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.

Happy 4th from North of the Border!

CBPP_20140701_BritCol-181AVATAR is now in Canadian waters and Mike and I are cruising alone, just the two of us, while Rod and May have gone home to the other side of the world for a much delayed vacation!  We’re suffering the challenges of making repairs on the fly in a foreign country, but even a refrigerator breakdown offered a silver lining. Because we needed to find a refrigeration technician, we cruised in to Campbell River’s Discovery Harbour Marina and happened to arrive on July 1 which is Canada Day! So we beat you Americans in regards to holiday celebrations – as soon as it turned dark (10:30 pm here in the northern latitudes) I was able to set up my tripod and camera on AVATAR’s upper deck to photograph the fireworks display across the water.

CBPP_20140703_CampbellRiver-270-MIt took a couple of days to round up a technician who could fit us into his busy summer schedule, so I signed up for a wildlife tour and spent yesterday on the water with Eagle Eye Adventures in a big powerful Zodiac. Orcas were first and foremost on everybody’s mind. As soon as we were all bundled up in our survival suits, reminiscent of the snowsuit I wore as a preschooler during Illinois winters, we zoomed off into the Strait of Georgia looking for whales. Fortunately the wildlife tour operators share sightings via radio, so our guide Jos already knew there were Orcas and in which direction. It was a bit of a gray day and the water was pretty rough in the strait. We pounded through the waves at high speed, although not up to the Zodiac’s full capability of 50 knots, and found a pod of transient (as opposed to resident) Orcas in the process of feeding.

CBPP_20140703_CampbellRiver-716-MAt first the Orcas were milling about casually with some tail-slapping as they fed, but once their bellies were full they turned exuberant and soon we were treated to an awesome exhibition of multiple breaches. Even Jos, who goes out Orca hunting seven days a week, was pumped by the extreme athleticism these whales were displaying. My lucky shot of the day came when a whale breached right off the starboard stern of another tour boat, completely soaking the occupants, followed 8 seconds later (per the EXIF data on my photo files) by a second amazing full body breach off their port bow. I’ve shared the photo with the parties involved and it is already taking life on the internet and I’ve had a request to have it published in the local newspaper. At first glance it looks totally fake but I assure you that the only Photoshop applied was to crop, straighten and color correct. Other than that, the image documents exactly what we all saw – except for the folks on the other boat who were still peering off their stern!

MatriarchWhen the Orca action died down, Jos took us into nearby aptly named Calm Channel in search of other wildlife. Bald eagles especially are in abundance. This slightly scruffy looking matriarch has a broken beak, but still heads up an entire flock of eagles all perched in the treetops surrounding her vantage point. In the forest canopy the bright white heads stand out like golf balls on a putting green and I counted at least eight in one go. Bald eagles are a dime a dozen in this neck of the woods. Two of them are hanging out here in the marina, stationed on signposts along the breakwater, to the consternation of the local seagulls.

CBPP_20140703_CampbellRiver-1430-MAfter the Orcas, the other big game we all hoped to see were bears. Again shared information steered us to a black bear at the water’s edge, feasting on the mussels exposed at low tide. She was totally unconcerned with her floating audience and we were able to drift in for a good close up view.

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

PS – The refrigerator is working again and we’re headed north for more adventures, and hopefully more Orcas!

 

 

AVATAR on the Move!

 

 

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After the long dry spell impounded in Mexico, AVATAR is on the move again! Once safely back in San Diego we attacked the backlog of repair and refit projects in express mode and finally, better than new, hit the sea lanes heading north to Seattle. In case Captain Rod’s skills were a bit on the rusty side, we hired on a new navigator to steer us through the tricky parts. Meet the newest addition to our crew, Captain Jack Sparrow;-)

Thurs April 29 – We sailed from San Diego to Marina del Rey where we spent the night, then departed at first light the following morning. There was an amazing amount of sea life near Marina del Rey, flourishing directly beneath the approach pattern for LAX!  Heading north we had frequent sightings of humpback whales including a breach, and I got a brief glimpse of my very first Orcas in the wild. Several times we were accompanied by exuberant pods of dolphins, both Bottlenose and (another first) Pacific White-Sided Dolphins. I was particularly pleased with these three images I managed to capture of the latter!

