Africa is a word

Tunisia- Kit and the Camel

‘Africa’ is a word that has cultivated powerful imagery in the blank slate of my gray matter since childhood. For years, hearing the continent’s name spoken aloud was enough to conjure deep green rainforests alive with the chatter of insects, rolling desert sand dunes sheltering sidewinders and scorpions, lonely wildebeests roaming tree-fringed savannahs, and sprinting cheetahs, lean and panting in the tall, hot grass. The word also hinted at proud people clothed in colorful textiles, wearing stunning beadwork, towers of metal bracelets, anklets and necklaces, and releasing primal voodoo chants amidst chaotic drumming.

My first indirect exposure to the continent came from the contents of my father’s suitcases each time he would return from business trips to Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and South Africa to name a few of the African countries he visited. I could hardly stand the anticipation as he would lay the hard case on the floor and open the two metal snapping locks, one on either side of the bag’s molded plastic handle, to reveal the bounty of presents within.

Africa Map

My dad often brought my mother gifts of jewelry from Africa. I remember a gold cuff bracelet carved with intricate ram’s heads, and I recall polished jade, thick strands of wire-like elephant hair, and brightly beaded bangle bracelets. He liked to bring me dolls in traditional costumes. Some were carved from wood, and one was made of cloth from his turban swathed head to sandaled toes. Others were synthetic and dressed like equatorial Barbie dolls.

The most exciting acquisitions were always the carved masks he unwrapped from between newspaper sheets and folded dress shirts. I was deeply intimidated by these confrontational embodiments of the dark dimensions of human fantasy. Although, I do recollect one mask that had tufts of hair and a mouth and eyes resembling giant Cheerios. That particular guise was enough to pry a quick smile from me each time I walked by it, mounted high on the hallway wall.

My family’s collection of African masks came to a sudden and premature termination when my father determined that not only had he brought home original woodcarvings from Africa, but that he had also imported a wealth of wood-boring insects – including termites – that were not as welcome in the house. So, that was the end of the masks, and the end of my liaisons with the obscure and mystical faces of Africa in the dark passages of my very own home.

Tunisia 3

The only direct claim I have to Africa up until this point of my life was a brief trip I made to Tunisia with my mother in the late 1970s. I don’t remember too much of this adventure except playing with the life-sized pieces of the giant chess set near the pool at our hotel, and seeing my mother sip Campari at the empty hotel bar like a person I had not met yet.


In Tunisia, I was just a kid with my hair in pigtails, wearing bright colors and bellbottomed corduroy pants. However, I attracted the attention of a couple men in the medina who demanded to know how many camels it would take for my mother to sell me. I was convinced that at some point in the near future, the offers of wealth would be intoxicating and my mom would hand me over in exchange for several dromedaries. As my paranoia reached a fever pitch she had to ask me in all seriousness where she would possibly house a herd of camels in our small flat in London. The logic of that impossibility eventually brought me back down to earth.

Tunisia 1

And here I am, still on the same planet, and in two days I leave for my own encounters with Africa.

This time I will not experience the continent through gifts from my dad that merely hinted at the riches in history, culture, and geography. Nor will I visit in the safety of my mom’s shadow as she shields me from wealthy camel herders, holds me tight on horseback (although I was sulking the whole time we rode on the beach because she wouldn’t let me ride a camel instead), or haggles for me in the souk with a vendor for a thick, woven tunic that I then refused to take off.

Tunisia 2

From our small ship I will experience the entire West Coast of Africa from Cape Town, South Africa to Lisbon, Portugal.  The first leg of the voyage will go from Cape Town to Dakar, Senegal and from this western point the ship then meanders through the Cape Verde and Canary Islands, up the coast of Morocco, and into Europe.

It will be a journey of over 6,000 nautical miles embedded with new sights, sounds, smells, flavors, wildlife and smiles. I hope to write frequently of the experiences and will try to capture the essence of each day in a few photographs to share with you here.

Maybe I’ll even bring back a few carved masks – free of termites.

Tunisia 4

New Zealand – Season 5

I consider myself lucky to have spent five seasons in New Zealand over the past 10 years.  Returning to the Sub-Antarctic Islands for two voyages was a highlight of the summer for me with visits to Chatham and Pitt Islands (far to the east of the country) followed by a clockwise swing through New Zealand’s Subs themselves.

