2011 In Review

Looking back on 2011, it seems like I was a pretty busy chica, in terms of traveling at least. 13 countries, 7 states (not including the ones I drove through), and too many airports to count. And now I’m back where I started! 2011 began with a four week contract aboard the NG Sea Lion in Costa Rica and Panama and it ended in the midst of another (albeit longer) contract in the same place. I wanted to do a re-cap blog about all the places I visited and wrote about this year, and share some of my favorite moments.

So to begin, after spending two months in Southeast Asia at the end of 2010, I flew straight to Panama to begin working on the Sea Lion for four weeks. Karen, a good family friend, joined me on board for the last week and then we both flew to Mazatlan, Mexico for a relaxing week at the Emerald Bay Resort, thanks to my grandparent’s timeshare.

I then took a ferry across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz where I embarked the NG Sea Bird for three weeks. Baja will always be one of my favorite places because I have so many fond memories there – swimming with whale sharks, petting baby gray whales, snorkeling with sea lions, and evening BBQ’s on the beach while the sun sets over the desert. After my three week contract, I spent a week in La Paz at Casa Tuscany and explored the small town and surrounding area. I even got to see La Paz from above!

And then I found myself, once again, on a plane to Costa Rica to do another four week contract on the Sea Lion. I have to say that I was getting a bit tired of the Panama Canal and I hadn’t been home for six months, so I was a little antsy to get of the ships for awhile. After that contract, I returned home (Vermont) for a few weeks before setting off to Seattle to begin our Alaska season up north. The cruise from Seattle to Juneau is one of my favorite voyages and it was a nice change of scenery after being in the the tropical rainforest and desert for the past six months. In Petersburg, I got to go flight seeing over the LeConte Glacier, which was incredible.

I returned to Alaska once more for another contract this past summer, and then I flew straight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to visit my brother while he was doing one of his medical school rotations. Jackson is a pretty cool town and I enjoyed getting outside to do some hiking – Amphitheater is awesome! – and I did some yoga at Inversion Yoga. While in Jackson I found out that I had the opportunity to to a 15 day cruise in the Baltic Sea aboard Lindblad’s NG Explorer. Of course I said yes, but had to scramble to get everything together in time.

After leaving Jackson Hole and taking a bus to Salt Lake City (and enduring a twelve hour layover) I then had to suffer through a 12 hour drive from Detroit to Vermont due to Hurricane Irene’s destructive path. Then I had a week at home, before boarding another plane, this one headed to St. Petersburg, Russia, via New York (where I visited some friends) and Paris. The cruise was amazing. We stopped in nine different countries along the Baltic Sea and got to listen to Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa give speeches to Lindblad guests.

After disembarking in Copenhagen, I had a long flight to Indiana where I spent a week with C and his family. Then it was back to VT for two months (!) before jetting down to Florida to spend several days with C and to swim with some manatees. C returned home with me for a visit (he’d never been to Vermont), and we took a few days to explore the woods and take a road trip across the border to Montreal and see Cirque du Soleil, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.

After Christmas and almost four months away from the ships (working, at least), it was time to begin another contract. I flew to Newark where I met C and sat in the airport for 6 hours before finally getting on a plane to San Jose, Costa Rica. And now, just as the New Year arrived, we crossed over from Costa Rica into Panama and will begin transiting the canal tonight. What a year! It feels like such whirlwind when I write it down, but I guess I’m used to being on the road so much because it felt like a normal year. I can’t wait to see what new places I’ll find myself in 2012!

Hope everyone had a good New Years. Feliz ano nuevo!

What are your best travel memories from 2011?

Flyin’ High

I was hoping, this week, to be able to swim with the whale sharks that come to feed near shore just outside of La Paz. I had the chance to jump in the water with one last year and it was amazing. As I began asking around, though, I found out that for some reason the whale sharks have left the area early this year. No one knows why or where they went. There is still one male hanging out, but the tour companies couldn’t guarantee a swim with him. So I did the next best thing. I flew over the water looking for them.

