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The Fortunes of a Vagabond

An Unforgettable Two Weeks In Mexico: Whales, Dolphins, Landscapes, Friends, and the Best 24 Hours of my Life

sunny 81 °F

I have just lived two weeks of my life I shall never forget. I apologize for the delay since my last entry, but life has been too full of late to take time to document it beyond photos and journal entries, and it is better to live then to be a slave to documentation.

That being said, I want to share with you some of my experiences of the last days that are burned into my soul. They include mega pods of dolphins, close encounters with whales, an amazing flock of birds at dawn, sleeping outside under starry skies and awakening to a beautiful sunrise. I‘ve enjoyed amazing hikes in a desert paradise through powerful landscapes. I’ve shared these experiences with some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and I look forward to many more.

I wonder why I am so blessed.

Whale Encounters

Picture a fiberglass panga full of crewmembers speeding into the protected waters of San Ignacio Bay. The bay is a major nursery for California Gray Whales, and our timing was good. The Gray whales were still here preparing for their long journey north, and we were seeing spouts all around us. The water was choppy, and the breeze was fresh off the pacific. We were bundled up in windbreakers, and looking out for a whale that wanted to come say hello. We found one, and as mom watched nearby, the calf swam right next to the boat and began to spin in slow circles allowing us to pet her on all sides. It was beautiful. We smiled all day.
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I had never seen a pod of pilot whales so close to the ship. Pilot whales look like a cross between a dolphin and a whale. It looks like a really big dolphin with a flat face, and acts like a very small whale. We watched a pod of them for several hours just after dawn. The cool thing about Pilot whales is they usually have a pod of bottlenose dolphins that hang around them as well. Nobody really knows why. I like to think that the dolphins and whales are in harmony somehow, and in truth, they appear to be.
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Towards the end of the two week photo trip we were on we were far north in the Midriff Islands of the Sea of Cortez. The water is a lot colder up here, and very deep. It is squid country, and Sperm Whale territory. We came on several sperm whales right as the sun was setting, and I watched them breathe surrounded by the golden light of sunset. Then having readied their lungs they would arc their backs and dive deep leaving us with a fluking tail to remember it by.
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On my last day of actual work, we came upon a small humpback whale that seemed to be teasing us. We would watch it for a while, and it would dive and breathe, as whales do. It was nice, but we had to move on. So as the captain was starting to pull away, the whale would start breeching right next to us, and we’d slow down, turn around and watch it some more. Of course, the whale would go back to diving and breathing again. This went on for a half hour before the powers that be decided to finally say farewell.

Dolphin Mega Pods
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I have seen many dolphin pods down here in Mexico, but there was one this week that offered behavior I had never seen before. For one thing, it was a huge pod with hundreds of members. They were very active, very acrobatic, and the air was filled with flying dolphins. It was awesome. The air was filled with a cacophony of their squeaks, cliques and whistles, and the sound large splashes from lots of mammals. We watched them for twenty minutes, sailing along side of the main pod. It offered many photographers their dream shots of dolphins. As for me, I mostly watched them, I sat on the fantail with my feet kicked up on the rail drinking ice water, and eating Italian bread, as the machine gun clicks of photographers shot pictures without thinking. Eventually, I got up and grabbed my camera. I thought it better to enjoy them first before freezing them electronically.
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Then it happened. It was as if somebody flipped a switch under the water. En masse, the dolphins turned around and swam as quickly as I’d ever seen dolphins swim in the other direction in an organized, purposeful action. They took off. There was no way to keep up with them, and it was in the wrong direction. In the distance, I saw a white line from their wake receding into the distance. Awesome.

Birds of a Feather
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I was taking in the sunrise when a flock of sea birds began to circle the ship flying low to the surface of the waves. It was so cool. As the sun rose, I was able to time a few pictures of the birds whipping around in golden glow of the sun and waters. What a gift! It was so very beautiful.
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We visited Isla Rasa on morning. Isla Rasa is one of the more unique islands in the Midriffs as it is home to a huge colony of terns and gulls, with a population of well over a half a million birds. It is amazing to see, hear, smell, and watch that amount of birds in one place. Though I had to work that day, I was able to get close to shore for ten minutes to appreciate that experience. The one thing I noticed was that the terns seem to fly in pairs. Despite the chaos of hundreds of identical birds in the air at any one time, they were able to stay close and follow one another to their destinations. I was hoping to see the mating flights of the terns that I saw last year, but it was not to be.