NZ MAP with subantarctic_islands + bathymetry

We cruised the Bounty Islands — or the “stones” as our Bulgarian Chief Officer appropriately referred them — at sunset.  Swarms of albatross hovered over the bare rocky pinnacles on a stiff wind blown through lemon-yellow skies.

Bounties - Sunset together

The Bounty Island Group at sunset.

The Antipodes Islands offered up some phenomenal Zodiac cruising.  The shores were harboring elephant seals, New Zealand fur seals, the odd Sub-Antarctic fur seal, and masses of Rockhopper and Erect-Crested Penguins.

Antipodes - Ship and seals

Zodiac cruising in the Antipodes Islands with the ship and some native New Zealand fur seals keeping watch.

Antipodes - Uli and kelp

Our marine biologist examines a floating kelp strand for signs of life.

With the Zodiacs we found arms of kelp, free-floating in the blue, to examine up close for minute epiphytic alga and clinging invertebrates.

We also discovered vast caves that swallowed up the boats whole and kindly spit us all back out again.

Antipodes - Zs and caves

Massive sea caves dot the Antipodes coastline.

In at least half a dozen times visiting Campbell Island, only twice have I had the wind and swell and weather conditions align just right.  With this trifecta in hand, just days before 2015 drew to a close, we dropped Zodiacs on the impressive and exposed eastern coast of this remote glacially carved island in the midst of the Southern Ocean.

Campbell coast

The highly exposed east coast of Campbell Island just outside Perseverance Harbour.

Massive Southern Royal Albatross buzzed the black rubber boats.  At first they would approach close to my eye level as I stood at the engine’s tiller with wings horizontal to the water’s surface.  Then in the uplifted breeze close to the Zodiac, each bird would flex its stiff wings to flip from a horizontal to a vertical position in the blink of an eye.  Rising vertically like a kite above our heads, the ancient feathered mariners at once displayed the full extent of their massive ~3.3 m (11 foot) wingspan.

In the Auckland Island group I got to explore a new landing site, one I had not visited before — the lovely old Hardwicke Settlement site on Auckland Island.  People made an attempt to live here beginning in December 1849, when three ships from Britain arrived with the brave would-be colonists.  Poor soil, ceaseless rains and thick scrub drove everyone out in 2 years and nine months.  Now all that’s left are a few depressions in the rata forest that are likely house foundations and a small cemetery holding the bones of settlers and subsequent castaways.

Auckland - Victoria Tree

Calm waters in Port Ross at the Hardwicke Settlement landing site.

Deep in the forest of the Hardwicke Settlement site is the Victoria Tree carved in 1865 by crew from the HMCS Victoria who were sent to this desolate spot to search for shipwreck victims.  The voyage was a combined effort by the state governments of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland to try and mitigate some of the loss of life at the time due to wrecks on the Auckland Islands.

Auckland - Victoria Tree2

The Victoria Tree inscription reads: ‘H.M.C.S. VICTORIA NORMAN IN SEARCH OF SHIPWRECKED PEOPLE OCT 13TH 1865

An inscription of my own for my niece on her 12th birthday.

A message of my own from Auckland Island, for my niece on her 12th birthday.

Leaving the Sub-Antarctic Islands following two voyages in and around these Southern Ocean “stones,” I lead two more trips around the North and South Island of New Zealand.  But the cherry on the cake for the season was the three (unheard of) sunny days, in a row, in Fiordland National Park.  Seeing the tops of the peaks here is a treat, not to mention hours of streaming sunlight and blue skies.


Unreal views past the Blanket Bay Hotel and out towards Doubtful Sound.

A fitting send-off for a season of hard-earned smiles, new friendships and stunning scenery.

Dusky Sound - Mal

Our “bird-man” hard at work (and seriously geared up) off Astronomer’s Point in Dusky Sound.

Thanks to the expedition team for a great Season 5 and hope to see you all again some day!

Dusky Sound - Cook Passage

Cook Passage peels away into the distance of Dusky Sound.

Season’s Greetings!

For the past five years I’ve averaged about 200 days/year at sea in some of the most remote regions of the world. And so it’s been a welcome change of pace to spend the last 115 days ashore.   It was remarkable to see the seasons fade from the last of the warm, sandy August beach days, to the first of the frost-edged and bitter winter days that beg for the warmth of a wood stove.


The stunning New Hampshire woods in fall.

The joys of home for me include time with family and friends, cooking, enjoying a cup of coffee in my PJs in the mornings, running, surfing, yoga, and long hikes with the dog; all the while working on my own schedule – at my own desk – to prepare for the upcoming season at sea.


