Posts Tagged With: boat

On to Hoi An

If you are traveling in Asia for any period of time then there will come a point when a certain two words will strike fear in your heart: “Buddhist Temple”. There are a lot of them, and you may be sure that at some point you will feel that either you have visited every one or must feel vaguely guilty for not having done so. We hit that point yesterday morning on our way out of Hué when we stopped at a temple both whose name and history went in one ear and out another. I will grant that it was in a beautiful and serene setting, marked by a cool pagoda over looking the Perfume River. That’s about all I can tell you about it, so here are shots of the pagoda and the river scene that it overlooks.

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The colorful boat at the bottom is a dragon boat, the same one we were aboard the previous night for our folk music concert. The river is full of them; they are popular tourist attractions and also serve as houseboats for the owners.

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We walked down to the river bank from the pagoda and boarded “our” now familiar dragon boat, then set off down the river. No concert this time, just a few minutes of Zen as we motored peacefully down the Perfume River. Phil took the wheel for a few minutes, then asked if anyone wanted to try. You never want to pass up an opportunity like that — I have driven an ox cart in Thailand, mind you — so I jumped up and sat myself down, successfully navigating us down the river for about ten minutes, including passing under a bridge without actually hitting anything.

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Back on the bus, we left town heading for Da Nang and then Hoi An, the latter a center for crafts and our destination for the next three nights. The city gave way to countryside surprisingly quickly, and we were underway for well less than an hour, paralleling the coast before we found ourselves in a very rural area indeed, with the Tam Giang-Cau Hai lagoon on our right as a foreground to the mountains of Bach Ma National Park. The lagoon hosts a large number of traditional oyster farms, and the nets and poles stick out of the shallow water along a few mile stretch. I desperately wanted to stop the bus and take some photos but we were en route to a lunch reservation at a seafood restaurant out over the water where I might have another chance.

The restaurant, as it turns out, had a view of its own, as you can see here, and served us yet another spectacular eight course lunch.Hue IMG_7935-HDR-Pano

But I really wanted those oyster beds, and Phil — in typical OAT Tour Lead style — delivered. As we were finishing lunch, he whispered to me to follow him outside and, admonishing me not to tell anyone we were doing this, handed me a motorcycle helmet and led me to a motorbike. He got on, I got on behind him, and off we went, a mile or so down the road to a spot that afforded me these views.

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This sort of thing is one of the reasons we travel with OAT.

Lunch consumed, we continued Hoi An-ward. But along the way, we passed through a 4-mile long tunnel that brought us to the city of Da Nang, the largest city in central Vietnam. That’s a pretty well known name to my generation: Da Nang airport was one of the hubs of US military operations during the war, and at the war’s peak was the busiest airport in the world.  It’s still a major port and fishing center, and as you exit the long tunnel into the city you first cross, and then drive along, a river dotted with blue fishing boats. In Vietnamese tradition, many are decorated with stylized eyes at the front.

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We walked along the river bank and encountered two unusual (for us) sights: first, a man fishing in a coracle, which is basically a bowl that serves as a boat, i.e.:

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Phil informs us that the popularity of these devices — I keep thinking there should be a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker in there — stems from the fact that boats are taxed and these are not. So if you’ve got good balance and minimal space requirements, it makes financial sense. According to Wikipedia, the craft is actually of Welsh origin, where its name is — you might want to sit down for this —  cwrwgl. (That’s not actually as unpronounceable as it looks: the Welsh w is a vowel that is pronounced like oo.) Anyway, how they got to Vietnam is not clear to me; apparently they are used in Iraq and India too.

The other new sight to us was a method of fishing that I had never heard of: flour in a jar of water.  You take a jar (about the size of a peanut butter jar), fill it 3/4 with water and stir in a tablespoon or two of flour. Attach to a fishing line, twirl around and cast, then wait a moment and drag it back in. A fish (a small one, obviously) swims in to eat the flour and if you drag it back at the right speed it is stuck in the jar. This guy on the riverbank successfully demonstrated this technique to us, and of course a couple of us tried and failed. I had never heard of this technique… any fishermen reading this, have you?

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Rather more conventionally, a little further up the road we stopped at China Beach, one of Vietnam’s major resort areas. It’s a 20 mile stretch of sandy beach, a popular R&R venue for American soldiers during the war. Today it sports resort hotels along part of its length, but the stretch where we stopped was pretty deserted, save for a few coracles scattered along the beach and some fisherman pulling nets in the surf. You can see all the fishing boats anchored just offshore.

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We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon, but deferred going into town until this morning; I’ll write about that in a day or so. We are staying at the Hoi An Silk Village resort hotel, which is quite the most luxurious place we have ever stayed on an OAT trip. It’s spread out over about 10 “villas” of several very large rooms each, in a complex that includes two large infinity swimming pools plus a tastefully upscale shopping complex featuring local crafts — Hoi An’s claim to fame — at about twice the price that you’d pay in the town itself, barely a mile down the road.

What we did do, a couple of hours after arriving, was get a Vietnamese cooking lesson/demo from the hotel chef, who was a major league wise guy and quite funny to watch. Here are a couple of travel mates, Kim and Linda, getting a lesson in spring rolls..

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…and here we are, going full Iron Chef to end the day.

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

All the Way to Hué

The dynast Nguyen Anh – he after whom nearly 50 million Nguyens are currently named — unified Vietnam in 1802, as I mentioned earlier, and the question arose as to whether he would keep the capital in Hanoi. One of the first foreign emissaries to present his credentials to Nguyen was the Mexican ambassador, Jose Valdes Bolano, who posed that very question. Nguyen famously replied, “No, Hué, Jose.”

(OK, I invented that conversation just to go for the cheap pun. If you don’t like it, go write your own damn blog.)

(Does it help if I tell you that the current Mexican ambassador to Vietnam is a woman named Sara Valdes Bolano? I didn’t think so.)

Nguyen did in fact make Hué the capital in 1802, and it remained such until the French showed up and started knocking over the furniture in 1945. It’s our first stop in what used to be South Vietnam, i.e. the part of the country south of the 17th parallel that defined the infamous DMZ. The contrast with Hanoi is striking, a legacy of the  contrasting paths of economic development that the North and the South took prior to the unification in 1975 when Saigon finally fell to the Communists. Hué has a population of less than 400,000, about one-twentieth the size of Hanoi, and yet has the feel of a fully developed Western city: a glitzy downtown with lots of neon and a thumping bar scene; lots of English language signage and stores that would be at home in any American mall; and (slightly) less random traffic. It’s an attractive town, threaded by the placid and scenic Huong (“Perfume”) River.

The historical centerpiece of Hué is the Imperial City, a.k.a. the Citadel, whose planning was begun by Nguyen around the time he took over. It sits near the river, facing southeast for both feng shui and political reasons, which is to say that it faces away from Beijing. In its heyday it was an enormous thriving complex, dominated by a fort with cannons but, very much like the Forbidden City in Beijing, containing over 150 buildings containing the residences of the royal family and their retinue, attendants, and hangers-on. It’s surrounded by a moat — formerly populated by crocodiles, per our tour lead Phil — nearly 10 km long.

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The Citadel started to fall on hard times when the Viet Minh (the forerunners of the Viet Cong) occupied it in 1947, and was pretty much devastated during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when both sides variously occupied or bombed the living hell out of it. There are only about 10 buildings left today. Fifty years later, the destruction is still a source of hard feelings among the families and descendants of the antagonists. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the subject of a fair amount of restoration. Much of what’s there is beautiful but it still contains a lot of overgrown fields.

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In keeping with a very Buddhist yin-yang, war-piece paradigm, we traded the Citadel for a nunnery, in this case a nearby small Buddhist nunnery housing ten nuns ranging in age from 16 to 73. Our guide was a 24 year old nun who had been there since the age of 16; she spoke no English (Phil interpreted) but served us a typically wonderful lunch — vegetarian this time — and answered our questions. You are well aware that male Buddhist monks shave their heads but it may never have occurred to you that the nuns do as well, though this is frequently hidden by their headpieces. It makes some of them surprisingly androgynous.  Our guide spends long days running errands, chanting, and going to college in town. She comes from a poor family — not uncommon among nuns and monks — and traveled a few hundred miles to be here.

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Religion, of course, is kind of a no-no in Communist countries, but the authorities here have lightened up a lot and about 20% of the population is observant of one or another religion, the most common (about 11% of the total population) being Buddhism as you would suppose. But there are others, perhaps the most oddball being Cao Dai (sometimes written Caodaism), which is a Bahai-like amalgam of all sorts of sorta-monotheistic stuff. It was founded right here in Vietnam in 1926 and claims something between 2 and 6 million adherents, almost all of them here. (If the higher number is accurate, there are as many Cao Dai followers in Vietnam as Jews in the US. No reports on whether they can find a decent corned beef sandwich.) Caodaists believe that the word of God has been revealed repeatedly through the writings of Earthbound prophets, whose numbers include Sun Yat Sen and — go figure this one — Victor Hugo. I mean, I know that Les Miz was a big hit, but c’mon.

I mention all this because we visited a Cao Dai temple, which I am happy to report was as loonball colorfully crazy as you would expect from a religion that encourages you to communicate with two of the their other revered figures — Joan of Arc and Vladimir Lenin — via seance. (If they ever adopt Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, I’m converting.)

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Our next religious experience was a somber one. Overseas Adventure Travel is part of the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports about 100 various social projects (schools, orphanages, etc.) in some 59 countries. They’ve given out something like $200 million, and a small part of each OAT trip cost is sent to them. Each such trip — and this is our sixth with OAT — includes a visit to a Grand Circle project, which yesterday was the Duc Son orphanage. Grand Circle has a provided computers, lockers, beds, sewing machines, and other stuff; we brought along gifts of school supplies. (Click on the thumbnails for the full size images.)

The orphanage houses 135 children, which is not exactly the right word since some stay into adulthood. The youngest are infants, and most have been abandoned. The place is run, heroically (there is no other word) by only 12 nuns. There used to be 18, but burnout is a real problem because the work is literally non-stop. The older kids help take care of the younger, which is the only way that such a place is even remotely workable. We were very, very impressed: the staff is nothing short of superhuman, and it shows in the kids’ behavior, which was raucous, cheerful, well-organized, and… normal. The kids receive Buddhist religious instruction, but not very extensively; although the staff are all strict vegetarians, they prepare and serve the kids non-vegetarian food in order to avoid any nutritional or developmental risks. That’s a big leap out the staff’s spiritual comfort zone and is one of the many measures of their extreme commitment. (The kids do get two “vegetarian days” per month, however.)

Of the 135 charges, 16 are handicapped in some way (we saw one Downs infant, being played with by a rambunctious non-handicapped boy of about 3). The orphanage receives gratis twice-weekly visit from a nearby doctor, another critical lifeline that makes the institution manageable, but only just. We left the place awed at the nuns.

Our final outing of the day (yes, this all happened yesterday) was a musical interlude. The Perfume River is home to a large number of touristy “dragon boats”, basically raft-like dual-hull houseboats decorated with dragon heads on the front.

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In this case Phil had chartered the boat and the owner family had brought aboard an ensemble Vietnamese folk musicians, who played some traditional stringed instruments, one of which appeared to be a Japanese 16-stringed koto. The other three were variously banjo- or violin-like, though each had only one or two strings. Here they are in action:

Note the gal who’s using teacups as castanets! They played and sang for about a half hour whilst we lay at anchor in the middle of the Perfume River. And when they finished they lit some candles in paper containers folded into lotus shapes, and one by one we set them adrift in the river…..

