‘neutral’ – no gender, no specific personality features, a blank slate to fill with a personality. To make it more interesting, he came in kit form, which meant that I would be able to assemble him myself.

***As an aside, an interesting point here. You’ll notice that I said that the ANY marionette arrives with no gender, and yet I refer to him as ‘him’. I have done so since I first mentioned him in an email to the company, and they asked me why. This took a little thought, and then I realised that I was already giving a little of my personality to ANY, and our ANY was male.

Assembling ANY felt magical. This is no doubt part of my personality, and may seem strange to some, but I hope that from the comments I have received about ANY and his adventures that most of you will understand, that from the first moments putting him together it felt like we were bringing him to life.

While the kit was relatively simple to put together, it felt deeper than just putting parts in place. Many of the parts need sanding down, and especially as we were sanding down the face, on which you could see the chisel marks from the craft person who had made it, it felt like we were part of a team who had been involved in making this little piece of puppet art.

Once we had ANY pieced together and strung, the joy of letting him take his first steps in the world began. With strings controlling his arms, legs, head, body, and even when we want, his nose, there is a lot to think about each time we move him, and the simplest of actions or gestures for ANY can require a fairly complex set of movements from the strings. What I found amazing, however, was how intuitive and natural it felt to be working with him. I could immediately sense his personality shining through – he is, like us, an adventurer, and he is clever and quick at problem solving.

We started filming with him straight away – because ANY is waking up and finding his feet during the first episode, and I therefore wanted it filmed while I was still starting to learn his movements myself. If you watch through the series (four episodes have been released so far) you will hopefully see that as ANY’s confidence grows, so too does our confidence working and filming with him.

We have a long way to go to become expert marionette filmmakers, but we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved so far, and I am very grateful to my wife, Felicity, my sister-in-law Jenny, everyone who watches and comments on our YouTube videos and to Czech Marionettes (whose work you can see here), all of whom have helped this 35 year old man (and the eternal ten year old Thunderbird fan who lives inside him) to start achieving his marionette dreams. Thanks also, of course, to ANY – for bringing our series to life!

Thank you for reading – please take unbelievably good care of yourselves, and of each other!

Greg

P.S. This week I released my second audiobook – ‘The Ever So Slightly Exaggerated Tales Of Mr Greg Chapman Volume 2: Losing The Lost World’. For more information and to get a copy, click HERE!

Dinosaurs? Yes, Please!

Dinosaurs? Yes, Please!

A Blog Post By Lady Felicity

I consider myself very fortunate in that most of the things which always interested me as a child still have some significance or place in my adult life. My love of animals and the sea, my fascination with seeing the world, seeing different cultures and delving into ancient ones where possible – through making our travel documentaries and with Curios Aquatica, those things are still very much present in my life.

I do still share one passion with the majority of children though, a love of dinosaurs. My sister has always been intrigued with geology. Her gemstone collection started at a young age and has since grown not just to take up a considerable amount of wall space in her home but to her now owning a gemstone and fossil shop called Island Gems.

My sister and I started working for Island Gems as soon as we each moved to the Isle of Wight. She quickly became a manager (and when the owner was ready to retire some years later, the new owner of the business) while I became the head fossil tour guide.

Some years later, a certain Greg Chapman worked next door to Island Gems and would often pop in for a chat. A few more years passed and I found myself training him as our fill-in tour guide. . . later I found myself exchanging marriage vows with him while stood beside a life-sized replica triceratops. . . as you do. . .

The Isle of Wight is the best place in Europe for finding dinosaur fossils. Many places can boast of fantastic marine fossils such as ammonites, belemnites (fossilised squid shells), ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs (marine reptiles). To find actual dinosaurs (land living reptiles with the hips placed underneath the body rather than to the sides like crocodiles or the Dimetrodon which is often wrongly mistaken for a dinosaur), the Isle of Wight is the place to visit. This does not mean, however, that dinosaurs can’t be found in other places too. They are usually found in a museum rather than walking along a beach like we regularly do on the Isle of Wight.

Whenever we start researching a new destination to make one of our adventure documentaries, I like to have a quick check to see what (if any) fossils can be found in that place.

When we visited the Isle of Man to make Railways, Castles and Seals, Greg was in charge of everything. The research, organising, booking, everything. For someone who over-organises to the level I am known for, that was quite an experience for us both! Even then, however, Greg knew to check for fossils and the main fossils found on the Isle of Man- crinoids (sea lilies)- feature briefly in that video.

During our most recent travel adventure in Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle, the video, as the title suggests, was less about seeing what the country has to offer in general and focused more on one specific thing there.

Despite this we couldn’t resist a quick dinosaur and fossil related search and discovered that Romania has its fair share (by this I mean about six different species) of dinosaurs, one of which, the Magyarosaurus Dacus (‘Magyar lizard’), is incredibly both the biggest dinosaur found in Romania and yet it is also (one of) the smallest sauropod species (long neck) found in the whole world.

