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.

Bula from Yadua

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 10.50.55 AMHere we are back in Fiji for the umpteenth (I’ve lost count) time. Fiji offers a reliable starting off point for a tropical vacation with nonstop air service from Los Angeles, an excellent marina for the boat to hang out in comfort and safety while awaiting our arrival, abundant shops for stocking up, friendly people, traditional villages, 5-star resorts, balmy breezes and beautiful scenery above and below the water. After some of the convoluted trips we’ve made, especially the last trek to Raja Ampat, a nonstop 10 hour flight seems like no more than a hop skip and jump! Another sign of our frequent travels – our laptops remembered the password and logged us in automatically to the Air Pacific lounge wifi in Los Angeles!

The real target of this trip is the Kingdom of Tonga, about 400 miles away. We look forward to swimming again with the humpback whales that congregate there this time of year to calve, raise their new babies, and mate before heading back on a 10,000 mile migration to Antarctic waters for the winter season. But we are taking our time in Fiji before crossing over to Tonga, visiting a few select anchorages before heading out to sea.

Right now we are anchored in a scenic bay by the island Yadua (pronounced Yan-DU-a). The main body of this moderately sized island is hilly with volcanic outcroppings and a single village, Denimanu, situated on the northeast coast. At the southern end the geography tapers off to a slender curving spit of land that dips under water at its end for a few yards and then pops up again to form a smaller island, Yadua Taba, like the tassel at the end of a lion’s tail. Yadua Taba is a wildlife sanctuary for the protected green crested iguana, a rare species that exists only on this one small island. In years past there has been trouble with lizard poaching, presumably for some illegal exotic animal trade, and for a few years the entire area, not just the small island, was off-limits to visiting yachts. That restriction has since been lifted, however, and we are able to once again enjoy this appealing island.

The long slender tail separates two bays from each other. We are anchored on the west side, and on the east is a beach named Nautilus Beach after the chambered nautilus shells that regularly wash up from the deep. Living chambered nautiluses swim at great depths, around 200-300 meters, out of range of recreational divers. They navigate like little hot air balloons, using a gas mixture in the chambers of their shells to control their depth. When it comes time to spawn, they move into shallower water and presumably when the shells wash up on the beach, the living animals are long dead and gone having died after spawning. For whatever reason, Nautilus Beach is a frequent graveyard for the vacant shells.

In 2006, before the restriction was put into effect, we anchored here in Raven and I went shell seeking with Elize, a crew member at the time. We each had the good fortune to find a shell in good condition. That shell has been one of my more treasured souvenirs of all our cruising. So of course the first order of business upon arrival this trip was to try our luck again. Mike and I went ashore at low tide and scrambled up and over the ridge that divides the two bays. This involved a steep upwards climb along the edge of a cliff – made more difficult by the fact we were wearing Crocs as shoes instead of hiking boots. Then some major bushwhacking through head-high grasses and scrubby trees to get to the beach on the other side.

Here the tide was at very low ebb, the turquoise waters receded far out leaving behind tidal flats laced with shallow ankle-deep pools and exposed sea bottom. Schools of mullet splashed away when we startled them, a baby black-tipped reef shark only some 18″ long swam by, and the feathery tentacles of hundreds upon hundreds of small brittle starfish waved out from under their hiding places in crevices. Dozens of small moray eels were foraging in the shallow puddles. They undulated along, poking their heads down every likely hole and crevice. I actually saw one get lucky and snap up a small fish and then lay over on his side to work at swallowing it whole. I suspect the low tide creates optimal hunting conditions for the eels, cutting off the escape routes of the small fish by the limiting puddles of sea water. The morays themselves sometimes end up out of water, but they just exaggerate their writhing locomotion and propel themselves forwards into the next puddle.

Mike and I spent a couple of hours wandering up and down the beach peering at the activity in the tide flats and keeping an eye open for shells. We were about done, having wandered fruitlessly both up and down the entire length of the beach, when finally I spotted a nautilus shell lying exposed, bright and foreign-looking, in full view on the beach. It was in perfect condition – not a crack or chip. I stowed it in the cargo pocket of my hiking shorts and took great care, as we bushwhacked back to the other side of the ridge, not to trip and fall and crush my prize! For dinner last night, it formed the centerpiece on the dining table along with our battery-operated candles.