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We’re trying to make good time, having been forewarned that once the Pacific High sets in over the summer months, this northbound passage can get pretty unpleasant or, at worst, impossible.  Our wind and wave conditions were so favorable we made an on-the-fly decision to press on, bypassing Morro Bay and making an overnight passage to our next stop, Monterey. In Monterey we enjoyed a couple days sightseeing as the marina was in walking distance of Cannery Row and historic Old Town Monterey. At night we slept to the background chorus of hundreds of barking harbor seals who apparently don’t sleep.

CBPP_20140501_Monterey-094-MlkThe awesome Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-see. The jellyfish are mesmerizing and, no, this photo was not taken in the water! Water temps are in the 50s, a far cry from the South Pacific’s 80 degree average, and I firmly believe our scuba gear is retired for the duration. Mike is having flashbacks to earlier decades when we raced small yachts in Northern California; recounting his memories of past regattas at each whistle stop as we sail past! My most vivid memory of sailing in these parts is capsizing in a Snipe race in San Francisco Bay and being so cold, even though promptly pulled out by the Rescue Boat, that I couldn’t hold a cup of coffee in my shivering hands!

From Monterey it was a daysail north into San Francisco Bay, making our grand entrance beneath the span of the Golden Gate Bridge before heading to the eastern shore of the Bay to spend a few nights in Sausalito. Here we were expecting a layover of nearly a week until a weather system with strong offshore winds subsided, but the forecast changed and shortened our visit to three days.

Gung ho sightseeing in the Bay Area started with a three mile hike to Cavallo Point Lodge, situated on the grounds of historic Fort Baker, for a view of the lodge’s art exhibit of life-size whale photographs taken by Brian Austin. We enjoyed an elegant lunch on the restaurant deck and then, apparently victims of excessive adrenalin (or boat cabin fever), we all elected to continue on and hike across the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Francisco side. In the city we took a quick tour of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate park before gratefully flagging down a taxi to transport us to the Ferry Building to catch a ride back to Sausalito. The walk from Sausalito’s ferry dock to our marina home base was an additional mile. Altogether my iPhone GPS says we walked 8 1/2 miles that day!

Sausalito is a charming destination town full of quaint shops, art galleries, and great (but pricey) restaurants. It is also home of the Bay Model, an impressive 1 1/2 acre working model of the currents and flow of the waters of San Francisco Bay and surroundings. Construction of the model was funded initially by Congress in the 1950s to study the effects of a proposal to completely dam up the Bay and turn it into a freshwater reservoir serving the water needs of California! Fortunately the Bay Model proved the folly of what would have created a massive environmental disaster and the plan was abandoned.

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On the outskirts of Sausalito the landscape quickly transitions to beautiful rolling countryside. Mike and I rented a car and spent a day in the coastal redwoods of Muir Woods, followed by a brief drive to the top of Mt. Tamalpais for a spectacular overview of San Francisco Bay (another flashback moment).

San Francisco was Mike’s getting-off point, so at 5:30 a.m. Thursday morning we dumped him unceremoniously off the boat to make his own way (rental car) to SFO and a flight home, while I stayed on board with Rod and May and the three of us sailed away under the Golden Gate Bridge in beautiful dawn light. It turned into an awesome photo op and I was amazed at the variety of images I was able to capture of this iconic structure. We had been warned of rough patches of water exiting the Bay but again, due to good weather and Rod’s impeccable planning, we enjoyed light winds and smooth water with following waves, a good recipe for keeping the photographs in focus!

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Click on the first image in the thumbnails below to start a full screen slideshow of the previous photos and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mexican Standoff

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My apologies for the six month hiatus since my last post back in September! AVATAR made a heroic journey cross-Pacific in October on the heels of our last Tongan adventure. The crew sailed non-stop from Vava’u to Honolulu, arriving on the heels of the US budget sequester. They laid over for a week in the Waikiki Yacht Club marina, taking a well-deserved break and also wading through the paperwork required for the yacht to make formal entry into the country. Then AVATAR embarked on another non-stop passage from Honolulu to San Diego. All in all, some 4500 miles in just a few weeks time. An impressive resume for this capable vessel.