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

So Long Hanoi, Hello Ha Long

I mentioned a day or two ago that we had visited the town of Bat Trang (not be confused with “batarang” which is that thing that Batman throws that always comes back to him). Like Tho Ha, it is a single-industry town, an economic monoculture built in this case on ceramics instead of rice paper. There is apparently a lot more money in the former than the latter: Bat Trang looks a lot more prosperous than Tho Ha, with wide streets and mostly non-decrepit buildings. No surprise there; rice paper is strictly a high-volume, low-profit commodity serving a local market, while ceramics attract tourists. Store advertise that they will ship, although you can always take the more adventurous “giant vases on motorcycle” approach like this guy.

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We visited one studio and were given a lesson on the process, no different than you might find in a ceramics art class anywhere. The big finish was sitting us down at hand-turned potters’ wheels to try our hands at making a bowl. One of our group was a ringer with some actual experience, who made quite a nice one, unlike my own, which resembled a large asymmetric ashtray. (And, uncharacteristically, even my off-kilter effort yielded a better result than Alice’s, which underwent gravitational collapse and ended up as some kind of unrecognizable alien artifact.

Our final visit in Hanoi was to a couple who, once upon a time, had owned 10 houses, all confiscated by the Communists under the aegis of so-called land reform. We were there mostly to admire their house – they had gotten one back – and to hear their tale of woe (which was quite genuine). We heard the family history and liked them a lot; they were charming people who had gone through some hard times when their country changed around them, and their lined and expressive faces told their story.


So we left Hanoi yesterday morning, making two stops en route to famously scenic Ha Long Bay: a small (nonmilitary) graveyard in the middle of an large otherwise empty field, and a large roadside craft store — the Humanity Center — that employees young handicapped people who otherwise have difficulty making a living.

The cemetery was an oddity to our eyes, located as it was in an empty expanse immediately adjacent to a highway and a rice field. Turns out there’s a good reason for this, namely that land is scarce. So you end up with a sleazy entrepreneurial cohort of what you might call “grave squatters”, analogous to Internet domain squatters: they buy grave-sized plots of land in areas where cemeteries are or will be sited and then gouge you for the price of plot if you want to be buried next to Uncle Trang. I guess you might also call it “plot scalping”. Thing is, feng shui is a very big deal here, so it might be very important indeed for you to be buried next to old Trang, or at least be facing in the right direction. So you’re gonna pay. I confess that I have a hard time personally relating to this particular problem, but hey, this is why we travel.
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So after three or four hours of travel we finally arrived in Ha Long, which over the past several years has started developing into a major tourist destination. And for good reason: the bay is stunning, dotted with nearly 2000 craggy, forested limestone islands. It’s an ensemble of postcard views, and I guarantee you that you have seen it a number of times in movies, including the 1994 classic Indochine and one or two James Bond films. It’s pretty much the archetypal view of Vietnam.

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We overnighted on what is billed as a traditional junk, which is a pretty big stretch. The Halong Secret is a metal vessel, not wood, though it sports the traditional scalloped sail of a real junk. It’s got about a dozen comfortable, compact staterooms, each with a full bath and an air conditioning unit. So, not exactly an ancient traditional vessel. It has a lot of company; the bay is filled with dozens of its cousins, particularly around sunset, all filled with tourists like us, ogling the spectacular view. The Secret was far from the largest such boat.

We motored among the limestone karst islands, soaking up the view, en route to the Sung Sot (“Surprising”) grotto, a limestone cave reachable by some 200 stairs, about halfway up the side of one of the islands. The ship’s tender brought us to shore and we made the sweaty trek up the stairs to the cave. It was enjoyable enough, not being greatly different from any other big cave (e.g., Luray Caverns in Virginia, the largest on the East Coast of the US), with spookily lit stalactites and such. It differed from those primarily in being high up on a cliffside rather than deep underground, which in turn meant that the interior was no less hot and humid than the surrounding bay. We’ve been in a fair number of caves; this is the only one that left us soaked in sweat.

Oh yeah… one other respect in which Sung Sot differs from most other caves is that, e.g., Luray was not used by the Viet Cong to store ammunition.

The tender ride from the beach back to the Secret was at about 5:30 PM, getting on towards sunset. The Secret raised its vestigial pseudo-junk sails to create a wonderful photo op as we approached, so here she is in her glory (and yes, this is a real photo).

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Back on board, we congregated for a sunset happy hour.

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By this time, no less than 30 other tour boats had congregated to admire the view; piloting those boats must be a nightmare with all this traffic. Everyone seemed to lay anchor here for the night.

I slept particularly well, Alice less so, no doubt because of the cinderblock softness of the bed, or possibly a pea under her side of the mattress. But we got up early enough to watch the sunrise, as well as an early-morning top deck Tai Chi session conducted by one of the crew members and attended by four women from our group.

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This morning we (and 30 other tour boats) motored back to Hal Long city itself to begin the next leg of our trip. I am typing this from Hanoi airport, waiting for our flight to Hue, the historical capital. So I expect that I will be reporting from there in a day or two.

 

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hong Kong Heat

Alice and I have long felt that no vacation is complete unless the riot police show up, so when Overseas Adventure Travel called us last Friday offering to cancel the Hong Kong leg of our trip, we didn’t discuss it for long before deciding to proceed. After all, we thought, what’s the worse that could happen?

Turns out that the answer to that question is, “A street skirmish a few blocks from our hotel, resulting in Molotov cocktails being thrown.” Fortunately, that took place a few hours before we arrived at said hotel, blissfully unaware that it had taken place.  It did cause some traffic delays that prolonged our wait for the driver at the airport. We walked into our hotel room at about 11 PM and dashed of a note to our family assuring them that we were safe, we saw no evidence of unrest, and Mom, please lay off the Ambien.

The middle part of that sentence, as it turns out, was mostly but not 100% true. Looking down from our hotel room, we saw a fleet of police transport vehicles turning down the street, and a very small number of (presumed) protesters running very, very fast away from them. But from our vantage point on the 32nd floor, I would not characterize it as a visceral experience. (Turns out that our hotel is across the street from a large police station.)

Everything was calm the next day (yesterday), and the city is quite normal though there are scattered signs of unrest: graffiti, wall posters, and the like. But for the most part, it is business as usual in Hong Kong. And there is a lot of business: Hong Kong hums with a population of 7.5 M but a wall-busting population density of over 17,000 per square mile (almost 7,000 per square km). This year it will receive just about 60 million visitors, including us.

