Usulután, El Salvador

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Among the highlights of our brief Puerto Barillas stopover in El Salvador was a provisioning trip to the chaotic (at least on market days) little city of Usulután, seated in the shadow of Volcán Usulután. We hitched a ride on the marine club van, bouncing down a dusty dirt road past expansive sugarcane fields en route to town, where we hit both the modern supermarket and also the traditional open air mercado across the street. Friday must be the big shopping day because the streets were jammed with what appeared to be thousands of people crowding the market. We saw weatherbeaten rancheros wearing cowboy hats and 3 foot long machetes holstered in leather scabbardss, local ladies wearing frilly little aprons and balancing their loads (everything from egg crates stacked six high, to bundles of fruit, to a festive tray of street food snacks) atop their heads, and men in camouflage pants quite possibly left over from their days as guerrillas in the civil war that ended in 1992.

The currency of El Salvador is the US dollar and in the market one dollar appeared to be the standard asking price for just about anything – for a kilo of mangoes or a bag generously filled with tomatoes or limes (actually limes are expensive – $2 per bag). You could buy anything from a slice of watermelon and a glass of lemonade to a side of beef to a floor length evening gown in the open air booths lining the market alleys. However for lunch we opted to forego the local cuisine and instead went to the modern air conditioned Pizza Hut where we made the mistake of sitting by a window where kids on the sidewalk tapped repeatedly and pressed their noses to the glass trying for our attention and presumably another dollar.

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Back at the resort we strolled through a section of Bahía de Jiquilisco, a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve, where we hand fed bananas to a tribe of spider monkeys after our guide called them down from the treetops by name (María and Pancho). As best I understood from our guide, there are several species of monkeys in El Salvador, but their numbers were severely depleted during the civil war when they were shot by the combatants, more for sport and target practice than for food. This particular group of 30 monkeys are escapees from a zoo, living free and safe in an ecological preserve while enjoying handouts from the tourists.

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AVATAR was tied to a mooring at Puerto Barillas, in the wide quiet waters of the river that mirrored reflections like glass. I spent one morning side-tracked from bird photography, kayaking instead amongst a fleet of dilapidated shrimp boats that are gradually disintegrating along the mangrove banks.

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Our next stop will be in Nicaragua at a marina that has received rave reviews in our cruising guides. More to come.

Click any photo below to open a full screen slideshow.

Chiapas, Mexico

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We are still heading south and east, having entered Nicaraguan waters as I write. Our last port of call in Mexico was Marina Chiapas in Puerto Madero, only 12 miles from the Guatemalan border, where we stayed for 2 nights after our Gulf of Tehuantepec transit.

Each stop at a new port entails a thorough customs procedure, whereby we are met by a platoon of officials and marines to check our credentials and process both our entry and exit paperwork. In Chiapas we were greeted by seven uniformed officers, of which five crowded into AVATAR’s salon to handle the paperwork and inspect the boat, while the remaining two stayed on deck, one armed with an M16 and the other handling his drug sniffing dog, in this case a Belgian Malinois. All were friendly, courteous and professional, with smiles and a handshake all around, also a warning in Spanish regarding the dog – ‘muerde, muerde’ (she bites!).

Our rudimentary Spanish and their limited English sufficed to get us through the formalities with minimal confusion, although it helped to keep a sharp ear open for misunderstandings such as ’The name of your boat is Tucson, sí?’ Two days later, when we were ready to depart, the same contingent returned for a repeat of the exercise. And on the middle day, helpfully accompanied by a marina employee who knew the ropes and was fluently multi-lingual (there were yachts from eight different countries in the marina during our stay), we also spent a couple of hours at the Aduana (customs office) waiting our turn to process more paperwork.

Puerto Madero has an attractive and modern marina, tucked away down a mangrove lined side channel out of sight from the sprawling main harbor which also houses a Naval base, a cruise ship terminal, a fishing fleet port, and a Nestles instant coffee plant. We had trouble even finding it, until a small boat from the marina came out and waved us in. Looming on the horizon are two volcanoes. The largest, Volcán Tacaná, is 13,484 feet in height with half its roots in Mexico and the other half in Guatemala. Both are active, the smaller venting smoke and ash on occasion, and Tacaná, which last erupted in 1986, currently sealed off but responsible for the 200 earthquakes a year that rattle the area. In fact, we were told, we slept through a 5.0 tremor at one a.m. the night of our arrival, After our bouncy 36 hour trip we were all too sound asleep to notice! And, yes, earthquakes can be felt from aboard a boat. As we proceed down our route, a never ending string of volcanoes continues to dominate the shoreline.

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I did manage to wake early enough our first morning in Chiapas to engage in bird photography via kayak, paddling down to the juncture of the waterways where all the facilities are located. My version of birdwatching is to photograph the different birds I encounter, and when I get a ‘keeper’ only then can I check another species off my list! Puerto Madero offers a wealth of waterbirds, primarily a large assortment of heron types, but also pelicans, gulls, terns, swallows, buzzards and flocks of small green parrots. I spent 3 hours paddling about in the early morning hours sneaking up on the herons and trying to catch the pelicans dive bombing for fish breakfast, but my favorite photo of the day was the buzzard – who would have guessed!

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ChiapasMex (857 of 1036)-MThis trip is primarily a delivery passage rather than a cruise, although at a somewhat leisurely pace, allowing for brief rest stops at marinas along the route. Rod calls it marina-hopping. We crossed Guatemala off our list when a passing yachtsman gave us a negative review of the marina there that was to be our next stop, so we revised our plans and bypassed that country entirely, pulling another overnighter to the next destination on our list in El Salvador.

En route I was introduced to a new night watch technique as we navigated through areas populated by longline fishermen. Even though we were sailing several miles offshore, the depths were shallow enough that we could have dropped anchor anywhere along the way. The longlines are weighted fishing lines with hooks, suspended from small buoys marked by a flag. The local fishermen attend the lines all night long, miles from shore, floating in their small unlit open boats called pangas. The challenge for us, sailing in the dark through a fleet of these, is to watch carefully for the dim blinking light, often obscured by waves, that marks a longline. If a fisherman in the attending boat feels threatened by our approach, he will shine a flashlight beam in our direction to alert us to the presence of his otherwise invisible boat. Our response is to flash a beam of light back at him with a handheld spotlight acknowledging that we see him, then change course by 10-20 degrees to detour around him, returning to our course after ten minutes or so, all the while hoping that no one has fallen asleep, lost his flashlight overboard, or had the batteries go flat!

When not concentrating on longline fishermen, night watch provides inspiration for blogging, with no visual distractions except the black sky and the electronic navigation charts and radar dimmed into night mode. The steady hum of the John Deere engine and the rhythmic swoosh of water passing under the hull create a background white noise that allows my stream of consciousness to take flight and soon phrases for future blogs start running through my brain. Typing on my iPad captures those phrases before they are forgotten, and doesn’t distract from keeping an eye out for passing ships in the night.