SAM_2897In mid-November, after a couple of weeks in San Diego doing some spring cleaning, Rod and crew sailed 70 miles south to Ensenada, Mexico, to have antifoul bottom paint applied in a boatyard there. That project went well, and in a few days AVATAR was ready to return to San Diego to prep for our next cruising adventure.

And that’s when it all went south – literally! On November 26 a Mexican federal taxation agency called AGACE, equivalent to our IRS, raided marinas across Mexico including Marina Coral where AVATAR was berthed. The inspectors were accompanied by three truckloads of heavily armed (as in machine guns) marines. They seized 47 boats in our marina, AVATAR included, and hundreds more across Mexico and placed them all under “precautionary embargo”, supposedly investigating whether the boats were legally in the country with the appropriate documentation (a $50 permit good for 10 years is all that is required). Across Mexico a total of 348 foreign owned yachts were impounded and not allowed to leave port!

2 HIN forepeak B-2In our specific case the paperwork was in order but the inspectors could not find AVATAR’s hull identification number. Take a look at this photo that Rod took in Ensenada days after the ‘bust’ – on the exterior our HIN is permanently engraved exactly where it is supposed to be on the starboard transom, as well as 3 inch high letters engraved inside the forepeak, also according to regulation! Not only could the inspectors not find the number, they didn’t bother to ask to be shown it, even though AVATAR’s captain was present and available.

The marina management and attorneys spent months hustling between Ensenada, Tijuana, and Mexico City trying to sort this mess out, but to no avail. Their own businesses were also suffering from the negative publicity. On our own behalf I started contacting Arizona’s senators, the US Consulate in Tijuana, our insurance company, and attorneys on both sides of the border in pursuit of a resolution.

In the meantime our cruising plans came to a grinding halt – and the idyllic February trip down the coast of Baja visiting the gray whales en route to Panama – will never, EVER, happen now – as we will never consider cruising (or spending American dollars) in Mexico again. In the meanwhile we kept quiet in the blogging department, not wanting to attract negative attention from the Mexican agencies involved.

Latitude 38, a boating magazine based in San Francisco and a passionate advocate of Mexico boating for more than 30 years, took a more vocal stance. The editor’s catamaran ‘Profligate’ was also a victim of the yacht seizure further south in the Puerto Vallarta vicinity. Latitude 38 published a series of stories escalating in outrage as the fiasco dragged on. The Associated Press released a story on January 10, US, Canadian Boaters Left in Limbo in Mexico, that appeared in newspapers worldwide. Mexico’s highly respected newspaper Reforma, made it front page news with a headline that roughly translates to “Mexican IRS makes a shipwreck of nautical tourism”.

The raid took place almost four months ago to the day, during which time the authorities followed what they termed ‘procedure’. A better description might be ‘saving face’. In February word started trickling in that some boats were being ‘freed’. But somehow Ensenada and AVATAR wound up on the bottom of the list. This past Friday, finally, we received documents affirming that we had entered the country legally and had been there legally the entire time – AND that we are the legitimate owners of our own boat! The release document is in excess of 100 pages, releasing not only AVATAR but all other boats still impounded. We’re on page 95! Finally this brings to an end an embarrassing and very costly episode for Mexico and its tourism industry, which has taken a big hit over this heavy-handed and bungled government action.  As I write this, AVATAR is sailing north out of Mexican waters back to our waiting berth at Kona Kai Marina in San Diego. When I get the word she is safely back in the US, I will hit the Publish button!

Our original cruising plans for 2014 were to head to the east coast of the US, starting from San Diego in early February with a leisurely cruise down the west coast of Mexico, continuing on through the Panama Canal, across the Gulf towards the Caribbean, and up to Ft. Lauderdale. From there Mike and I planned a spring/summer of exploratory cruising up the Intracoastal Waterway from Florida to the Chesapeake, with opportunities to entertain the grandkids on board now that AVATAR was no longer thousands of miles away in the South Pacific.