There are several regions of the city, distributed over the mainland and a few islands, but the hub and best known parts are Hong Kong Island itself, and — a stone’s throw across the bay — Kowloon, which is the peninsula at the southern tip of the mainland. Many of the major tourist destinations lie in those two areas. The city has changed unrecognizably in the 39 years since I was last here but a number of the major sites are eternal verities: Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island still offers spectacular panoramic views of the space-age skyline; the Star Ferry still plies the bay for under half a buck US; Stanley Market still has the look of a polite Moroccan souk. We only have two full days here, so in our usual fashion we checked off a fair number of boxes yesterday alone.

The weather is hot and humid, a damp hazy 90 F (32 C) at 85% humidity. The operative word is “sweat” so rather than deal with public transport we relied a lot on taxis to get us to various transportation termini. The first of these was the tram that runs up Victoria Peak, the 1800′ (550m) peak that dominates the island and is the go-to spot for the most traditional panoramic view. The tram ride is very steep and more than a little rattly with almost Victorian-looking cars, like some venerable theme park ride, and one of the primal HK experiences. The trip alone is, um, worth the trip, but the view is the destination.

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The tram terminus at the top is now a virtual shopping mall, but you can hike upwards from there to the more idyllic Governor’s Gardens at the actual peak. It’s a steep uphill mile, which in this weather is an Olympic-class workout for your sweat glands. But we did it.

Returning to sea level, our options were either to return to the hotel for a shower or maximize the sweat content of our clothes by continuing to explore; we opted for the latter by taking a taxi to Stanley Market at the southern end of the island. It’s a less crowded area, with some resort beaches on Tai Tam Bay, which has beautiful aquamarine water. Stanley is basically a waterfront resort and shopping area whose traditional draw, as I mentioned, is a souk-like tchotchke market a couple of blocks long. It’s like Marrakesh with slightly fewer pickpockets, and if you keep your eye out there are some nice items to be found (found, of course, by Alice). But mostly, being a warren of narrow shaded alleys, it’s cooler than everywhere else.

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(Historical side note: this being a former British colony, I wondered if the eponymous Stanley was the same Lord Stanley who was the late 19th century Governor General of Canada and after whom hockey’s Stanley Cup is named.  It isn’t: Hong Kong had a different Lord Stanley, who was the British Colonial Secretary about 50 years before the hockey guy. Apparently Stanley was a good name to have if you were part of 19th century British colonialism, which was a growth industry at the time.)

We wandered around the market for a while before ducking into a side street into a pleasantly crowded hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant for lunch. Hong Kong is notoriously expensive but in fact there are a myriad of such restaurants that can be both very cheap and excellent. This was one: we had enormous bowls of noodles, dumplings, and shrimp for a total of not much over US$20 for the two of us.

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By this time we were the consistency of wet sponges and our clothing belonged in a pro football locker room so we retreated back to the hotel for a couple of hours before striking out again after sunset. Our mode of transport this time was the Star Ferry, which along with Staten Island is one of the most famous ferries in the world. It is certainly one of the most charming means of transportation in Hong Kong, making the five-minute shuttle across the bay between Kowloon and Hong Kong every few minutes for an utterly negligible amount of money — literally pocket change — while offering the most wonderful views of the skyline, especially at night. When in HK, you cannot not take the Star Ferry.

Hong Kong’s skyline does not even remotely resemble what I saw in 1980. It is now a sea of high-tech high rises, many of them pulsing with animated light displays; no still photo can do it justice but here’s one anyway.

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The Star Ferry terminal on Kowloon is a block or so from the southern end of Nathan Road, which used to be called Hong Kong’s Golden Mile. It’s a less-impressive version of Tokyo’s Ginza, a straight two-mile neon stretch of traffic, high-end stores, boutiques, and legions of skeevy little guys (for some reason they are all five feet tall)  trying to sell you Rolex watches and designer handbags. Oddly, they all phrase it exactly that way, like they all went to the same Skeeve School: “You want Rolex watch or designer handbags?” Even more oddly, a few seem to have pangs of conscience by actually asking “You want fake Rolex watch or designer handbags?” You have to admire their candor.

We successfully repeated our side-street-hole-in-the-wall restaurant strategy to get a good inexpensive dinner, then continued our humid hike up Nathan Road. (Even at 9:30 PM, the weather was oppressive.) Our end point was the Temple Street Night Market, a sort of demimonde version of Stanley Market, four or five blocks of close-packed white-tented vendor stalls selling food — the occasional wiggling crustacean — and… crap. To characterize the wares as knockoffs would mostly be an insult to knockoffs since that term implies the existence of a quality original. This stuff all looks like it’s designed to fall apart ten minutes after you buy it. The only possible exception might be the gaily-decorated USB flash drives, all of which I am quite certain come loaded with only the highest-quality malware sure to make your home computing experience an exciting one.

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That is not to say that absolutely everything was low-quality and unoriginal. There were some decidedly original decorative metal plates, about the size of car license plates, sporting amusing slogans, designed perhaps to brighten up a dorm room or nursery. My favorite one said “NEVER ONE NIGHT STAND SHE CUT OFF YOUR DICK AND THROW IN RIVER”, although Alice preferred “SAUSAGE HUNTER.” Inspired by these new life mottoes, we strolled back down Nathan Road and took the Star Ferry home and to bed.

 

Categories: Hong Kong | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Coral at Kealakekua Bay

Here’s the promised one-minute drone video from yesterday’s visit to the Captain Cook memorial.