Hard at work in Manhattan.


Work travel took me to Toronto, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and out to California for a week where I tacked on wine tastings with family and hikes with friends.



California wine country.

I spent a magical week in the Florida Keys enjoying a reunion of dear friends there, and time in the height of the harvest season in Ohio with my sister. I even visited Nantucket Island last weekend, way out there in the Atlantic, but all wrapped up in cheerful Christmas trimmings.

From Ohio harvest season to Christmas on Nantucket Island.

From Ohio harvest season to Christmas on Nantucket Island.

And the miles, the places and the many reunions with friends and family reinforced the concept that adventure does not have to take place in far-flung locations, but can be found near to home as well.


My home-away-from-home. The Florida Keys.

But now it is time to leave again, and nothing is as bittersweet in this life I have carved out for myself. The never-ending welcomes and farewells can be an emotional rollercoaster of social decorum riding on top of deep sentiments.

None-the-less, I ship out this week to reach New Zealand and her Sub-Antarctic Islands. These are places I know well and look forward to seeing again. There have been times when the shock of green and red on a Southern Rata tree and the crystal clear call of a New Zealand Bellbird have felt akin to home. Especially after long stretches on the steel-gray sea without the rich colors, sounds and smells of the earthen world.


A rare New Zealand Yellow-eyed Penguin catching some Zzzz’s.

And so, as you enjoy the holiday season and sip an eggnog in your favorite cozy chair, think of our small ship on the big Southern Ocean braving the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties of the southern hemisphere. We will be skirting the Antarctic Convergence in search of whales, seals, albatross, penguins and unforgettable landscapes that very few people have ever laid eyes on.

NZ alb-blog

Albatross soar in the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands.

The reds and greens of my holiday season this year will be on New Zealand’s Rata and Pōhutukawa trees, but I will surely be thinking of home.

Remote and wild, the islands are sometimes little more than bare rocks in the big Southern Ocean.

Remote and wild, the islands are sometimes little more than bare rocks in the big Southern Ocean.

Seasons Greetings (and Farewells)


Iceland: A Postcard Pilgrimage

In my mind summer in Iceland equals “rain,” but this equation only exists because this past summer was my first visit to Iceland, and it just happened to be the worst on record that anyone local could remember in the past 35 years.


Coming from New England, at first it was hard for me to fathom that I had neglected this nearby island nation for so long. The chance to visit finally came at the end of 9-weeks of contracted work on a small expedition ship in the Arctic – namely up in the Svalbard Archipelago – but wrapping the Arctic season up in Reykjavik, Iceland.


After five days of visiting spots along the north coast and into the remote western fjords with our ship, by happenstance I disembarked the ship at the end of my contract with a couple of colleagues who were keen to rent a van and visit more of Iceland over land.


And so I found myself “glamping” in a converted Renault panel van with a 6-foot something bearded Irish fisheries expert possessing of a wickedly dry sense of humor and a range of impressive curse words, and a buoyant young woman who is a professional photographer from the Galapagos Island, and who had never camped before in her life. Besides Luke hating us women for our innocuous farting and snoring in the close confines of the van, the three of us gelled and had a blast travelling together.


Driving through Iceland is otherworldly. The terrain goes from barren lava fields to rugged volcanic peaks, and from meadows of soft tundra to an abandoned fishing village in an instant. Throughout the landscape is a periodic peppering of ancient churches, lonely cows, herds of Icelandic ponies, steaming fumaroles and sulfur vents arranged on a framework of frost patterned ground.


Stepping off the ship and away from 9 weeks of complexly planned daily schedules complete with early mornings and late nights, the three of us were gob-smacked by the fact that we could suddenly sleep in and dictate our own schedule, and so we reveled in these very acts. Our mornings were late, our dinners were tardy into the double-digit hours of the night, and we visited daily destinations on a timetable all of our own, often rocking up to highlight spots just as the line of tourist coaches and camping vehicles was retreating for a meal.


We planned our road trip itinerary by raiding the postcard rack in the first shop we entered. I took photos of places we liked on the cards with my iPhone and later we identified the spots huddled over the map in the cab of the van, circling our proposed destinations in bold swipes on the map and all but proclaiming, “We are going here because it looks cool.”


That first night, newly released from the ship, driving our now fully-stocked mobile housing unit, and up to our own devises for the first time in a couple of months, we camped at the first of a string of campsites-cum-youth hostels providing basic toilets, showers, and sometimes even a washer/dryer, shared kitchen, or the coup de grâce; a hot tub.