Instead, this four month hiatus threw the entire schedule into disarray – as we would now be arriving during the onset of hurricane season, not to mention the hot summer weather. So we are still reevaluating our options, but for now it looks like the Pacific Northwest is in our sights for this summer’s cruising, and any trips to the east coast are delayed by at least a year. We still need to invest some time into repairs and refitting, now that we have access to the resources needed.

To be fair, this entire unpleasant episode could have been much worse. Our crew was allowed to stay aboard AVATAR and continue to maintain her, and they were free to come and go themselves. Our worst fear – that our boat would be permanently forfeited over to the Mexican government – turned out to be unfounded although it caused us many sleepless nights during the first few months. No money ever exchanged hands – no fines were levied, no hands extended for bribes. I made a few new friends, as I am now on a first name basis with the editor of Latitude 38 and a member of the US Consulate in Tijuana! The attorneys we consulted declined to charge a fee, both saying they were doing the other a favor! Ensenada is a reasonably pleasant place to spend the winter months, as Rod compared his detention there to being ‘locked in a golden cage’.

If you are interested in more details about the scenario, I’m including links to the majority of the stories published.

Dec 20 – Latitude 38 Is Mexico Committing Nautical Suicide?

Dec 23 – Latitude 38 Foreign Yachts in Mexico Update

Dec 30 – Latitude 38 The Latest on ‘Impounded’ Boats in Mexico

Jan 33 – Latitude38 Why Mexico is Still a Third World Country

Jan 8 – Latitude 38 The Poop From Impounded Boats in Mexico Hits the Fan

Jan 10 – Associated Press US, Canadian Boaters Left in Limbo in Mexico

Jan 10 – Latitude 38 Foreign Boat Impoundment Story Goes Mainstream

Jan 15 – Latitude 38 Hundreds of Foreign Boats Remain Impounded in Mexico

Jan 17 – Latitude 38 The Dreadful Impoundment Fiasco in Mexico Endures

Jan 22 – Latitude 38 The Latest Update on Impounded Boats

Jan 27 – Latitude 38 Mexico Puts Lipstick on a Pig

Jan 28 – Latitude 38 ‘Mexico’s New York Times’ Blasts Mexico’s IRS

Jan 30 – Latitude 38 Breaking News on Boats Impounded in Mexico

Feb 3 – Latitude 38 Thirty More Foreign Yachts “Liberated” in Mexico

Feb 5 – Latitude 38 More Impounded Boats “Liberated” in Mexico

Feb 7 – Guadalajara Reporter Mexico ‘Frees’ Impounded Boats Amid Huge Damage to Nautical Tourism

Feb 14 – Latitude 38 More Impounded Boats To Be Released

Feb 17 – Latitude 38 Finally, Solid Numbers on Impounded Boats

Mar 3 – Latitude 38 The Fiasco South of the Border Isn’t Over Yet

Mar 5 – McClatchy DC U.S. Boat Owners Still Struggling With Fallout From Mexican Tax Investigation

Mar 24 – Latitude 38 Finally Release of Boats from Ensenada

Close Encounter

CBPP_20130831_Whale-122-MWe’ve been treated to beautiful weather in Tonga, with sunny skies and crystalline clear water vibrant in shades of blue and turquoise. But day before yesterday a storm moved in bringing gray skies and rain. The colors wash out of the world and the ocean turns leaden, the green of the palms turns drab. It’s a cozy feeling at night to sleep dry and warm in our bed listening to the sound of raindrops splattering on the hatch overhead. It rained steadily all night, but the downpour quit by morning although the sky was still overcast. We stayed in our anchorage all morning doing some housekeeping – laundry at the top of the list.

But after lunch we’d had enough of chores so we decided to change anchorages and scout for whales en route. The ocean was empty, no whales or whale watching boats in sight. We eventually spotted a very distant blow and were headed towards it with faint hope of catching up with the whale, when I saw a much closer blow 90º to port. So we changed direction and pointed AVATAR towards our new target.

CBPP_20130831_Whale2-103-MLuck was entirely on our side this time. We had found a mother and very young calf that were floating quietly near the surface. They showed no signs of avoiding us or moving on, and no licensed whale boat operators were in the vicinity. Finally I couldn’t resist the opportunity and peeled off my clothes (swimsuit already on underneath) and grabbed the underwater camera which luckily was assembled and ready to go. There was a mad scramble finding the bare necessities – fins, mask and snorkel, forgoing wet suit and booties – and then I eased into the water off the boat’s swim step ladder.