While most of the dinosaurs found in Romania can also be found in countries like Austria, France and Spain, they do also have one species also found on the Isle of Wight – Valdosaurus (Wealden Lizard), as well as two species Zalmoxes (Dacian Deity) and the aforementioned Magyarosaurus which are unique to Romania.

I realise for those of you who have sadly grown out of your dinosaur-obsessed days, I probably lost you for a moment there. For those of you who love dinosaurs still or are happy to walk around a beautifully presented park which demonstrates the majesty of these long dead (or evolved if you are one that accepts each time you see a bird you are looking at a dinosaur) creatures, there is such a park (Dino Parc, Rasnov) in Romania which doesn’t disappoint.

If you are also like me and lean more towards the old fashioned feeling museums rather than the often too sterile, state of the art, ‘gadgety’ museums, there is a great National Geology (and fossil) Museum waiting for you in Bucharest too. As well as having some old-fashioned, Victorian feeling model displays, it had some genuine fossils (I always get a little thrill whenever I see some fossils from the Isle of Wight included and have rarely been disappointed. This Museum was no exception!) as well as a fantastic room ‘full of rocks’ as Greg so eloquently put it. In truth it was a room I felt would have had my sister practically drooling, the gemstone specimens were so fine.

To get a glimpse of those, do check out our video!

One of the things I like most about the world of fossils, of palaeontology, is that it is always changing. We are forever finding new specimens, new species. The regular advancement in science means we are always learning more, changing and adapting past theories and ideas regarding these prehistoric creatures and the world they lived in. It does mean that you think you know what you are talking about, you have all your ‘facts’ straight and then yet another scientific paper is published and you have to change everything you thought you knew (don’t get me started on Brontosaurus/ Apatosaurus or Seismosaurus/ Diplodocus!).

It does also mean that likely in ten years time, I will re-read this blog post and find some inaccuracies, either in what I have written or in what I believed to be the truth at the time of writing this. That’s palaeontology for you!

It’s wonderful though. In many ways the dinosaurs are gone but their remains are still being discovered, their life and world is still fascinating and surprising scientists each year, they live on in children’s imaginations and in mine. I will always be grateful to these long ago creatures for the role they played in my imagination as a child and, more recently, the role they played in me finding my husband. I hope to see the world, to see and learn so many more incredible things, there is so much out there but everywhere we go, if it makes it into our travel documentaries or not, I suspect I will always at least check for dinosaurs and fossils in every country I visit.

Thanks for reading, stay safe!

Felicity

P.S.
You can find out all about our travel adventures, Curios Aquatica and ‘(Almost) Live’ shows at http://www.gregandfelicityadventures.com!

 

 

The Torture Exhibition

The Torture Exhibition

A blog post by Greg

As you can probably tell from the title, this post may, I fear, get a little dark. I can fully understand if you choose to give this one a pass (although I will avoid going into too many details about the torture methods). The reason that I can understand this the most is because we nearly made the same choice with the exhibitions.

When we arrived at Bran Castle as the first castle in our ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’ video, which you can watch HERE, we saw a sign for the ‘Torture Exhibition’, a display of torture implements which had a small extra charge.

This led to a discussion. We were here outside of a beautiful castle in the sunshine, and we were ready to enjoy exploring it. We had already been in the castle grounds that morning flying our drone for the first time in one of our travel adventure videos, and had managed to get some amazing shots. All in all we were in high spirits.

When we saw the signs for the torture display, my first instinct was to give it a miss. I knew enough of the history of torture that I felt I was unlikely to learn anything useful, and as a general rule I would have little interest in looking around a display showing some of the ways that the human imagination has been used to create tools and machines built purely for the purpose of causing as much pain as possible to another person. That is not to say we don’t enjoy visiting somewhat creepy or macabre places on our travels sometimes, but torture devices are not something which I would normally feel the need to see.

Felicity pointed out, however, that a major part of our goal here in Romania was to try to find the castle of Vlad the Impaler, and, in so doing, to try to reach an understanding of the man and the legend which surrounds him. Part of his story involves torture. Most famously he used the method of impaling people on wooden spikes, but it is suggested that while he was held as a hostage of Murad ll, the Ottoman ruler, as a young man, that he may have been ‘trained’ in various methods of torture, methods which, according to many people, he would not have been squeamish about using when he thought it necessary.

We reached the decision that on this occasion we should go into the torture exhibition, so that as we visited the beautiful castles and locations in our search for Vlad Dracula, we would also have forefront in our minds some of the horrors which he enacted in his reigns.