Part of what makes Iceland so attractive as a tourist destination is that it’s just so damn easy to explore. The roads are well maintained, everything is signed clearly, and most visitors choose to explore with a camper van of some description. Some camper vans go well beyond being actual vans, and reminded me more of vehicles from the Mad Max movies or the desert around a Burning Man festival. It was not unusual to see massive ex-Russian military vehicles kitted out with mammoth tractor tires, ladders for accessing the jacked-up ride, water and fuel tanks, and motorcycles strapped to the back.


We soon learned that these “hard-core” vehicles, when not off in the outback trundling over the complex series of 4×4 tracks crisscrossing lava-fields around the country, were parked closest to the shower houses of our campsites. They were there when we arrived around sunset on our leisurely schedule, and they were gone – completed vanished – by the time we were making our way through the muddy fields in pajamas to the toilets to brush teeth and get water to start the coffee.


For most of our car-camping foray, we spent our time seeking relief from the crowds at each of our postcard destinations, and hunted out the empty spaces on hillsides and off the beaten track that were not overrun with the impressive array of international tourists. I heard Spanish, Italian, French, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic amongst other tongues being spoken on the crowded tracks at the most popular sites.

However, each time we parked in a jam-packed parking lot and followed the well-maintained paths past coffee shops and pay toilets, to trudge in single file up to whatever iconic waterfall or view over geothermal wonders we were trying to attain, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was on a pilgrimage of some sort. Somehow I felt destined to find religion in the thousands of liters of flowing water cascading over the cliff, to glimpse eternity in a rainbow stretching over bleak fields full of Icelandic ponies, or to recognize a higher power in the stiff gliding wings of nesting Northern Fulmars coasting over black sand beaches and columnar basalt rock walls.


In Iceland, it became apparent that all I needed to do in order to salvage my faith in the freedom of travel and exploration was to place one foot in front of the other behind the person in front of me and ahead of the one behind. For a few brief days I became a rain-soaked pilgrim in a land of postcard worthy grandeur.


A couple of weeks later and back at home, I got an email from Luke who had stayed on to explore more of Iceland after the ladies went home – me to New England and Daniela to the Galapagos Islands. He wrote at length about the scenery he encountered, his birdwatching forays, and taking lazy naps on the tundra. And reflecting back on the time the three of us had spent in our camper van, and hoping as I do that we have the chance to go back to Iceland, he quipped, “You and Daniela were good fun – except for the snoring. I won’t tolerate that next time.”


Polar Ice

Ice in all its forms – whether briny frozen sea or sapphire blue compacted snow flakes from a glacier – is one of the highlights of the Arctic landscape.


This incredibly dynamic crust is ever changing and ever satisfying to the eye thanks to its transient and shifting nature. Whether I’m watching the bow of the ship split salty pans of ice, or staring back at the path we have just cleared through the solid horizontal plane, I’m aware of the novelty of being in the less than one percent of humanity existing this far north, at this very point in time.


The ice is timeless, and temporal at once. It is home to polar bears wandering each year for thousands of miles as if on a massive tread mill. Their very habitat and environment is in constant flux as the ice thins, piles up on top of itself, splits, drifts away, or anchors itself to the shore.


If we are lucky, we stumble upon a bear in the ice and spend as much time as we can watching, learning, gob-smacked and in awe. There is nothing on earth like these bears; these lumbering lipovores single-mindedly in search of chubby seals upon which to feast.


The glaciers exhibit a different side of the ice. Vertical faces of blue and white that are actively calving and exposing their cerulean hearts as they melt and recede back into alpine valleys worn smooth by their decent.


Zodiac cruising amongst the newly birthed icebergs is a snapshot in time. These chunks of ice will melt and roll and will never look the same again.


Timeless and temporal, like life itself.


Bear Island

Bear Island is the first stop on the way north from Tromso to Svalbard, an archipelago well above the Arctic Circle governed by Norway. The southern end of Bear Island is a paradise for breeding birds like the Common Guillemot and the Kittiwake, a small and elegant looking gull that screeches its own name in an incessant cacophony.


On approach to Bear Island in the summer months you would hear thousands of birds screaming, “Kittiwake! Kittiwake!” in unison. When they fly off the steep cliffs of the island in great white waves, their opaque wings catch the bright sunlight and give you the impression of being trapped, in miniature, in the center of a snow globe that’s been shaken vigorously by a small child.