If you think that that Fair Wind tour looks like a lot of fun, you’re right. (No, they are not paying me for the plug. In fact, the crew were not altogether happy to see the drone hovering nearby.) A couple of things are worth noting, notably the proliferation of coral and the stunning clarity of the water. The imagery is not enhanced: it really looks like that. But I have already noticed in increase in the amount of coral bleaching over the years; it is due to both rising water ocean temperatures and some of the ingredients in many sunscreen lotions. Those would be oxybenzone and octinoxate, which interfere with coral reproduction and cause bleaching, and butylparaben, a preservative that may also  cause bleaching. Hawaii has banned the first two, starting in 2021. Interestingly, a lot of dermatologists were opposed to the ban, fearing that it would discourage people from using any sunscreen at all. But in fact the transition has already begun, and the stores are full of reef-safe sunscreens. Their active ingredients are those old standbys, zinc and titanium oxides.

I would also like to bring to your attention one other Captain Cook-related fact that I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post, namely that in addition to his human crew Cook had on board what may be the most well-traveled goat in history.  In 1766, two years before Cook’s first voyage (he reached Hawaii on his second), the HMS Dolphin circumnavigated the globe under the command of Capt. Samuel Wallis. On board was the biologist Joseph Banks, who had brought along his goat to provide milk for the crew. If this were to happen today, Banks would have to pay a $25 Goat Surcharge and store the beast underneath the seat in front of him. But in this case no surcharge was applied and the goat became the first caprine to sail around the world. (It is also the reason that you are now looking up the word “caprine” in the dictionary.)

Two years later, Cook invited Banks on his voyage as well. Banks accepted… and brought along the same goat, which consequently circumnavigated the globe again, this time on the HMS Endeavour. Cook brought the animal home to his farm in England after this voyage, where she lived out her days in unheralded peace. According to Cook’s diary she died on March 28, 1772. Nobody knows the goat’s name. Today she would have an Instagram account.

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Saguaro Lake

Speaking of lakes, since we are wrapping up our stay in Scottsdale, Arizona, before heading home tomorrow, I thought I’d throw in one last very brief blog post from our current venue.

When you think of Arizona, you probably think “unbearably hot desert”, and in general you’d be right. But the weather has been unusually cool these past few days, with highs in the low 60’s (around 16 C). It was especially beautiful today, up close to 70F (21C), so our very dear longtime friends and perpetual Scottsdale hosts drove us on an outing to Saguaro Lake, about a 20 minute drive from home.

Saguaro Lake is artificial, the result of damming up the Salt River in 1930. It’s long and skinny, only about 2 square miles (500 hectare) in surface area and about 100′ (30m) deep. It’s a beautiful deep crystal blue, surrounded by several hundred foot high sedimentary cliffs. There are about 10 species of fish — trout and that sort of thing — so as you’d suppose it’s a popular boating and fishing spot. There’s a even a tour boat that brings you around the lake and into some of the narrow canyons on a 90 minute excursion. (We took that boat tour a few years ago on a blistering summer day with temperatures in the 105 F (41 C) range. It would have been a lot more fun today.)

The lake sits in a region called the Tonto National Forest (no Lone Ranger jokes, please). There was a uniformed ranger-looking person sitting in a white pickup truck in the parking lot, so I asked her if it was allowable to fly my drone. “Beats me,” she said, “I’m a Forest Service biologist and have no authority over anything.” That sounded like permission to me, so here is the drone flight. The video is a little under 5 minutes long, and you can see the tour boat starting at about 2:45.

 

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Nam-Ahab-ia

We hadn’t actually been thinking about whale watching when we came to Nambia, but in retrospect that was a little short-sighted, “Walvis Bay” taking its name from the Afrikaans/Dutch word for “whale”. And so it came to pass that today’s highlight was a whale-, seal-, and dolphin-watching cruise on the catamaran Libertine, carrying about 25 people this morning northward out of the bay.

The weather in Walvis Bay tends to be foggy and gloomy in the morning, clearing up later in the day, and so we departed under pendulous, chilly gray clouds, motoring out past a long sandbar and lighthouse into what appeared to be some kind of ship’s graveyard: sets of two, three, or even eight idle cargo ships lashed together like giant robotic rafts, waiting for a cargo or for permission to depart. Many looked like they had been waiting for a long time, resembling a scene out of the Kevin Costner movie Waterworld.

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The only dash of color in the bay were long files of oyster pots, bobbing in endless tethered rows, waiting for their owners to harvest their catch.

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We were told by Lloyd that actually seeing any whales — humpbacks in this part of the ocean — was by no means guaranteed, but the boat captain offered the consolation that at least a few seals were a sure thing. He related this in a tone that pretty clearly communicated that he had done this way too many times before: a flat, heavily Afrikaans-accented monotone that prompted one of our number to raise his hand and ask the captain to please speak English (which, to the interlocutor’s embarrassment, he was already doing).

But his lack of enthusiasm notwithstanding, Captain Johan knew whereof he spoke, as only a few minutes into the trip a few seals started surfing in our wake…

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…and then actually slid onboard to join the party, knowing that they’d get a handout from the crew.

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The seals were not the only ones who recognized that catamaran = tourists = free food. Around the same time, one of the crew members started whistling in much the same way that one might summon a sheep dog, in this case attracting a couple of shameless pelicans.

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The thing about giant birds, though, is that, um, you need to mop the deck afterwards. (Al, pictured above, remarked, “Guess he wants to buy the boat. He’s already put down a deposit.” <rim shot>)

Seals and pelicans are all very nice, to be sure, but about an hour later and several miles up the coast, we hit the jackpot: a small pod of humpback whales, at least three individuals. These two shots show two of them:03a Walvis Bay 2017-079

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As you can tell from the lower shot, they came quite close to us at least briefly; most of the time they were usually 100-200 meters away. (What you are seeing in the lower picture is the underside of one whale’s mouth in the center of the image — the white thing — and the body of a second whale at left.)

Whales are always thrilling; we have seen them many times in Hawaii but it is a sight that never gets old. You usually spot the waterspout from the blowhole first, then crane your neck (and in my case, camera) around to try and catch a glimpse of as much of their body as you can. Frequently it’s a huge mottled flipper scything out of the water, but occasionally you get lucky and see a good part of the creature’s body at once.