Carol, my B&B owner had two guests earlier in the year who wanted to go for an airplane ride. She made a few calls and found someone who has an Ultralight that he uses for research and spotting marine animals. They went for a twenty minute ride over the La Paz bay and loved it. Sounded good to me. Carol made another call and set up a time for me (yesterday morning). I was picked up at Casa Tuscany and driven about ten minutes outside of town to a deserted boat launch site. I stepped out of the van and saw my plane waiting for me. My stomach did a somersault. Carol had told me that the plane was small but this was tiny! Only two seat, no walls, windows, or windshield, and a rudimentary propeller in the back. At least it had two pontoons for water landings. After a brief rundown of do’s and don’t’s by my pilot, Siddhartha, he picked up the tail of the plane and pushed it into the water. Then I climbed onto the pontoons and carefully stepped into the back seat, making sure my feet didn’t touch the thin floor. I settled in, buckled my seatbelt and donned the headset Sid handed to me. He climbed into the front seat in his wetsuit and we were off. Sid steered the plane toward a partially sunken ship, slowly gathering speed. Suddenly we were in the air and rapidly gaining elevation. I was surprised at how smooth it was and once I remembered to breathe, I began to enjoy the view. The water from above was spectacularly blue and turquoise and I even saw several dark shadows in the shape of manta rays. I could see La Paz with the mountains rising up from behind and the harbor filled with masted sailboats. We made a left turn and I could see the area where I swam with the whale sharks last year. We headed that way and after a few minutes I spotted the lone male lazily swimming close to shore. It looked enormous even from up high. We left him behind and continued up the coastline, making another lefthand turn over an isthmus that connected two pieces of the dry, flat, barren island. I kept thinking “this is so cool” and “I hope the propeller doesn’t stop.” After about half an hour, Sid, headed back to the place where we took off. It didn’t even feel like we were descending until the pontoons hit the water again and the nose of the plane was headed straight towards the same partially sunken ship. A quick turn to the right brought us back to the beach where I gingerly extracted myself from the backseat and placed my feet on solid ground. Seeing La Paz from an Ultralight was one of the best things I have ever done – right up there with hang-gliding in New Zealand and biking through the narrow alleyways of Bangkok.

This morning I found myself back on a plane (albeit a bigger one) headed to Mexico City. I have six hours in the airport before my flight to San Jose. Then it’s back on the Lion tomorrow!

A Day In Todos Santos

For the past few days I could feel myself on the verge of getting sick and yesterday I think my body finally gave in. I woke up with a sore throat, headache, and runny nose. Carol made me waffles for breakfast and after I ate I went back to my room and watched two movies, read my book, and napped. I emerged around 4 to find something eat, then went back to my book, finishing it around 10 pm. Then went to bed. (It was Light on Snow, Mom, since I know you’re wondering).

This morning, though, I woke up feeling much better – probably because I spent yesterday horizontal. After breakfast I decided to catch a bus to the small town of Todos Santon south and west of La Paz. I’d never been there, but heard it was a cute little artsy town. The ride was about an hour and a half in a nice coach with James Bond Casino Royale blasting (both visually and audibly) on the TV.

After I got dropped off I went in search of a map. Procuring one, I then tried to get lost. One of my favorite things to do in a new town or city is to try to get lost, then figure my way back to familiar ground (if I have a map – it’s not too much fun getting really lost). I passed a nice looking hotel in the historic area and glanced at it’s name. Guaycura Hotel and Spa. Perfect. I’ve been wanting a massage since I got off the boat, so I made a sharp turn and entered the lobby. Asking if I could make a massage appointment, the receptionist made a few calls told me it would be half an hour, but I could wait up on the sky deck. I climbed two flights of stairs and emerged at the sky deck, an outside sitting area with an L-shaped pool, a bar, and long benches padded with cushions and pillows. Not a bad place to wait. It was about 45 minutes before the therapist was ready and I could enter the ‘spa’. The spa was actually a large room with two massage tables made up nicely, a steam room, a bathroom, and a two-person jacuzzi. I had my massage (which felt wonderful), then my therapist asked if I wanted to use the hot tub. I said yes, of course, and spent another 20 minutes soaking in the hot water with the jets tickling my toes and colored lights turning the water green, red, and blue.

Back on the street I moseyed from one artesian shop to another. There are some great artists here, selling pottery, jewelry, paintings, clothes, you name it. I ended up buying a necklace from a hippy girl selling her work on the sidewalk. It was more expensive than I wanted to pay, but we chatted for awhile and I felt like I had to buy it. It’s neat, with beads from the Amazon and a small shark tooth woven in above a brown and white shell.

