While I was happily searching for lizards, taking notes and some 'practical' photographs of the non-artistic sort, my husband, patient as he is, was happily making friends with the local cats and dogs we found on the island. As you can see, his photographs were a lot more artistic and so I thought that both him and the little guys he's photographed surely deserve a post of their own.
Last time we were in Ikaria, we talked about visiting one of the many famous hot springs around the island but got too distracted by the beautiful walks to actually do it. This time, we made a point of finding one and having a relaxing bath. So, we set out to do some research on the geothermal springs available around the island. It was during this research that we discovered a very interesting fact about Ikaria's hot springs - they are amongst the most radioactive in the world.
Radioactivity in geothermal springs is nothing new. In fact, you can find them all over the world. However, the level of radioactivity recorded in Ikaria was rather high when compared to some other places in the world and it seems to be mainly due to radon (depending on the trajectory of the water to the surface). As far as I can tell, it was noticed and recorded for the first time in 1936 by M. Pertesis and many islanders claim that the springs have healing powers. Although there seems to be a lack of supporting studies to this claim, I did find an interesting piece of research carried out by G. Trabidou and H. Florou for the Radiation Protection Dosimetry in December 2010 that aimed at assessing the risk of radiation exposure to the population coming from the spring water in Ikaria. I am by no means an expert in geology or radiology so will speak no further of any benefits or risks from bathing in these springs. I can only tell you that despite the hot weather, bathing in a natural coastal hot spring was pretty magical.
Apparently, we chose one of the hottest springs in the island where the water can reach temperatures of 58 degrees Celsius and is situated in Lefkada. I've seen people on the internet complain about the lack of warnings. You see, there's no spa around it or grand entrances. The path down to the rocky area by the sea where the spring is located is barely marked at all - which only makes it that much more special to me. Yes, you have to be careful not to go in via the hottest parts. Yes, you're essentially in the sea, so if the sea is rough that day, you will have a hard time getting in and enjoying yourself. However, whilst there I was imagining how people, years and years ago, would have enjoyed the pleasures of a natural hot spring by the sea without a care in the world for health and safety or levels of radiation.
The drive back was rather uneventful. We were all quite relaxed and proudly sporting a few cuts from trying to get in and out of the spring. We had to slow the car down to an almost stop in order to allow a very unimpressed and lazy lizard (Lacerta oertzeni) to cross the road and eventually returned home with a smile on our faces. If there's one piece of advice I would give you, however, is that if you are as pasty white as me, to perhaps make sure that you visit the spring before you get so terribly sunburned that you feel as though your unattractively red skin is in direct contact with the sun.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this trip has given me a new appreciation for entomology. Insects are absolutely fascinating. Whilst checking a thriving Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax bedriadae) population in the north-west area of Ikaria, I suddenly noticed the incredible behaviour of some of the dragonflies around the natural pools. They were doing what looked like an impressive handstand and it got me thinking, why? What's the purpose of the handstand? Why were so many of them taking the same position at that exact time? Was it part of a courtship ritual? Were they preparing for something? I just didn't know and I couldn't quite rest until I figured out. So I did what I do best - I researched.
I am a regular reader of Gil Wizen's blog but it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't actually read any posts about dragonflies. In fact, I suddenly realised that despite encountering thousands of dragonflies on my herpetological outings, I had never read much about them other than the limited exposure that you get when studying Biology. Well, it was time to change that. I got back home, transferred the photos and data collected that day to my trusted external hard drive, made myself a cup of tea and spent a good few hours reading about them. It was also the perfect opportunity to try identifying the dragonflies I had managed to photograph.
It was during this reading session that I came across a blog post by The Dragonfly Woman which mentioned the term 'obelisk posture' - a term that sounded a bit familiar to me. And that's when the behaviour of the dragonflies at the time began to make sense. Ah, the beauty of finally understanding something - even if only partially. It's my favourite thing about science - that nagging feeling of needing to know, the drive to understand followed by a sudden rush of pleasure at understanding something only to then realise that you now have even more questions. It's magical really.
When I captured these shots of the dragonflies in the somewhat modified obelisk posture, it was very hot. Despite it nearing sundown, the air around us still made it feel like we were in an oven and the sunrays were still pretty strong. Although the obelisk posture seems to be used by different species for a multitude of purposes, given the slight inclination of the Roseate Skimmer shown above and the position of the sun at the time, I am inclined to believe that they were indeed trying to regulate their body temperature by reducing the area directly exposed to solar radiation.