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 10.46.40 AMHot and sweaty, a dip in the bay seemed inviting, so we donned our snorkel gear and topped off the afternoon exploring a bommie (underwater pinnacle) within swimming distance of AVATAR. It was a beautiful spot, aquarium-like with clear water, bright corals, and a variety of colorful fish. Our attention was caught by a small school of squid performing some kind of interesting ritual most likely related to spawning. One pair in particular allowed us float to within arm’s length of them, unusual in that squid are usually shy and quick to dart away into the distance. They hung suspended in the water, their entire bodies bordered by a translucent fin that undulated ceaselessly to hold them in place. Their bodies were iridescent in colors of rose and turquoise, but then one or both of the pair would dart down to a crevice on the bottom a few feet below where their colors would instantly transmute to blacks and golds, and then a moment later they jetted back to us in full reverse, again taking on the rose/aqua coloring of before. At one time I saw the larger connect to the smaller with his  (her?) tentacles.

Late in the day a sailboat joined us in the anchorage and their Fijian guide came over in his dinghy and shared a generous portion of Spanish mackerel that they had caught on the sail over. We offered a bundle of just ripening avocados in return, of which we have an abundance due to the fact Rod had ordered 8 avocados from the market and received 8 kilos instead! Guacamole is on our breakfast, lunch and dinner menu!

We were also visited at dusk by a local Fijian man named Peter who had motored over from the village in a government launch – he introduced himself as the ‘park ranger’ and had come to be sure we understood about the restricted status of the protected iguana habitat. He was quite taken with AVATAR, exclaiming that we had a ‘floating palace!’

The night ended with all of us watching the pilot of Battlestar Gallactica on our flatscreen TV. I brought with me to the boat DVDs of the entire series, so our evening entertainment for the rest of the trip is pretty much cut out for us. And when the show ended we went out on deck to take a look at our own galaxy on a stunningly brilliant night just after moonset – the Milky Way overhead so intense it looked like a cloud in the obsidian black night sky, hung with the bright individual lights of countless stars.

And then it was early to bed, worn out by hiking and swimming and our out-of-whack time zone, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by a sudden squall and accompanying fierce deluge of rain and lightning flashes. Mike sleeps directly under the hatch which is open to the sky at night to catch the tropical breeze – and he is the early warning harbinger of rain as it pelts through the opening and splatters him as he sleeps!

This morning, blue skies again and a fresh breeze, with a possible scuba dive on the afternoon’s agenda.

Side Trip to the Frozen North

 

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Star trails and aurora in the frozen North

CLICK HERE for Slideshow

I have always wanted to see the northern lights but living in Southern Arizona and cruising in the equatorial Pacific do not lend themselves to frequent aurora borealis sightings. And I always worried that making a special trip to the frozen North, fingers crossed to see the phenomena, could be a recipe for disappointment.

But earlier this year a post showed up in my RSS feed promoting an aurora borealis photography workshop operating under the following conditions: 2013-14 was to be the peak of an 11 year cycle of solar sunspot activity which generates solar flares which in turn generates auroral activity; the selected workshop location, on the edge of the Arctic in Churchill, Winnipeg, Canada, is one of the world’s best locales for observing the aurora – averaging approximately 300 nights per year with some degree of activity; March is the preferred month for viewing as it offers the best chance of combined clear skies and dark nights, as opposed to summer when the nights are warmer but dramatically shorter, or polar bear migration season in October/November when overcast skies are more prevalent and hungry predators are added to the mix of hazards.

The Northern Lights Photography Workshop was to be led by +David Marx, a landscape photographer and Adobe Lightroom educator (also, as it turns out, a Google+ aficionado), and +Jim Halfpenny PhD, a naturalist with decades of mileage guiding groups to extreme locales around the world including the Antarctic, Arctic, the Galapagos, and his own backyard in Yellowstone National Park. Our group was small, only five participants and two leaders. We all, organizers included, were brimming with anticipation for the adventure to come.

So I asked Mike if he was game and we both signed up for a week in the Arctic chasing the northern lights. Our first order of business was to acquire a new wardrobe suitable for subzero temps; online research soon pointed the way to Canada Goose Arctic expedition parkas and Sorel boots rated to withstand a cold factor of -40º Fahrenheit. Assorted layers of silk underwear, socks, scarves, hats, gloves, face masks and mittens completed our outfits. Fully clothed, we had to turn our bodies sideways to squeeze in and out of our tour bus doors.