Landscapes
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In my time in Mexico, I have seen some of the best desert scenes of my life. In my last days here, I was able to walk through some of these masterpieces one last time, exploring some new areas, and appreciating some I have already seen. I took these walks with some good friends from the boat, and these shared experiences of paradise will be long remembered.
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San Juanico remains one of my favorite landscapes in Mexico. I remember last year when I first explored it, I kept thinking to myself that it really would be great to meet some beautiful senoritas down on the secluded beach. This year I am a year wiser and invited two along to come for the hike. We hiked high above the sea, and the rocky spires, points, and islands stretched out before us in the aquamarine blue of the sea. It was beautiful.
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There is an arroyo on the west side of Isla Partida that could be the most magical place I have ever visited. I like the word magic. When I use “magic”, I’m more referring to a combination of my feelings about a particular location, and the energy of the location itself. As I’ve written about before, there are places in this world that hold dear to me, and I can pick up on the strong currents of energy that emanate there. Now if you think I am a crackpot, hippie influenced nature man, I stand guilty as charged. However, before you judge, I think you should go on this hike.

I went on this scramble with one of my favorite compatriots in the world. The day was sizzling. The sun beat down mercilessly. We were sweating after the first steps. The hike began with some boulder climbing and scaling some small dry waterfalls. We found several lizards doing “push ups” on the hot rocks. I’m not sure what makes them work out so hard in the hot sun, but I think I heard the theme music to Rocky, on a tiny lizard Ipod.

The arroyo was beautiful. The canyon’s rock was very porous and hollow and there were many caves carved into the rock. Some of them were large enough for us to stand in, and we rested in the shade and gulped down water. We held quiet, and let the desert speak. It was silent, save for the hot breeze curling around the arroyo walls. However, deserts speak not so much in sound, as in vibration, and sitting under that rock, we were feeling its power. We shivered, we smiled, we laughed and said thank you.

We moved on, climbing higher and higher, we had no destination in mind, but were hiking for the joy of it. Eventually we realized we were nearing the top, and decided to go all the way up. The last one hundred yards was covered with small cantaloupe sized boulders and we walked over them and to the top of the ridge.

It was gorgeous. We caught our breath and took in the sweeping views of the green water far below, the rugged mountain ridges, and blue skies. Turkey vultures silently soared by, not 30 feet away, each time I saw one, it felt like a gift. We stood on top of rock statues, yet to be carved, and I yodeled. I’m always nervous about yodeling in front of other people, because sometimes my voice cracks badly and I sound like a howling teenager in English class. At other times, it comes out beautifully. Luck was with me, and it sounded good.
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A hummingbird zipped by. It poked around the sparse desert plants that were blooming this time of year and moved on. We smiled at our fortune, and smiled wider when the humming bird returned. The desert was buzzing with good energy. It rather felt what I would imagine Ray Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams” would feel like. The desert provided a spiritual calming, a feeling of happiness that you just can’t quite put to words. It was beautiful. The composition of the desert was perfect, as if some giant had been cultivating a perfect cactus garden high up on the mountain. We were fortunate, and we knew it.

Alas, that magical afternoon came to an end, and we made our way back down the arroyo. We were tired, and very thirsty. We were longing for ice water, and to jump into the ocean. We found both the ocean and the ice water very refreshing. We smiled again, thanked each other for the marvelous afternoon and I went off in search of my bunk.

Moonlight Sonata

I recently enjoyed perhaps the best twenty-four hours of my life (so far). It began on the lido deck, sipping drinks, watching the bright moon overhead light up the balmy ocean night. There were five of us chatting amiably, sharing stories, laughing and dreaming. I don’t know who had the idea, but a friend and I both had the day off the next day, so we decided to sleep out under the stars.

I had always wanted to do this, but for some reason, never had. Fool I am. However, it is better to do things late, then never, so I set about building us a bunk of bench cushions, wool blankets and pillows. Not too shabby if I do say so myself. I went in for some clothes, another drink, and then we went up to settle in for the night. And what a night it was. We laughed, we giggled, we talked, we dreamed, and it felt like we were camping. Eventually, we fell asleep.

We woke up just as the sunrise cracked the horizon. The sun was a bright orange disk rising and getting brighter by the second. It completely lit up the rugged peaks of Isla Danzante and the Sierra de la Giganta in a crescendo of reds, oranges, and rich browns. Words fail to describe the beauty, and stirring feelings of grandeur in front of us. We held one another, and laughed. I laugh a lot. Laughter it seems, is my only answer to the question I keep asking myself, “How can you be so lucky?”

I’m still laughing.
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The day consisted of an easy stroll on the north shore of the Isle of the Dancer, a spot I’d never explored before as often the swells are too big to walk the shoreline. We picked up some of the ever-present litter on the beach, and swam in the cold clear water. It reminded me of Lake Superior, though salty.

After our hike, we decided to snorkel. The ship had picked up a giant circular air mattress with a pirate on it. It was dubbed the pirate raft, and we had taken it to shore. Well, we were going to use it as a swimming platform, but once we were on it, we realized how comfortable it was just to lay in the sun floating around in the small bay. It was great. Soon, our staff was buzzing by us on the zodiacs, and we bobbed in their wake.
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I think we made a lot of people smile that day. We must have floated around for about an hour when the expedition leader and the wellness specialist swam up and climbed aboard. They had plans for tipping us, but soon realized it was a great place to chill out and lay around in the sun. So, there I was, floating around on a raft with three beautiful women to keep me company. I laughed. If you would have told me the morning that I would be on a pirate raft with the EL, wellness specialist, and my favorite steward, I’d have told said you were probably dilusional. Then as a finishing touch, someone brought up a tray of iced limewater and cookies. I think it made a good picture.
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That evening, the sun set and the full moon rose within 20 minutes of one another. It was a good night to be outside sipping good wine, and taking in the aerial show. Both events were gorgeous, but the winner was the moonrise over Isla San Jose. The moon was gigantic, and bathed us in a gorgeous orange light as it rose into the sky.

To cap off our amazing day, we had dinner outside on the sun deck. The moon bathed us in white gold, and we ate like royalty, and felt like it too. We had fresh bread and butter, delicious rib eye steaks on Caesar salad, a touch of ice cream, and good wine throughout. We talked, we laughed, we dreamed, and “carped the de-em.”

Eventually all good things must transform into other good things, and we had to call it a day. The day was seized, throttled, hugged, embraced, and squeezed of all of its splendor, and we still couldn’t get all of it out.
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The next day, I packed and left the SeaBird, saying farewell to many of my good friends and crew. They will be missed, but other adventures are afoot. At this moment, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Coeur d’Alene Idaho with a full tank of gas, a weeks worth of food, and the open road sixty feet away. I have two thousand miles to travel and twenty days to do it.

I’m laughing.

Posted by Rhombus 11:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged islands hiking whales deserts friends dolphins photography philosophy grandeur Comments (2)

Project: One Good Photograph A Day

Attempting to capture one good photo, Ocean Scenes, Island Scenes, Desert Scenes, and Dolphins

sunny 73 °F

I like to think I take one good photograph a day. Now, I realize this idea is purely subjective. When I say this, I realize that not everyone would agree with me on what a good photograph would consist of, or agree on my choice of “good” photographs. However, I am the only judge in this competition of self-satisfaction, and so I only have to please myself to place in this contest.

That being said, I offer you my subjects for the past week. I do not take photographs everyday, some days I am either too busy, or nothing of interest caught my eye. On other days, it seems like I take up my camera at dawn and set it down after sunset. This week, there were only two days that I didn’t take out my camera, and so offer other satisfying pictures I captured to balance out my week.

These photos are of various subjects on the Sea of Cortez, east of the peninsula of Baja California Sur.

LONG BILLED DOWITCHER
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I was strolling along the boardwalk near the beach one early morning after work. The human-like early birds of La Paz were all out, walking, jogging, biking or sitting. La Paz is a friendly city, and I nodded to a lot of people, offering a sincere, “Buen Dias” and receiving the same with a smile in return. The sidewalk neared the edge of the sea, and I noticed this Long Billed Dowitcher foraging for its morning meal. I stopped at a bench, took out my camera, and took this photo of the bird.

