Humpback Whales, Mexico by Liz Duncan

Humpback Whales, Mexico

Transferring from land to sea always feels awkward and unnatural. Of course, it depends what species you are. We smile at wildlife documentaries where penguins dive effortlessly into the sea but flail their way back onto the beach. Have you ever watched people trying to get into a boat from the beach? It always involves at best wet feet and an ungainly lurch, and at worst, a slip and fall flat on one’s bottom.

I am getting on a boat at San Blas on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and take my seat on the hard metal bench. We are changing environments, from ours as land-living mammals, to the ocean where Humpback Whales reign supreme. It’s a glorious sunny morning in February, and a million miles from cold, dark England. That in itself would be enough to lift the spirits, but for some of us on this trip, seeing these animals is a lifetime’s ambition, and getting on this boat is the culmination of a long journey to fulfil that goal. Most of us are not in the first flush of youth either, but what distinguishes Naturetrek groups is that people do not see the barriers to fulfilling ambitions, just the goal at the end and they will do whatever is required, regardless of age or fitness. Helping us all achieve this today is Karel, our local guide and boat captain, Daniel.

It takes only 10 minutes of sailing out into the bay before Daniel spots a whale, two whales in fact, a mother and calf. We jump to our feet, people lurch around grabbing cameras and Daniel reminds us to respond slowly and quietly, for our own sakes and so as not to disturb the animals. We clutch our binoculars, searching for a glimpse of a fin or tail but, at the moment, the whales are gently swimming and only a dark gleaming back and dorsal fin is momentarily visible. We have to get our eye in. I wonder how the whales might view this noisy human rabble, competing to get the best shot? But behind me is Mary who has waited a long time in her life to see this sight, and she is quietly standing, just watching, holding onto the rail, soaking up every moment of this unique experience which only gets better and better.

The mother and calf swim majestically on, apparently unworried by our boat which keeps a careful distance. The pair are inseparable: sometimes side by side, sometimes the mother is below her calf. She gives birth in this sheltered warm bay, and while she nurses her calf, she does not feed, waiting till they start the long journey north to the feeding grounds in Alaska.

Now we settle down to watch, finding our sea legs, steadying cameras, and are rewarded by a longer breach and our first view of a magnificent tail fluke. These enormous creatures have such presence, such elegance and power in the water. It is hard to comprehend their size: 16 metres long, up to 40 tons in weight. Imagine the amount of muscle power necessary to launch an animal of such size out of the water.

There are a couple of other boats following the whales now. Daniel is careful to leave the 100 metres that is required for licensed boats. But one boat accelerates between us and the whales. Daniel tells us to watch – the mother Humpback may react to the disturbance. He knows his whales: just a couple of minutes later, having dived deep, she bursts out of the water, straight upwards, fins wide, like a huge torpedo, and lands backwards with an enormous splash. It’s hard to keep quiet, impossible not to gasp out loud. She goes down, and then comes up again, but this time accompanied by the calf who doesn’t quite manage to get to vertical and who collapses back into the water. But we have our one shot on camera: a mother and calf Humpback Whale, side by side, breaching. A most treasured souvenir of an unforgettable moment.

Daniel has an underwater microphone and we can actually hear the song of a distant whale. Only the males sing; the sound travels long distances. It is such an iconic sound, used to relax a thousand meditation sessions for stressed humans.

But there were other great experiences that morning too, which under other circumstances would be great wildlife moments in their own right: sailing round small islands covered in Blue-footed Boobies (such an unfair name for wonderfully individual birds with feet that Jimmy Shoo would do well to emulate) and brown pelicans; and the air full of frigate birds like menacing drones.

We return to San Blas to pore over our photographs, the breaching Humpback remains my screensaver, taking me back to that wonderful morning. But I also remember that only a few decades ago, the call of the Humpback was endangered by whale hunting, and this is in fact a conservation success story with the numbers of whales now recovered to several thousand. That fact only adds to the positive experience of briefly sharing an ocean with such magnificent creatures.

 

For further information about our 11-day ‘Mexico’s Monarchs, Humpbacks & Endemic Birds’ holiday, which next departs February 2016, Humpback Whales Mexico.

The Galapagos Islands by Patricia Dean

SealionIf a sea lion charges you, whatever you do don’t run, he’s bluffing!

These words of wisdom were imparted to us by Darwin our guide, and his assistant Darwin Jr. (no relation), at the start of two weeks travelling around the Galapagos Islands in our pretty sailing ship, the Cachalote. They flew away with the breeze on the second day as the sea parted beside me, revealing a roaring glistening beachmaster: red throated, teeth bared, arriving at great speed. I turned to run, tripped over my foot and dropped my camera, my telephoto lens lying smashed beside me on a rock. As promised, the sea lion retreated and my dreams of achieving a stunning portfolio of pictures evaporated. Disaster!

But I was wrong. These are the Enchanted Isles, where visitors must step over or circumnavigate the locals as they bask on the warm rocks and beaches, go about their business and conduct noisy conversations (and occasional bloody battles) with their own kind. Meanwhile I, like Harry Potter in his invisibility cloak, moved among them totally ignored, long lens redundant, getting my close-ups.

Each day the Cachalote took us from one stunning island to another, frigatebirds (or could they be pterodactyls?) squabbling on the rigging, the sails tugging us along when the wind was fair. We stopped on the equator for a few minutes, the Sat Nav reading 00.00 degrees north and 90 degrees west, one of the four corners of the Earth. Was I alone in wanting to see a line stretching across the sea? We saw extraordinary marine-life, weird sunfish, leaping Manta Rays and Spinner Dolphins. When we anchored at sunset, in a nightly drama, thousands of little fish surrounded the boat. