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Eerie as the dreams of ghosts: Swimming with Manta Rays in the Maldives

1 Nov

A boat tentatively works its way through the shallow reef system of the Maldivian archipelago. Two hours earlier, the same boat had been awash with the excited voices of its passengers. Now, no one is speaking, everyone is huddled beneath thick beach towels lost in their own thoughts or in the digital displays of a variety of underwater cameras. Every now-and-then someone gasps, but no one looks up, there’s no need, we know what they have seen, we saw it too and it’s still reflected in the wonder of our eyes.

Two hours earlier we had jumped off the boat into the deeper waters fringing the Maldives reef system. No more than 6 meters of water, this would still be the deepest piece of ocean I had ever swam in. Looking down through my mask I was immediately struck by the clarity of the water and how much I could see below: huge living coral gardens and shoals of fish of more species than I could name. The same fish had provoked wonder the first times I encountered them on our resort’s reef, here they barely register with me, I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for something…bigger.

We have been in the water for about 15 minutes before she materialized out of the dark blue distance, eerie as the dreams of ghosts. Mottled in a way that allowed her to blend well with sea water shimmering with ribbons of gold from the bright overhead Sun; she is quite close to where I am swimming before I realise what I am looking at: Manta Alfredi – The Reef Manta Ray.

The Reef Manta is the second largest of all Rays with wingspans approaching five meters when fully grown it is only just smaller than Manta Birostris, the Giant Oceanic Manta, whose wingspans can reach in excess of seven meters. History first recorded Manta Rays as ‘Devil Fish’ due to their colossal size, physical power and truly alien appearance, however such a fearful moniker could not be less well deserved. All the Manta family are filter feeders, spending their lives grazing on tiny plankton and they possess a natural curiosity of swimmers, often seeking-out limited human interaction especially at feeding spots.

I have wanted to swim with Manta Rays for as long as I can remember and as the giant animal passed me for the first time, though a cliche, I had to remind myself to breath. Just as she was in-line with me in the water column, she turned on her side and curved back around, like a skilled sailor tacking on a stiff breeze, her turning circle was impossibly tight and she soon passed me on my other side. I truly have not seen a animal so graceful nor one that has left me so truly moved by allowing me to share her space.

People have asked me if I was afraid, being in such close proximity to such a big creature. Whilst it was unsettling, the first time I saw a Manta swimming directly at me with its mouth so wide open, I was not afraid. From my first encounter, I was overcome with a sense of calm that I rarely experience in waking life, something at once meditative and elating. My eyes had been welling for a while and had begun to fill the inside of my mask with tears. Even underwater, a smile so spontaneous spread across my face and water began to gush around the new gaps between my lips and snorkel, forcing me to surface, briefly.

Moments after this first encounter, having cleared my mask of tears, I slipped back beneath the surface and immediately saw the first Manta had been joined by four more. I watched as they formed into a near perfect circle about midway down the water column. Each animal maintained a distance of a couple of feet from the tail of the one in front and they swim in this strange pattern for a few minutes and then they dispersed, disappearing back into the dark blue; all except one. She stayed around to dance for us for a further 20 minutes.

The behaviour we had witnessed, research has shown, is a Manta feeding frenzy. The space in the centre of their circle was likely full of highly concentrated plankton, which the Manta were mercilessly devouring. When the prey was consumed, that was the point that they broke their formation to find better grazing elsewhere.

The remaining Manta treated our group to some startling aquatic manoeuvres. Sometimes she would hanging close to motionless in the water whilst at other times perform fast, impossibly-tight turns and barrel rolls showing both her grey back and her white, eight-gilled, tummy with black spots in the lower quadrants. These black spots are unique to each fish and used by scientists for identification purposes.

Eventually, she too swam away marking the end of my first swim with these stunning creatures as our tour guide began the near impossible task of getting a large group of dispersed snorkellers and free divers back to the boat.

Back on the boat, dripping wet and huddled beneath a resort beach towel My smile had lost none of its shine and I was crying again. This time my tears were for Tristan. Trivial as it may seem, the thought of never being able to have this experience with him immediately felt like hot steel through my heart. It still does.

Back at the resort, I got off the tour boat convinced that if it was possible I would make the trip again before returning to the UK. At the back of my mind I was wondering if doing it for a second time would turn out not to be as magical as the first time, I would be in for a very pleasant surprise…

Here is some footage from my first swim:

Two days later I was back at our resorts dive school, mask, snorkel and flippers in hand and my excitement bubbling, barely contained, beneath the surface. While the first tour had been hugely over subscribed, only six of us were booked to go on the second and I was the only proficient swimmer armed with an underwater camera. My excitement peaked realising that, if there were Mantas present, the chances of getting decent footage, something which had been difficult on the first trip, would be pretty good.

While our first tour had taken us to a more open water location due to the absence of Manta in the much shallower Hanifaru Bay, this time Hanifaru Bay was teeming both with plankton and giant, hungry, Manta. Even before stepping from the boat into the beautifully warm and crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, we could see manta wings breaching the surface everywhere we looked. What would follow would be the two of the most remarkable hours of my life.