So as soon as we arrived home from our Indonesia trip we stowed the swimsuits and snorkels, shorts and sandals, and proceeded to stuff our suitcases to overflowing with our new extreme-cold gear and flew north to the Arctic.

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Wind chill factor minus 40º F

It was seriously chilly with night temps dropping to -25º Fahrenheit with ‘feels like’ temps of -40º F,  although sunny afternoons warmed up to a balmy -13º F!  Night photography offers its own set of challenges regardless, but to throw in extended sessions in life-threatening temperatures gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘challenge’. Among other things we learned that the tape we needed to lock down the focus barrel on the camera lens lost all stickiness at such cold temps. Also that it is not possible to operate crucial camera controls (like the shutter button) wearing bulky mittens stuffed with handwarmers. The result was several frostbitten fingers that are just now sloughing off the dead skin, and a frostbitten nose tip acquired by squashing it against the camera viewfinder in an effort to compose an attractive image while operating in almost pitch black conditions. The flexible cable on my Nikon intervalometer froze stiff and snapped in two at a crucial moment…fortunately I had a wireless backup in my bag of accessories. Of course the nights were moonless, a deliberate scheduling choice on the part of our leaders, although starlight and red headlamps provided some degree of night vision.

Churchill is also the self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world where the white bears congregate by the dozens during the fall months in anticipation of Hudson Bay waters freezing over, enabling the bears to strike off across the pack ice in pursuit of their preferred food, ringed seals. Theoretically this time of year the bears were all out hunting and not lurking nearby stalking tourists packaged in goosedown for their next meal. But our guides kept a close eye on us anyway. Another risk factor for a lone photographer would be injury sustained in a fall on icy footing in the dark and freezing to death before being missed.

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CNSC under a starry sky

Home base was a modern (only 2 years old) facility known as the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a base for assorted working scientists studying the aurora, tagging bears, evaluating climate change and otherwise researching the Arctic environment. But the CNSC also takes in groups for educational ecotourism and is impressively designed and operated to offer a uniquely engaging experience. Lodging is provided in dorm rooms, each containing four bunk beds, two hanging closets, a desk countertop stretching wall to wall, a couple of chairs – and nothing else. Bathrooms are communal with composting toilets and showers that dispense precious water on timers. Community lounges, classrooms, media rooms, a library and a gift shop expand the amenities. There is even decent wifi! Meals are shared in the cafeteria and everyone, from paid staff to paying guest, pitches in to help wash the dishes. The cooking is appetizing and filling, plentiful homestyle fare that includes a plethora of treats (like warm-from-the-oven cookies) available not only after meals but at all hours of the night for aurora watchers to snack on during late night vigils. It’s tempting to assume exposure to cold burned off those extra calories, but I suspect that is only wishful thinking!

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Night igloo photography!

At night the facility enforces a lights-out protocol to prevent light pollution from interfering with the view of the night sky. Scientists, volunteer staff members and tourists roam the hallways at all hours, alert for the next light show, banging on dorm room doors to rouse sleepers to the call for action. Residents pass the wee hours chatting, strumming the guitar, playing board games by candlelight in the cafeteria, or watching the sky from the windows and glass dome in the cozily warm observation room. But we photographers toughed it out outdoors, negotiating slippery footing in the dark with tripods and expensive fragile cameras, frosty with ice crystals, balanced precariously on our shoulders. Batteries failed prematurely due to the extreme cold, condensation fogged up the lenses each time we returned indoors, and of course the sticky tape was non-sticky!

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Tracks on the ice lead to aurora

Luckily for us, each night the auroral light show was better than the night before. Our first night – nothing except cloudy overcast skies that fostered a faint sense of panic that the weather might not cooperate with our limited time table. But on the second night around 1 a.m. a faint misty veil glowed in the distance and our camera lenses captured it as a rainbow of light. One night we concentrated on lighting up the centre’s demonstration igloos with glow sticks and ventured out onto the ice of a frozen pond in hopes of capturing reflections. Another evening, after a day trip to town and dinner at the local favorite hangout, we set up our gear on the snow-covered beach fronting the shores of frozen solid Hudson Bay for a night shot of an aboriginal stone cairn called an Inuksuk. No sooner had we completed our preparations than the aurora kicked in with an impressive storm reminiscent of the genie escaping from Aladdin’s lamp.

