Posts Tagged With: whales

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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Categories: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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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