As soon as I entered the water of Hanifaru Bay I was aware what made the day so remarkable. Everywhere I looked the ocean was teeming with just visible black specks of plankton, like a cloud of suspended underwater dust and the primary food source of Manta Rays. I soon became less aware of the plankton and more aware of the Manta Rays.

Everywhere I looked were Reef Manta, at least 20 animals, swimming in every possible direction and all specimens at the upper limit of their size range. Each animal that passed me was approaching five meters across from wing tip to wing tip. I didn’t know where to point the borrowed Go-Pro, that had been attached to my arm for the vast majority of our Maldives adventure, next.

For two hours each tableaux unfolded into the next and each more stunning that the one it proceded. Reef Manta swam within inches of me, sometimes taking me totally by surprise, passing directly underneath me so that their huge mass filled my entire field of view. Manta swam directly at me, mouths wide then at the very last second, when collision seemed an inevitability, they peeled off left or right, up or down showing almost unnatural control over their hulking body’s position in the water column so that, although close, we never came into actual contact.

I’m not sure how long I had been in the water enjoying the giant grace of the Reef Manta before I noticed something even bigger in the depths. A Manta had just passed under me and I was still looking directly down when I saw a fish with a wing span that must have been close to 7 meters, unmistakable as Manta Birostris, the Giant Oceanic Manta Ray.

After spotting the first Oceanic Manta I noticed 3 more close by. They performed the same breathtaking maneovuers as their smaller relatives but performed their aquabatics much lower in the water column and much further from the people gathered above. I made several attempts to free dive and have a closer look but my initial spot would be the best view I had – most often, I would arrive at the bottom to see the rear of their vast disk and stubby tail disappearing into the blue. I saw enough to make me appreciate just what an incredible place Hanifaru Bay is. A truly unique location in that it allows for sightings of both species of Manta and often in huge numbers (reports of 200 animals around full moons are often repeated).

Our two hours in Hanifaru Bay flew by and it was with great reluctance, largely due to the presence of so many, still active, Manta, that we swam back to our boat and left the Bay when our guides called time. The next day we would fly back to the UK, it’s been two weeks since I was in the water with these beautiful animals and I still go misty eyed and distance when I think about the experience or watch back my footage.

Here are the Manta in Hanifaru Bay:

Intelligent Ocean Stewardship

Both species of Manta that I encountered in the Maldives are on the list of endangered and monitored species, both listed as vulnerable. Their slow reproductive rate and use in Chinese medicine makes them at particular threat from extinction. Although known about for some time, there is still a limited amount of data on migration and population numbers – especially in relation to the Giant Oceanic Manta – so the exact figures on species number are not known. It is reasonable to assume we may enter the next century without either of these majestic creatures gracing our oceans.

We’re probably at the tipping point right now (some will argue we have already plunged over the edge) where it might not be too late to do something. Our current relationship with our oceans is highly atavistic and is now becoming unsustainable. I believe, to maintain anything like the levels of aquatic biodiversity that we enjoy today we must adopt a model of intelligent ocean stewardship before it’s too late.

If you are in any way inspired by my accounts and videos of swimming with Manta and want to go and swim with them yourself I would highly recommend it, but do it as a Steward for our seas. This means do your homework, look for locations where Manta are protected, not exploited.

One of the reasons I have so much respect for the way the Maldivian People operate access to Hanifaru bay is that they allow swimmers like me access to such incredible creatures while maintaining an environment that Manta have visited for thousands of years and will continue to visit for millennia to come.

One of the big steps that has been taken in Hanifaru Bay is the banning of scuba diving which has been shown to have a negative impact on the migratory habits of both Manta Ray and Whale Sharks. This is a measure that is taken at many of the Manta and Whale Shark hotspots around the world and is intelligent ocean stewardship in action.

I want as many people, not just current generations but subsequent generations, to be able to enjoy the seas in the way that I have. Gone are the times we can pretend it possible to have these experiences and not give thought to how we impact on these, often fragile, ecosystems. It’s up to us. it’s always been up to us, the only difference is now it really is starting to matter that we each act as responsible ocean stewards. The future thanks you.

Learn to swim

It’s something that I have always taken for granted, from an early age, moving in water always felt as natural to me as walking on the ground. I have gone through life so far largely assuming every one I meet will be able to meet the basic requirements of a swimmer ie not drowning.

Being on a resort with predominantly Chinese, Japanese and Korean holidaymakers aged under 30 I was struck by just how many were totally unable to swim. If I had to estimate, I would say 90% of guests from these countries lacked even the basics of swimming proficiency, not sure if this is reflected in wider populations in these countries but stark contrast to the UK where I’d estimate the same number would show 90% with a reasonable level of swimming proficiency.

If you are reading this and you are not able to swim, what are you waiting for? If you are determined you are not going to learn to swim, but have children, please encourage them to learn. The (possibly irrational) fear you have of the water won’t be shared by your children and there is no better time for them to learn than while they are young.

