The land of the falling lakes

There’s more than just ‘looks’ to Croatia’s largest National Park.

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Croatia, Plitvice Lakes                                                                         Photography by: Mehrnaz Karimi

Founded in 1949, it is not just one of the oldest parks in Southeast Europe but it is the oldest park in Croatia and it is the country’s largest.
Visitors would find it hard to believe that Plitvice Lakes had any involvement in the civil war which took place in Plitvice on March 30 1991. The park was torn apart and taken over by rebel Serbs who took control of its headquarters. It was kept by the rebels for the entire duration of the war and was not regained back by the Croatian army until 1995. Despite this however, the park looks untouched and so it is believed that it healed itself naturally over time.

As a result of its cultural and physical significance, the national park was included on the UNESCO list of World Natural Heritage sites in 1979.

It is located halfway between the capital city of Zagreb and Zadar on the coast, but no matter where you are staying in Croatia, the lakes are a must see. This is why there are excursion coaches going from all over the country to the national park, no matter what the distance.
I travelled from the city of Pula to see the National Park which was a three hour coach journey. The journey to Plitvice Lakes was just as beautiful as the National Park itself, with acres of tall trees surrounding the bendy roads. There were locals on the route selling goods to passersby, each with their own unique stories to tell. One of them was an elderly woman who sadly lost both her husband and son to war. She was standing behind a stall selling jars of homemade jams, marmalade’s, honey, cheese and liquors, offering tasters to those who stopped. Her stall has become so popular that excursion coaches stop for tourists to have tasters and make purchases. She was stood just a yard away from another local who was also selling homemade goods.
Tourists travel from all over the world to see the mystical beauty that is Plitvice Lakes, giving the locals the opportunity to give tourists a real taste of Croatian hospitality. This makes the journey to the park all that more enjoyable.

Running parallel to the Dalmatian coast, each season brings its own beauty to the park, reshaping according to the time of year. In the winter it is a white wonderland that is unrecognizable from its appearance in the summer. The colour of the water goes from clear blue to grey but the snow topped woodland that labyrinths around the pools makes the park look just as stunning. Some of the native animals struggle to survive the harsh winters that hit Plitvice Lakes, but the strong waterfalls battle the cold and continue to flow.
It is a kingdom ruled by water and in the summer the first thing to be noticed is the colour of it. The water can only be described as crystal blue, with sixteen pools of lakes connected up by the waterfalls that attract millions of visitors every year.
The colour of the lakes is said to be ever changing, depending on the angle of the sun and the amount of minerals that are in the water which is dependent on the weather. It has however, been described as azure, green, grey and blue during different seasons.
The park is recognised for its picturesque waterfalls that keep the water flowing from pool-to-pool, and the formation of these cascades is just as fascinating as the sight of them. The ongoing biodynamic process of tufa formation which happens under specific hydrological and ecological conditions is the reason for the waterfalls. Tufa is a porous carbonate rock formed from the sedimentation of the calcium carbonate in the water, which builds barriers in rivers and streams. This formation is a constant process that happens at all times of the day. To the ignorant eye, one waterfall may look like the next but every single cascade is different. Taking new routes, the water picks up its speed and as temperatures change, new travertine barriers are formed, making it ever changing.

Surrounding the lakes, are woodlands, where tour guides do not usually venture. This natural phenomenon is home to bears, fish, deer, birds and other forms of wildlife including wolves and otters. Although the Park attracts millions of visitors every year, there is little human interference with the wildlife in the forest. Ancient trees lay where they fall and it is rare for tourists to see certain animals on a visit.
The woodland area has been referred to as the ‘land of the wolves’ after it was recorded a decade ago that the number of wolves there had increased.
According to studies, the wildlife within the park consists of 321 recorded species of butterflies, which can be seen flying over the 18km footbridges and pathways that lay over and across the beautiful water. There are 161 recorded species of birds, 21 species of bats, 1267 species of plants (including 75 endemic plants and 55 different species of orchids).
The number of brown bears (Ursus arctos) is currently unknown and sightings of bears are unheard of, as they tend to stay within the woods. There is enough food within the forest to keep the animals where they are, and with lakes flowing through, it makes it the perfect home to many species. However, with an increase in the number of wolves, there is an imbalance of the predator and prey ratio in the woodland areas, meaning that they are turning to eating rodents as well as larger animals such as wild boars.