The two whales were maybe 150 feet off our stern and I located them instantly through my camera’s viewfinder. I swam slowly and carefully towards them, minimizing any splashing or sudden movement, and they allowed me to approach without showing any inclination to depart. At one point they did aim directly away from me and I thought they would swim off, but instead their path curved around and slowly, imperceptibly, they drifted towards me until I found myself eye to eye with mama, while baby hovered on the surface just above her dorsal fin, the pair of them checking me out. I was close enough to feel I could reach out and touch her long pectoral fins, and eventually I had to start backpedaling in fear of making accidental physical contact.

The calf seemed very young to my eyes, but had a surprising amount of scarring on her body and her left eye was closed in almost every one of my 400+ photos – leading us to believe she suffered some sort tumble in the coral or other mishap. Mom was still giving her some assistance with surfacing to breathe. The opportunity to swim alone and close to a cooperating whale is a rare and awe-inspiring experience. It is truly amazing that a mother whale with such a young baby would be trusting enough to allow such a close approach without showing any signs of anxiety or disturbance. Perhaps she was giving her daughter a first introduction to the human species!

CBPP_20130831_Whale-211-MI was with them for quite a long time, photographing continuously when I caught a glimpse of a third whale further out. That seemed a good indicator to end the encounter so I started back towards AVATAR. On board they were all starting to call me back in at the same time. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the third whale had arrived behind me at high speed and put on quite a show including a full body breach and some vigorous tail smacking. Whether he was showing off for the female, or indicating displeasure at my presence, is an unknown – but either way it was definitely time to get out of the water.

CBPP_20130831_Whale2-216-MMike on board had grabbed my second camera with the long lens – not knowing how to use it he took quite a few severely out of focus shots, but he did grab a frame of me snorkeling with the two whales, and also captured the impressive splash of the breaching whale (but sadly not the breach itself).  Still dripping, I switched cameras in time to catch whale number three still tail actively tail lobbing.

Gallery of Whale Photos

Swallows’ Cave and Mariner’s Cave

CBPP_20130830_Mourelle-209-MJust around the corner from Neiafu near an anchorage named Port Mourelle (after the Spaniard Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle who was the first European to land in Vava’u), are two well-known tourist destinations – a pair of caves in the porous limestone of the islands. Swallows’ Cave yawns cavernously above the waterline with geological features that look very much like tonsils. A small boat or dinghy can sail right into the mouth and enjoy the cathedral like ambience and the colorful Tongan graffiti scrawled on the walls. We took the requisite dinghy tour and then scuba dived to explore the cavern depths.

CBPP_20130830_Mourelle-199-MCBPP_20130830_Mourelle-206-MCBPP_20130830_Mourelle-222-MClose by is the second landmark, Mariner’s Cave. This one is a bit trickier to locate, because the entrance to the cave is hidden underwater. We’ve been there before but still passed it by in the dinghy, searching for the underwater opening. It wasn’t until afterwards that we spotted the two large pink graffiti arrows painted on the limestone cliffs pointing straight down towards the opening – duh!

CBPP_20130830_Mourelle-060-M-2CBPP_20130830_Mourelle-071-MStrong swimmers can snorkel into the cave by diving to a depth of 6 feet or so and then traversing laterally some 13 feet under the ledge before ascending to the water’s surface inside the cave. The cave offers an interesting atmospheric phenomenon. Incoming ocean swells trap air inside the cave and each time the waves recede, every few seconds, the air inside fogs up due to the water vapor cooling as it expands. The fog comes and goes every few seconds with the wave action. Lit by sunlight filtered through seawater, the water inside the cave glows with an ethereal blue.

There is a second entrance to the cave deeper down, at about 15 meters. As scuba divers we were able to come and go at our leisure, without having to hold our breath!

Mariner’s Cave is named for Will Mariner, a British ship’s boy. His ship was attacked and overrun by Tongan natives in the Ha’apai Group back in 1806 but he survived and became a favorite of chief Finau, who used Will’s knowledge of gunnery to help wage war on the neighboring islands using captured cannons from the raided privateer.