ON THE CUSP OF SHADOW AND LIGHT
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I had spent the afternoon perched on a bluff high above the emerald green waters of San Juanico. It was an amazing place to hang out. Turkey vultures soared by riding the wind currents not more than 35 feet away from me (probably an exaggeration). I was exposed to the elements, and therefore in my element. Upon descending (also known as skidding recklessly down) the trail, I was making my way back along the beach to the land when this scene appealed to me. I have always loved shadows, especially when I can position myself on the very edge of dark and light. In this zone, the light moves very quickly, but I find these scenes to be quite alluring compared to full on shadow or full on light.

ORGAN PIPE CACTUS ON THE NORTH RIDGE OF DANZANTE
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I went for a hike on Isla Danzante (Island of the Dancer). This is a great name for an island. The Spanish supposedly name it when they found the island. There was a clutch of native folk rejoicing in their way-- dancing up a storm. I was performing my own dance on this beautiful island. I had climbed my way to the highest point on the north end of the island. It was a scramble up a steep loose gravel trail. It was mildly taxing, but not that long. I had climbed to this point last year, and when I reached the top, I decided I wanted more.

Looking southward, I saw another high point that I had never climbed, and it sparked my interest. To get there, I was going to traverse the north ridge of Danzante. This was no easy task. The entire ridge looked to be made of crumbling rock along a narrow knife-edge. I pondered my moves, and held firm to my one spot of good footing. I decided that I would only take one step to see how it was. If I didn’t like it, I could take one step back, and call it a day. So I took that step, and it held true. It turns out, the worst looking part of the traverse held the best footing. I would have never known, if I hadn’t tried. Halfway across the ridge, and finally on better ground, I found this attractive clump of organ pipe cactus. It was an easy composition, and I decided upon a sepia exposure, as there just wasn’t much color to the scene. When there is not much color in a scene, why try to make a color image?

FIRST LIGHT ON PUERTO LOS GATOS
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To me, the Sierra de la Giganta, are among the prettiest mountain ranges in North America. Their dramatic backdrop has improved many of my photographs, and I’m longing for the day when I can spend an entire month roaming along their rugged peaks and deep arroyos.

We were on approach to our morning anchorage just as the sun came up. I had time to take these photographs of the beautiful morning glow that reflected off the sandstone to a gentle orange blush.

ANIMALS IN FLIGHT
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I am lucky. I’ve been blessed with very good photographic timing, and I offer this shot as my proof. I had never taken a successful picture of a magnificent frigate bird before this shot. We were watching a feeding frenzy take place on the surface of the ocean just off the rocky point of Los Gatos. This frigate bird flew by fairly close to where I was standing, and I panned my camera along with it in flight shooting the whole way. I didn’t know the common dolphin was airborne as well, until I looked at the photo on my computer. When I saw it, I laughed aloud. How lucky can a guy get?

This is my favorite picture of the week.

FEEDING FRENZY
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As I mentioned, we were watching a full-blown feeding frenzy take place not more than a hundred yards away from the boat. There were common dolphins driving the bait to the surface, and the sea birds were getting in on the action. It was interesting watching the various techniques used by the birds, the large brown pelicans would fly above the mass and dive missile like into the ball breaking through the surface with their large beaks. The frigate birds don’t like to get wet, and would streak in, hovering briefly to snap up a fish with it’s beak before snapping its wing and gliding away. The frigate bird looks to be the inspiration to the skydiver’s spandex wing suit. It has a forked tail, and narrow, yet very maneuverable black wings. The gulls would simple land, and swim nipping at the bits left by the others before squawking and moving on.

It was awesome to watch this kind of behavior first hand, and not on a nature documentary.

SUNRISE OVER ISLA SAN JOSE
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Looking at the pre-dawn sky, I knew the sunrise had potential to be a good one. It isn’t often that there is a nice layer of scattered clouds over the eastern horizon on the Sea of Cortez. As the sun climbed closer to the horizon, the most brilliant oranges I have seen in some time began to erupt over the island. I finished my duties as quickly as I could in order to have time to grab my camera and document this amazing display. The last zodiac full of guests was heading directly into the fiery sky, and it was an easy leading line into the scene. I shot my fill, and then went up to the highest point on the ship to drink this scene into my memory.

CARDON CACTUS OVER ENSENADA GRANDE
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Having worked a full day, all I wanted to do was go to the beach and go for a swim. This seems like and easy enough task to accomplish, but in reality, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. During the full moon, the tides on the Sea of Cortez pull a little higher than normal, and the shallow bay of Ensenada Grande is victim to them. I could not get a ride to the shore, I had to get out and shuffle my feet a hundred yards or so to get to the beach. From there, I took off my life jacket, and proceeded to walk another hundred yards along the shore back out into the bay to find water deep enough to sit down in. It felt good, and I sat there with my body immersed up to my neck in beautifully clear green water. Satisfied, I stepped out of the water and air dried. Who needs a towel in the desert? Not me. As I was about to make my way back to the populated beach, I noticed a cardon cactus with some character perched high above me. I thought about it, and figured with the right angle, I could make a compelling scene of the cactus and the bay. So I went rock climbing. How did going for a swim get so complicated? Anyway, I love spontaneous decisions, and my hunch was well rewarded.

I couldn't resist one more.

DOLPHINS TAKE FLIGHT
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Cheers to a great week down in Mexico!

Posted by Rhombus 13:14 Archived in Mexico Tagged birds islands wildlife hiking mexico deserts sunrise oceans dolphins photography Comments (1)

Eating Habits of Whales and Bears

Bubble Net Feeding, Swimming in Alaska, Brown Bear Fishing, and Farewell to Alaska (for now)

semi-overcast 69 °F

I’m wrapping up my last week here in Alaska until September. Yep, it’s time for a month off, and let me tell you I’m quite excited about my vacation. Before I go, it seems like Alaska is giving me a farewell party with a fantastic show of wildlife, cloud, and activity.

Bubble Net Feeding of Humpbacks

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I’ve talked a lot about the behavior of humpback whales, and now I’m going to attempt to describe one of the more spectacular eating techniques they employ: Bubble Net Feeding. Bubble netting is aptly named-- a pod of whales blows a net of bubbles that captures their prey inside of it. Then as a group, they can swim through the net, gulping their way to the surface.

I’ve seen two sets of bubble netting feeding whales, a small two-whale group, and now a large group of over six whales. There are several steps that go into making a successful net, and the whales have gotten their system down pat.

The whales arrange themselves in a line, and breathe along the surface for several deep blows. Then, as in a game of follow the leader, the first in the group takes one final blow and dives down. Each whale in succession follows it. It was impressive to see fluke after fluke of these humongous creatures dive down.
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I haven’t witnessed what goes on beneath the surface except on video, but what can be seen from the air is a large ring of bubbles that percolates at the surface. These bubbles are the sides of net. This net is formed as the whales circle the bait ball and capture it by blowing a long steady stream of bubbles from beneath them. The bubbles panic and confuse the fish, drawing them closer in their fast moving defensive swirl.
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The whales, having trapped their prey, bellow out a long trumpet like call, akin to a charging army’s cry of “CHARRRRGGGGGEEEEE” and as a group launch themselves through the bait ball opening their humongous mouths-- devouring their prey in gigantic gulps of gluttony. The whales break the surface as one, their momentum carrying them high out of the water. Look at how full their mouths are! They filter out the food with the baleen at the top of their mouth. A baleen is a series of long comb like cartilage that allows water to pass through but not the fish. They hold on the surface for a second, and then slowly sink back down enjoying their bite. The surface of the water is turmoil of bubbles dead fish and froth from which the seagulls get their share of the bounty.

I saw them surface through the bubble at least 8 times and we watched them for over three hours. I wasn’t on deck the whole time either, so this goes to show you the massive amounts of baitfish that can support this kind of feeding. That biomass of fish is impressive. The whales eat their fill, and their summer eating supports their migration south for the mating season.

To hear their trumpeting call as their bubbles trap you must be terrifying. We heard it on our underwater hydrophone, and it is eerily awesome. That call signals the others it’s time to eat and they do so with vigorous relish.