We watched the whales for quite a while, perhaps a half hour before heading back, stopping first to take in an enormous colony of seals covering a long sandy peninsula jutting out from the mainland. They were everywhere: surfing onto the beach, waddling around bumping into each other, fighting, barking, and generally reveling in some kind of gigantic Woodstockian pinniped free-for-all.

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Around the same time we attracted an enormous pod of bottlenose dolphins, surfing alongside (and under) the boat and leaping into the air all around us, an encircling cetacean ballet that kept us snapping our heads from one direction to another as we tried to catch them in the act.  Their arcs are wondrous to behold but a first class pain in the neck to photograph since they happen so fast and so unpredictably. With no time to focus since each launch was at a different distance from us, this is the best I could do:

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In short, it was a more than satisfying boat ride, if a rather chilly one: we had spent most of our time on the upper deck to get a more panoramic view at the cost of some shivers and windburn.

By the time we returned to our hotel in Swakopmund in early afternoon, the sun had broken through — typical weather for this part of the coast — and we set off northward in our two vans, shepherded by Lloyd and our two drivers, Joe and (once again!) Castro. The goal was a little south of Henties Bay, part of the famed Skeleton Coast. But we had to make a couple of surrealistic stops along the way.

The first of these was the entrance the Salt Company Ltd, which shares an expanse of land with the Seabird Guano Company. (You do not want to confuse these two substances when seasoning your food.) The Salt Company uses both reverse osmosis and evaporation ponds to make, well, really large piles of salt like you see here. The terrain is otherwise barren, an endless astringent hardpan of compressed dirt and sand that runs right up to a rocky beach on the ocean. It’s flat for miles and miles, dry as dust (it kinda is dust), devoid of shade or any vegetation, and utterly uninviting.

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It is, in short, not exactly the kind of place you would build a vacation home. Which makes the actual presence of a community of vacation homes mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. The homeowners are at least marginally aware of the incongruity and able to poke a tiny bit of fun at themselves, as you can tell:

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But they have nonetheless each constructed for themselves an electricity-free, trucked-in-water-dependent Lego-like vacation house. Gaily painted in pastels and primary colors, some have solar panels, most have water tanks on the roof, and all make you wonder why the hell anyone in his right mind would want to escape to here. It is definitely the kind of place that people escape from in any number of movies.

As all fourteen of us scratched our heads in bemusement, Joe and Castro brought us to our actual goal, the Skeleton Coast, dubbed by the Namibian Bushmen “The Land God Made in Anger”. Portuguese sailors called it “The Gates of Hell”. The people who built those vacation homes near the salt factory probably call it “prime real estate.”

The degree to which the local flora and fauna adapt to these conditions of extreme aridity is remarkable. I told you a few days ago about the bird that suckles its young through a water pouch in its breast. But I think my favorite is the beetle with the extra-long rear legs. When the fog rolls in in the morning, it extends those legs and so raises its little beetle butt up in the air, thus making about a 30 degree tilt. This increases its cross section to whatever breeze there might be; the fog condenses into microscopic water droplets on its back, which then flow downhill to its waiting mouth. Ta-da! Beetle Yoga as a survival mechanism!

However, a lot of animals and people have not survived, and it is not called the Skeleton Coast for nothing. Here is the wreck of the Zeila, a former fishing trawler that was being sold for scrap; it was being towed to India for salvage when the tow chain broke and the boat ran aground.

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Lloyd informed us that the boat used to be further up the beach, close enough to touch, but is being gradually pulled out to sea by the tides and dismembered by the waves. It isn’t haunted but it probably ought to be. And in case it needs any help being haunted, here is an accompanying actual skeleton on the beach, from a pelican who swallowed his last fish quite some time ago.

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The saving grace of this grim scene was that Steve was able to deploy his drone to marvelous effect, orbiting the wreck about 20 meters above the sea to create a most spectacular video. If he posts it to YouTube some time in the future I will supply a link to it.

Our final stop of the day was — try not to get too excited by this — a field of lichen, which can survive these conditions. Lichen is a symbiotic lifeform, a mixture of algae and fungi, and it is primitive enough to live almost anywhere. It looks like an outcropping of mold in these environs, but when you nourish it with a sprinkle of water (say, from your water bottle), it unfolds a bit and takes on some color — red or green, in this particular case. It was, uh, botanically interesting, but not quite up there with a humpback whale or pelican skeleton. (Note to self: start a rock band called Pelican Skeleton, possibly with some funky hip misspelling like Pelican Skelitan. )

We fly further north to Damaraland tomorrow, home to Nambia’s Desert Elephants. We’ll be more or less incommunicado for at least the three days that we are there, so I will try and catch up when I can.

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Art and Watercraft

In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a case that geography is destiny, i.e. that a lot of the major currents of history (such as the conquest of the Meso-americans by the Spanish) were consequences of geographical particulars. In the case of the Finger Lakes, the argument would be that geography is demographics. That is to say, the fecundity of the soil and glacier-flattened terrain makes this good dairy farming country — there are ice cream stores everywhere — which for reasons I do not pretend to understand seems to be associated with a politically conservative mindset. At the same time the bucolic setting attracts a lot of artists, who tend to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Then of course there are the wine growers — no idea where your typical vintner sits on the ideological spectrum — and the harsh winters, which attract rugged individualists, which is to say oddballs.

The upshot is that the Finger Lakes are a place where you can attend an art festival (as we did, in the town of Penn Yan on the northern end of Keuka Lake) that includes a collection of vintage trucks…

… and truck engines, here being admired by some locals who at the risk of stereotyping I somehow doubt voted for Hillary Clinton:

At the same time — and at the same arts festival — it is easy to find some local color of a more charmingly outré nature, like this retro-looking young woman:

She is no doubt on her way to visit the artists’ kiosks exhibiting carved cutting boards, sculptures crafted from farm implements, and — this seems to be a local thing — jewelry made from antique buttons.

We spent a pleasant hour or two at the festival before making our way south back to the town of Watkins Glen at the lower end of Seneca Lake. Our goal this time was not the state park with its many waterfalls, but rather the lake itself, or more accurately a boat ride on it. But here’s a relaxing view of the lake from the southern docks. You should now be hearing Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay…” in your head.