The park has a surface area of 294.82 km² and it takes an estimated time of around six hours to explore the lakes alone on foot. This can be cut down however, by making use of the free boats and buses that take you to the different entrances of the park. A half day in the park is not enough time to see everything, so a full day is recommended. Having a good standard of physical health is also worth mentioning as there are a lot of steps to climb.
Tourists are not allowed to get into the water in case of pollution and disturbance of the natural habitat but they are welcome to walk the wooden footbridges and pathways that snake around the lakes. In fact, the only human contact allowed in the water is on the boats which are used to take visitors from one area of the park to another. Rowing boats are also available for tourists to hire out if they wish to.
Some of the foot paths are narrow and so there have been cases where visitors have fallen over so care is required when venturing around the beauty. Tourists are advised to follow the rules and stick to the footpaths, so that they do not disturb the animals or put themselves in danger to potentially dangerous wildlife. This is also advised to ensure that tourists do not find themselves getting lost. With the many visitors that go to the park, it would be difficult to seek assistance if you are not with a tour guide as visitors have the option to go with a guided tour or on their own. Due to the sheer size of the park, it would be easy to get lost, as it is divided up into seven sections, known as the upper lakes, the lower lakes, the Plitvica stream, Korana river, Supljara cave, Karlovci and Corkova Uvala.
There are small cafe’s and food stalls located in certain sections of the park and tourists are allowed to sit anywhere they wish, as long as they do not leave any litter. They are welcome to sit in front of the water where boats pick visitors up from to enjoy the view of the hungry ducks that swim not too far away from the tourists, hoping for a crust of bread. Tourists are of course advised not to interfere with any of the animals by feeding them.
Due to the fact that the park is so beautiful, it is against the rules to damage the trees in any way, or to pick or damage any of the flowers.
Tickets to enter the park can vary anywhere from 55 kuna to 180 kuna, depending on the time of year, with the summer months being the most costly. A percentage of ticket proceedings are put towards the protection and maintenance of the park.
There are hotels located nearby and camping spots for those who love the outdoors. These camping spots are not located within the park itself.
No matter how long your stay is in Croatia, Plitvice Lakes will be one of the highlights of your trip. It may also be one of the most beautiful sights you will ever see in your life.

For more photos of Plitvice Lakes, please click on my photography page on this website to see more!

The black tongued dog

The history behind the Chinese Chow Chow & how it came to having it’s unusual tongue colour.

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Photograph by: Mehrnaz Karimi

One of the most ancient dog breeds known to man is the Chow Chow.
Often compared to a bear or a lion, the Chow has a number of characteristics that makes it stand out from other dog breeds, one of which is the blue/black tongue. There are only a few dog breeds in existence that share this unusual trait, one of these is the Shar Pei, but even this dog is related to the Chow and is often referred to as its cousin. So what is the reason behind this phenomenon that has so many of us fascinated?

When Chows are born their tongues start off pink and don’t start to change colour until around eight to ten weeks of age. They usually start off by having a blue spot which spreads, eventually covering the entire tongue.

Markings in Chinese pottery dating back to the Han Dynasty reveal the dogs originated from Northern China over 2000 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest dog breeds known to man.
Chinese emperors and merchants used them for working purposes including hunting, pulling sleds and guarding.
The Chinese believed that the reason behind the colour of their tongues was for warding off evil spirits and as a result of this they were used as guard dogs outside of temples in China.
Others believe that at the beginning of time when God was painting the sky blue, a Chow licked up the drops that fell from the brush.

Whatever the reason behind this trait may be, the first thing that needs to be examined is the dogs blood line.
The exact descendants of the Chow Chow are still unknown but there is a theory that they are descendants of the Simocyon, a now extinct animal which scientists have confirmed is related to the red panda. The Simocyon has also been compared to a lion just as the Chow has although it is believed that they were the same size as a mountain lion. This draws suspicion because of the size difference between the Chow and the Simocyon but it could explain why the Chow is so often compared to a lion with their proud manes. The exact colour of the extinct species tongue is unknown however which suggests that even if it is a blood relative of the Chow, it is not necessarily the animal they inherited their tongue colour from.