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Approaching the El Salvador coast provided another navigational variation as the marine club of Puerto Barillas is located 9 miles up a wide mangrove lined waterway. The entrance to the river from the sea snaked through an estuary of shallow shifting sandbars and breaking waves. Here we radioed ahead to the marina and they sent out a pilot in a panga to lead us through the tricky entrance channel and upriver without hitting bottom. AVATAR draws five feet, a relatively shallow draft, but at the shallowest bit we probably didn’t have more than another couple of feet under our bottom, even though we arrived near high tide. Our departure three days later necessarily had to be closer to low tide in order to arrive at our next port of call before dark, so Rod invested some time in serious study of tide tables, distances, and our previous recorded track to plan his strategy. The marina again provided a pilot to lead us out, so despite our concerns we made it to deep water without issue.

Long enough for one blog…more tomorrow.

Click on any photo below to open a full screen slideshow.

Night Sailing

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Another night watch in the wee hours of Monday morning. A half moon is up, lighting a path in the water. It rose about 10:30 pm and before then, without its glow to dampen them out, the stars were spectacularly brilliant in a black sky free of light pollution. And before that, a stunning sunset stretched from horizon to horizon, an unobstructed display of color ranging from the most delicate pinks to a blazing brassy gold.

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I’m up in the flying bridge because the night is too pleasant to spend in the confines of AVATAR’s salon. I can see the lights of two other yachts that have been within a few miles of us all this day and night, one a 45 meter motor yacht D’Natalin IV and the other a 35 meter sailboat named Manutara (thank you, AIS), both obviously headed like us to Panama via Puerto Madero. The Frigatebirds have joined us again for their free ride. Interestingly enough, they only perch on the port side boom. Even when it gets crowded and latecomers have to squabble for landing privileges, they reject the starboard boom totally. The only real difference I can guess at is that the port side is closest to land. In addition a flock of white seabirds, gulls or terns, have been flying around the boat, glowing a ghostly white when they pass through the beam of the light on our our foremast.

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Currently it’s a smooth ride with a balmy breeze, welcome after our T-pecker bash of yesterday. Sunday morning appeared to offer the best weather window of the past two weeks for tackling the 250 mile stretch across the windy Gulf of Tehuantepec. We sailed out of Huatulco’s Marina Chahué at the very crack of dawn in smooth water with only a breath of wind, and took the conservative route by staying close to shore and following the curve of the land to stay in the wind shadow. Even so, for most of the day and into the evening hours, we were in persistent 30 knot winds, gusting almost to 40, bashing head on into steep, abrupt, white capped seas with an opposing current making things worse. We’ve been spoiled by AVATAR’s level way of going after our sailboat days, but pretty soon anything susceptible had been moved to the floor for safekeeping and a pillow had been stuffed into the kitchen cupboards to stop the china from clattering.

Occasionally there are a few scattered lights along the shore, but mostly the stretch of coastline has been wild and empty. We passed an occasional wind farm (great location for them) and earlier tonight in the dark smelled the smoke and watched through our binoculars the flames of a huge conflagration raging on the beach near a lagoon named Mar Muerto, presumably a wind-fueled wildfire.

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Yesterday afternoon we did weave our way through Salina Cruz, a major oil port. There is a massive refinery on the beach and a dozen huge oil tankers were anchored just offshore waiting in turn to fill their holds with oil that has been transferred across the isthmus from the Caribbean side, refined, and now to be piped aboard for export presumably overseas. Adding to the congestion were multiple tender boats and a fleet of shrimp boats heading home from working the shrimp beds nearby. The worst of the wind occurred at Punta Ventosa just past Salina Cruz. After we passed through, conditions quieted and we enjoyed a brief period of smooth sailing, congratulating ourselves, before the wind and the unsettled waves fired up again in the dark of early evening, and demanded closer attention.

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We expect to reach our next destination, Puerto Madero, by mid Monday morning. Puerto Madero is Mexico’s southernmost port, only 12 miles north of the Guatemala border. We’ll clear in and out, hose the salt spray from AVATAR’s decks and windows, and spend a peaceful two nights with sleep uninterrupted by a rough ride and midnight watches, then continue on our way Wednesday morning, marina hopping down the Central American coast towards Panama.

Click any photo below to start a slideshow.

 

Huatulco

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Tucsonans who live only 90 miles from the Mexican border are familiar with coastal destinations like Rocky Point, Guaymas, La Paz, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Acapulco and a few others, but I wonder how many have heard of Huatulco? Certainly not I, and the simple reason is that it did not exist as a resort town until 2008 when Fonatur, the Mexican government’s agency in charge of developing tourism throughout the country, came to this small sleepy dusty village and embarked on an ambitious and ecologically sensitive project to create a complete tourist destination.

I am totally charmed by the result and highly recommend it to someone who would enjoy a seaside vacation in an inviting and laid back atmosphere. The Huatulco area is in the state of Oaxaca, and stretches 22 miles along the coastline, encompassing nine bays – five of which are being developed and four of which are being saved in their native state. The result is a community of attractive and complete facilities that brush shoulder to shoulder with nature at its best. The development has earned The Green Globe International Certification, which gives worldwide recognition to sustainable development that makes use of the environment without destroying it, and enables the locals to benefit from tourism without destroying their roots, customs, and culture. There’s an international airport ten miles out of town and Huatulco is easily accessible by major airline carriers.

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Progressively higher mountain ranges march inland from the the Huatulco coast to the capital city Oaxaca, reachable by a six (or more) hour bus ride through what I have been told is jaw-dropping spectacular scenery, where the view out the windows of the modern, comfortable buses is often a sheer drop of a thousand feet to the (invisible) river at the valley floor. Sadly we don’t have time to fit in an expedition to this beautiful old city with its colonial buildings, great museums, archaeological wonders of the Aztec culture, and a vibrant artisanal community. We are held hostage to the weather and the necessity to keep making our way south for our Panama Canal crossing.

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Recreational opportunities here include white water kayaking, moonlight river rafting, bird watching, boating, sport fishing, swimming, snorkeling and diving, surfing, visits to a coffee plantation or a tropical botanical garden, horseback rides – or just lazing about on the beach or by the pool enjoying a relaxed pace in charming surroundings and being pampered. The city is clean and attractive with an appearance in tune with its cultural history. The architecture is colorful and charming with soft plasters and adornments, and the parks and gardens are lush and refreshing. There are no big box stores or McDonald’s to be seen, and also nothing visible of the extreme Mexican poverty that so sadly appears in other cities.

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Here in Huatulco the buildings are not allowed to exceed four stories in height, and colonia style is encouraged. The nearby small traditional village of La Crucecita abounds with small restaurants and boutique shops that sell crafts created throughout the state of Oaxaca. There are stunning silver creations from the finest artisan families in Taxco, whimsical alejibres from Oaxaca, black pottery, talavera pottery, wood carvings, locally woven cloth. The prices are not especially a bargain, as the cruise ships stop here at least twice a week disgorging ready buyers, but on the plus side that creates a supply and demand scenario that allows the small shops to stock an abundance of quality merchandise.