Aurora over Inuksuk on the shores of Hudson Bay

And on our final night we were treated to the best show of all. Curtains of color danced over our heads filling the sky with light. By this time we had suffered through the worst of our setup woes and were prepped and ready to photograph the awesome display.

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Curtains of light dance in the Arctic

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The Churchill River frozen over

Of course those were just the nights and, no, we didn’t get much sleep! By daylight we benefited from classroom lectures, worked on our photos, and explored the Churchill environs as a group. We went out on the pack ice of the frozen Churchill River, 8-10 feet thick with ice and contorted into a fantastical landscape of ice sculpture eruptions created by the pressure of the ice expanding and contracting.

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Sled dogs waiting their turn

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Polar bear prevention

We enjoyed an introduction to dog sledding with Wapusk Adventures and received our very own certificate for completing the ‘Ididamile’ only a few days after the real Iditarod race was won by its ‘most senior’ victor ever. We saw local residences barricaded with window grates and nail-studded plywood planks designed to discourage marauding polar bears, and we dropped by the polar bear jail where errant bears are locked up and treated to spartan conditions designed to discourage further forays into town.

 

 

 

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Nike rocket

 

We toured the Eskimo Museum, filled with a fascinating collection of Inuit carvings collected over the years by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Churchill, and we were entertained by the reminiscences of Myrtle, the Métis village elder, and purchased her copyrighted caribou hair sculptures as souvenirs.  We missed out on a scheduled trip to visit the Churchill County Museum due to vehicle failure caused by extreme cold. The museum describes itself as ‘The Best Little Museum on Highway 50, America’s Loneliest Road’. Presumably this references the fact that Churchill has some 25 miles of paved road within the town environs, but the next closest paved road is hundreds of miles distant. Access to Churchill is by plane, train or (during the brief summer months) boat. Churchill attractions even include a now defunct rocket launch site that operated periodically in an assortment of capacities from the mid-50s until its final closure in the late 90s, and an historic stone fort (Fort Prince of Wales) that dates back to the early 1700s.

In all it was an amazing experience. Now that we possess suitably tested cold weather clothing, we’ll be looking for more winter extreme adventures in the future!

photo by Farshid Ariz

photo of Carol by Farshid Ariz

 

 

The Red Bird of Paradise

Red Bird of Paradise 4

 

After scuba diving three times a day for five days in a row at Sorido Bay Resort, Mike and I were pretty well saturated.  We were rather relieved to learn that Saturdays are no-dive days at the resort, but as a substitute they offer a land & sea expedition to nearby Gam Island to observe the courtship display of the male red bird of paradise. In all there are 39 different species of birds of paradise throughout Papua New Guinea and nearby Indonesia, and they are wildly different from each other and outrageously decked out in fancy feathers. From an evolutionary standpoint, since they had no natural predators in this part of the world, their development skewed in the direction of elaborate courtship dress and dance.

For a real treat, round up the December 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine.  Better yet, download it on an iPad. Over a period of eight years Cornell ornithologist Edwin Scholes and photographer/biologist Tim Laman went on 18 expeditions and shot 39,000 images to document every single one of the 39 species. Tim is some 6’7” tall and spent an uncountable number of hours during those eight years bushwhacking through wild jungle, climbing very tall trees (in excess of 150 feet), and sitting in blinds for hours on end, cameras camouflaged in leaves, to capture his wonderful photographs.  The iPad version offers sound and video to accompany the images. And the two men have published a coffee table book titled Birds of Paradise, Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds.

Video Bird-of-Paradise project introduction (2,000,000+ views on YouTube!)

Video of Tim setting up a blind to capture his dream shot.

Video Bird-of-Paradise project by the numbers

After learning a bit about these exotic creatures (which originally I thought were either mythical or extinct), I was gung ho to join the resort’s slightly more tame version of an expedition to see just one of these species in the flesh.  Unhappily we soon learned this involved setting the alarm clock for 4 a.m. for departure from the jetty by boat at 4:30 a.m. as the birds reserve their display for the crack of dawn.