In addition to supporting about one million nesting seabirds, the island fools me into thinking that some higher power designed the landscape specifically for Zodiacs. It is one of the most incredible places to cruise in a small inflatable boat that I have encountered anywhere on the planet.

IMG_9567 IMG_9552

With a sea cave 150 meters long and massive rock arches; the thrill of driving around this island leaves a permanent grin on my face. And not only is the stone architecture impressive, but the narrow rocky ledges are the ideal nooks and crannies for all the seabirds and the strata of the island are literally covered in birds fussing over their eggs.

IMG_9519 IMG_9560

In the case of the Common Guillemot, the birds lay a single egg on a narrow shelf of bare rock. The egg is pear-shaped and will spin on a small axis in the event that it is disturbed. Evolution has ensured that it won’t crash down into the sea below. The kittiwakes however construct solid nests woven with bits of vegetation and seaweed and year after year the beehive-shaped nests grow a little higher.


In early June, the island was sprinkled with a powdered sugar layer of snow, but visiting again now in July, I see the green of the tundra taking hold and thriving in the rich guano-fed soil. I look forward to visiting again in a few weeks time when the chicks of all these hundreds of thousands of seabirds will be joining the throng.

IMG_9527 IMG_9537(Thanks to Prof. James Floyd for snapping these shots for me during our Zodiac cruise!)


Arctic Preparations

How do you get from Muck boots to cute party shoes in as few steps as possible?  As I’m packing for my next voyage consisting of nine weeks around the Arctic Circle in Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland, I reckon these six pairs of shoes, should do me for just about every occasion I’ll encounter. From hiking in the hills, to wrestling with Zodiacs in the surf, and from enjoying fine meals in the dining room, to working them off in the gym; I’m set to go.

How do you get from Muck Boots to party shoes?

How do you get from Muck Boots to party shoes?

So, as you slide your bare, tanned feet into those perfectly broken in flip-flops this summer, please think of me putting on my second pair of long underwear, my woolen socks and my insulated ‘Arctic Sport’ Muck boots.

Fully geared up in my foul-weather gear, I’ll be daily hoping to spot polar bears, walrus, beluga whales, narwhals, seals, orca, seabirds or whales of all varieties. My quarry will be found mostly in the sea ice surrounding parts of the Arctic Circle, or clinging to cliffs and coastal slopes along the land-sea interface. Here’s a little sampling of the summer’s game plan.

Photo by Pamela Le Noury

An Arctic Bearded Seal — Photo by Pamela Le Noury

And in the last few days of preparation, between family time, surf sessions, long runs and walks with the dog, I was researching one of the small Greenlandic towns I’ll be visiting in August and was surprised (in a sick, stomach-churning sort of way) to read that the average high temperature in August is just a hair above freezing.

Ah hell, bring it on. I’m prepared, ready to see some amazing wildlife, and my feet will be both warm and fashionable this summer…although…they will definitely never be both at the same time!

Lisbon to the Channel Islands

I arrived in Lisbon on 5 May, unfortunately without my wallet. It somehow fell out of my carry-on bag onto the floor under the seat in front of me on the first of two flights from Boston to Lisbon.

Lovely Lisboa in the sunset.

Lovely Lisboa in the sunset.

In the end, the airline folks found the wallet on the plane in the Azores and sent it on the next flight to Lisbon, but it meant I had to wait in the Lisbon airport for hours. My skill for finding nooks and enclaves in international airports has been honed with magnet-like precision. Camping out between the escalator divider and the back of the airport pharmacy and Skyping with friends on poached airport WiFi? Not a problem – I was born for this challenge.

Narrow, cobblestone city streets riddle Lisbon.

Narrow, cobblestone city streets riddle Lisbon.

It was a disappointment not to have that time to see the city on my own, but I was so relieved to have my credit cards, ID cards, cash etc. It taught me two lessons – to keep track of my things better, and to keep a stash of money, copy of my passport, and a spare credit card in my carry-on, just in case I loose everything else again.

Traditional tiled walls on my hotel and graffiti throughout the city speaks volumes.

Traditional tiled walls on my hotel and graffiti throughout the city speaks volumes.

To celebrate the wallet’s return, I treated myself to a nice dinner. With a recommendation from the front desk and an address written down on a scrap of paper, I set out to walk to the restaurant in the dwindling day’s light.

Briskly walking the twilight city streets I encountered some of the city's landmarks.