Big Fish Bucket List

As I am getting older and more accurately aware of the fragility of human life I’ve been thinking about the things I want to do before I die. This list includes swimming with a variety of different fish and below is my big fish bucket list:

  • Whale Shark
  • Wild Dolphins (Captive Dolphins don’t count)
  • Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi) – October 2015, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
  • Giant Oceanic Manta Ray (Manta birostris) – October 2015, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
  • Wild Minke Whales
  • Oceanic Sunfish
  • Barracuda – April 2012, Riviera Maya, Mexico
  • Wild Stingrays (Southern Whiptail) – October 2015, Baa Atoll, Maldives
  • Wild Dugong
  • Great White Shark (caged dive)
  • Basking Shark
  • Wild Orca

Some links

Here are some links that you might find useful either to find out more about Manta Rays and their conservation or to plan your own trip:

Well that’s me done on this one, if you’ve swam with any of the above and have any tips on where and when is best to do the same, let me know and remember, if you don’t like these thoughts, stick around, I have others…

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The end really is not nigh

27 Nov

On December 21st 2012, very little out-of-the-ordinary will happen.

Or

On December 21st 2012, large amounts of life on earth will be destroyed.

Or

On December 21st 2012, Humanity (sometimes life in all its forms) will undergo a shift of consciousness.

Here’s my prediction: On December 21st 2012, very little out-of-the-ordinary will happen, because, do you know who get it wrong a lot?

People who predict the end of the world.

History is littered with people who are sure that the end is nigh and that year is definitely the year that the world ends. There is a good article on Wikipedia Listing apocalyptic predictions throughout the ages, but here are some gems:

Many early Christian’s were adamant that Jesus was going to return within a single generation of his ascension (or death, if you prefer logic), which would trigger the rapture. As it turned-out, they were wrong, but that hasn’t stopped numerous groups since predicting exactly the same return of Christ and the end of days.

In 375 AD, Martin of Tours was sure 400 AD would be the year. It stood to reason, after all, the Antichrist had ‘definitely already been born’ and therefore the return of Christ was sure to follow. Jesus was a no show and history does not record what Martin thought became of the Antichrist.

On Feb 20th 1524, Johannes Stöffler reasoned that a particular celestial alignment would trigger the end of days. Unfortunately for Stöffler that day came and went, not to be deterred, he decided he had made a mistake, but that the world would end 4 years later, February 20th 1528. It did not.

In our more recent history, the return of Jesus was no longer the most popular way that we would all meet our end, having been replaced with fears about terror from the stars and/or planet-wide natural disasters. December 21st, 1954, was the date that Dorothy Martin was sure humanity would perish under tidal waves and terrible flooding. She knew this as leader of a UFO Cult who were in regular contact with their celestial masters. She was wrong and, feeling so cheated, her disciples abandoned her.

March 31st 1998 Hon-Ming Chen, leader of the Taiwanese cult God’s Salvation Church, or Chen Tao — “The True Way” — claimed that God would come to Earth in a flying saucer at 10:00 am on this date. Moreover, God would have the same physical appearance as Chen himself, (which was a stroke of luck). On March 25, God was to appear on Channel 18 on every TV set in the US. This did not happen.

On December 21st 2012, the Mayan’s predicted that the world would come to an end…chances are you’ve heard this story, some of you may even hold some sway in it in one form or another. But it’s rubbish.

The theory, relates to the Mayan Long Count Calendar System, which probably originated with the much earlier Olmec Civilisation, but the Olmecs are just not as sexy as the Mayans when it comes to new age guff. The Calendar puts the end of a cycle, not the end of the world, at around 21st December 2012. The devotees of this particular flavour of crazy will tell you no later dates have been found at archeological sites anywhere in Mexico, Peru or Belize, this is untrue as numerous dates have been discovered after December 21st 2012. This is kind of unfortunate as the whole movement hinges around the Mayan’s believing the world would end on this date and contemplating dates after would be pointless. In spite of the rather conclusive evidence against the Mayan’s (or any other early meso-American culture) predicting the end of days, a brief Google Search reveals many new age sites still peddling this rubbish.

If you travelled back in time 10 years, you would find plenty of groups and individuals who subscribed to the Mayan Apocalypse theory, but since then there has been a subtle change in thought. Possibly realising the aforementioned maxim that predicting the end of the world is risky business, a lot of the New Age Movement jumped on the idea of the end of a cycle. Fiery death and oblivion were repackaged as a planet-wide shift of consciousness, enlightenment and/or realisation on the connectedness of all life on earth.

I actually have much greater respect for those who have stuck by their guns and maintain a belief that the Mayan’s predicted the end of days. I can get my head around apocalypse, I can define it and, should it happen, I’m not likely to miss it. The same cannot be said for shifts of consciousness, which seems so much harder to define, even by the people claiming this is what December 21st 2012 will bring.

I have friends who subscribe to this these theories, we have vicious arguments and outstanding bets that I’ll be claiming on 22nd December when the world has not ended and no one has undergone a huge shift of consciousness.