On Friday night that timetable didn’t sound so appealing, but the pre dawn trip turned out to be a pleasure.  Eight of us piled into the resort’s open boat and set off on a balmy night under a moonless cloudless starlit sky.  It was about a 20-minute ride, the boat racing along at 20-30 knots powered by twin 50hp Yamaha outboards. The hull kicked up a significant bow wave and wake that sparkled with phosphorescence against the black water.

The fiberglass boat is built so that at speed its bow rises high out of the water. The helmsman in back can’t see where he’s going so a spotter perches up front and guides him with arm signals to zigzag around hazards like coral shallows and floating debris in the water.  They seem quite confident; although at that speed hitting a floating log in the water would be a disaster.

We landed on the dock at the village of Yenwaupnor on the far shore, still by dark of night.  There we were met a guide hired to lead us through the rainforest to the designated bird-watching location.  Armed with flashlights, backpacks, water bottles and bug spray in addition to our cameras, we followed him single-file in the dark along a narrow dirt path up hills and through the bush.

After a lengthy uphill trek, we finally arrived at our destination where three reclining benches constructed out of sticks sat at the base of a very tall tree, apparently the preferred stage for the red birds.  We took our places and settled in to wait, keeping quiet and only whispering amongst ourselves occasionally.  And we were all aware that recent previous bird-watching expeditions to this same spot had been a bust with the birds staging a no-show.

giorno 6 043Our group was lucky though – as the night sky barely started to lighten, the first bird appeared high in the branches.  I had lugged a big telephoto (200-400mm) lens with me all the way from Arizona just for this purpose but even with that, looking through the viewfinder, he was just a small black spot high, 100 feet or more, in the black branches silhouetted against the sky. Soon more birds appeared – the grand total for the morning was seven according to our guide although I only counted five – but I was handicapped by the fact I was laying practically on my back with about twelve pounds of camera and lens squashed against my eyeball for the next forty-five minutes.

As the sun rose, the male birds put on quite the show to impress the girls – wings spread, feathers fluffed, head bobbing, singing and flitting from branch to branch. It turns out that the females nest in December/January during which timeframe they don’t show up to join the party. With no audience, the males give up in discouragement.  That’s why the bird-watching outings earlier in the month failed.  But nesting season had ended and the males were courting with renewed enthusiasm.

As soon as the sun rose in the sky, the show was over and we all hiked back to the village single file again. It seemed much shorter by daylight! We were back at the resort in time for breakfast and a day of leisure except for the packing required to prepare for our departure back to the US via Singapore on Sunday.

It took a lot of work on my computer to coax these photos out of the tiny black shadows captured by the camera so that you can have an idea of how glamorous these exotic creatures are. Do at least check out the links just to get an idea of how special these extraordinary birds are.

The Wayag Group

Sailing Into the Wayag GroupWe are spending the final five days of the AVATAR portion of our Indonesian adventure in the Wayag group. This is an absolutely stunning location – the very essence of Raja Ampat. If you pick up a guidebook you will more than likely see a photograph of this beautiful island cluster, consisting of dozens of undercut limestone pinnacles springing up like mushrooms out of the vast ocean with the sea meandering amongst them in a maze of waterways. This limestone geology (called karst) has very little to no soil, but nevertheless the islands are covered in karst forest growth, roots clinging tenaciously to the porous rock except on the vertically plunging gray cliffs. Small white and purple orchids blossom sporadically in the undergrowth.

AVATAR At Anchor in the Wayag Group

 

 

When we first arrived a few days ago we came upon a helicopter circling overhead, its crew frantically waving us off. They were shooting film for an upcoming IMAX movie and didn’t want AVATAR sailing into the scene! Their subject was the MV Kalabia, a wonderful Indonesian boat that serves as a floating classroom, visiting all the 97 villages in RA by turn to educate the children about the ocean environment and conservancy. The boat’s colorful exterior is charmingly painted with Papuan sea motifs. I had seen the boat’s photograph in our guidebook and fell in love with it – it was a treat to see it for real.

MV Kalabia, Floating Classroom

To get our own aerial view we took an adventurous hike up Mount Pindito following a steep, in some places nearly vertical, path that ascends one of the jagged limestone domes. We followed Rod’s rock climbing instructions, maintaining three points of contact at all times and making sure that our hand and footholds, whether rock outcropping or tree root, were sturdy before trusting our weight to them. We were rewarded with a 360-degree view of the entire island group, on a sunny day no less!

View From Mount Pindito

By the time we made our descent back to the beach Mike and I were hot and sweaty enough to wade into the lagoon fully clothed and swim back to AVATAR.

Descent From Mount Pindito

Every couple of nights we change anchorages to better enjoy Wayag’s varied scenery. We’ve had a lot of hazy gray overcast this trip, it being the rainy season here, but the other evening before moonrise we were treated to a brightly starlit night sky silhouetting the dramatic limestone formations that loomed black and forbidding – except where clusters of fireflies sparkled in the forest.

And the following evening a light mist at sunset produced a horizon-filling rainbow that arced across the lagoon for our viewing pleasure.

Double Rainbow at Sunset

Per usual the diving has been routinely awesome, as we dinghy out of the lagoon to the pinnacles dotting the entrance. Out in the strong currents, these islets teem with life – both fish and coral. Of course we are careful to time our dives around slack tide to avoid the freight train effect of speeding currents. Unhappily my dive computer failed yesterday. A dive computer is an essential bit of equipment that tracks depth, air in the tank, and time remaining before requiring decompression. Luckily I had bought a spare dive computer in Tucson before this trip. It is a quickly learned lesson to always have a spare of any crucial item of equipment this far from civilization.

We had visitors today from one of the liveaboard ships, the Matahari Ku, that arrived in the lagoons this morning. A group of military veterans from the Netherlands are on a 45 day tour of Indonesia, and were curious to see our boat. Their captain,  Eric,  brought them over by dinghy and we had a pleasant visit. Eric tells us he will see us again in the Komodos next June/July when we return for our next Indonesian visit.

Today is our last day in the Wayag. Tomorrow we set sail for Cape Kri where we are booked into the Sorido Bay dive resort. Indonesian visitor permits are expiring for AVATAR, Rod and May combined and it is time for them to depart. As soon as they drop us off at the resort they will head back to Sorong to fill out the paperwork required to clear out of the country. Then they will embark on a 400-mile passage to Mindanao in the southern Philippines where AVATAR will layover for a few months while Rod and May head home for a well-deserved vacation. They have been aboard for nine months straight now in relatively remote environs – Vanuatu, the Solomons, and Indonesia. Rod is definitely displaying some nostalgia for city lights and modern conveniences!

Mike and I still have a week to go on our 30-day visitor’s visa, so we plan to enjoy even more diving based at the resort. Sorido Bay’s literature says they offer Internet (which has been sadly lacking for the duration of this trip) so I expect I may actually be able to post these blogs, which have been accumulating, along with a portfolio of photographs, on my computer.

Of Pearls, Piracy and Paperwork

Passing By

We have been plying the waters of Raja Ampat with little interaction amongst the locals but the few encounters we have had have been memorable.

First off, Indonesians seem quite fond of paperwork. When AVATAR first cleared into the country last November we used the services of a yacht agency to smooth the way. This, we have learned over the years, offers a multitude of benefits in navigating the intricacies of bureaucracy in foreign countries where we have little knowledge of the customs, culture and language. Generally yacht agents cater to the super yachts and we are small fry to their real business model, but so far all have been willing to take us on for which we are continually grateful.

Rod tells us the paperwork he filled out on entry easily made up a file a few inches thick. Each document had to be signed in multiples of eight or ten copies. I believe it took him some three days to wade through all the formalities, signing and stamping as directed by the agent. The customs officers even went through the contents of our emergency medical kit item by item, pointing out everything with an expired date – but putting all back in place at the end. The majority of the documentation went ashore with the customs officials, but we still have a thick file of paperwork aboard AVATAR to prove our legitimacy.

Even the Indonesian entry stamps in our passports are elaborate full-page stickers adorned with glitz and emblems, unlike the simple ink stamps most countries slap onto the pages.

We have a cruising permit specific to Raja Ampat as well as individual diving permit tags for each of the four of us (the fees collected for these tags support conservation efforts for Raja Ampat).  Even so, when we entered a dive site named Melissa’s Garden, our planned destination for an afternoon’s entertainment, an open boat approached us with three representatives from a nearby village. One man, in full uniform, introduced himself as the harbormaster and wanted us to come ashore to clear in to his village port. Knowing this would involve multiple hours of paperwork, additional fees (on top of the fees we had already paid in Sorong), and more of the same the next day to clear out again, we declined and moved on. However it was noteworthy that his main interest seemed to be in posing for photos that he and his crew took (with his point-and-shoot camera) of the three of them sitting next to us on the bridge. The youngest (and cutest) of the trio wanted to know if Mayflor was a ‘Miss’ or a ‘Mrs.’.  Before departing they requested liquid refreshments, preferably beer. We compromised by sending them on their way with cokes and cans of Fijian peanuts.

Locals in their canoes have approached us only a couple of times, both times offering fresh fish for sale. In this way we acquired a big Spanish mackerel good for several meals, and a couple of fresh (still flopping) trevally. One of my more unpleasant encounters happened early one morning as I was kayaking The Passage, a mile long narrow waterway winding between the islands of Gam and Waigeo. Several local boats passed by without incident, but two men in one of the boats shouted at me to get my attention, and when I looked their way and gave out a friendly wave one of them deliberately urinated in my general direction. They then revved off down the river like teenagers in a hot rod instead of a jury-rigged houseboat and I picked up my pace paddling back to AVATAR. They returned shortly thereafter, shouting again, but this time I ignored them and kept paddling determinedly towards the safety of home.

Just a couple of nights ago we had another adrenalin-inducing encounter. We had anchored in a secluded bay not far from the Cendana Indo Pearls farm, a huge enterprise with nearly a million giant pearl oysters under cultivation and some 200 employees. We anchored in peace and quiet most of the day; a few curious local boats circled us and took a look but went on their way. At night we enjoyed dinner and a photo slideshow for our evening entertainment. Then, in the dark of night, a boat approached shining a spotlight in our direction. A gunshot was fired to get our attention (it worked) and then the open boat filled with military types flourishing guns pulled alongside to board AVATAR. They made us leave our anchorage and follow them into the pearl farm waters where we hooked to a mooring, and then they took Rod ashore to the office to sort things out. Turns out AVATAR’s militaristic appearance had set off alarm bells in their heads and they were afraid we were pirates lurking around the corner to rip off a load of pearls by cover of nightfall. Once they determined we were innocent American dive tourists (with a big American flag hanging off our stern in plain sight) they were all smiles and slaps on the back as they returned Rod back to the yacht, guns now nicely stowed out of sight.

Of course the majority of people we have met here have been friendly and courteous. This is the fourth most populous country in the world with some 240 million inhabitants and climbing.

 

The Equator

We crossed the equator today. Actually we probably flew across it on our trip here, but that hardly counts. We forewent the traditional maritime ceremony for first-time crossers, involving (Rod tells us) flour, tar and Neptune, god of the sea. Instead, in modern day fashion, we opted to record The Event for posterity by taking photographs. Note in these two photos, taken a split second apart, the first reads latitude 0.00.000N and the next 0.00.000S.

Mike and I went diving later in the day in the same general location, unsurprisingly known as The Equator Islands, and with any luck we swam over the equator a second time. Without GPS underwater it’s much harder to verify our exact position, but in the interest of a good story we’ll say we pulled it off. The dive site was well worth it regardless, hard corals flourishing and teeming with fish.

 

Diving Raja Ampat is more challenging than what we are used to. The same strong currents that bring so much life to these seas need to be taken into consideration when diving. As a result we have added a new piece of gear to our dive kit called a reef hook. It consists of a length of cord line with a snap hook on one end for attaching to the diver’s BCD vest, and tied on the other end is a large fishhook, the pointy end blunted to avoid inadvertent mishaps involving sharp objects in close proximity to inflatable BCDs, inflatable dinghies, and of course fingers and other body parts.

The idea being, as the current sweeps one along, to snag the hook into the reef, thus snagging the diver as well, putting on the brakes and offering a respite to catch a breath and view the scenery and the fish schooling where (naturally) the current is strongest. Of course everyone in the dive party needs to be on the same page strategy wise or some will be hooked in place while the rest sweep past on a drift dive.

My BCD, the only one on AVATAR without pockets, handicaps me. Two hands are required to manage the camera in its bulky underwater housing, leaving zero hands free for managing extras like reef hooks and dive lights. Trying to take a photograph is also a challenge as I am swept past my subject while trying to hold focus and composition in the viewfinder.

I have worn out two of my oldest bathing suits, and usually three or four more are drying at one time, as we are in and out of the water so frequently between diving, snorkeling and kayaking. I’ve dropped a couple of extra pounds as well. Somewhere I read that scuba diving burns about 400 calories per hour, a good weight-loss technique!