Our conveyance was the beautiful teak two-masted schooner True Love, operated by  Schooner Excursions out of Watkins Glen. At $45 for a two-hour tour (yes, yes, you can start singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song now) it was a great deal and a wonderful outing on a warm sunny day blessed with scenery like this:

One of the things that struck me during the trip is that the water seemed a lot clearer than I remembered it from when I lived here in the 1970’s. (Indeed, I made a remark in my last post about how silty it was.) Turns out that this was not my imagination: our crew members/tour guides informed us that the dreaded zebra mussels have arrived: that highly invasive, prolific, and aggressive freshwater species that has become the scourge of North American freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders — they feed by pumping water through their bodies and extracting microorganisms, algae, plankton, etc., along the way. As you would suppose, this causes the water to become very clear, which sounds great but which is actually terrible because said water is also now nutrient-free. As a result, Finger Lakes fish populations — notably freshwater trout — have plummeted. Remarkably, this has all happened in 25 years: the first zebra mussels were discovered here in 1992. So if you’ve ever wondered how long it takes to completely filter 3.5 trillion gallons of water (which is the actual volume of Seneca Lake), the answer is 25 years if you have enough zebra mussels.

The True Love itself (which is not the small sailboat in the above photo) has an interesting history of its own. It was built in 1922 and appeared in the 1956 movie “High Society” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. (Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong also make appearances.) Here’s Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly aboard the boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ1ZLiyGrE0.  You can see the ship itself in the first few seconds.

There was not a lot of serenading going on during our outing, which is probably just as well, but it was an idyllic way to close out a long weekend.

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Whales, Kayaking, a Lighthouse, and Stuff

Kind of a grab bag of topics since I haven’t posted in a few days, in part because I’ve been tired in the evenings: there is a haze of “vog” (volcanic fog) on the island — it having made its way 500 km to Kauai all the way from the Big Island — which has given me a minor but enervating cough. But there is nonetheless lots to tell, and I want to get it down before we leave tomorrow for the penultimate leg of this trip, three days in Honolulu with our old friends Laura and Brian. (That will be followed by four days in Scottsdale, Arizona on our way home.)

At home we are avid if not particularly ambitious kayakers, and since Kauai is the only one of the Hawaiian islands with navigable rivers — six of them, supposedly — it seemed reasonable to find a riverside kayak rental outfit. Such a place existed, quite close to us in fact, and so we spent a pleasant three hours kayaking on the Hanalei River, beginning about a mile from Hanalei Bay and working our way upstream to a nature reserve a few miles away.

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The experience was, as I remarked in a Facebook post, just like kayaking at home except for the palm trees, the hibiscus blossoms floating on the water, and the whole laid-back tropical gestalt of it all. We did not see a lot of animal life in the nature reserve — a few fish, some turtles, a few egrets — but gliding among the palms and pandanus trees and spotting modest mini-waterfalls along the banks gave the whole experience a pleasantly dreamy ambience.

A few miles down the road from our house, east of Hanalei Bay, Kilauea Lighthouse perches on a dramatic promontory, overseeing a violent surf and a hillside heavily dotted with red-footed boobies. Here’s the scene:

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If the lighting looks a little unusual in this picture it is because it is actually a nighttime scene, a twelve-minute time exposure taken by moonlight… hence the creamy, blurred-looking surf. But back to the birds. The red-footed boobies, thousands of them, look like white confetti on the far hillside, but close up resemble ungainly seagulls with enormous red feet and blue bills. You can see them as white dots at upper right in the shot below. (You can also see that you would not want to swim here.) We have seen their more famous cousins, the blue-footed boobies, in the Galapagos.

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The lighthouse’s location is quite the quite the focus for local wildlife. There were some nenes (Hawaii’s state bird) walking around the parking lot, a pod of whales cavorting offshore, and the occasional Laysan albatross — an endangered species — gliding by on what could be a several thousand mile journey. They breed in Hawaii but may travel as far as Japan or the west coast of North America to feed. Here’s one that we saw:

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When we returned from the lighthouse our AirBnB hosts invited us to attend a bonfire and barbecue on the beach at Hanalei Bay at sunset that evening, a practice they happily indulge in every Friday night. We went, enjoying the sunset over the waves and silhouetted mountains along with about four other couples, all with interesting backgrounds. (You kind of have to have an interesting background if you’re living here.)

The next day (yesterday, Saturday Feb 4) was our opportunity to complete the geographical trifecta, as the day dawned clear and we got to see the Na Pali coast from the sea. (We had already seen it from the hiking trail lookout and via helicopter.) Our tour operator, Na Pali Riders, were quite the cowboys, leading about 20 of us into what was essentially a large Zodiac, a rubberized pontoon boat right at the water level, powered by twin 250 HP motors. That thing could move, and with the trade winds coming up and the surf high, the ride was anything but smooth. How bone-shatteringly bumpy was it? Well, in addition to a rope handhold running along the edge — and you sit on the edge — there was a rope foothold around the perimeter of the floor. You keep one foot slid underneath it to keep you from bouncing backwards into your own personal whale-watching adventure.

Speaking of which, en route to Na Pali we first encountered a large pod of spinner dolphins, maybe 100 in number all told, to set the stage for the excitement that would follow. Here are a few of them:

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(My photos from this boat trip, by the way, were taken with our “backup camera”, a nice waterproof point-and-shoot, since I did want to risk my nice SLR and expensive lenses ending up photographing the cetaceans from underneath. Picture quality is not as high, but the thing is indestructible, which is a big plus in this environment.)

Anyway, whales. We got lucky: we encountered a number of them, most thrillingly a mother and a juvenile. The latter was only a few weeks or a month old, “only” 10 ft long or so and just learning to breach:

na-pali-whales-kauai-021That’s Mom’s pectoral fin on the right, the baby breaching on the left. Notice that baby is flopping over on his back: that’s how whales actually do it. So here are two more shots, ’cause you can never have too many whales.