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My shopping expedition to La Crucecita yesterday resulted in the acquisition of a luminous fire opal and silver necklace, a hand-woven cloth bedspread that I bought practically straight off the loom from its creator, some beautifully carved wooden caballos, and a cute wooden toucan mobile with flapping wings. I also acquired a friend named Edgar, who latched on to me in one of the shops and then led me to his ‘other store’ where he bargained so fiercely on my behalf that I think he may get fired for his generosity! He then proceded to give me a guided tour to all the best attractions in town including the handicrafts museum and the mezcal tasting market where one could sample not only mezcal but also Mexican drinking chocolate and an assortment of other tasty treats. He carried my increasingly heavy shopping bags, pointed out every tripping hazard on the sidewalk, and enthused about the cleanliness of the streets. He joined me for lunch at what he assured me was the best café in La Crucecita, and finally led me to the lovely Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. This modern church was attractive on the outside, but inside the painted walls and ceiling were absolutely stunning – merging the best of a starry night and the Cistine Chapel.

iPhone_2015-Jan-09_799-MOver lunch Edgar told me his story – how he had entered the U.S. when he was 16 looking for work and stayed for fourteen years, harvesting tobacco and fruit crops and working construction in a variety of jobs in multiple states that included North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and Ohio. He built a life and a family there, and has American born children (US citizens) ranging in age from 5 to 14. Two years ago he was stopped by the police for no wrong-doing except for his ethnicity, and was detained and deported.  Once officially deported by ICE, U.S. policy will not even consider allowing reentry under any circumstances for ten years – so Edgar lives alone here Huatulco separated from his children and their mother who still live in the states. President Obama’s new executive deportation policy would have saved Edgar from this sad fate. He now works in Huatulco seven days a week, twelve hours each day, to make ends meet – earning 800 pesos per week which works out to about $55 per day, and keeps in touch with his kids by phone.

We’re off tomorrow, having adjusted our plans to take into account that weather in the Gulf of Tehuantepec is not going to cut us a break. The wind has died down from its worst of a couple of days ago but is still pretty fierce. Our plan now is to sail an overnighter to Puerto Madero, where we’ll file our final clearance documentation for departure from Mexico. We’ll hug the coast by daylight and by nightfall the wind should die down and we should be past the worst of it, hopefully sailing further offshore to avoid the rocky coastline.

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Heading East

Waves Series #1 - Ixtapa, Mexico 2014

I made a quick visit to AVATAR in Ixtapa, Mexico, right after Thanksgiving and enjoyed a tropical escape that included walking the long golden beaches of this upscale resort town and exploring small outlying islets by boat, dinghy and kayak.

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Although the two side by side cities of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo are located in the restive state of Guerrero, they are free of the violence plaguing other parts of the state including Acapulco. I felt more unease in regards to the ‘No Swimming’ signs posted in the marina complete with illustrations of the resident crocodiles that glide among the boats!

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The islets are a quick cruise away and make a great day trip destination. The water is warm and offers swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and other water sports, and the sand beaches are lined their entire length with mariscos – palapa shaded seafood cantinas – squeezed in shoulder to shoulder. Each restaurant is differentiated from its neighbor primarily by the color of the tablecloths adorning the molded plastic tables wedged into the sand. The proprietors compete to flag down prospective diners, each extolling the virtues of his own establishment. They even motor out in open boats into the anchorage to hand out business cards, solicit customers, and offer free transportation to the beach!

There is no electricity on the islands and ice is expensive (we were informed), so all the seafood is fresh caught. We ordered our main course from a selection presented on a tray that ranged from lobster to red snapper, and the shrimp I chose were the best I have ever eaten. May’s piña colada arrived in an entire pineapple. A couple of pet bunnies begged at our feet for scraps of salad, and a passing parade of vendors stopped at our table to offer wares ranging from wood carvings, jewelry, snack foods and clothing, to a serenade on a homemade musical instrument that appeared to have been constructed from discarded tin cans!

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Now it is early January and we have embarked on the third leg of our journey to our destination of Florida, with each leg representing roughly 1,500 miles in a 6,000 mile itinerary from west coast to east. We’re another year older but last year’s plan, for now, is unchanged. Leg 1 was Seattle to San Diego this past September following our summer explorations in British Columbia. Leg 2 saw Rod and May moving AVATAR south from San Diego to Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo on Mexico’s southern coast, where they paused for the holidays from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Currently we are moving southeasterly to transit the Panama Canal for Leg 3. The fourth and final leg will be from Panama to Florida by way of Jamaica with a planned arrival window in March.

School geography and gut instinct intuit that we are traveling south down the coast of Mexico, but we are really headed more easterly than anything else. As I write, we are currently 28 hours into a 36 overnighter from Ixtapa to Huatulco. The sun is rising directly off the bow and if I dropped a plumb line due south on a map from the U.S. to our current position, we would be directly below Houston, Texas. Southern Mexico and the narrow neck of land that contains all the Central American countries along our route really angles more along a west to east line than north to south.

This past Tuesday I returned to Zihuatanejo – an easy flight nonstop aboard Alaska Airlines out of LA. Rod, May and I celebrated our upcoming voyage at El Galeón, one of several upscale restaurants that line the Ixtapa Marina waterfront. Wanting to reach Huatulco by daylight, a 360 mile journey, we pulled out from our marina berth at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning.

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The alarm for my first turn at watch rang just before 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, fortuitously timed to enjoy sunrise over the sea, with coastal mountains paralleling our route portside and to starboard 2,500 miles of open sea before encountering French Polynesia (tempting!). Still dark, I heard chirping noises and went out on deck to investigate. A pair of frigatebirds were maneuvering for a landing on one of AVATAR’s booms. I hurried for my camera and gambled on several low light shots with high ISO and slow shutter speeds, presuming they would soon be on their way. Three hours later I was leisurely composing my shots in bright daylight as our hitchhikers continued their assisted migration! They did eventually fly off, but when I commenced my midnight watch 18 hours later, I was greeted by four new frigates spaced along our portside boom, claws curled around a guy wire, facing forward with feathers ruffled by the headwind, gently bobbing to AVATAR’s motion through the swells.

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Frigatebirds are large seagoing birds with a wingspan that can reach 7 feet and a bent wing profile in flight reminiscent of a pterodactyl. Flocks of them glide lazily high in the sky in search of prey. Instead of catching their own fish, they hover overhead in wait, letting other species of seabirds do the work. When a successful gull or booby passes below with a catch, the frigates dive bomb the unfortunate bird and engage in aerial skirmishing until the harassed victim loses its grip and the frigates are able to steal its fish. The facts that they are poor swimmers and their feathers lack waterproofing are key to their piratical behavior! In addition to their propensity for petty thievery, they are also apparently out for a free ride when it comes to conveniently passing boats. This does not sit well with Rod, who is in charge of cleaning the dinghy that is stationed right below their impromptu perch.

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En route we’ve also had several encounters with pods of dolphins, and I learned tonight on my midnight watch that yes, they do surf the bow wave of passing boats at night as well as by day!