If you don’t have an underwater microphone you can tell where they will surface by the activity of the seagulls. They will signal where the whales will surface, and you can see the gulls get more excited as their lunch approaches.

I with I could have so much fun when I eat a fish stick.

Swimming in Funter Bay

This summer our Bosun, Nikki has been really big on swimming everyday. I’ve joined her several times, as I love jumping in cold water. If you are having a bad day, jump in cold water. It will refresh you, wake you up, and somehow make you feel a whole lot better. We were anchored in Funter Bay, and she asked my deck partner and myself is we wanted to go for a swim. Hell yeah! Why not? So I grabbled my shorts, stripped down on the fantail and without much ado, jumped in. Hot damn, was that some nippy water! Woooeeeeeee. It woke me up, made me feel good and I tingled all over from the experience. It was what swimming in Alaska is all about.

I jumped in two more times to seal in my delight. Then, since I was technically still working, decided I should change and get back to work. Since dinner was being served, I didn’t want to walk through the crowded dining room. I decided to change on the back of the ship, the fantail.

I looked around as I always do when I’m about to get naked in a public place, that ol’ wary eye. The coast was clear, literally, and I dropped my unmentionables in a heap on the deck of the boat. Just then, the captain of the boat walked out to have a smoke. I noticed him, laughed out loud, and said, “Hi, Cap.” Damn my timing. Luckily, I had gone for the towel wrap before I dropped my drawers and so saved the captain from a year’s blindness.

A moment in the life of Thom.

The Brown Bears of August
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Brown bears love august. The reason being, the fishing is good. The salmon have begun running up the rivers and streams of coastal Alaska. They are looking to have one last romantic getaway before dying.

The brown bears know this, and after eating greens and carcasses all summer long are ready for a change of diet: Fresh salmon. They come to their favorite fishing streams in singles (males), or families (females with cubs), to eat their fill before passing out for a long winter’s nap.
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Today I watched three bears pounce on salmon in the shallows just beneath Pavlov Falls. I’m not sure who Pavlov was, but of Russian descent and probably the first person to hike up this little creek. The fish were plentiful, and the bears make fishing look easy. They simply wait until the salmon get shallow enough, and then pounce on them, hooking their enormous claws into them and mashing them with their bulk against the stream. If we humans tried such a technique, we’d fail miserably.

Then the bear would grab the fish with its mouth, haul it to a nearby rock and eat only the choicest parts, mostly the guts and brains.

Now for some science.

Soil scientists have been studying the soil around these streams and have been finding large amounts of salmon nitrates in the soil. How did it get there? How could so much fish bits be in the soil? So they took samples perpendicular to the stream to see how far back the salmon bits went. They went until they finally found salmon free soil. I don’t remember the distance from the stream but I think it was at least a half mile on either side of the stream.

What they found was that salmon have been fertilizing and enriching the soil around these streams, which in turn gives the forest it‘s impressive lush foliage. How do salmon get into the soil? Bears. The bears catch the salmon, and often will carry their salmon out into the woods to eat in peace. The fish decomposes and turns to soil, and the bear having eaten its fill will digest and pass on the rest of it, broken further down and ready to add nutrients to the soil, making for lush coastal forests.

Now that is a smart natural system. Nothing is wasted, and everything keeps the system working.

One Last Whale
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This was the last whale I'll see in Alaska for awhile. I'm pleased that my last memory is that of a humpback waving good by with its gigantic fluke.

Alaska has once again been very good to me, and I'll miss waking up to its tremendous landscapes. I think it's good to take a break from it for awhile, lest I get complacent with the scenes around me. I don't think I ever will get tired of Alaska, but I don't want to take that chance. I'll be back in September and look forward to my return. Until then, stay tuned. This traveller has some fun lined up for August.

Some Last Looks.
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Posted by Rhombus 14:03 Archived in USA Tagged islands fishing seascapes whales alaska clouds oceans swimming photography bears bubblenetting Comments (0)

Puffin Flight, Jelly Fish and Unbeatable Mornings

How to Kayak, Thom Style. On Loveable Birds, and Jaw Dropping Scenery

semi-overcast 64 °F

Kayaking with Jelly Fish

I was sitting on the far side of an island I don’t remember the name of anymore. It’s not important to this story, and perhaps the only important part of this story consists of three elements: Whales blowing and breathing far off in the distance, a small lion’s mane jelly fish puffing just underneath the surface of the water, and the fact I was happily rafted in a thick mat of bull kelp sitting semi-comfortably in a big yellow kayak.