If you want your fill of non-Mayan potential doom, the Doomsday Clock, the symbolic clock face, maintained since 1947 by the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago, currently sits at 5 minutes to midnight based on ‘Lack of global political action to address nuclear weapons stockpiles, the potential for regional nuclear conflict, nuclear power safety, and global climate change…’

So what do you think? I’m always open to well-reasoned counter-arguments, though I have yet to encounter any on this topic. Surprise me.

Liked this?

You might also like:

We’re all going to die here!
Extra-Terrestrial Life: Chicken or Pork?
Mexico: Land of the Maya

Because the Drugs (Legislation) Don’t Work

11 Sep

I still sometimes wake in cold sweats. I am there again and it is happening.

Late at night, toally unprovoked, the first attack from behind, knocks me to the floor. A large group, all female, all wasted on alcohol and desperate for destruction. I remember it, all too vividly, I will never forget. They probably were not bad women on the whole, it’s all too easy to demonise our attackers, but they were deeply under the influence of alcohol and they felt invincible. I did not (could not?) fight back. They left their mark…

I’m not the only one, take a look at this picture. These injuries:

All these injuries were caused by people under the heavy influence of alcohol. Let’s put an end to this! Let’s make alcohol illegal. It’s massively addictive, contributes to public disturbances and plagues poorer communities. It’s time that stops…

At this point a large proportion of my readers, I hope, are wondering what’s going on. Logic should have kicked in. I’m deliberately using emotion and shocking images to manipulate your thinking and bring it round to mine. It’s a very simple trick and it is easily combatted with critical reasoning: Although alcoholism is a problem in the UK (and worldwide), on the whole, people have a sensible relationship with alcohol. Alcohol did and does cause the things I described, but you should not legislate based on emotion and isolated incidents. That would be really stupid, right? Prohibition of things that are readily available in society is always ineffectual and destined to fail. Right?

Here’s a picture of Leah Betts:

In 1995, this picture outraged the nation. It prompted a sit-down with my parents to warn me about THOSE Drugs. For many in the anti-drugs lobby in the UK, Leah’s picture is enough to vindicate their point that all drugs are bad and all drug use ends in the death of the user.

A single picture proves nothing. This picture of Leah Betts proves nothing, other than life is perilously fragile and the tragic death of a young girl is A Tragedy. It is worth noting that despite common perceptions that Leah died from taking Ecstasy, in fact her death was caused by drinking too much water, which diluted her bloodstream. But, even if she had died from an Ecstasy tablet, you can’t (and shouldn’t) legislate based on this. We should expect and demand evidence-based practice and pictures of dead girls, while shocking and terribly sad, are no aid to critical reasoning. It’s a very simple trick. It’s okay to talk about it, here’s why…

In 2009, the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation calculated/estimated/made-up, the cost of UK enforcement of drugs legislation to £16 Billion. We are paying for that. You, Me and Everyone else in the UK, we’re all paying for that. Part of paying for something is you get to have a voice in how that money is spent.  I can think of a lot better uses for that money and we need more than shock tactics and propaganda if we are to have a sensible, adult discussion on legislation that costs our country vast sums of money to enforce every year.

I’m not going to labour the point on why the, so-called, War on Drugs is dumb, there are far more interesting and educated folk who’ve done that better than I ever could (see further reading), but to summarise:

  • Most of the problems with illegal drugs stem from their illegality not individual substances;
  • In about 60 years of activity, the anti-drugs lobby and enforcement activity worldwide has summarily failed to reduce the number of users and the availability of drugs in society;
  • While Alcohol and Nicotine remain legal, any moral argument based on overall public harm is at best mis-guided and, at worst, deceiptful and morally bereft;
  • Drugs legislation often criminalises those who otherwise lead totally moral and law-abiding lifestyles; and
  • At a time of economic decline the War on Drugs is costing us all a small fortune and achieving nothing.

…But I’m more concerned about one of the by-products of this mis-guided War. Unless we learn from history, it repeats, cliched and entirely true; prohibition does not work. There is always a response.

Over the last few years there has been an alarming rise in the variety and widespread availability of totally legal ‘Research Chemicals’, often known as Legal Highs. These highs come in a variety of shapes and sizes: pills, powders, smokes; all attractively packaged and branded with names such as Herbal Haze (smoke), black mamba (smoke), Columbiana (powder) all totally unregulated available on the UK highstreet and over the internet. What is more, I am reliably informed, many of these Research Chemicals are as strong and, in many cases, stronger than illegal alternatives. Let me say again: no one is regulating this absolutely vast industry that must be worth millions every year.

I am also reliably informed that there are massive inconsistancies between products, even those branded the same way, and I have heard from numerous friends that this has lead them to have quite negative, unpleasant and frightening experiences using such substances. One friend reported smoking a substance, branded as anhilation, which produced a near psychosis, short term loss of some muscle control and days of detachment afterwards. I have a genuine concern that it is a matter of time before people start dying as a result of these substances. But…

Further prohibition is not the answer. It can’t be. Prohibition is the root cause at the heart of the market for research chemicals. Prohibition is no longer an adequate response to the problem. If the government bans one batch of chemicals, within a matter of days a new batch will appear and there is no forseeable end to that. The war on drugs has ultimately created the problem that it was designed to tackle.