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The weather is calm and pleasant, hot in mid day running in the 80s-90s which I find much more appealing than the cold snap we were suffering at home which included snowfall in Tucson on New Year’s Eve.

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But the sea is lumpy with swells on a short fetch, causing AVATAR to bob uncomfortably in a corkscrew motion. ‘One hand for the boat’ is a yachtsman’s mantra, doubly applicable now since a lurch could cause a misstep resulting in a tumble down the steep stairs from the flying bridge to the hard aluminum deck. Even brushing my teeth is a balancing act! We’re not sure why the sea is so uncomfortable at the moment, but possibly it is because we are approaching the Gulf of Tehuantepec, although it is still 100+ miles away from our current position.

CBPP_20141207_IslaGrande-164-M.pngThe Gulf of Tehuantepec has a reputation for fierce gales and steep, dangerous seas. It is located on the western coast of Mexico’s narrowest point, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec only 200 kilometers wide, which connects the Caribbean side to the Pacific. The topography causes the wind to funnel and build in strength as it blows from east to west over the land bridge, creating the severe conditions in the Gulf. Rod was inclined to discount the dire warnings as exaggeration until he started studying the raw weather data in the grib files and discovered that, day after day, the wind has been blowing in the 50-60 knot range! Giving due respect, our game plan includes a layover of unknown length in the resort town of Huatulco, the last Mexican departure port before crossing over to Guatemala, while we monitor the weather in the Gulf looking for a forecast of calm conditions. We only need a 24 hour window of travel time to sail across in a direct line. The alternatives are to either sail offshore some 500 miles and go around, or hug the unhuggable rugged, rock studded coastline. The current arctic weather sweeping across the U.S. directly affects the force of the gale winds across the Gulf, so we are anticipating a leisurely visit to Huatulco and surrounding environs before things quiet down.

Photography aboard a boat underway makes me chuckle when I read the textbook techniques for landscape photography – tripods, careful composition, optimal shutter speed and aperture for lens effects, use of a remote control or time delay to trigger the shutter while avoiding camera shake. Aboard AVATAR my technique for shooting a sunrise (for example) is to wedge my body for balance against something solid like a table or bench or lifeline, bend my knees for (hopefully) shock absorption, jam my elbows into my ribs and the camera viewfinder into my eye socket for stabilization, use a high shutter speed to compensate for the motion of the boat and my precarious balancing act, and fire a burst of multiple shots in hopes that one of them will have a horizon line that is level! Photographing cavorting dolphins adds the extra level of complexity of not knowing when or where the next one will erupt from the sea. The result is a large photographic collection of splashes, occasionally containing miscellaneous body parts, predominately tails!

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Cheers to all. I will check in again from Huatulco where, hopefully, we will have internet suitable for uploading photos (PS – we have arrived and Huatulco has awesome internet which has enabled this post and guarantees a follow-up!).

Click on any photo below to open a full screen slideshow of the above images and more.

Tucson Lifestyle Home & Garden Magazine Article!

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The January issue of Tucson Lifestyle Home and Garden just came out with a really nice two-page article about my photography on page 14. If you don’t have a chance to pick it up at the newsstand, the magazine is available digitally online. Go directly to the article on page 14: Regional Artisan: Snap Judgment

And for those of you who missed it, I also enjoyed coverage with a nice spread last November in ARTisSpectrum Magazine, which covers the Chelsea art scene in New York City. Go directly to the article on page 38: Carol Brooks Parker

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Meanwhile I’m packing my bags and flying south tomorrow morning to Ixtapa, Mexico, where AVATAR is poised to start the next leg of her journey to (and through) the Panama Canal! This should be an exciting voyage that from Mexico continues on via Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and of course Panama en route to our canal crossing. The ultimate goal is Florida by March so that Mike and I can spend this coming spring and summer cruising the east coast. This is the same itinerary originally scheduled for last year, but our unplanned detention in Mexico caused a delay. Things have been going much more smoothly for us this time around (knock on wood).

Prepping for the trip, I’ve been reading David McCullough’s book The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 about the history of the canal. It’s a fascinating story and we are all really looking forward to the experience!

Hopefully I’ll be blogging photos of warm waters, golden beaches, palm trees, macaws and monkeys in a few more weeks, if the internet cooperates! Here’s a hint of things to come…from a quick trip to Ixtapa’s beautiful beaches just before Christmas.

Waves Series #1 - Ixtapa, Mexico 2014

 

 

The Best of Nature Photography Show Opens Today!

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 9.50.13 AMI checked in with Facebook this morning and found this post – I’m so excited that the 2014 Best of Nature Photography Show is now open at the San Diego Natural History Museum. You can read all about it by following the link – but the highlights are that nearly 1,000 entries were submitted to the show, from which 52 artists and 74 images were selected. Two of my images are included and after following the link to the website and paging through the other absolutely stunning entries, I am hugely flattered to be in such good company.

A special thanks to daughter Michelle who emailed me the entry details and encouraged me to enter. It would have slipped through the cracks without her not-so-subtle hint! And it’s great to know my family supports and believes in my work.

Husband Mike and I are driving to San Diego next week to attend the artist’s reception on Saturday, November 1 from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. If you live in the neighborhood, we certainly hope you’ll join us! The event is on the Museum’s 4th floor in the Ordover Gallery, and admission to the reception is free. Of course the usual fees still apply to visit the Museum’s other attractions – one of which is the intriguing Discovery of King Tut exhibit that we don’t want to miss! And if you can’t make it this Saturday, the show will be on display until February 1, 2015.

Here are my two included images: Sunrise Flight was taken from AVATAR’s deck on an early morning passage in the Solomon Islands. Exhale was also taken from AVATAR’s foredeck this summer as we were sailing near Marina del Rey on our way north to the Pacific Northwest.

Click on any of the images below to start a full page slideshow.

Guest Blog

 

PBH_20140826_untitled_030-2With Rod and May away on vacation downtime and their cabin now available for guests, Mike and I invited my sister Patty Hosmer, a photographer in her own right, to join us for a trip in British Columbia waters. I asked Patty to write a Guest Blog for the AvatarLogs and she has obliged me with a colorful description of our adventures and her own set of absolutely stunning photographs. I may retire….CBP

IN SEARCH OF MY BUCKET LIST    by Patty Hosmer

424785_315227645263880_1537233474_nUnlike my sister Carol Parker, my love for the ocean does not extend beyond the beach. Don’t get me wrong. I love the ocean! I just don’t want to be floating around IN it while wearing a swimsuit and flippers and surrounded by very large, indistinguishable creatures. In stark contrast, Carol loves scuba diving, underwater photography and all things “ocean.” This love extends back to her youth, if not her childhood. As a teenager, she was a member of the high school scuba diving club that made monthly sojourns to Rocky Point, Mexico (pre-condo days), where the group enjoyed camping on the beach and learning all about diving and the sea. Carol even constructed a homemade “slurp gun” that scooped little “pescados” up uninjured in a Plexiglas tube so she could bring them home to trade at the local fish store for her salt water aquarium supplies. In college, she chose Marine Biology as her major, and she even joined the Stanford Sailing Club to spend more time near her first love, the ocean. Interestingly, that’s where she met her second (and forever) love, her husband Mike! Even now, Carol’s home is filled with charming oceanic memorabilia while she staunchly supports environmentally conscious ventures on her Facebook page.