After I walked around for awhile (I determined it was way too small of a town to get lost in) I consulted my map and headed to a place called Pura Vida, located a little farther off the main drag. The ad on my map said “Organic Health Food Store and Deli” (as well as a hotel) and not having eaten since breakfast that’s all I needed to know. I found it with no trouble and after perusing the shelves of bagged spices, raw honey, coconut oil, natural peanut butter, etc… I felt a tug towards home. The last time I saw good, healthy food like that was in October! I ordered a veggie panini with pesto and when it came it was piled high with shredded beets, carrots, and organic greens. Yummy!

And thats where I still am. My bus back to La Paz doesn’t leave until 6, so I have some time to relax and enjoy the last bit of sun!

It’s A Small World After All

I’m trying to concentrate on reading my book (still A Song For The Blue Ocean), but a French version of “It Was A Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini That She Wore” is making it slightly difficult. It is quite amusing, as, I’m sure, is the English version to the French.

I’m sitting in the courtyard of a nice (I would even say fancy) restaurant called Tres Virgenes with Orion overhead and a fire blazing in the outdoor oven to my right. The restaurant was recommended to me by my B&B host, Carol, but as I stood outside reading over the menu, I could see very little vegetarian options. In hesitant Spanish, I asked the host what sort of vegetarian dishes they served. He offered to ask the kitchen to make me something special and soon I was enjoying a blue cheese risotto with roasted vegetables. It was delicious!

Sometime between the French “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” serenade and a Mexican flamenco, I struck up a conversation with a couple one table over. To make a small world even smaller, they had been at a place called Colorado in their sailboat a few weeks back at the same time we were. I remember Mark, a tanned-faced sailor in his fifties, rowing his small rowboat up to a Zodiac (that I was in) and handing over a packet containing a handmade necklace for the doctor. Three weeks later we’re chatting over a glass of wine and exchanging stories from our travels in Mexico. As they were leaving, Mark unhooked his necklace of white coral from around his neck and handed it to me. He said he makes them and his wife chipped in, saying that he likes to spread them around.

Takin’ It Easy In La Paz

Once again, I find myself sitting in my favorite restaurant in La Paz, eating lunch and listening to a Spanish serenade. The restaurant is La Boheme, the lunch was a warm goat cheese salad and the serenader is a Mexican voice accompanied by a guitar and pounding bass from a nearby bar. A small, hard, mango-looking object just fell hard onto my table and the breeze is swirly gently through the open courtyard where I’m seated.

I arrived in La Paz early this afternoon after a three hour bus ride from San Carlos on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula to the small airport just outside of La Paz ‘city’. The vista from my bus window didn’t vary much from the arid, desert landscape studded with cacti and patched-together wooden and homes with tin roofs. Nonetheless, it was nice to see the interior of the narrow peninsula.

At the airport I said goodbye to the guests and a few staff member who were also leaving and packed my bags into a taxi headed for La Paz. Weeks earlier I had made reservations at Casa Tuscany, a bed and breakfast near downtown La Paz. I was looking forward to some relaxation and quiet time after being on a boat for three weeks. Carol, the B&B owner, met me at the gate and welcomed me to her home. There are only four room in the B&B and they are all nicely decorated and furnished in Mexican motif. There is a patio with chairs and a table on the balcony outside my room and a covered sitting area below. I chatted with Carol for a bit, then dropped my bags on the bed and headed out for lunch. Which brings me up to date here.

But I’ll rewind and bring you up to date on my last week on the Sea Bird. As I mentioned before, we had some influential people on board and they took turns giving lectures and inspiring us with their stories. Gil Grosvenor (former President of National Geographic) gave a slideshow presentation and his early assignments with Nat Geo that took him all over the world from Siberia to Africa to the Dalmatian Coast.

Sylvia Earle also gave several talks on her work in ocean research and conservation. Her latest achievement has been to help establish a conservation initiative called Mission Blue. The program came about when TED (Technology, Education, Design), a non-profit organization “devoted to ideas worth spreading”, granted Sylvia one wish, something big that she would like to see happen in the world. Sylvia’s wish was to see as much of the ocean protected as possible. As a result, Mission Blue – fully supported by National Geographic – was created. Check out the website and if you want to see Sylvia Earle’s TED talk, watch it here. It’s quite inspiring!