The colour may seem unusual because of the fact that most canines have pink tongues but there are a number of other animals that share the blue/black characteristic. Could the Chow be a descendant of one of these? Other animals to have this feature include the polar bear, giraffes and the blue-tongued lizard.

The next to be explored is the science behind how these animals have come to have such a distinctive similarity. Research into why some animals have evolved to have tongues this colour suggests that it is because of the fact that they contain melanin which is the same pigment that causes a human’s skin to darken when in the sun. (Their dark tongues have more melanin in to protect them from getting burnt by the sun.) This makes sense for giraffes and the blue-tongued lizard because their natural habitats are in hot climates but for the polar bear and the Chow whose natural habitats are in freezing conditions it does not. However, those who are familiar with snow sports such as skiing and snowboarding, will know, it is just as easy to get sunburned in the snow where the sun’s rays reflect back onto the skin causing the same effect as it would in a hot country. This makes more sense because everything about the Chow shows that it has evolved to withstand freezing conditions, from their excess skin to their thick fur. The weather in Northern China, where the dogs originate from can reach sub-zero temperatures after all. Despite many of them now living in various types of weather conditions, their blue tongues are a trait that has remained throughout the generations of the breed. It is a gene that is clearly dominant as the majority of other dog breeds that are mixed with Chow’s often retain the tongue colour.

It is not just the physical form of the Chow that makes them stand out; it is their personalities which are very different to any other dog breed on the planet with characteristics that many owners compare to domesticated cats. Their behavioural traits include aggression and they have been found to be quite territorial, which could also be linked with their guarding backgrounds. Chow’s are not recommended for first time dog owners due to their unique characteristics, they can be trained but patience is a must as they will typically only do ‘tricks’ for treats. They are not recommended for owners who have small children but like any dog if they are raised right, they will behave right and can actually be great family pets. Don’t except to play fetch with a Chow Chow, they are generally quite laid back and are not particularly active. They do require regular walks however and can become quite restless if they are not appropriately exercised.

All that is known for now is that Chow’s share a great similarity to bears and extinct animals. The exact descendants of the Chow Chow are still unknown but through further research into the bloodline of the Chow, it won’t be long before the mystery is solved.

Meet the fish that walks

7590416474_ae73c91320_bEvolution in its purest form.

Evolution has been a debate for many years, and one example that has been used to back up the theory aside from the comparisons of humans and monkeys, is the frogfish.
These fish don’t just swim, they propel themselves through water using their fins and they can walk on the ocean floor, using their legs. That’s right legs! Frogfish are usually brightly coloured, allowing them to be camouflage against the reefs in their habitats and the species are said to change colour throughout their life-cycle. This is used for both protection against predators and for catching prey. They mimic their surroundings by making themselves look like other living creatures such as coral, sea urchins and sponges. Their legs which are not attached to their abdomen, are stretched out and pointed downward. Despite having two choices of movement, they move very slowly through the water but they make up for this with their unbelievably fast bite.
They use their camouflage ability to their advantage and sit very still in order to blend in. They then lure in their prey using an appendage which is attached to their dorsal fin, so that their victims mistake it for food and then they strike. Their bite has been described as being lightning bolt fast, which is down to their method of catching prey known as ‘gape and suck’. The reason behind this title is because they drop their jaws (gape) at a .22 speed which creates pressure, causing the water and everything else around the mouth to rush in and then they suck. Having no teeth, means that they have to swallow their prey whole. As a result of this they can only eat small fish; any fish caught, that are larger than they are end up having to be released.

Frogfish can be found all over the world, and it is said that there are a number of different species known to man. Discoveries of new types of frogfish seem to be happening more frequently with a diver finding one that had hair in 2015 and another being found washed up on a beach in New Zealand this year. The new discovery has been described as being a possible member of the frogfish family but is yet to be confirmed by experts at the The Museum of New Zealand. This fish differs from other frogfish as it is black rather than brightly coloured and it has been said to resemble a bird which is an unusual comparison for a frogfish. The discovery follows a number of unusual findings in the Australian seas including a two mouthed fish and a rare prehistoric shark which was caught by a fishermen.

The ocean is said to be 95% unexplored, so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that new species are being discovered. There is still a lot to learn about life in the ocean and about the ocean itself; with patience and respect, it can be explored further and more discoveries can be made.