While Carol was scuba diving and exploring the ocean floor, I on the other hand spent many years riding and showing quarter horses, and studying fine art in college. Like Carol, I have also followed my passions. Unlike Carol, I chose to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground. Combining my love of horses, art and photography, I started my own business, HoofPrints® Photography, and began “shooting” horses 30 years ago. In more recent years, staying true to my passion for portraits and action, I ventured with my trusty camera into other arenas of interest including portraits of pets, high school seniors, families, and even baseball action! For me, the joy of photography is expressed through the capture of my many interests. While I love to portray emotions and expressions on both human and animal faces through my portrait photography, I also thrill to the challenge of freezing a spectacular moment through high speed action photography such as a horse at liberty or a split second play in a baseball game. I’m not sure where these interests began, but they truly are my passions, and photography allows me the luxury of repeatedly capturing emotional images!

Despite growing up in the same family, with the same wonderful and varied experiences that our parents offered us, Carol and I evolved into two people with different interests and passions yet, in spite of our differences, we both gravitated to the same love for photography.   While Carol is a Nikon shooter and I am completely invested in Canon equipment, photography gives us a wonderful activity that we can share while creating different results through our unique artistic visions. It generates a venue for discussion ranging from techniques behind the lens to the crafts of the digital darkroom. And while we are each other’s primary critics, we are also our own best fans. In recent years, we have even attended a few workshops together in search of more advanced skills and unique shooting opportunities. It has always been a special treat, and more meaningful, to share these adventures with a close family member, and the result of these sojourns has been wonderful images linked hand in hand with unforgettable memories and experiences.

Two years ago, I had the unique opportunity to accompany Carol to Fiji for a trip aboard AVATAR. I loved every minute of it and the balmy days we spent surrounded by idyllic turquoise seas couldn’t have been more spectacular while filled with abundant photo opportunities. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, I am not very comfortable IN the water, and Fiji just begs for the visitor to be submerged in its balmy, crystalline waters surrounded by a myriad of colorful tropical fish and coral. I honestly like to believe that claustrophobia plays a huge role in my fear of the underwater. I’m sure I would truly enjoy scuba diving if it weren’t for the fact that deep in my heart I know there’s a whole lot of water between me and my major source of air! But I also suspect that I’m not too wild about being anywhere near sharks – real or imagined! Climbing into water that I know contains other creatures bigger than I, and the awareness that a few of them sport very sharp teeth, makes me a little bit nervous! While Carol cannot wait to hop into the ocean with her scuba gear and underwater camera ready for the next adventure, I have to be coaxed to even nervously stick a toe into 12” of water to wade from the dinghy to shore when we venture out to dinner at the local marina resorts!

Having revealed my fears of the ocean, I also have to admit that my own personal “bucket list” actually included the dream of photographing whales and dolphins. I have always been fascinated with the idea of having the opportunity to photograph large marine life. The challenge and excitement of attempting to approach these gigantic sea creatures with a camera evolved slowly over the years as my search for new and exciting subject matter also expanded. In fact, over the last nine years, three of my sons have attended college near Puget Sound, and every year I have had every intention of signing up for a seaplane ride to the San Juan Islands to embark on a whale watching boat tour with the hope of finally seeing the orcas and humpbacks up close and with camera in hand.

Unfortunately, my youngest boys are now seniors in college, and I still have not taken that whale watching tour! So when Carol and Mike invited me to join them on AVATAR to explore the waters of the Inside Passage this August, I leaped at the opportunity. The prospect of motoring into the colder waters north of Seattle and Vancouver into Queen Charlotte Sound, Blackfish Sound, and the Johnstone Strait, was a dream come true! Not only was the idea of another trip on the amazing AVATAR exciting in and of itself, but to bring my camera equipment and possibly have the opportunity to photograph orcas and humpbacks alongside my sister from the boat’s deck was truly a thrilling prospect!! Besides, I have to admit that I knew it would be too cold to have to worry about anyone trying to talk me into swimming!

140823-untitled-037So my adventure on AVATAR began a few weeks ago when I flew with Carol to Campbell River, a small harbor town on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island. It was in Campbell River that we met up with Mike and AVATAR and our adventure began. Once aboard and settled, Carol, Mike and I motored out of the breakwater and headed off to more remote waters in pursuit of my bucket list. Our goal, primarily for my benefit, was to head first to Blackfish Sound, renowned for its abundance of humpback whales and orcas. Blackfish is the historical name for killer whales, now more politely known as orcas! Because I was a willing, but oblivious, passenger I cannot claim full knowledge of all of our destinations, but I can tell you that my ten days in search of the gems of the Northwestern Pacific waters were filled with unforgettable images that will live in my head and heart forever.

140823-untitled-034-2Initially, I decided I would play the role of official documentary photographer for Carol and Mike, knowing that they probably didn’t have too many images of themselves together on AVATAR. It was great fun seeking vignettes of the sailing life that I could record for their memories of yachting – a hand on the controls, a rope being tossed to a waiting harbor attendant, or a snapshot of Carol as she aimed her 600 mm lens at some distant seagull. I even caught glimpses of laughter on board, and teasing at the dinner table, and an occasional snooze in the middle of one of our evening movies. But then, I found that the vignettes became small icons and memorabilia of my own travels. Ultimately, the photos may prove to be memories for Carol and Mike but, more importantly for me, they have become images imprinted with my beloved experiences on AVATAR and the wonderful time that I had exploring the Pacific Northwest in pursuit of my long awaited dream.

My brother-in-law Mike is a conservative, conscientious, and intelligent captain. While guiding AVATAR carefully through areas that might have hidden rocks that could damage the bottom of the boat, he patiently explained to me how the radar equipment worked so hidden hazards could be avoided in the dark waters. Several times we traveled through narrow passages, and I learned that it is customary to radio out on a general frequency to nearby boats to make sure no one enters from the opposite direction simultaneously, especially since there were numerous tugboats in the vicinity pulling enormous loads of logs – vessels that couldn’t make quick adjustments in tight quarters.

Mike also spent countless patient hours helping Carol and me to locate the objects of our expedition, first by monitoring the whale watchers’ channel on the VHF radio where others with the same goal report on sightings and locations to help each other out. Then he spent much of his time searching for whale spouts or dolphin fins, all the while paying close attention to our time constraints to make sure we arrived at our daily destinations in a safe and timely manner.

I also discovered that AVATAR had huge rubber “bumpers” stored below deck that had to be brought out to protect the stabilizers when maneuvering her into a slip at the marinas for an overnight stay. Carol told me she gives Mike “brownie points” for cheerfully setting up all these inflated bumpers whenever they are needed so she isn’t required to take care of this task! Seriously, however, Mike’s skills at maneuvering a 65 foot power boat into moorings at both the marinas and in the secluded bays always generated confidence in me as I observed, photographed, and absorbed the entire procedure.