Briskly walking the twilight city streets I encountered some of the city’s landmarks.

Picture windows in the discrete spot looked out over the city and I took it all in with glasses of beautiful local wines, bacalhau and the restaurant’s specialty crème Brule for dessert. I got in an argument in French with my Portuguese cab driver on the ride back to the hotel. The wine had made me feel boisterous and uninhibited enough to let the French words flow from me. We were sharing a good laugh by the time the rusty compact car rolled up the narrow street in front of the hotel.

I loved Lisbon. It is crazy, winding streets, with small shops and cafes and colorfully tiled buildings that you don’t expect to see around the next corner. It was a little chaotic and covered in graffiti and it felt gritty and real.

Looking a little rough, parts of Lisbon are in need of a little TLC.

Looking a little rough, parts of Lisbon are in need of a little TLC.

Traveling up the coast, I found Porto to have a vibrant party-spot atmosphere. All the big port wine distilleries along the river offer tastings and the sightseeing-slash-tasting boats go up and down the river through the center of the city. Red tiled roofs and whitewashed walls wrap narrow streets lined with balconies and a rainbow of clothes hanging out to dry on each level.


Porto in the sunshine reveals red-tiled roofs and colorful buildings.

Porto in the sunshine reveals red-tiled roofs and colorful buildings.

It would be easy to get lost in Porto's backstreets.

It would be easy to get lost in Porto’s backstreets.

In Spain, I drove through the lush Galician countryside and wandered through the architecture of the narrow streets. Somehow it is all a bit more sterile, orderly and, not boring exactly…but just not as vivacious and unpredictable and unruly as I found Lisbon and Porto.

I visited the terminus of the famous Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) the ancient pilgrimage route that meanders down from the Pyrenees Mountains in France, through Spain, to the massive main square of Santiago de Compostela. The quadrangle, known as the Praza do Obradoiro is flanked by the voluminous cathedral, the old pilgrim’s hospital (now an elegant hotel), and Raxoi’s Palace that’s been turned into the current city hall. Even the police offices just off the square were stunning feats of engineering.

Part of the Police Offices on the left and a downtown street on the right, in Santiago de Compostela.

Part of the Police Offices on the left and a downtown street on the right, in Santiago de Compostela.

The Camino is reborn these days as a modern country ramble, cum spiritual retreat. The many possible routes ending in the main square are symbolized in the scallop shells’ grooves and scallop shells mark the Way of St. James and appear all around the city on signs pointing to the central square.

Standing at the official end of the Camino de Santiago with the traditional scallop shell way sign.

Standing at the official end of the Camino de Santiago with the traditional scallop shell way sign.

The day I was there, the square was teeming with military personnel and rugged 4-wheel drive field ambulances; for lack of a better word to describe the army green Land Rovers operating as mobile hospitals.

The heart of Santiago de Compostela and the end of the Camino de Santiago (St. James Way)

The heart of Santiago de Compostela and the end of the Camino de Santiago (St. James Way)

It turned out there was an international military race about to finish here at the cathedral and sure enough, as I chatted with some of the soldiers, the Spanish women’s team jogged into the square, in camouflage fatigues, in formation, and wearing huge backpacks that equipped them during the 200km decathlon-style race across the countryside. It was endearing to see the soldiers hugged by their male counterparts and get congratulated with big slaps on the back and ear-to-ear grins from the guys.  I jumped in on the action for a photo with the men in uniform.

I'm collecting shots of me with men and women in uniforms from around the world.  This one in Spain was a coup.

I’m collecting shots of me with men and women in uniforms from around the world. This one in Spain was a coup.

The stop in Spain was followed by a day at sea and then a quick visit to the Loire Valley of France where I drove alongside the river deep into the verdant countryside peppered with Chateaus and small villages.

Stopping briefly at a Loire River Valley Chateau to wander the grounds.

Stopping briefly at a Loire River Valley Chateau to wander the grounds.

An unexpected find, just north of France’s northern shores was the Channel Island of Sark. I found Sark to be charming, rural, green, walkable, and strewn with wildflowers, bobbing in the fresh coastal wind and bright sunlight like flecks of colorful felt caught on the green rolling landscape. Along the dirt roads that I strolled, fluffy white wool from the itchy local sheep was entangled everywhere in the wire twists in the fencing.

The ancient harbor walls that deflect English Channel swells and temper the 7 meter tidal range.