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The whales were clustered near the southwest corner of the island, a little south of Na Pali itself. So we motored up the coast to catch these striking scenes, which I promise will be the last ones I show you of Na Pali.

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We’ve already had the Jurassic Park discussion, but if it all looks a little “Skull Island”-ish to you, there’s a good reason for that too: the 1979 remake of King Kong was filmed here.

In addition to these A-list destinations, Kauai has its share of minor touristic oddities as well. We hit a couple of them on the way back from our Na Pali expedition. They include salt evaporation ponds, which are basically very shallow artificial lake beds next to the sea. Just add water and wait, and voila! Sea salt! (Add pink food coloring and you can pretend it’s from the Himalayas, a designation about which I have always been deeply suspicious.)

But probably the surrealistic best of the B-list sights is the “Russian Fort”, which we visited briefly. Very briefly. Still, its history is so weird that it is worth relating.

Kamehameha I unified the islands under his monarchy in 1810, but unsurprisingly not everybody got with the program immediately. Chief among these (hah! get it?) was Kaumuali’i, who ruled Kauai and much preferred doing his own thing. This included seizing a cargo ship belonging to the  Russian-American Trading Company in 1815. The Russians were none too pleased at this and dispatched an agent, a German physician named Georg Schäffer, to free the goods.

Schäffer figured his best play was to befriend Kamehameha and then convince the latter to pressure Kaumuali’i. The befriending part worked OK… the pressuring part, not so much; Kamehameha didn’t see much upside to antagonizing his disgruntled underling on behalf of a guy who looked like the Wizard of Oz. So Schäffer went straight to Kaumuali’i, who promptly conned him. Kaumuali’i convinced Schäffer that if the Russians would build a fort, they could seize the entire island chain from Kamehameha. Schäffer promised the Tsar’s support, and had the fort built.  Then things went predictably sideways: (1) upon learning of all this the Tsar said, “WTF?”; and (2) what Kaumuali’i was really planning, of course, was to take the islands for himself (“We don’ need no steenkin’ Russians!”). So the whole endeavor collapsed, Kamehameha’s supporters took over the fort, and after a halfhearted attempt to retake it several years later, Kaumuali’i’s guys threw in the towel. The place was abandoned in 1853 after decades of proudly defending Kauai against, well, nothing. Today it’s a rock wall about shoulder-high (about 1/4 of its original height), tracing out a rough octagon a few hundred feet across. We were positively rapt for about 3 seconds.

I never did learn what was on those cargo ships, but in the interest of adding some irony to the whole bizarre tale I like to imagine that it turned out to be something of absolutely no use to the Hawaiians. Fur-lined mittens and frostbite ointment, say. You can think of your own.

Today was our last day on Kauai. The weather was beautiful, and so we made the precarious hike down to Queen’s Bath on the coast. I’ll post some photos of that in a few days. But for now, on to Honolulu.

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Thar She Blows…and Thar…and Over Thar…

As you may have inferred from today’s title, we have just returned from a successful whale watching trip. The outfit that we chose to go with was the cleverly named Wild Hawaii Ocean Adventures — clever because their acronym is WHOA. Their big selling point is the boat itself, a 36′ (11 m) jet-powered Zodiac that can accommodate 12 passengers in padded stand-up “seats”. (The quotes being because you do not actually sit but rather stand and lean back into padded backrests.) Here’s the boat, which at full throttle can zoom along at over 50 mph (80 kph):

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Hawaii hosts several types of whale, but the most common by far is the humpback. The humpback is the cetacean equivalent of a snowbird, only instead of wintering in Florida they do it in Hawaii. It’s an interesting life cycle: the humpbacks mate and give birth in Hawaii in January and February (after a one-year gestation), then, in about March, start the migration to Alaska. They spend 8 or 9 months a year in those cold but nutrient-rich waters, basically bulking up in preparation for the winter migration back to Hawaii. During that journey, and during their whole time in Hawaii, they do not eat at all. Rather, they spend the whole time variously mating or giving birth. (It escapes me as to how the males are able to find mates without taking the females out for a meal — “Hey sweet fins, could I take you to dinner? Seeing as how we haven’t eaten in three months?”)

The adult whales are about 45′ (14 m) long and weigh 45 tons, which is one humongous slab of mammal. The newborns are 16′ (5 m) long and weigh between one and 1 1/2 tons. The mothers suckle the newborns for over a year, and we learned that whale milk has the highest fat content among mammals: 40%. Which is not surprising, since it has to sustain the calf for the long swim to Alaska.

We had a good day, spotting about a dozen whales. The boat crew usually spotted them first, usually sighting either the waterspout from their blowholes, or a pair of flukes slapping the water as the whale prepares to dive. But the other way to spot them is to look out for other tour boats who may have spotted them first, and tag along.

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(Yes, I know these photos are not up to my usual standard. I did not want to risk getting my good equipment wet, and so relied on a point-and-shoot and a cell phone, both from a rocking boat.)

Our big excitement was a whale breaching, leaping out of the water to its full length before crashing back into the depths. No photos of that — it happened too fast. Our other big moment was one surfacing directly in front of our boat, maybe 40′ (12 m) in front of us. This is a big deal because under U.S. federal law the tour boats may not deliberately approach to within 100 yards (90 m) of the creatures. However, whales are either flagrant scofflaws or are really lazy about reading the federal criminal code, so sometimes you get lucky (as we did), and they will spontaneously approach the boats.

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Our boat was equipped with a hydrophone, i.e. an underwater microphone on the end of a cable. The water about a mile offshore is a good 1000′ (300 m) deep, but water is a very good sound medium and you don’t have to lower the hydrophone very far — 30′ or so — to clearly hear the whale song. That was eerie and exciting to hear; we’ve all heard those squeals and clicks in any number of nature TV shows and movies, but there is a certain compelling immediacy to hearing it in real-time from whales who are singing in the water directly beneath your feet.

Bottom line: if you are ever in Hawaii in January or February, do this!

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