We need a serious discussion about drugs legislation in the UK (and worldwide), we need evidence-based legislative practice, logic and less fear. It’s another cliche, but sometimes it’s better the devil you know and we have had many decades to scientifically study substances like cocaine Sulphate, THC and MDMA, so we know their effects on the human body. This is important: we know, quite accurately, their relative levels of harm to society. We know precious little, often nothing at all, about these research chemicals. The clue is in the name.

I believe, that we need to spend more money on dealing with the problems of addiction and stop spending any money on fighting a war that was lost sometime around 1960. Alternatively, we can continue with the cycles of restriction, control and prohibition towards emerging substances; we can continue pushing users towards newer and increasingly dangerous substances, the long term effects of which we can only begin to guess at. If we do this and maintain the status quo, it is my belief that people will start dying. As a society, it’s not too late, we can prevent that happening.

We live in an age requiring that we step out from beneath the fear around drugs thrust on us all by the national media and recognise that legalisation, for a huge swathe of reasons, is the right, the moral and the only option for addressing this hugely important social issue.

Please Note

Writing a post in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs is not the same as advocating the use of drugs. Please bear that in mind, I really don’t care either way whether you do or don’t use drugs (past/present/future). If you are going to read this and suggest that I am advocating drug use, then you’re an idiot.

Also, if you’re going to tell me about your brother/auntie/uncle/cousin who got addicted to Heroin/Cocaine/Crystal Meth and try and use that as the basis for a counter-argument, you will have already failed. So, let me save you the time.

And finally, Something to think about

There are many interesting books (and many not-so) on the history of drugs. Amongst my favourites is The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge by Cultural Anthropologist Jeremy Narby. Narby makes the controversial suggestion that human intelligence and language, The very building blocks of the first human societies, arose from the ritual use of hallucinogenic plants and roots. He makes a fascinating case and it is well worth a read.

Few people have ever summed up the war on drugs better than the genius that is Bill Hicks:

Further Reading

Transform Drugs Policy Foundation: Alternative world Drugs Report

Professor David Nutt – Evidence not Exaggeration Blog

Moron Watch: Category – War on Drugs

Esquire: Legalize Everything

Huffington Post: To win the War on Drugs follow the states

So, you know the drill, if you don’t like these thought, stick around, I have plenty of others.

The Essex Lion (It’s a real thing…Possibly)

27 Aug

Roooooooaaaaaaaaar!

There’s definitely possibly a lion on loose in Essex. Of this possible supposition we can be (un)certain…

I have been a long time reader of the brilliant Fortean Times and have always enjoyed the sections of the magazine on Cryptozoology and Out-of-Place animals and the works of Loren Coleman and Karl Shuker. From the minute I read about the Essex Lion story, I made this prediction:

https://twitter.com/Paulcoxon81/status/239835678102401025

I still stand by it (although the Guardian have already run the story). There is just too much about the story that makes it fit very nicely with other unexplained sightings of big cats across the UK (and beyond). Here are my thoughts following some good discussions and arguments with friends last night and this morning on all things unexplained and cat like:

Ah but there’s a picture this time

Pictures of Alien Big Cats (ABC), so-called because they are alien to their environment and not actually extraterrestrial, are common in the UK and have been for a long time. Since the age of the camera, there have been many pictures reporting to show large cats wild in just about every part of country.

Here’s our friend the Essex Lion:

And here’s The beast of Bodmin:

So pictures are not uncommon, what is uncommon are follow-up sightings in the same location after the initial hype. I’m not doubting that the picture is indeed of a Lion and was taken in Essex and not forged, that seems to have been independently verified*, but ABC sightings seem to be of a far stranger breed.

*Update

There was a picture verified, but the picture I used above seems to have been one of the many fakes and not the picture that was shown to experts at the local Zoo…In fact, I am at a bit of a loss to track down exactly which photo experts at the Zoo were shown that made them so adamant that a Lion was loose in Essex. I think it was this one:

 

Which, okay, could be a Lion…possibly. It’s incredibly hazy and hard to get a sense of perspective, but it has a mane. More on this photo later.

But the police are taking it seriously…

Yeah. It’s a picture of a Lion…you’d kind hope they would. It’s definitely a case of ‘better safe than sorry’ when it comes to making sure no one gets eaten by a Lion. But I remain convinced that nothing will be found.

It’s all a bit hazy…

The reporting of anomalous events is an interesting one. Look at UFO sightings with multiple witnesses and the range of accounts that end up getting reported especially with the passage of time during a ‘hype’. As The Guardian’s Jonathan Haynes has already noted:

And accounts are only likely to get more outlandish; part wilful exaggeration, part mild mass hysteria seems, often, to account for this. Already, various versions of the Lion photograph seem to be in circulation, all reporting to be ‘real’.

Even after the search had been called-off and, a rather sheepish, Essex police admitted that what had been seen was probably a domestic cat (I’ve yet to ever drink the required amount that domestic cats, start looking like Lions) the statement of the first witnessed still has the distinct ring of the Fortean to it:

“I was looking out of the window and we saw smoke – it looked like there had been a bit of a bonfire,” she said. “When the smoke cleared I could see this shape in the field, so I got the binoculars out. We had a look and it looked like a lion.” – Guardian Source

Though no expert on Big Cats, I haven’t come across many accounts of them appearing from fire. The witness account is peculiar if you think of it in relation to the photograph. The witness was observing the cat through binoculars, it’s easy enough to misinterpret the photograph as showing a Lion, I’m not convinced how easy it would be to make the same mistake looking through binoculars which would have a higher level of magnification than the camera.

Things get stranger with one witness account disagreeing on the Lion description and suggesting the big cat was, in fact, more Sphinx-like.

It is currently unknown if Essex police will begin hunting for Sphinx’s in the countryside. Possibly not as one local resident believes it was her cat, the Brilliantly-named, Teddy Bear, who was responsible for the sighting.

Anyone missing a lion?

It is not common for ABC sightings to be linked to the loss of animals from captivity, most big cat sightings are of Melanistic leopards and not of lions.  Lions are pretty big, you would be acutely aware of the fact if you owned one. There are no accidental Lion owners out there and no one in or around Essex had reported losing a Lion. There was a circus nearby, but that had been two weeks before the first sighting and they had not reported losing a Lion (I have to hope anyone who owned a Lion and subsequently lost it would have the decency to report it).

Essex Lion Gets in on Twitter

The Essex Lion is the first ABC I recall to have it’s own Twitter account though and some of it’s tweets have made me chuckle:

https://twitter.com/EssexLion/status/239875258566471680

https://twitter.com/EssexLion/status/240059560998629377

The Lion

So, is there a Lion currently on the loose in Essex? I have to say, probably not.

Was a Lion pictured in Essex at all? Possibly.

Then, where did it go?

As with many a cryptid before it, it vanished from whence it came. With little more than the movement of air announcing it’s departure, it has slipped seamlessly back into the lining of the pockets of the Cosmic Trickster.

Read More 

Possible Origins of the Big Cat Legend: Spectral Black Dogs

British Big Cat Attacks

The Fortean Times: Cryptozoology

The Fortean Times: Alien Big cats 2003 – 2006

The British Big Cat Society

Big Cat Sightings

Cryptomundo

Aside

Message to #Olympic Nations and World

28 Jul

I have yet to remember the name of the country, but I recall a BBC commentator say that a small country had halted it’s raging civil war for 16 days while the games are played out. There is something surreal about pausing a war. What a wonderfully curious species we are, but it got me thinking…

You remember that moment when representatives from pretty much every country on our entire planet were standing together and no one got stabbed, blown up, raped or tortured?

Yeah, it needs to be like that from now on.

Those Guns, Bombs and other kill kill death things you’ve so ingeniously created to kill enemies real, perceived or otherwise, you don’t need them. They’re Ours now. That war your currently enjoying, sorry to give ending away but here it is: loads of people die, infrastructures get fucked and things are bad. Eventually the right people realise that things were better before all the death and stuff. So it’s quite simple, unless yours is definitely the first war that will solve things that talking wouldn’t, then stop. Stop now, your guns have a better use.

Your armouries are made of metal, metal is finite. As you no longer need to blow the fuck out of each other, then we need metal, lots of it and cooperation. We’re going to sort this stuff out, all of it and build a spaceship together.

Or not

It is our choice, but the alternative to our crazy spaceship is that we’ll continue to destroy each other and the environment. We will fail as a species and you will die here.

What I believe: On Religion

14 Jul

I will not pull any punches with this post nor will I apologise if it causes offence. I often find myself amused by how angry religious people get about their religion being criticised and how little such people actually understand the concept of faith.

What do I mean?

If you believe in something , have faith that it exists and someone tells you that you’re wrong, you won’t get angry, right? Because you know they’re wrong. If any part of this post angers you, perhaps you should question the strength of your faith and if your anger stems from that little voice in your head that is hidden beneath all the dogma, that whispers doubt. I would never seek to take away a person’s right to believe whatever they want to believe and if your faith is strong enough then not a single word I write should be able to take that away.

I was raised Church of England by my parents and used to attend Church. From quite an early age, I remember worship left me cold, I felt nothing but a guilt that I was doing something wrong. I’d look round our old, beautiful village Church to see the faces of people enthralled with faith and I was envious. I’m not envious any more and I’m certainly not Church of England.

Then What am I? Muslim? Hindu? Atheist? Agnostic? The truth is: I just don’t know. I think it’s okay not to know. I do know that I believe in science and I believe in people, their capacity to make links with others in ways that we are only just coming to understand and I believe in a connectedness with the natural world around us. I’m not an atheist I don’t think, at least not by most definitions, I guess if forced at gunpoint to pick something to believe in (should you ever find yourself in this situation, here’s a handy flowchart to Pick a Religion), it would be an adapted form of Paganism.

But organised religion has long fascinated me.

Religion is insane

There’s no getting away from it.

Religion is insane.