Immediately on entering we saw an Iron Maiden. This object I was most familiar with from what is possibly one of the most famous moments from the ‘Paul Daniels Magic Show’, where he ended an episode with an escape apparently going wrong with him slammed inside – which may sound quite tame for a television magic show these days, but back then sparked complaints and required him to return later in the evening’s schedule to announce that he was alright.

As this item was fixed in my mind as part of a magic trick, my brain didn’t immediately link in to its original purpose, and I couldn’t help making a ‘Two Tickets To Iron Maiden’ joke based on the song by Wheatus (a fact I include as it is one of the few semi-modern, almost-popular music references I know).

The mood changed almost immediately, however, as we turned around to face a chair completely covered in wooden spikes.

The purpose and use of this chair, known as an ‘Interrogation Chair’ or a ‘Witches’ Chair’ was immediately obvious, and immediately drained any levity from the air. This was an implement which had clearly not only been carefully designed by somebody, but would also have been intricately crafted, each one of the spikes individually made by hand. Several people would probably have been involved in the making of this chair, from the design, to the wood-crafting and the metal work, and they would all have known the purpose of what they were creating. Added to that you would have needed at least two people to restrain the person being placed in the chair (lest we forget that those accused of ‘witchcraft’ were usually innocent of any crime), and someone to sanction the punishment or interrogation (unlike Vlad, most rulers or heads of ‘justice’ would not get their hands dirty themselves), and you have a good half a dozen who needed to be involved in order for this chair to come into being and be used. Added to that a society which allowed such things to happen, and this single object becomes a poignant symbol of the evils of torture.

I don’t feel the need to go any further into describing any of the apparatus on display. The exhibition itself was well put together. As you walked through multiple rooms, seeing dozens of devices from the simple to the complex, it was quite sparsely laid out. The castle rooms were the perfect setting for such a display, they felt like rooms which the devices fitted into, rooms where you would not be surprised to hear devices like these had once been used. Most of the devices were accompanied by a short explanation of their use, and sometimes examples of when or where they had been used. Many of them had old fashioned ‘woodcut’ style images of the devices being used (similar to the illustration we used to show the impaling during the ‘Vlad Dracula’ introduction section of our video).

As we went around, and moved from room to room, it seemed an endless display of devices. In the final room we came face to face with a wooden spike (pictured at the top of this post), used for impaling. Of all of the intricate mechanical devices on display in the exhibition, I don’t think any made me feel as cold, disgusted or sad as this item as, owing to our research into Vlad the Impaler, it was the one whose use I was most familiar with. Having seen it, we had, I felt, fulfilled our duty to the video we were making, and could get out of the torture exhibitions. At that point in time I just wanted to get out into ‘fresh air’.

On the way out of the exhibition we went through a squeaky door, which amused me (partly I think this was enhanced by the joy of leaving the oppressive atmosphere created by the devices), and started to bring us out of the melancholy of seeing all of the equipment and images in the room – a lighter moment as we sought to bring ourselves out of the darkness of the torture exhibition so that we could get back to filming with a lighter tone through the rest of our visit at Bran Castle. For eagle-eyed viewers of the travel video, you will notice that in the edit we decided to separate out the ‘squeaky door’ from the ‘torture exhibition’ sections of the film, because we felt the tone of the two pieces didn’t fit in the final edit – yes, occasionally we do make minor tweaks to the order of events when it is necessary to keep the pace or tone of the video!

Which brings me to the end of this post. Like our decision to visit the exhibition in the first place, my decision to write this blog was back and forth to start with, but I eventually reached the same decision we made outside Bran Castle. This blog series, the same as our ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’ video, would have felt incomplete without it being included.

If I went back to Bran Castle, would I go back into the ‘Torture Exhibition’ again? I don’t think I would, not unless we were going back to film something which made that room necessary to include. It is a very well put together exhibition – it lacked the gory ‘waxworks’ style models which I have seen in some museums which feature one or two torture instruments, and which I personally find makes them both more graphic and at the same time less poignant. Nothing competes with seeing the objects, reading a description of what they were used for and how they worked, and then trying to stop your brain conjuring up the images. So as the exhibition it was, it was done very tastefully, very informative and very well put together. I would recommend it if it is something which you think you would be interested in seeing, but if I were visiting the castle purely on holiday, I would have passed it by.

Next time I write a post, much like the squeaky door, I will be writing on a much happier, much funnier, and much lighter subject.

Thanks for reading, and please take unbelievably good care of yourselves and of each other.

Greg

P.S. We are very pleased to announce that Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle is now available on Prime Video! Watch it in the UK HERE, and in the USA HERE!

P.P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures – plus a few new videos (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’) on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

P.P.P.S. While we aren’t able to travel, we are performing new ‘(Almost) Live’ online magic and comedy shows – and you can see one of our favourite parts featuring the adventures of a marionette named ANY right here:

 

Curios Aquatica

Curios Aquatica

A blog post by Lady Felicity

If you have read any of our previous blog posts you will have noticed that I am usually the one to write about animals. If you have read my blog about whales (here) or Sharks (here), you will have likely realised that I am a bit lovingly obsessed and fascinated with the sea. Always have been.