The ancient harbor walls that deflect English Channel swells and temper the 7 meter tidal range.

Watching a group of French sailors (all men) relax in the evening light out on deck of their 36’ sailboat moored inside the high walls of the harbor, I absorbed with envy the smell of fresh brewed coffee, cognac, and cigar smoke floating around the scarf entwined necks and ratty long haircuts of the crew.

Wandering one of the many un-named dirt roads on Sark.

Wandering one of the many un-named dirt roads on Sark.

Life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it.

My next stop will be the Arctic – where I’ll spend the summer months looking for polar bears, walrus, beluga whales and seabirds.

More to come.

Galapagos Time Warp

Twenty-two years ago, I was a bright-eyed, idealistic university student learning Spanish and biology in Ecuador. As part of the comparative ecology program I was undertaking in this phenomenal country, I had the opportunity to study for eight days in the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles offshore of the mainland, living on a small boat and cruising from island to island.

Sunset over the islands.

Sunset over the islands.

The experience changed my life. It helped me to realize that I wanted to be warm, and outdoors, and studying my subject first hand on a daily basis.  I also realized that I had the opportunity to share my understanding with willing students as a naturalist.

Iconic Galapagos landscape.  Somewhere I have a shot from the same spot 22 years earlier.

Iconic Galapagos landscape. Somewhere I have a shot from the same spot 22 years earlier.

And so, it was a great privilege to return to the islands last month at such a different point in my life, but essentially living out my Galapagos fueled dream of traveling the world’s oceans and sharing my oceanic insights one-by-one.

San Cristobal Island in the sun heading to one of my favorite beaches anywhere.

San Cristobal Island in the sun heading to one of my favorite beaches anywhere.

In a weird coincidence, going through old papers today, I found my notebook from the four months I spent in Ecuador back in 1992. There are some descriptions of the Galapagos Islands in my small, studied handwriting that capture my first impressions of a few islands and some of the wildlife on each. I wish I had more of these notes, but I’ll share what I do have and indeed, had I written this from scratch tonight, instead of using two-decade-old notes; it would still go a lot like this:

From 1992:

Clear water breaking on the rocks at Plaza Sur looks like it belongs in the heart of an aquamarine gemstone. Desert cactus stand like sentinels planted in a red carpet of succulents. A swing of the head and I’m looking at an electric blue bay with organic white beaches and in the distance, long, gently sloping volcanoes. There is little green except for the cactus on top of  volcanic rock full of chocolate bar bubbles.

A Prickly Pear Cactus tree picks up the late day rays of sunlight over Plaza Sur.

A Prickly Pear Cactus tree picks up the late day rays of sunlight over Plaza Sur.

Bright red and orange crabs hang on the astronomically black rocks, next to cobalt blue water.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs size each other up on the shoreline.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs size each other up on the shoreline.

Frigate birds fly past at eye level as I stand on the cliff’s edge. Struggling against the powerful wind, the birds are nearly stationary and hover with wings spread wide, forked tails wide open, and eyes boring into your own.

Juvenile frigate birds coast just over my head in the stiff wind.

Juvenile frigate birds coast just over my head in the stiff wind.

Galapagos sea Lions with silken bodies wave through the water like a banner in the wind. The pups, mothers, aunts and other female relatives are close and affectionate with each other. They seem to kiss in greeting and at other times cry out and hide a softly folded face against a jagged volcanic rock in an expression of emotion left open to interpretation.

A mother Galapagos Sea Lion and her pup rest ashore for a spell.

A mother Galapagos Sea Lion and her pup rest ashore for a spell.

I swim with sea lions, or as they are known in Spanish; Lobos del Mar – literally ‘sea wolves.’ As they twist around me and float by upside-down without effort, one will swim toward me and at the last moment before impact, somersault away, back-flipping in jest and no doubt enjoying the reaction the behaviors elicit in me.

The canine teeth on this animal lend themselves well to the literal translation of their Spanish name "Sea Wolf"

The canine teeth on this animal explain well the literal translation of their Spanish name “Sea Wolf”

The sea lions lay around ashore looking like hung-over college students on a Sunday morning. It’s 10 am and no one is in any rush to wake up. I watched a pup alone in the surf. I watched the waves break over him and toss him around and there wasn’t anything I could do to help.

A young sea lion rests exhausted on the sand.

A young sea lion rests exhausted on the sand.

The males are huge and get offended when you come too close. They sit up and bark. The noises they all make are incredible, like burps and belches, or like someone saying, “Yuuuukkkk-allagh.”