Oh yeah, I got to touch some more whales this week! I have a video of me patting a baby on its head, but for some reason I can’t upload it on my phone…

A Boat Full of Germans

So begins my second week aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird. We have 25 Germans who speak minimal English. Their leader would like to give lectures and show movies in their native language and we were informed after intros that we speak too fast and the majority of the German guests couldn’t understand us. Meanwhile we have 40 guests who expect to be spoken to in English and be shown videos in their native language. Good thing we have a Mexican naturalist on board who is fluent in both English and German. He’ll be busy translating this week.

Our last trip ended well. We spent several days in Magdalena Bay on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula where we watched the grey whales and their newly born calves. I got out on one of the Zodiac cruises and we idled within 10 feet of a baby grey whale. He was headed straight towards us (the whales in this area are renown as being friendly), but his mother cut him off before he reached our Zodiac. Apparently she didn’t want him associating with us. Perhaps he was too young yet. Later groups did get good encounters with mom-calf pairs, some even getting to pat their massive blubbery heads or plant a kiss on their slippery hides. I’m hoping this week that I’ll get to touch one – the last time I did was two and a half years ago!

I had a mellow turn day today in San Carlos, checking email and eating a tasty lunch of quesadillas with the other naturalists and staff. Now we are headed south back towards the grey whales and later around the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. Hopefully the weather (mainly in the form of wind) will stay good for us!

On a side note… A few days ago I found out that I had something in common with our senior deckhand, Ian. Never having met before, we were chatting about where we were from. His home town happens to be Edgecomb, Maine – the tiny town of 800 people where our family also has a summer camp. Furthermore, Ian’s best childhood friend is David Nutt, our neighbors along the Darmascotta river who are also, apparently, neighbors of Ian’s family as well. To make it even more uncanny, Ian talked to his mother (who now lives in Australia) today and apparently we played together at some point when we were young. Small world.

Oh Baja, how I love you

I’ve been back at sea on the Sea Bird for one day now, and already we’ve seen a blue whale, a fin whale, bow-riding dolphins (more than I’ve ever seen at the bow), and several sea lions. That was just the morning. In the afternoon we went ashore at a place called Danzante for snorkeling, hiking and kayaking. I wimped out on the snorkeling (the water was 59 degrees!), but I did scramble up the rocky, cacti studded slope to the highest point for a grand view over the island and surrounding vista. It was magnificent. I looked down behind me and saw the Sea Bird anchored in a protective cove and ahead of me was a several hundred foot drop to the ocean. The water here is so clear that I could see the rocks and sandy bottom from above. I was sincerely wishing that I had brought my camera. Next week I guess.
Even though I only tested my toes in the water, our undersea specialist – Carlos Navarro – shot some great footage with his underwater camera and we got to watch it just before dinner. Carlos saw about five types of starfish, including the Crown-of-thorns, which is a nocturnal sea star that preys upon coral polyps. The Crown-of-thorns is the second largest sea star, smaller only to the sunflower starfish. Its body and multiple arms are covered in venomous thorns that release a neurotoxin that can produce a sharp stinging pain for hours as well as nausea and vomiting. A voracious eater, one Crown-of-thorns can consume up to 65 square feet of living coral reef per year and overpopulation of these sea stars, due to a decline in predator populations, has been a concern to environmentalists and ecologists. Their natural predators include the giant Triton (a mollusk) and harlequin shrimp, as well as some larger reef fish. The Crown-of-thorns feed by climbing onto reef structures and then extruding their stomachs onto the coral. Digestive enzymes are then released, which liquefy the coral and allow them to absorb the nutrients. They also prey upon brittle sea stars in the same fashion. They are beautiful and captivating to see, but dangerous to touch and sometimes too efficient in their search for food. Biologists point out that once they had an important role in maintaining biodiversity on the reefs by not allowing any one species to thrive, but now they, as a species, are too abundant.
During his dive Carlos also captured footage of sea cucumbers, tiny gobi fish, anemones, sea worms that reach out little feathered feet in hopes of catching dinner, bright blue fish with yellow faces, a balloon fish (not ballooned out), and several other species of exotic marine wildlife. At the end of the video I was wishing that I had braved the cold, but again, there’s always next week.
We also have a National Geographic expert onboard named Birgit Buhleier. Her work is with the CritterCam, a device they attach to the backs of animals to get video of their invisible lives deep beneath the waves. I actually met Birgit in Alaska last year and saw some of her footage with humpbacks and seals. Here, though, she showed us a short clip of a blue whale feeding on a ball of krill. Very cool. It also reminds us of how little we know about the ocean and its inhabitants.