I have always been likened to a mermaid, even by strangers on occasion. My long hair added to the fact I have always swum my own version of the butterfly stroke, which heightens the resemblance further. I loved swimming so much my family even had a pool installed in our garden when I was a kid. We lived on the outskirts of a city, far from the sea… yet the obsession was there anyway. Documentaries, films, anything about the sea, I couldn’t get enough.

My Mum can’t swim, so on every family holiday my Mum would watch like a hawk as my sister and I dragged our Dad into the sea.

Deeper. I always wanted to go deeper. Big waves? Even better!

I wanted to travel the world, see every country, its culture and wildlife and particularly its oceans and marine life. I was the only one in my family with this passion and it took Greg to really make it start to happen.

I am big on wildlife and conservation. Since I moved to the coast I see the sea almost every day. I walk on the beach and I usually end up finding and taking litter away with me. The days you find creatures (fish, dolphins, sharks, sea horses, jelly fish) washed up on the beach are sad. When those creatures are tangled up in nets and plastic rubbish… it’s actually gut wrenching for me.

I remember one day when I was leading a fossil tour along the beach with a school group. Usually something I thoroughly enjoy but on this morning some fisherman had been to work. They had caught small sharks and gutted them, throwing back the parts they didn’t want. Those ‘bits’ had washed onto my beach. Hundreds of shark heads and stringy bits of flesh littered the beach. It was everywhere. The kids ranged from fascinated to horrified. Some started trying to pick the bits up… It was horrible. If you did read my post about sharks (here) you will understand a bit more how truly devastating I found this.

I was desperate to make a difference. To stop, or at least improve, the levels of pollution finding its way into the worlds oceans, to clean up the sea and beaches for all that beautiful marine life that people rarely get to see (and as a result, it seems, so often don’t really care about). Surely if people saw, knew and understood they would care!?

It was during one of my (likely too many) passionate talks (ok, maybe rant is the right word) with Greg, after I had hauled up a particularly large amount of rubbish from the beach, that he suggested maybe he knew a way that we could make a bigger difference.

Greg is an entertainer. It is a world he knows and understands. It can also be a platform on occasion. Perhaps together we could come up with a show that educates while also entertaining.

Curios Aquatica was born:

Curios- linking to fossils and mythology. Before people knew what fossils were, collectors would sell them to tourists as curiosities. The ammonite, for example, was a prehistoric squid with a shell which people even now sometimes mistake for a fossilised snail shell. In Victorian times this curiosity was sold as a petrified snake, cursed by an abbess. It is also where we get one example of a fiji mermaid- the remains of a monkey combined with those of a fish. . . there are all sorts of fossils, myths and weird and wonderful things that fell under the banner of ‘curiosities’.

Aquatica- pretty obvious, ‘of the water’.

Curios Aquatica therefore- Mysteries of the Water. Perfect.

Next was to develop our show and its characters. Next came Fliss the Mermaid.

Fliss is not the ‘Disney princess’ style mermaid most people expect. This was very  important to me. Fliss is real and in real life you don’t (or certainly shouldn’t!) approach a wild animal and assume it is your best friend. It may be beautiful, it may look cute and friendly, but that doesn’t mean it is safe and it certainly doesn’t mean it feels ok with you forcing an interaction onto it.

Fliss the mermaid represents marine life but also wildlife in general in my eyes.

Fliss cannot speak ‘human’. Greg has joked that this is due to her not wanting to learn lines for shows and events (also true!), but it is down to her being a wild animal. What animal (aside from some birds) can verbally speak to humans? Yet that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate. If you have read my whale blog (here) you will already know how complex their brains are, that they have their own unique language just as evolved as ours. Doesn’t mean we can speak ‘whale’.

How many people have come into contact with other people that don’t speak the same language as them and yet, through gestures and expressions been able to understand each other anyway?

How many people have a dog or cat which they can’t speak with (ok, I know most owners speak to their pets anyway but I mean have a two way conversation with… I don’t count my cat meowing back!) and yet communicate with and understand anyway?

Animals communicate, it’s just we are usually not used to ‘listening’. If we learn their signals, indicators, habits, their ‘language’, we can better appreciate, understand and, in some cases, communicate with them.

This is part of what Fliss teaches people, with the help of Greg.

Fliss is of the sea. She can understand some things, many creatures can, but she needs understanding in return. Fliss is about linking humans and animals in a sympathetic way. She is beautiful and wild but still willing to interact with you if you respect her.