Looking for the same sort of relief from the sun as the dragonflies, I headed down to the beach for a swim armed with my goggles and flippers. While the sun was slowly going down above the water, I went looking for whatever I could still see at the bottom of the sea. Usually, that entails a school of small fish or a crab or two. This time, however, I was rewarded with what looked very much like a juvenile Mediterranean Moray (Muraena helena) Eel. Although it looked less than impressed with my attentions, I was thrilled to see it. I mean, what's more exciting than unexpectedly seeing what looks like a sea snake for a herpetology fanatic?
Heading back to our temporary home, I started thinking about how lucky I was to be able to see such amazing wildlife in the flesh. I also started thinking about my own little guys back home and just how much I was missing them. So I dropped Tyler a message to check how things were going. Tyler is looking after Casper for us while we are here and kindly sent me a couple of photos and videos of our little guy having fun and enjoying his little break from us. It filled me with pride, joy and longing. Not long to go now and I'll be (weirdly gladly) having to deal with a poop stained harness myself.
My mother-in-law is one of those superwomen. You know, the ones that make your feminist-self fill with pride and aspire to be like. The independent type that travels all over the world on their own and comes back with amazing stories that are told with an incredible amount of humility. She also seems to have an amazing gift for giving tips on travel gear. That's where the sandals come in.
Three years ago when we were planning our first trip to Ikaria, she told us to get some walking Ecco sandals. I must admit that I am not a fan of sandals in general. I was even less impressed by the idea of hiking for hours and hours wearing them. However, having previously had other great pieces of advice from her, I thought why not? Let's have a look at the Ecco sandals.
At first, they looked incredibly unappealing to me - something that my grandpa would wear with white socks to go fishing. Then, I tried them on...and everything changed. Dramatic much? Yes, well...to me they were pretty revolutionary. Being able to cross pools and streams without having to faff about with wet socks? Check. Easy to put on and take off? Check. Comfortable for 8+ hour hikes in challenging rocky terrain? Check again. I became so fond of them that I even began to like the look of them. The only downside that I could so far find, is the incredibly unattractive tan marks that you get on your feet. But then again, were I wearing normal shoes, I would end up with some oddly pale feet anyway so, meh.
Ikaria has a healthy wild Balkan terrapin (Mauremys rivulata) population. They can often be found at this time of the year in some of the bigger natural pools. Some of these pools are located by the beach and you can clearly see that the water flows from the mountains during colder months would join the sea. The Balkan terrapins found on these pools, although wild, are somewhat used to human interaction. It's obvious that they are used to being fed and so associate humans standing by the edge of the water as a potentially good thing. Unsurprisingly, these are much easier to photograph.
If you head inland via the canyons, you can normally find much clearer, colder and hidden natural pools between rocks. Unlike their beach babe counterparts, the Terrapins found in those pools are very shy. Therefore, to get a good look at them, you need to sit tight and wait. It was while sitting on the above-mentioned sandals and waiting under the scorching sun for the shy wild Balkan terrapins to come out of the water to bask, that I completely by chance spotted a Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).
The Kingfisher's blue and orange colours were so bright that they were a welcome change from intensely looking at the deep green pools while trying to spot some dull coloured frogs and terrapins. It also reminded me of my own bright red skin and the high probability of contracting skin cancer lest I find some shade. So I got up, picked up my trusted sandals, and headed down the canyon towards the sea for a swim.
The thing about searching for reptiles and amphibians is that you always come across other wildlife. Some of the species you find, such as dragonflies, are fairly easy to photograph. Others, such as birds of prey, tend to be a little harder if you don't have the correct equipment.
This usually doesn't bother me too much. Most of the time, I'm happy with just being able to see them in the flesh, albeit from a distance. Other times, I wish I had all the equipment necessary to be able to capture certain moments - or better yet, some species.
Most people will have certain favourite 'animals' that they admire. For some, such as a friend of mine, it's sharks. For others, such as myself, it's pretty much anything ectothermic. However, when it comes to mammals, I too have a favourite - bats. I get this giddy feeling whenever I even get a hint of one and I can't even describe the level of excitement when I actually see one live. I also always think to myself how I wish I could photograph them to capture that memory. And this is exactly how I feel every sunset in Ikaria. As it is, I'm left with the only other thing I could possibly do given my situation - I start researching them.