Waterlogged in Raja Ampat

 

Golden Sweepers and Yellow Sea Fan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After nine years (!) of cruising the South Pacific, we have moved into new territory. The Solomon Islands marked our entry into the Coral Triangle of the equatorial Pacific, which includes the Philippines, Borneo, eastern Indonesia, and all territory eastward to the Solomon Islands. AVATAR has traveled through the Coral Sea, the Solomon Sea, the Bismarck Sea, and is now aimed towards the Indian Ocean or possibly the South China Sea depending on what we decide on for future cruising destinations. Currently, and for the duration of 2013, we are in Indonesia.

This is a dive-oriented trip and I am downright waterlogged from the many hours we have been spending in the water. A typical day might start with me rising earlier than everyone else at 6 a.m. just before dawn, and quietly slipping off in my kayak for a couple hours of peaceful paddling through limestone island studded lagoons, placidly calm, reflecting the sunrise.

Bird song is rampant but mostly its makers fly high above me from treetop to treetop, distant black silhouettes. All are foreign species to me, except for the pet store varieties. I have seen flocks of noisy cockatoos squawking in ragged flight, big green parrots, small red lorikeets, hornbills flapping noisily with a sound like sawing wood, small grey reef herons, giant white bellied sea eagles, flocks of 100 or more frigates wheeling high in the sky or descending upon the ocean’s surface in a feeding frenzy, imposing grey Imperial pigeons. One particular unknown (to us) bird here makes a squealing whistle just like the whine of radio feedback when the microphone is too close to the source. The 39 species of Bird of Paradise are a whole other topic until itself – and as yet I have not seen one.

Once the rest of the crew is up and about, the generator fires up and Rod starts topping off our dive tanks with the dive compressor. Then we are off to explore a new dive site, followed by lunch and a short break, then on to another dive site. In a few spots the snorkeling opportunities beckon as well and I am tempted into another couple of hours enchanted by the mysterious microcosm of sea life in the roots of the mangroves near our anchorage. A dugong cruised nearby a couple of mornings ago. I slipped into the water, camera in hand, in hopes he would approach within range of my lens, but no luck.

We are in an area named Raja Ampat (“The Four Kings”, a name that comes from legend surrounding the four large islands of the area), a 4.5 million hectare (50,000 square kilometer) marine wilderness and paradise for divers. RA is the sweet spot of the Coral Triangle. The currents of three oceans meet here swirling with nutrients, and the biodiversity of marine life is unequaled anywhere else on earth. More than 1,320 species of reef fish have been identified here and still counting. More than half of the world’s soft corals and seventy percent of the world’s hard corals thrive here. The entire area functions as an incubator for marine life, seeding the entire Coral Triangle. The reefs are carpeted with colorful soft corals and huge schools of fish swarm around them. Strange exotic forms of sea life thrive here as well; mollusks, sponges, shrimp and crabs in all kinds of bizarre and wonderful shapes and colors.

A large part of the area has been protected as a marine conservancy. Liveaboard dive boats, beautiful charismatic wooden ships of Indonesian design and character, ply the waters from dive site to dive site, ferrying their passengers to reef after reef of diving heaven. There are a handful of resorts scattered through the area. We anchored off Raja 4 Divers Resort last night and enjoyed the facilities, a spot of Internet, and dinner at the restaurant sharing a table with the resort guests – 2 from London, 3 from Germany, and 1 from Idaho. Adding our New Zealand, Philippine and Arizona credentials to the mix created quite an international group.

Getting here was the least of our fun however. The nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Singapore was 18 hours. Mike didn’t even know they made jetliners that could fly 18 hours without refueling! Then a 4 hour layover in Singapore’s awesome Changi Airport before continuing on a regional flight for several more hours to Manado where we had to overnight two nights because the flight into our destination airport, Sorong, flies only a few days a week. We chose a modest dive resort in Manado for our layover, charmingly shabby but friendly, and used the time to try to reregulate our internal clocks after a net 36 hours in transit and a nine-hour difference in time zones. This is probably close to as far away from home as it is possible to get.

Photos this trip will be predominately underwater scenes. A coral reef is a bit like a florist shop gone crazy – a riot of color, shapes and movement.