This was very much how I felt about the whales in Mexico. When people hunted the whales, they killed the people. Now that people go out in boats peacefully, the whales approach the boats and interact with people in a beautiful, peaceful way. It is an amazing experience and something to cherish. You compare that to dolphins and orcas forced to live in a tank and interact with you, or be starved and punished. . . who would want that kind of interaction!? Yet that is exactly what happens and what I am desperate to stop.

My thought is that people must just not realise that this is the reality. So I aim to educate them. Through Fliss. Through our shows. Through our travel documentaries. Any and every way I can, I will spread this message. Captivity, certainly for some species such as cetaceans, is torture and should be stopped.

This respect, understanding and appreciation for nature and wildlife is a big part of our message but there is more to it. There is the detrimental effect we are having on it with our pollution (both physical with plastic, oil, etc but some is noise pollution too), our over fishing and the way we feel towards some species.

An example of this is sharks. People fear them, eat them, use bits of them in ‘medicines’, there is very little respect for sharks. The closest most get is pure fear. It doesn’t help that things like the movie Jaws have made people so afraid of sharks. Again, if you read my shark blog you will know there is so much more to them than this poor reputation – an unfair one too which Greg makes clear in this short video:

It goes the other way too, sometimes people like an animal, yet still have no respect for it. For example there was a news story about a curious dolphin which approached some people paddling in the sea. The people lifted the dolphin from the water and passed it around so they could all get a ‘selfie picture’ with it. This killed the dolphin. Nature, animals, they not only deserve respect but need it too.

I hope that people on the whole are not evil, that these terrible things are usually done as a result of ignorance and by accident rather than due to malice, greed and soullessness.

So we created a school and scout show with Curios Aquatica. We take a beautiful set, we include puppets and magic, we have fun with the children but we also teach them what is wrong and get them thinking about ways to improve things.

We perform at events, interacting with the public while still encouraging people to think, learn and change the way they perhaps look and interact with the world around them.

We also fundraise for marine charities, helping those that are already trying to improve things and make a difference. Our current marine charity is The Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit. If you would like to support them, please click here to donate.

You may have noticed that there is not a lot of travel in this particular blog post as with Greg’s post about magic recently. We have plans to discuss more aspects of what we do between posts about our travels – especially as our travels are on pause until the world reopens. There will be more travel in next weeks blog but let us know whether you like these posts which take you into other aspects of our work.

Thanks for reading, stay safe and please help save the sea.

Felicity

P.S.
You can find out all about our travel adventures, Curios Aquatica and ‘(Almost) Live’ shows at http://www.gregandfelicityadventures.com!

 

Bran Castle – Home of Dracula?

Bran Castle – Home of Dracula?

A blog post by Greg

I must say that when I suggested to Felicity that we visit Romania for our next travel adventure (which would become ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’ which you can watch HERE), that I knew the only real image I had in my mind of the country was over a century old, highly stereotyped, and created by a man who had never visited the country.

Despite knowing how ridiculous that was as the basis for forming an image of a country, I did actually find myself very much wanting to find the fictional ‘Castle Dracula’ created by Bram Stoker for his 1897 book.

To get to the point where we can discuss looking for Dracula’s Castle in Romania, however, it is worth us taking a little diversion to Whitby in Yorkshire. We took a little pilgrimage there in March (see the short video ‘Seeking Dracula in Whitby’) to the location where Bram Stoker is supposed to have come up with many of the ideas for the book, and to the spot where he is supposed to have sat writing much of it. I’ll be going into a little more detail about that particular visit and Bram Stoker’s time in Whitby in a later blog post, but suffice to say that the closest that Bram Stoker ever came to Romania (which at the time he wrote the book was not the unified single country that exists today) was finding the name ‘Vlad Dracula’ and some more details within books in libraries in Whitby and London.

It is very hard, therefore, to know which real castle, if any, Stoker used as the basis for the castle where Jonathan Harker travels to at the beginning of the novel to meet up with the mysterious Count Dracula. In the small town of Bran, near the old Transylvanian/Wallachian border, however, is a castle which claims to be the only one in all of Romania which fits the description of the castle in the book. They even have the source that Stoker could have looked at when he was writing his description in ‘Transylvania: Its Product and Its People’ by Charles Boner published about three decades before Stoker put pen to paper.

The historian in me had to point out that there is a level of conjecture and guesswork in this… but the travel adventurer in me has no qualms in confirming that Bran Castle is Dracula’s Castle (at least in terms of Stoker’s book – to begin learning about the other part of our adventure and Vlad Dracula you can read Felicity’s blog post here).

As you pull into the quaint little town of Bran, the castle looms above you, standing tall above the other buildings in the area on it’s rocky hill, dropping on one side into a precipice down from the castle.