Will Mariner spent some four years in Tonga before he finally convinced the king’s son to let him leave  Tonga aboard a passing English ship. He eventually returned to London, married, raised 12 children, and became a stockbroker on the London exchange. He wrote a book called “An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands” which is now considered a classic of Pacific literature, although at the time no one believed the veracity of his report!

Slideshow

Whale Spotting

CBPP_20130827_untitled-045-MIt took us two weeks to get from Fiji to Tonga, thanks to an uncooperative convergence zone stalled overhead, producing heavy gray clouds, buckets of rain, and high winds. We navigated southeasterly through Fiji looking for safe overnight anchorages and checking the forecast daily looking for a break. We also had the opportunity to read several good books, since the weather was so uninviting. Finally we got an opening and headed across the 300 mile stretch of ocean separating Fiji’s Lau Group from Vava’u in Tonga. It was a 30 hour passage ‘uphill’, hammering head on into the oncoming waves which made for an unpleasant ride, comparable to life inside a washing machine.

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The Kingdom of Tonga, about 1300 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand, is composed of ‘groups’ of islands and the Vava’u Group is one of the more northerly. The main town of Neiafu offers the excellent Port of Refuge Harbor with facilities that include fuel, restaurants, a good market for local produce and handicrafts, a few shops, and a very few nice shops. We even have access to wifi again after a long dry spell! Currently it is the peak of cruising season in this part of the world and the harbor and anchorages are full of visiting yachts. One of the main draws is the arrival of hundreds of humpback whales that migrate here each year from the Antarctic to give birth, mate, and raise the babies until they are robust enough to survive the cold polar seas. The whales start to arrive in July and depart again in October, with numbers peaking in August and September.

Whale spotting involves scanning the empty sea for the blow (spout), the column of spray exhaled by the whales when they surface to breathe. Once we spot the blow and close in on them, we’ll often find the whales hanging out on the surface engaging in assorted activities. Humpback whales are the most athletic and exuberant of all whales and display a variety of behaviors – from spectacular breaching when the whales launch themselves, all 80 tons or so (double the weight of Avatar fully loaded), into the air and fall back into the water again with a commensurate titanic splash. Often they’ll breach 6 or 7 times in a row. They will also spyhop, poking their heads straight up out of the sea to take a look around;  tail-slap, smacking the surface of the water repeatedly with their tails; or flipper-slap, laying on their sides or backs and flailing their long (a third of the length of their bodies) pectoral fins against the sea surface. When they dive deep, they arch their backs like a cat and raise their tail flukes high out of the water. When they submerge fully they leave behind a ‘footprint’, a slick of smooth water on the ruffled surface of the sea. Humpbacks are also noted for their complex singing, and it adds an extra dimension to a scuba dive when we hear their distant song echoing through the water in concert with our air bubbles.  There are only about 20,000 humpbacks left worldwide today, the whaling industry having killed a quarter million of them in the 20th century up until 1983. They are now categorized as rare.

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CBPP_20130825_5Whales-1019-M-MCBPP_20130827_untitled-121-MWe got extremely lucky with our first whale encounter – coming across five individuals all traveling together. Best guess is that the group including a cow and calf, and three amorous suitors competing for her favor. One of the males was nearly all white with just a charcoal dorsal stripe. Humpbacks are usually black or dark gray with white underbellies. Individuals can be positively identified from the black and white markings on the underside of their tails, as unique as fingerprints. But a white-bodied one would be highly unusual. This group gave us a good show, and we suspect we may have actually witnessed (and photographed) a mating – but as none of us are whale experts, we can’t be sure.

CBPP_20130825_5Whales-238-MThe last week of our trip Mike and I are booked into Mounu Island Resort, operated by one of the founders of organized whale-watching in Tonga. Accompanied by a licensed operator and whale expert, we will actually able to swim and snorkel with the whales, an awe-inspiring experience. In the meantime we are contenting ourselves with whale-spotting, scuba diving, and exploring the beautiful islands and lagoons of Tonga’s Vava’u Group.