Most sources, especially those from ecotourism websites that talk about the flora and fauna of Ikaria, mention that three species of bats can be found on the island and that they are all protected. Although I suppose that the low number of species could be entirely plausible, the sources these articles cite are fairly old. While trying to locate more recent surveys, I came across the Castle Hill Ecology website that mentioned a bat research survey led by Greena Ecological Consultancy across different Greek Islands. The one in Ikaria was carried out in September 2014 and they reported that during the survey, they could identify at least 12 different species of bats. These are:
To identify the different species, a combination of different surveying methods were used but they were essentially made up of trappings and sound recordings. It is no surprise that Ikaria would host such a variety of species. The island offers an ideal habitat with plenty of prey, sea caves, old mines, flowing streams and natural pools. As is expected, however, it also has some of the usual urban threats as well as a particular threat of the feline variety - cats. Like many other places in Greece, Ikaria has its fair share of cats. These tend to congregate near human settlements and so bats that reside near these areas can suffer and unfortunately become cat toys.
Nevertheless, the results of the survey were very encouraging and if I had the correct equipment to set up a time-lapse video during sundown, I would be able to share just how amazing these little guys are when hunting. Oh well, perhaps another trip to Ikaria is in order ;)
This probably applies to most people that live in the UK, but I suddenly noticed that I usually don't see much of my very pale feet unless I'm on holiday. In fact, I don't really think about them much either on a day to day basis. Therefore, I never thought about what the shape of my feet may tell me about my heritage. I can honestly say that I have done no research on this topic whatsoever. However, if the results of my husband's 5 minute googling of the topic are accurate, we both have Egyptian feet. I'm not sure what that means but I choose to believe that it means I was actually meant to have glorious easily tanned skin. As it is, I have so far been left with some less than attractive 'tan' (red) lines. Hiking doesn't exactly leave you with nice tan lines.
Despite the blazing sun, we are powering through and have been rewarded with some stunning views and some even more stunning wildlife. During this time of the year, everything in Ikaria is a bit dry but you can still find these magical natural pools deep within the mountain. Not only do these flowing natural pools provide a place to swim and cool down, they are also what I like to call 'Levant Water Frog Paradise' (Pelophylax bedriagae). If you're lucky, and the pool is big enough, you may also find some elusive Balkan Terrapins (Mauremys rivulata). Don't worry, I will write detailed blog posts on these species.
The short hike we had planned may have taken a whopping 8 hours but we did eventually get back to the house, albeit rather sunburned and exhausted. We showered, lathered ourselves up with as much after-sun and aloe vera gel as we could and headed down the hill to the local taverna. There, we spoiled ourselves to a generous amount of wine and what can only be described as our weights worth of the most amazing aubergine salad we have ever had.
The week leading up to our trip to Ikaria was quite possibly one of the most stressful weeks of my life. Perhaps it's not surprising, therefore, that I am so very relieved and glad to be here now.
Last time we came to Ikaria, we flew from Athens. Despite being a smallish and rather unpopular island when it comes to tourism, Ikaria does have a very small airport. This time, however, we decided to take the ferry with Helenic Seaways. The ferry departed at 7:30 am and took about 7 hours to get here. It stopped at a couple of other islands before reaching Ikaria and heading towards its final destination – Patmos. The views, in general, were pretty spectacular and to see the different islands ‘grow’ as the ferry approached their ports was a nice bonus.
Arriving at Ikaria by ferry, however, added its own amount of charm to the trip. Seeing how things work at the port, its workers and the incredible simplicity and lack of bureaucracy was truly refreshing. The weather was unsurprisingly a dream and I cannot tell you just how very simple and uncomplicated it is to rent a car – you pay cash on pick up, no card details are exchanged and you drop the car off unlocked at the airport when you leave. This is a blessing in itself considering how much of a nightmare hiring a car in Europe can be!
The tiny village where we are staying has a tiny beach that is rather popular with nudists. Although I’m not quite that brave myself, I find the lack of ‘judgement’ and relaxed atmosphere a welcome change.
After arriving at the house, unpacking and preparing to go for an amazing meal at our favourite local taverna, we did the one thing we’d been dreaming about for months – we picked up our flippers, goggles and a towel to share and went swimming in the Aegean.