To approach the castle gates you walk up through a small market selling a combination of Bran Castle, Count Dracula, and Vlad the Impaler themed merchandise, as well as a small open air museum showing the old village houses which the people of Bran used to live in. Finally you arrive at the castle gates and head in, making your way up a castle path. At all times I could hear echoes of the book in my head – even on a beautiful sunny February morning I could imagine the castle in the dark of night, almost hear the wolves howling in the distance, and almost see Count Dracula crawling out of a window…

Of course, aside from its links with Count Dracula, the castle does have its own fascinating history.

The first fortress built on the site goes back to 1211 when the Teutonic Knights, a catholic religious order formed of German crusaders to help defend the southeastern border of Transylvania, which they managed until they were forced out of the region in 1226.

It was between 1377 and 1388 that the castle itself was built, to form a dual role of a ‘customs house’ and a fortress to defend against attempts at Ottoman expansion, and in fact it is these roles which likely saw Vlad the Impaler (our ‘other Dracula’) pass through Bran Castle on his way to solve a dispute between the Wallachia Voivode and the Saxons about tax rates.

The castle changed ownership a number of times, until in 1888, not long before the book Dracula was written, the City Administration of Brasov handed the castle over to the forestry department, and although until 1918 it was inhabited on and off by foresters and woodsmen, in general the castle fell into decay, and could easily have ended its existence as a slowly crumbling ruin if not for the unification of Romania!

After Transylvania became a part of Greater Romania, Bran Castle was gifted, on December 1st 1920, to Queen Marie of Romania. For the next twelve years the castle was restored to the Queen’s requirements, and in 1932 it became a famous royal summer residence – including her own ‘Tea House’ in the grounds which today has become the Casa de Ceai Restaurant, which we would definitely recommend!

I found that from the outside, and in the courtyards of the castle, it felt every inch the Castle Dracula of the books. Inside though in the music room, study and bedrooms, this was a home treasured by a Queen.

All in all the castle is well worth a visit, and marked a wonderful introduction to the Romanian castles on our adventure!

Thanks for reading, and stay safe!

Greg

P.S. We are very pleased to announce that Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle is now available on Prime Video! Watch it in the UK HERE, and in the USA HERE!

P.P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures – plus a few new videos (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’) on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

 

 

 

The Bear Necessities – The LiBEARty Bear Sanctuary, Romania

The Bear Necessities

The LiBEARty Bear Sanctuary, Romania

A blog post by Lady Felicity

When Greg suggested we go to Romania to film our travel adventure video ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle (which you can watch here), I was instantly excited. If you have read my previous blog post you will already know of my interest not only in the fictional Dracula, but particularly in the man behind the myth, Vlad the Impaler.

Research into the various locations in Romania with a significant link to either Dracula began immediately. I also like to make sure we see the best of whatever country we visit, however, even if it doesn’t necessarily tie into the documentary’s main focus. We discovered some interesting dinosaur, fossil and geology related places which we touch on in the video, but one of the big things I wished to include was the country’s bear population.

Romania is estimated to have some 6,000 brown (aka grizzly) bears living in its forested mountains. Last year (2019) there was an increase in bear attacks on people, with some proving to be fatal. Many of the locals living in small villages near the bear’s habitat in the mountains wished to cull the bears’ numbers while conservationists push for the bears to be protected. Trying to balance this, it was finally decided that a license would be given to hunters allowing a set number of bears to be killed each year. Tourists pay a lot of money to go out with these licensed hunters to shoot the bears.

The idea was to kill the bears coming into contact with people, but these are usually the small, undernourished, starving bears that seek food scraps from bins and campsites. Hardly a ‘decent trophy’.

The hunters go into the mountains and kill the larger grizzly bears that likely never leave their own habitats. This result satisfies neither the villagers living in fear of the bears, nor the conservationists trying to save them. I think that most people could see this dilemma from both sides. My love of animals means I would never wish for any animal to be harmed, but I can easily understand not wanting to be lunch for a hungry bear!

When I read a bit more about some of the bear attacks I discovered that one of the key places we would be visiting (Poenari Fortress) was a hot spot for bears coming into conflict with humans. So much so that a lot of our research indicated that the access to Poenari Fortress, with its 1,480 stairs through forest leading up the mountain, (if a bear doesn’t kill you the climb just might!) is regularly closed.

Since a mother bear with her two cubs recently attacked some tourists, it had been closed while they tried to figure out a way to prevent this being a problem in the future and reportedly would not open till the issue was resolved. We found a few conflicting dates as to when the access would reopen and so in the end Greg emailed Visit Romania, who indicated it had just reopened.

During my research I discovered that in the summer months it is possible to go into the forests with the conservationists. As well as visiting schools to raise awareness and understanding regarding the bears with the locals and the younger generation, the conservationists try to encourage this positive attitude towards the bears with the tourists too. I loved the idea and was disappointed to discover we would be in Romania during the bears’ hibernation period, so no tours would be running. On the one hand I was relieved that it was therefore unlikely we would have a potentially dangerous encounter with a bear during our visit, but it also meant it would be unlikely we would be able to include the bears in our documentary.

As our visit to Romania neared, we discovered one holiday maker had encountered a bear near Poenari Fortress about two weeks before we were due to visit. It turns out the weather this winter is warmer than usual and heating up each year. This plays havoc with the bears’ hibernation. Some still sleep while many have a shortened hibernation or don’t seem to bother at all.

Excited and rather nervous, I longed to see a bear in the wild but preferably from a safe distance! I even went so far as to drag Greg to the area along the river beneath Poenari where bears are often sighted in an attempt to encounter one. Though we did this twice, we were unsuccessful. Seeing my disappointment, Greg went for plan B.

The LiBEARty Bear sanctuary.

Ordinarily I am dubious about so called ‘sanctuaries’. So many of them sound so good, rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing animals wherever possible. They sound perfect and some of them truly are. Many, however, cross a line. Once they start breeding non-endangered animals rather than rescuing injured or ill-treated ones, they cross from sanctuary towards zoo in my mind. Some have ample land with lots of space for the animals while others have tiny enclosures. There are different levels of sanctuary but no animal should be forced to spend its life in a small cage.

We spent the evening in our hotel room researching the sanctuary, making sure we could find nothing to suggest it went against our beliefs and morals regarding animal welfare. Once satisfied we booked a tour with them. This process in itself was an indicator as to what the bear sanctuary is like. You can only enter the sanctuary on a guided, one-hour tour, which has limited numbers per tour as well as running only at set hours. They only run a few tours a day (in English and Romanian) and children under 5 years old are not permitted. Straight away this felt right, focusing more on the animals in their care rather than on having as many tourists, and therefore profits, as possible.

The LiBEARty bear sanctuary is the largest animal welfare project in Europe. In 1998 a Romanian woman, Christina Lapis, saw 3 bears in tiny cages outside Romanian restaurants. Later she discovered more bears in similar conditions such as outside petrol stations. The bears in each place were kept to attract customers and they all lived in terrible conditions.

Her aim was to stop this cruel and illegal exploitation of these incredible, native animals. Reporting these places with their captive bears to the police did no good- the bears could be confiscated but having lived their life since infancy in a cage they could not be returned to the wild. For one thing they would not survive, and for another they were too used to people and would either seek people out for food or because they were traumatized and therefore now aggressive towards people. No safe place existed for them – if confiscated they would be shot.

Christina Lapis created an organization- Milioane de Prieteni (Millions of Friends), which is based in Brasov, Romania. In 2005 the Millions of Friends Association signed a public-private partnership with the Town Hall of Zarnesti, through which they received a 49 year concession for the necessary land to build the ‘LiBEARty’ sanctuary.

WAP (World Animal Protection) joined these efforts in the ‘Save the Captive Bear’ project. It is now the largest project in Europe for the rescue, care and welfare of the brown bear. Millions of Friends also created a school education program teaching about animal welfare.

The sanctuary has 69 hectares of oak forest containing trees for the bears to climb and swimming pools to cool off and splash in, as well as appropriate food according to their natural diet and medical needs.

The tour started with a video giving the history and a brief overview of the sanctuary. The video only lasted a few minutes but those minutes had me in tears.

The sanctuary doesn’t want healthy, wild bears. That isn’t the idea at all. Those bears should be in the wild where they belong. No, this sanctuary is for the bears that have been captured and traumatized by people. The introduction video showed some of the bears in the cages where they had spent their whole lives up till the point the sanctuary saved them. One bear was kept in an elevated cage so that the bears’ waste would drop to the ground below and be easier for the ‘owner’ to keep clean. This meant that for years the bear had nothing but large metal grids on which to stand, sit and lay upon. The bear lived for years in agony and now it has comfort in the sanctuary but the damage is done, both to her feet and her mind. Seeing people distresses her and she can barely walk. We do not see this bear in the sanctuary- any bear that finds it too traumatic to see people is protected from visitors. If we wish to see these bears there is a link on their website which takes you to a live camera feed. They are looked after but are kept as wild and peaceful as possible.

As we walked around the sanctuary with our tour guide (there were only about eight of us on the tour) she went into details about the bears we saw, their past, their rehabilitation and personalities now. We learnt a bit more about the sanctuary, how it is run and how they deal with various problems with the traumatized bears. Her love and sympathy for the animals was clear and she was happy to answer my many questions.

Some of the bears come from zoos. Since Romania joined the EU many zoos were either closed or had to raise their standards to meet with the EU animal welfare regulations. One example of this will always be with me. One bear aged about 15 had spent her life in a tiny cage in one of these zoos. When the zoo enlarged the enclosure to meet with the new regulations they got two more bears.

The original bear was picked on by these other two and was too afraid to leave her cage and move into the new enclosure. Someone visiting the zoo reported it to the LiBEARty Sanctuary and they rescued not only the bear but some wolves who were also kept in substandard conditions in the zoo. EU regulations may have improved things but they are still, in my opinion, still so far away from good or right. When we saw this bear we had to keep our distance so as not to agitate her further. She is now in a large enclosure though she doesn’t seem to realize it. She spends her days pacing back and forth along one small section of fence and each time she reaches the corner she bashes her head into the wall. Normally the enclosures have a line of electric fence to deter the bears from climbing out but they couldn’t do this with her. She has smooth metal sheets at the top of the enclosure to stop her scaling them. Like most of the rescue bears, she is smaller than she should be. Being kept in small cages and fed largely human scraps rather than their proper diet, they have stunted growth amongst other issues. Watching this beautiful girl pace in stress and agitation, knowing it was a zoo that had done this to her, caused irreparable mental damage… it still makes me tearful now, just the memory of her.

Some of the bears we passed seemed happy, content with their lot in life, but the fact they seek us out and walk along beside us as we tour the sanctuary indicates the damage. Bears do not seek people out if they are healthy and happy.

It was at this point I felt a little bad for my wanting to see one in the wild when visiting Poenari Fortress. We learned from our guide of a location not a million miles away where wild bears are almost always present. Tourists park there and feed the wild bears. This encourages more bears and it encourages them to approach people and their cars. Some bears are hit by the cars as a result and some people get overconfident.

It seemed crazy to me but one lady was apparently so confident after feeding this bear from her car, she actually got out and turned around to take a selfie picture with the bear! She got more than she bargained for when the bear gave her more than a hug! Who would be crazy enough to turn their back on a grisly bear stood an arm’s length away!? This woman, apparently, and she is not the only one trying to get too close to these large, wild animals. My wish was to see bears in the wild but when people start to interfere and tempt them closer to roads and villages, no good can ever come from that.

A line from Jurassic Park which I love, ‘These creatures require our absence to survive, not our help”. I too wanted to see them but not when it changes their natural behavior and endangers them as well as people. A tourist can leave, what about the locals that live nearby and now have bears seeking out human scraps once tourist season is over? I believe that these people meant no harm, it is their ignorance that does harm. Visiting the bear sanctuary, hearing the stories, seeing the damaged bears, the ignorance is not an excuse. People need to see, learn and respect the life around them.

From bears that pirouette whenever they see a person as this was how they earned their food, to bears that think they are human and want to be close to us, to bears that can’t stand the sight of humans, the sanctuary has it all. They have so far rescued over 125 bears from what was an abusive nightmare of a life before finding as much comfort and normality as the sanctuary can provide. The mission is expanding though. A true animal lover struggles to draw the line at one species and now the park is also home to some wolves and deer that needed the help too.

On a separate site to the LiBEARty sanctuary they have created ‘Victory’, a dog shelter dedicated to the care of stray dogs, as well as offering help to dog owners in the community. The shelter has a veterinary clinic where they neuter people’s dogs for free. They rescue, treat, house and re-home stray dogs and help owners with their pets too. Driving around Romania, so many stray dogs are in need of help but places like ‘Victory’ are now working to improve this. Slowly, people are learning.

Education is such an important step and those steps are slowly but surely happening. One story from the bear sanctuary had such hope.  A hunter visited the sanctuary and has since stopped hunting. He explained he had never seen the bears in this light before. They were a way to make money, nothing more. After seeing them at the sanctuary, he couldn’t kill them anymore. It changed his life.

The bear sanctuary is a true sanctuary. It isn’t about money – they borrow rather than own the land. The animals are neutered not bred and if they ever run out of bears needing help they would happily close, mission accomplished. If a billionaire gave them enough money to mean the need for tourist donations was gone, they would likely close their doors so the bears never had to see a tourist again. As it is, the sanctuary does the very best for the bears that it possibly can.

If you ever plan to visit Romania (when the current world crisis has passed and we are all able to travel again!) I highly recommend it but most of all I hope people will visit the sanctuary, support their cause, donate, ‘adopt’ a bear, watch their live camera feed online… even if you don’t visit Romania much of this is possible from the comfort of your own home so long as you have an internet connection and a warm heart.

I know that with the way things currently stand in the world and the crisis we are going through this year, a lot of people are comparing themselves to caged animals. They have no idea. Not really. But we do all miss freedom and safety. In that we are all alike.

Thank you for reading, take care and stay safe.

Felicity

Find out more about:

Bear Sanctuary Webcam

Millions of Friends

Victory Dog Shelter

P.S. We are very pleased to announce that Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle is now available on Prime Video! Watch it in the UK HERE, and in the USA HERE!
P.P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures – plus a few new videos (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’) on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.