PBH_20140825_untitled_146-2Carol is an avid reader. Years ago, she would bring 20 or so books to read for her trips on AVATAR’s predecessor, the sailboat RAVEN, in order to keep busy during “down” times or while sailing to new locations. She would return to Tucson with a different set of books after each visit, always swapping them out in order to keep the weight and excess reading material on Raven within reason. The advent of digital books has been a godsend to her as it allows numerous readings to travel back and forth while minimizing the excess baggage weight.

Because of her love of reading, Carol also studies and “owns” virtually anything in which she is interested. Needless to say, she showed me maps of our travels, and she related wonderful tales of the historical significance of some of the ports we reached. Even the remote harbors we visited came with stories she had discovered through her research. Carol’s knowledge of marine life as well as the local wildlife is also extensive. She researches local destinations, points of interest, customs, and upcoming events, so it wasn’t a surprise when she made sure we were signed up for the weekly pig roast at Echo Bay, one of the tiny marinas in which we spent the night. All the yachties mooring in the marina that evening brought a “hearty dish to share” and we met many of the other visitors in a fun dinner at the main building on the dock. Amazingly, we actually met a boater there from Tucson!

140824-canada-3573-2While traveling through the Johnstone Strait I learned the rules of whale watching that included useful guidelines involving approach distances and allowable behavior by boaters to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the whales as well as the whale watchers. In addition, I acquired an amazing new set of skills for photographing sea life from the deck of the ship. Carol showed me how to set up tripods on the front deck of AVATAR so we would be able to use our long, super telephoto lenses to capture a whale when we actually came across one. I had been practicing with my Wimberley tripod head on hummingbirds at home but I quickly figured out it was not quite the same as shooting whales in the icy wind on a rocking boat! And because it was often cold and breezy throughout our travels, I discovered, with Carol’s direction, how to tether the equipment to the front railing so it didn’t end up tipping over, landing in the frigid water or, worse yet, taking one of us with it! Unlike Fiji, a dunking in this part of the world could be life threatening with water temperatures typically below 50º F.  At the same time, we wanted to make sure some of our equipment could remain accessible on the deck for any sudden appearance of marine life, so it was important to be able to secure it safely outside at all times. Meanwhile, Mike continued to faithfully navigate AVATAR toward our destinations, constantly vigilant as he watched for “blows” in indication of a nearby humpback.

140824-untitled-979-2For me, my dream to see and photograph humpbacks, dolphins and orcas included a few rather idealistic goals. A breaching whale, the dramatic flip of a giant humpback tail fluke nearby just as its owner heads for deeper waters, dolphins racing along the bow of the ship – all were images I had photographed in my head over and over as I planned and dreamed of whale watching if I had ever gotten to the San Juans. On AVATAR, I wanted the actual experience of hearing the powerful whoosh of air as the whales expelled their breath into a huge plume of vapor over their rounded backs. I also dreamed of the excitement of catching a whale with my lens as he breached high out of the water, only to smash back down on the ocean’s surface with a monstrous splash. The thrill of dolphins sighting our boat and racing quickly to dodge and dart playfully in the bow wave of AVATAR, almost within reach of an outstretched arm, was yet another image I had already prerecorded in my brain.

Of course, it never occurred to me that I would be truly lucky to see just one random dolphin, a few mellow, rounded humpback dorsal fins, and a variety of busy seagulls, much less a breaching whale or a run of dolphins. I naively expected to take the whole gamut of experiences home with me in an album of memories from my ten days on AVATAR!

140824-untitled-119-2I have to admit, in retrospect, AVATAR and the unofficial “Mike and Carol Parker Wildlife Guides” provided me with an adventure of a lifetime! Not only did I see hundreds of seagulls but I photographed stunning mountains rising out of the sea, drenched in golden sunlight by afternoon, and shrouded in magical mists by morning. I kayaked in the late afternoon with Carol in Desolation Sound where we enjoyed a warm late afternoon excursion with our cameras looking for shore life, scenic rocks, and generally just exploring the scenery while we enjoyed the warm afternoon and observed a few of the other unique yachts scattered about the bay.

PBH_20140825_untitled_033-2140823-untitled-011-Edit-2PBH_20140825_untitled_134-2I am almost embarrassed to admit that in fact, I actually did see dozens and dozens of whales, dolphins, a few sea lions, and even two bald eagles. With Mike’s amazing patience and expert skills at the helm, he guided AVATAR within safe reach of numerous humpbacks in Blackfish Sound where I heard “whoosh” after “whoosh” of roaring wind expelled from the giant lungs of these ocean-going behemoths. Amazingly, I not only saw two complete breaches from start to finish, I actually managed to photograph both of them.

140824-untitled-373-2In fact, the search for whales in Blackfish Sound was unbelievable. Everywhere we turned, it seemed a whale would appear within minutes. They seemed to enjoy teasing both Carol and me as they approached AVATAR swimming and diving gracefully just yards off her bow. It was almost as if they were taunting us to spin around with our cameras in time to catch their arching backs indicating their preparation for a deeper dive that would reveal their mighty tail flukes as they dove far into the depths of the sea. Not only did we see humpbacks, but at one point in our journey, and along with several other official whale watchers, we drifted at a respectful distance near a huge family of approximately 15 orcas including a large male, several females and even a few small babies.

140822-canada-2049-2140822-canada-2596-2On another afternoon, while preparing for an early dinner in the cabin, wildlife spotter Mike spied a bald eagle swooping into the quiet bay in search of a fish. He called out quickly for us to grab the cameras because “it’s flying back this way with a fish!” I grabbed my Canon 1DX as rapidly as I could and, jumping into my “quick-action baseball photographer” mode, I managed to successfully grab a sequence of the eagle as he flew right by the bow of the boat, fish in talons, on his way to a nearby rock where he enjoyed his fresh caught meal.

140822-canada-3602-Edit-2As we journeyed southward toward the end of our trip, we sighted a number of Pacific White-Sided Dolphins racing in the distance. Mike speeded AVATAR up parallel to them but at a respectful distance in hopes of teasing them toward us for a ride on our bow wave. First they turned and sped in our direction, but then they continued on past us, diving under the boat, and moving off into the distance. Suddenly, just when we were sure they were not planning to stop and play, they looped back and, before we knew it, they were leaping and dodging alongside AVATAR, racing along in the bow wave as if we had been a surprise toy that had arrived for their sole entertainment. Carol and I both started firing our cameras for shot after shot of the dolphins. They were so close to AVATAR I felt I could have touched them if I had been brave enough to lay down on the deck and reach out for their glistening backs. The excitement lasted only a few minutes and, when they tired of the game, the dolphins swam off into the distance. Shortly thereafter, Carol and I both went below deck to download our digital files in hopes of finding some treasured image of the event. I had to laugh, however, when I started looking at mine! Priding myself on being able to capture fast action from my baseball and horse experience, I was stunned to see that the first 100 of my rapid fire shots were splashes. I caught every single leaping dolphin AFTER it had submerged. I believe, out of 190 images, I found only three that actually showed the front end of a dolphin! So much for my skills as an action photographer! But, oh what an exciting memory!