If ever there was a task with zero return on the amount of time invested in it, it’s religious observance. But not only that, in order to fully utilise this zero return on investment, you have to accept things, that you know are categorically not true, are actually truths. Oh and you can’t pretend, you truly have to believe the lot, because otherwise the unseen bearded sky fairy will judge you harshly…it’s called faith, it allows you to do and say stupid things and treat other people with a heady mix of condescension, contempt and, often, just good old fashioned violence. Here are some crazy things you have to believe (and do) to have a faith:

  • God(s) exist (Religions mostly rely on some form of bearded sky fairy…In my honest opinion, of those religions widely practiced, Hinduism has the best Gods.)
  • Homophobia is not only acceptable it’s to be encouraged (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism etc)
  • Women should be subservient to men (largely all Western Religions)
  • The earth is only a fraction (14 000 years old based on the Bible) of it’s actual age (Most creator myths have flawed timescales, none more so than the Bible).
  • There are minor God’s who reign over things like household chores (Hinduism).
  • The souls of vaporised Thetans, who once inhabited our planet, are bound to the souls of all humans living (Church of Scientology)
  • Joseph Smith is a prophet (Mormons – Seriously, watch the South Park episode on the Mormons, it’s a work of genius. Jo Smith gives us all hope that anyone can end up getting revered as a prophet.)

Irony car haz ironyz

Religious people do not get irony. I recently witnessed people with strong Catholic beliefs criticising the beliefs of Scientology because they were ‘crazy and far-fetched’ and, best yet, that ‘Scientology causes more harm than it does good’…I’m not sure another better definition of irony exists than either of those statements. Simply because your particular brand of crazy has a longer history than  another, doesn’t make it any the less batshit crazy. Let’s not even get started on the numerous vile abuses by the Catholic Church over centuries that make most of the quite-frankly sinister goings on in the church of Scientology seem like high-jinx.

Religions biggest crime

I’m not going to claim that religion starts all wars, it contributes to many, sure, but we’ve never needed much help. Take away religion and war will remain, the study of history is the study of a species constantly evolving new and varied ways of bashing the shit out of itself and every thing else around.  No, for me religion’s biggest crime is keeping people stupid. Though it claims to provide answers religion offers nothing in the way of truth. Richard Dawkins refers to a reliance upon a ‘God of Gaps.’ For the religious mind, God, their great deity, exists in the gaps in our current understanding of the universe, but those gaps are closing.

It’s totally impossible to write this post without mentioning Richard Dawkins’ most controversial work, The God Delusion. It;s heavy-handed and patronising in parts, but remains a work of brilliance in explaining, in eye-searingly exhaustive length, why religion is dumb and God almost certainly does not exist. Richard Dawkins is almost definitely right, I find him an objectionable little man,  but he is right. His writing style has always struck me as being much like the Big Labowski’s Walter:

“Am I wrong, am I wrong?”

“No Walter, you’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole!”

So, I highly recommend reading The God Delusion and many of Dawkins’ other works, being a bit of a dick doesn’t necessarily make you wrong. I find commonality with him in the belief that the natural world, evolution and biology are wondrous enough to not require bearded sky fairy God to add extra wonder to my life. Go outside and look at the intricacies of a flower; think about the complex social interactions that make up our daily life; the way a squirrel walks across a razor thin fence; the giant cock of a Sperm Whale; the hive minds of ants and bees…Wonders and there’s no need for God.

In slight defence of religion

I’ll never allow myself to be fully critical of religion, I’ve seen it’s power at work, first hand I’ve seen a benefit. My Mum faced death and was empowered by her religion, was not afraid. My Mum truly believed her God had designs for her and her illness and passing were part of his plan. Now, I might have my opinions about that, in fact I entirely disagree, but I could not have taken that belief away from her, it goes back to that point I made at the beginning: if your faith is strong enough, then it is armour to protect you from my words. But if I could have taken her faith away, I truly believe she would not have faced her death with such humour and grace.

We probably need religion

It’s always been with us since the earliest Hunter Gatherers started forming complex societies, Göbekli Tepe, built in Northern Turkey, some 11, 000 years ago was largely built for ritual and religious use and on to the present day. So often throughout history,  the temples come before the city; religion, worship and bearded sky fairies of one brand or another have been here a long, it’s unlikely they’re going anywhere soon. Perhaps it is true as some have argued, we have a need for religion, as a species, not because it gives us senses of ethics or morality, but because it does something else. Logic dictates it must have a benefit to us as a species otherwise it would be unlikely so many would have devoted so much of their time to it, whilst ignoring a lot of serious flaws in the dogma.

Many writers on futurism don’t see a future without religion or belief, in fact many see a return to more Paganistic or even Shamanistic belief as a response to the increased reliance on technology, including the widespread genetic and technological augmentations that is predicted. So while belief in, broadly-defined, greater powers may not go away, most futurists seem to agree the future for oppressive bearded sky fairies is unlikely the last, in anything more than small pockets, for more than the next 100 years.

I’m going to write two more posts similar to this On Science and On Magic.

If nothing else take away this final thought from my post:

You know the drill, if you don’t like these Thoughts, stick around, I’ve got plenty of others. x

Further Reading

Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins – The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

Alaine De Botton – Religion for Atheists

Christian Post – Atheist Alain de Botton Insists Society Needs Guidance From Religion

Scott Adams – God’s Debris (Free PDF copy)

Do you want to live forever? (Or Genetics, Medical Science, Ethics and Stuff)

24 Jun

If you are reading this and are relatively content and happy in your existence and I said ‘Hey what if you could stay like this forever?’ there is no one of sound mind who would not take me up on that offer.

I want to live forever, there seems more that I want to do than a single lifetime would allow, I’d love not to age.

I’d also love to see an end to diseases: Cancer: Gone; AIDS: Gone; Dementia: Gone; everything, every last one, a blight on our species no more. I think we can all agree on that, right?

But

At what cost?

It is predicted that ageing could be effectively halted and even reversed within less than a hundred years and advancements in immunological science are predicted along similar timescales. We are going to be living longer and possibly indefinitely, if one avoids serious physical injury. But, again I ask: At what cost?

Let me be clear, You will be disappointed if you are expecting an argument based on defying ageing and disease being ‘against God’  or humanity ‘playing God’, I have little interest in either concept, and this is not a post critical of science’s unrelenting quest for answers either. Science and scientists should be applauded for seeking to address the problems of ageing and disease, I would certainly never seek to discourage this quest for understanding, but there are ethical questions arising from human immortality that, when given thought, make what superficially seems like a positive advancement look far less so. If I get something wrong please shout out and let me know.

Let’s imagine today we have cured ageing and all diseases; our children can be born without any risk of ageing or disease and existing humans can be genetically manipulated to enjoy the same. What now?

Who gets the cure?

It would be very easy to say every single person on the planet should be given access to the cure. You might think, and it’s hard to argue against, that if some can enjoy eternal youth and life, well then everyone should enjoy the same right. Ignoring the logistics of this endevour, there are some pretty big ethical problems.

Today, millions upon millions of people are living in total poverty and suffering starvation. If these peoples are given the cure, they will not age or suffer disease, but they will starve to death just as they would have done before and, those that don’t, will enjoy an eternity of poverty. So, you might think that we could withhold the cure until they can be helped to catch-up. We would enjoy our immortality while they continue to die in their masses until we are satisfied they have reached the correct level of social and infrastructural development to be given access to the technology. For your immortality, is that a call you would be happy to make?

Okay, how about this

Let’s forget poverty, let’s pretend everyone on earth is at the same level of societal development, such as that, at least in the aspirational sense. enjoyed by most Western Countries.  Let’s cure everyone on earth of ageing and disease. That’s right, all 7 billion of us can live forever and have children who will also live for ever. The 7 billion of us who are currently alive, along with the billions who have gone before, have done a pretty top-notch job of buggering this little Planet of ours. Heavy industry, resource stripping, reliance on unclean means of energy production and mass consumerism have all taken their toll on our Planet’s essential systems. We vastly over-capacity based on current practices, so it’s hard to advocate allowing a situation where natural wastage through death no longer occurs. The numbers just don’t work, more people only ever means more environmental impact and makes it less likely we’ll ever develop the means, as a species, to venture into the stars in any meaningful sense. No, if we all want immortality then we make some difficult choices.

As I see it, the necessary cost of immortality for all would have to be a Planet-wide ban on procreation. If we all live forever, no one would ever be allowed to raise children. You might think that’s a reasonable price to pay for your eternal life on earth, but look wider. Future generations have often sought to solve the problems of past generations, it’s one of the main reasons we move nearer to this technology. Sometimes problems have been solved due solely to the unique vision of particular individuals. Whatever area you look at, be it social history, technology, medicine, the arts, you will find these unique visionaries who changed things for the better or took things in new directions. The consequences of immortality could stop this happening, humanity would be at risk of stagnation. If we stopped procreation, the knowledge base would be stuck at it’s current levels. Often it is not what is known, the core information, but the way it is put together by the individual and we are (and are not) unique. We would be accepting adding no more uniqueness to our pool. It can only be guessed at what this would mean over the long term.

Terrible but necessary

In my opinion, the possible ramifications for the use of such technology are terrible, I see little hope that it will be in the best interest of much of the population of the Planet, but nonetheless it may be in the best interests of the human species as a whole. If we don’t want to die here on earth and want to explore the stars, even the nearest ones, then I do believe the technology to remove the burden of ageing and to cure all diseases must play a part in a much wider landscape of difficult questions and ethical debates.

So, now you know some of the potential costs, it’s back to my first question, dear reader: Do you want to live forever?

Next time

My next post will look at exactly what we might need to do to leave this planet and it gets a lot more morally and ethically ambivalent than this.

Other Posts and Further Reading

Me: We’re all Going to Die Here

Me: Extra-Terrestrial Life: Chicken or Pork

Senescene: Should we cure Ageing

BBC News: We will be able to live to 1000

The ethical debate of life-extension therapies (Video)

If you don’t like these Thoughts, stick around, I’ve got plenty of others.

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