I rafted myself in kelp for a couple of reasons. For one, I didn’t feel like paddling. I just wanted to chill and listen to the sound of the whales blowing and taking in air. Secondly, I know that sea otters often raft up and hang out in the kelp, lounging on their backs and eating clams on the half shell. I’ve been known to imitate animals and the sea otters aren’t a bad animal to ape. Thirdly, I could see a bald eagle in the tree above me, looking for an easy meal. I could also hear the roaring belches of distant stellar sea lions, which I have described in detail in past posts. In short, it was a good place to hang out and be at one with the world. I let my senses free to explore as they will. Since I had been up for almost 20 hours straight, it was easy to zone out and let my thoughts and interests wander. It was kind of like being high, yet much healthier. I’ve only been high on morphine, but that’s another long story for another time. It involved skateboards, emergency rooms and odd memories.

As I gunk holed and relaxed, I looked down and saw a beautiful jellyfish just below the surface of the water. It’s head was perhaps six inches around. It was orange, partly translucent, and happily puffing along. I thought it was beautiful. The contrasted coloring against the dark blue green of the water was fantastic, and I took the portrait you see here.
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It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. I’m starting to really like kayaking.

Puffin Flight

Puffins aren’t gifted flyers. When landing, they tend to crash land into the water instead of gracefully “skiing” in as some of their cousins do. Perhaps that’s part of their charm. They are klutzy beauties of the sea. Here are a few facts about puffins. Puffins are particular about what they eat. What puffins lack in flying ability, they make up for in swimming ability, and they catch their food by diving underwater and nabbing it with their beaks.
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They live and nest in areas where they find their food supply, usually high up on small island cliffs that rise steeply out of the water. Two Islands that I know of that are home to puffins are the Marble Islands in Glacier Bay Nat’l Park, and St. Lazarius, a National Wildlife Refuge located roughly 20 miles west of Sitka, Alaska. I surmise that they like the view, the protection, and they like easy take offs, and short flights to their food that these islands provide.
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When puffins take off from the water, they have to take off into the wind. They aren’t aerodynamic enough to fly other directions. They start by winding up their wings and flapping hard. They start padding along the water with their feet, running hard and flapping hard, until they finally get airborne. Then they continue to flap hard, to keep themselves aloft until they crash land once again into their desired location.

Puffins are charming, awkward and cute. If you have the chance to watch puffins for awhile, I’d recommend you take the time to watch these marvelous creatures.

Misty Mornings
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Alaskan mornings are some of the finest I’ve experienced. There are so many dimensions and depths of layers to the land and seascapes. We had been experiencing heavy fog for the better part of the night. In fact, it was kind of like looking at the world through a white plastic bag. We had our foghorn running, and extra watch on the bridge long after the sun had come up. I was working on the aft of the ship when the fog began to break. It started slowly. I looked up and realized I could see the tip of a mountain and scattered blue skies. Then I could see the whole mountain, and watched the swirling mists curl around the spruce trees. With the mirror quality of the water, fantastic patters began to emerge. They held briefly to allow me to appreciate their beauty before transforming themselves once again. The scenes you see here lasted for the better part of a half hour before it had almost completely lifted. During that time, I was transfixed, hypnotized by the swirling mists and captivating landscape.
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Fishing
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Alaskan Fishermen enjoy some of the most dramatic scenery while catching fish for a living.

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Alaska will probably haunt me in my dreams forever.

Posted by Rhombus 15:13 Archived in USA Tagged birds islands fishing wildlife alaska clouds kayaking mist photography puffins mornings Comments (0)

Highlights Of An Alaskan Summer

Wildflowers, Stellar Sea Lions, Zodiacs and Glacier Bay National Park

semi-overcast 63 °F

This past week I’ve spent some time exploring the greater Alaskan landscapes by zodiac and by foot. I enjoyed getting out, and the weather has been fantastic. There hasn’t been much rain, and there has been good lighting, and phenomenal sunsets. Summer is all about us, and the days are Loooonnnnggg. Sunrise around three and sets around ten or so at night. There is plenty of light to enjoy the sights.