PBH_20140825_BCCanada_164_M-2PBH_20140825_BCCanada_176_M-2My sister Carol was once asked to write a guest blog about her workshop experience with a well-known wildlife photographer. In her essay, Carol commented that a college art professor had once told her “the creation of a painting becomes a souvenir for the artist.” Expanding on his thought, Carol went on to state that, “in the process of pursuing another worthy photo to add to my collection, the entire experience of its creation is imprinted on my brain. The process of working the subject…makes it my own. Months later, one glance at the finished image and the adventure leaps to life.”

PBH_20140827_untitled_013_M-2While my ten day AVATAR Adventure in the frigid waters of the Pacific Northwest is mostly a blur, as I explore, edit and print my photos over the next few weeks, I relish reliving the experiences that accompanied my captures. While I know that my collection of digital images portraying my “bucket list” will probably never equal those of others who have dedicated a lifetime to the artistic capture of the giants of the sea, I cannot help but remember my sister’s quote. Just as Carol observed about her own photographs, the entire collective of experiences leading to the creation of my “bucket list” images has been “imprinted on my brain.” In fact, these images have also been burned deeply into my heart. Finding an award-winning photograph in my collection or selling an art image for my clients’ walls resulting from my travels on AVATAR are rewards not nearly as important to me as knowing that the next time I look at any one of my images from this great adventure, I will relive the excitement of the moment combined with all the sights, smells, emotions and visions of the events surrounding its capture. More importantly, my collection of photographic memories from our Northwest travels on Avatar will renew shared family experiences that I will cherish and relive forever.

The gallery below contains all Patty’s photos in this blog, playable as a slideshow. Click for full screen view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wildlife Photography from a Boat

Distant mountains silhouetted from Johnstone Strait

One of my favorite activities aboard AVATAR is kayaking in calm conditions with my camera, sneaking up on wildlife. It’s a bit of a process. In the South Pacific’s warm waters, I just went on my way wearing a swimsuit, knowing I could swim to shore, but here in the frigid northern waters, running somewhere around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, a kayaker’s life vest is a must. It doesn’t take long submerged in water that cold before arms and legs stop working efficiently. Knock on wood, I’ve never capsized in my kayak – not counting the occasional misstep when climbing in or out a bit too casually from AVATAR’s swim step. Here I take the balancing act seriously.

The fact that I am carting around a multi-thousand-dollar camera system also invites caution. I stash the camera in a sealed dry bag and don’t bring it aboard until I’m settled securely myself. And I never untie the painter from AVATAR’s cleat until my paddle is clutched safely in hand as well. But once organized, as long as the water is calm, no problem. Wind and waves screw up the photography anyhow making it not worth the bother. Wind blows the kayak past my subject before I can frame a shot, and waves slosh the little boat up and down making focusing a challenge, plus it’s hard work paddling upwind back to home base!

My kayak is an inflatable model, soft and squishy, comfortable as a pair of old slippers, and not particularly tippy. I’ve scraped bottom on coral and rock and it seems impervious to punctures. They don’t make the model I have anymore. I wore out my first one and found an identical replacement on Craig’s List, but I don’t know what I’ll do when this one bites the dust. It’s already past its prime. Every model I’ve tried for a backup has not lived up to the comfort level and ease of handling of my little orange and black transport.

Raccoon foraging in the Octopus Islands

Raccoon foraging in the Octopus Islands

Baby raccoon in the Octopus Islands

Baby raccoon in the Octopus Islands

With all the windy weather, we spent a fair amount of time hiding out in protected coves where you would never have guessed it was howling in the Johnstone Strait. My favorite spot was a little channel in the Octopus Islands, only navigable at high tide. At low tide it was a dry rock gully. I cruised through three days in a row, twice in my kayak and once in the small dinghy with Mike along for company. Each time I encountered the same raccoon, identifiable by a white scar on her nose, foraging at water’s edge for seaweed and shellfish. She seemed habituated to human sightseers and was quite tolerant of being followed and photographed. On the last day we heard a lot of chatter in the forest and eventually a pair of kits made an appearance as well. The youngsters were much more wide-eyed at the sight of a foreign object floating near their beach.

Oystercatcher and sea wrack at sunset, Boat Bay

Oystercatcher and sea wrack at sunset, Boat Bay

Another favorite spot was Boat Bay where I was able to get close to an oystercatcher late in the day during the aptly named ‘Golden Hour’. This time of year here in the northern latitudes the light is prettiest beginning around 8 p.m. until sunset as late as 10. The majority of mornings were grey and foggy, especially as we traveled north to the Broughtons, eliminating any opportunity for early morning sunrise shoots. As a result we mostly relaxed and slept in. I developed a pattern of waking to the light, climbing up the stairs from our master cabin to the great room to check the weather conditions in hopes of a clear sky, and then going back to bed for another hour or two of sleep.

'Stampede' of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Laura Bay

‘Stampede’ of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Laura Bay

This habit gave provided an extremely lucky break one morning when we were anchored in Laura Bay. Kayaking the night before had been a bit of a disappointment – the shoreline unvaried with a ledge of rock exposed by low tide and topped by drooping evergreen boughs but without a living creature in sight for subject matter except one shy duck. But next morning as I took my usual quick peek out the windows, I saw a froth of white water stretching across the mouth of the bay where it opened into the channel.

I grabbed the binoculars, thinking that the current was racing much more strongly than expected. Instead it turned out to be a ‘stampede’ of perhaps a hundred or more Pacific white-sided dolphins racing headlong directly into our anchorage, churning up a tsunami-like wave accompanied by the roaring noise of turbulent water. The dolphins headed straight towards AVATAR where we were anchored and sped past, made a wide U-turn when the bay turned shallow and then rushed out again, still at full speed, until they disappeared down the channel.

Salmon jumping, Johnstone Strait

Salmon jumping, Johnstone Strait

I’ve always wanted to photograph a fish jumping, but up until now it has been a statistical improbability – not knowing when or where a fish might jump makes it pretty much impossible to be prepared with a camera in time to frame and focus the shot. But here the salmon are arriving early and in droves and they are jumping like crazy, presumably in training for their spawning runs up the local creeks and rivers. Helpfully, a salmon will jump two or three times in a row, offering the chance to spot him on jump one and be focused and ready to take the shot on the next. I’m hoping next trip to be able to photograph the grizzlies upstream as they gorge on the salmon runs come late August, early September.

For the first time ever, in ten years of cruising, I have my really big wildlife lens with me – a 600mm monstrosity too heavy to hand hold. It weighs more than 11 pounds and measures 17.5″ long x 6.5″ wide. Too big to carry on international flights to the South Pacific, it wasn’t until AVATAR arrived this past fall in San Diego that we were able to drive from Tucson in our car and bring the lens aboard. As it turns out, AVATAR’s uncluttered foredeck makes a great tripod platform for photographing sea life when the sea is smooth, or birds on a quiet morning. I’m still hoping for bears, wolves, cougars or deer – all abundant in this part of the world.