A noisy male sea lion barks noisely on the shoreline.

A noisy sea lion barks noisely on the shoreline.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so at peace. It takes no energy to concentrate my thoughts on the here and now – on the moment.

Wildlife, like this Red-footed Booby, is fearless.  Completely without fear.

Wildlife, like this Red-footed Booby, is fearless. Completely without fear.

Saw a huge sea turtle swim by the boat yesterday as we cruised along with me sitting on the roof of the highest deck listening to Enya in my headphones. It was just me, the waves, and the distant islands.  (Listening to Enya…it had to be the 90s.)

A large Pacific Green Turtle cuts through the cool coastal waters of the islands.

A large Pacific Green Turtle cuts through the cool coastal waters of the islands.

Last night I jumped off the roof of the boat at anchor.  I leapt into the clear, green water and into the night.  I could see rays and sea lions swimming all around me in the ring of the ship’s spotlight.

Schools of fish from small like these to massive whale sharks cruise the Galapagos.

Schools of fish from small like these to massive whale sharks also cruise the Galapagos.

Vivir en la playa

Vivir en la playa

And then in my notes from 22 years ago, I wrote just this:

Vivir en la playa

 Live on the beach.

Nada más.

14 Playa

My Antarctic Experiment

I’m trying something new with this post.  With only a month spent down around the relatively warm and well known “Peninsula” of the Antarctic continent , I only had time for first impressions and so, below are some of the photos I’ve gotten most likes and comments on from friends, colleagues and acquaintances on Facebook.  Below each image is an extended caption with impressions from that moment during my recent trip to Antarctica.

After traveling with the ship alongside three different pods of orca (each representing a different phenotype), and after floating above curious Minke whales in my Zodiac, and after hiking to obtain spectacular sights of thousands upon thousands of penguins, or open views of endless mountains and glaciers, I was happy for even just a little taste of Antarctica this season.  And so I’ll try to coax a moment or two back to life through a photo to share with you.

An Adelie penguin dances across the path in front of me as I kneel in the corn snow waiting to guide our guests around the colony with as little disruption to the animals as possible. The penguins can approach you, but it doesn’t work the other way around, so closeups can take patience (or a big lens).
This has to be one of my favorite photos of the season, if not all year. I love that the scale of the blue ice in the distance is not readily apparent. In fact this was a substantial piece of ice and difficult to approach in a fragile rubber boat through floes of pack ice. This was morning time and super still.  The dark cloud overhead and just out of the upper frame, makes the lower corners black and mysterious. We were out searching for seals on a Zodiac cruise and enjoying the way the ambient gray was making the blue in the bergs light up.
A detail of glacial ice also encountered during a Zodiac cruise. Ice like this could be thousands of years old and carry samples of the ancient atmosphere trapped in air bubbles in the ice. Searching for a small chunk to haul into the Zodiac is always a challenge and in addition to getting a close up look at the frozen mineral water and encased air bubbles, someone inevitably wants a chunk for their whisky back on the ship.
Taken from the helm of my Zodiac with one hand as I piloted us through churning, choppy waves with the other. A sunset Zodiac cruise around Spert Island that we were wrapping up just as the sun was touching the horizon. The wind was bitterly cold this evening and had to bury my face, glazed and burning with the chill deep into my scarf, hat, collar and hood. I might have been wearing 6 or 7 layers when I took this!
Things were a little more comfortable when I took this photograph later that same evening. Showered, fed and with a bit of wine in my belly I went up to the bridge to watch our progress in the dwindling evening sunlight and while my cheeks warmed up to a normal temperature again, I took this photo from the security of the bridge — too lazy to even open the sliding door and take the shot outside.
A detail of some of that ancient glacial ice I was describing above. The blue ice is electric in it’s intensity. This piece was anchored on the sea floor — run aground on the rocky bottom like a ship not under command. But the berg’s predicament was to our advantage, because grounded ice rarely flips over unexpectedly and is safer to approach.
As a parting shot I leave you with some of the most bountiful and diverse blues I have ever witnessed. This whole morning’s Zodiac cruise was magic with lake calm water, little breeze, but a biting chill in the air. I did a lot of fast driving on the mirror-like water this morning on my Zodiac cruise. I couldn’t resist the temptation of making tracks on that brilliant canvas of sea, snow, ice and reflected mountains. Life is good.

Happy New Year and enjoy the holiday season!

With love,

~~ Kit