On Alaskan Wildflowers
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The other day I went on a long hike with a small group of our guests and it was led by one of our interpretive biologists. Now, not all biologists are created equal. I’ve listen to some drone on about whatever they happen to be interested in dodecahedrons or some other jibber jabber. However, some of them can be quite entertaining, and such was the case with David. He not only explained some of the intricate features of the coastal rainforest, but also challenged us, quizzed us, teased us when we didn’t know Latin, mocked our ignorance, and made us laugh. Go for a walk in the woods with a good biologist. You can learn more in three hours than you could read twelve books.
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I was struck by the different types of wildflowers, and their unique designs. Some smelled of cinnamon and spices, others like urine soaked road kill. I enjoyed the different forms and colors they take on to make themselves propagate. In the flower business, it’s all about how to attract pollinators (bees, insects, and birds). They must be doing fairly well for themselves, as I was very much attracted to their color display and scent. Perhaps, I was an unwitting pollinator myself.
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Stellar Sea Lions
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We arrived at the Inian islands under a cloudless, brilliant blue sky. I had finished my night shift, and decided to have one of my deck partners save me breakfast while I went on the zodiac cruise. I love breakfast. This is one of my favorite ways of setting up my morning: I work all night, head out and explore for a couple of hours and come back to a giant heart attack breakfast before going to bed. I know it sounds weird and unhealthy, but the fact remains, I burn a lot of calories running around this ship, and I can pretty much eat what I want without gaining much weight. At least that’s what I tell myself… It’s amazing what we can justify to ourselves.
Anyway, the cruise was good. The naturalist, tittered around like a bird from subject to subject, and I soon lost interest in what she was droning on about. I know a lot about Alaskan wildlife myself, having lived and worked up here for three summers now, and I entertained myself with taking some photos of the pigeon guillemots, river otters (which do quite well in the sea), sea otters, bald eagles, sea gulls, pelagic cormorants, shearwaters, and kelp.

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I smelled the sea lions before I saw them. You can tell you are near sea lions, because of the strong odor of shit that exudes from any place they dwell, usually low lying rock “haul outs“. Along with their pleasant aroma, they also add a chorus of horrible barfing noises that they use for everyday communication. I’m serious. Stellar Sea Lions sound as though they are dry heaving putrid piles of sewer waste, which considering they eat a lot of raw fish (mostly salmon), I’m probably not that far off. Considering adult sea lions weigh well over 500 pounds, the din they make is tremendous.

The big bull males rule the roost and take the top of the rock. The females appreciate a man with a lot of property and lie about the alpha males as a harem. The males spend their days bellowing at one another, shitting, mating, and eating salmon. They are not unlike Alaskan human males actually…

On Positioning Zodiacs
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There are days on the boat where it makes sense to drive the zodiacs to the next island instead of raising them to the top of the ship before moving two miles only to have to drop them back down. On those days, our bosun usually asks me if I want to reposition the zodiac. She doesn’t even need to ask anymore. Hell Yes! I want to reposition a zodiac! So away we go, and I find myself grinning from ear to ear as I zip over the water in an inflatable boat through the amazing Alaskan waters. There are mountains, islands, seascapes, landscapes, clouds, and wildlife all around me. It these moments when I realize I’m being paid for this. I’m a happy man.
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There are usually three boats to position, so after awhile I’ll meet up with the others and shoot the breeze while we wait for the ship to arrive.

Glacier Bay National Park

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Glacier Bay has a lot going for it. I’m continually amazed by it’s wildlife, mountains, glaciers, seascapes, icebergs, and massive scale. It’s a good representative of wild Alaska if there ever was one. John Muir explored this amazing bay by canoe, way back when, and since then it has become a protected jewel in Alaska’s crown. These selected shots are from the marble islands, and are mostly of one of my favorite birds: Puffins! Enjoy!
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June has been good to me up here in Alaska. There are times when I just sit still and take it all in. Life is good. Go play outside!
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Posted by Rhombus 15:03 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats islands flowers wildlife alaska oceans wild photography sealions Comments (0)

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