Humpback whale tail, Blackfish Sound

Humpback whale tail, Blackfish Sound

In Blackfish Sound, blackfish being the historical name originally applied to Orcas (killer whales), we spent a late afternoon pursuing humpbacks. While I scout and shoot from the foredeck, Mike patiently drives the boat following my hand signals through the windshield – fast, slow, left, right, stop. He even figured out my 3 gesture signing that meant ‘boat – really big – behind you!’ which turned out to be a cruise ship, already showing up on our electronics.

From a distance usually the first sign of a whale is the spout, or blow as we’ve learned to call it, in the distance. But in Blackfish Sound they were so close that often it was the loud “whoosh” of their expelled breath that alerted us to their presence. That sound never fails to give me a thrill – there is something very personal about hearing a whale breathe. Sometimes we hear the dolphins breathing as well when they are quietly feeding – a quick much softer “poof” of sound.

Male Orca, Blackney Passage

Male Orca, Blackney Passage

The following morning was our final day cruising as Mike set the alarm for 6:30 a.m. Our passage was optimally timed to navigate 80 nautical miles down the Johnstone Strait through Race Rapids and the dreaded Seymour Narrows to our reserved marina berth in Campbell River. I complained bitterly when he woke up early and decided to get underway an hour ahead of schedule – but it turned into a hugely successful departure as we glided through reflective glassy water, surrounded by foraging Orcas and not a whale-watching tourist boat to avoid at that early hour! The killer whales (they are actually oversized members of the dolphin family) were beside us, in front of us, behind us, and to the left and right. We lingered for that entire extra hour while I photographed them with my 600 from the foredeck wearing sweats and wet socks and shivering in the early morning chill.

The gallery below contains the blog photos and some additions, playable as a slideshow.

Moon, Tide, Wind & Current

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Supermoon from Boat Bay anchorage on July 12, 2014

The title says a great deal about navigating in this part of the world. Mike and I have been exploring a section of the Inside Passage which extends more than 1,000 miles from Washington’s Puget Sound all the way to Skagway in Southeast Alaska. But we confined our explorations to the southern portion along the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, up to but no farther than the Broughton Archipelago, a stretch of some 350 miles not taking into account detours and driving in circles watching for whales!

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Agamemnon Strait en route to Princess Louisa Inlet

There are thousands of islands in this area tangled in a labyrinth of waterways. The major inlets wind their way between evergreen cloaked hills to the feet of snow capped mountains and glaciers, including 13,186 foot Mt. Waddington. As the tides rise and fall, the water floods and ebbs through the passes, channels and straits. At the peak of high and low tides, both of which occur twice a day, water races through some of these constrictions at a velocity in knots that can reach double digits creating rapids, whirlpools and overfalls – all conditions to be avoided in a yacht, especially when complicated by the presence of hazardous rocks!

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Malibu Rapids, entrance to Princess Louisa Inlet, at sunrise

As a result we are armed with multiple cruising guides and Canadian Hydrographic Service charts & sailing directions to help calculate best strategy and timing to get from here to there. The best practice is to navigate the rapids at or near slack tide when the water flow  is at its calmest. At each critical bottleneck a parade of boats converge to await optimum transit time. Our very first experience was the Malibu Rapids entrance to Princess Louisa Inlet – a short skinny blind S-turn only wide enough for one boat at a time with rocky shoals to port and starboard . The recommended strategy here is to broadcast via VHF radio channel 16 a “securité, securité, securité” announcement of your intent to enter or exit the channel, giving oncoming boats time to make their presence known.

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Fishing trawler in the fog, Blackfish Sound

Wind force and direction need to be taken into consideration as well – strong winds opposing the direction of the current rapidly create a whitewater cauldron of steep choppy waves that can create havoc with small boats. We did learn over time that the winds are generally quiet in the morning, build to a crescendo in the afternoon, and die away again come evening (we also learned that the weather service apparently overstates the wind conditions). When it is too fierce to travel, there are many pleasant protected anchorages for waiting out the weather. However often we found that on the light wind days, foggy conditions and drizzle plagued us instead.

As newbies to the area, and without the security blanket of our experienced Captain Rod on board, we took every guidebook warning and weather forecast devoutly to heart. For the first few weeks of our cruise the weather service constantly broadcast gale force wind warnings of 25-40 knots in the Johnstone Strait, a critical waterway for traveling either north or south. The windy conditions were accompanied by the buildup to July 12th’s supermoon, which exaggerated the tides to an even greater extent than a plain old regular moon. But as we followed instructions to the letter (and let other yachts precede us), each transit gave us more confidence to negotiate the next. By yesterday, the end of our explorations for the time being, we had built up nerve to tackle the Seymour Narrows.

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At sunset a cruise ship sails north in the Discovery Passage towards the Seymour Narrows

Just north of our layover marina in Campbell River is the most notorious section of the Inside Passage. Cruise ships making the run between Alaska and Seattle time their entire itinerary around the optimum time (which changes every day) to navigate the Narrows. At maximum flood the flow can reach 16 knots (AVATAR’s normal cruising speed is 9-10 knots). Prior to 1958 a large submerged rock, Ripple Rock, generated hazardous turbulence and whirlpool activity to such an extent that twenty or more large vessels were sunk over the years and more than 100 lives lost. In 1958, after several years of preparation (and the loss of more lives in the process), Ripple Rock was dynamited into oblivion in the largest non-nuclear explosion in history up to that time.

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Iron Lady in Kanish Bay

Our transit was perfectly timed and non-eventful, although the turbulence argued with the autopilot, pushing AVATAR’s bow left and right as we went through. We followed a tug towing a barge stacked high with shipping containers at a respectful distance, and right behind us was AVATAR’s sister ship Iron Lady, hull #3 of the FPB 64s, who is also exploring this part of the world. We caught up with Iron Lady for the first time yesterday in Kanish Bay where we both lingered, photographing each other, until time to head into the Narrows. Iron Lady has been cruising the South Pacific since launch, and arrived in British Columbia mid-May by way of Hawaii.

Two identical distinctive vessels in the same neighborhood have caused quite a bit of commentary. At each marina and anchorage, AVATAR is mistaken for Iron Lady who has preceded us. Our unusual yachts have garnered more than the average amount of attention here in Canada, possibly because boaters here recognize a serious boat when they see one. Curious sightseers check us out each time we tie up at a new marina – at Port McNeill the sailboat berthed just in front of us commented that our arrival had really increased the foot traffic on our shared section of dock.

We’ve had a great adventure, with more to share about wildlife and wilderness cruising, but that will be the subject of the next blog. AVATAR is now secure in a marina and Mike and I are headed back to the states in a few days, flying from Campbell River to Seattle by float plane, and then on to New York City for my photography exhibition and artists’ reception July 31 plus a few weeks of catch-up at home before we return for phase two of our Pacific Northwest adventures.

The gallery below contains the blog photos and some additions, playable as a slideshow.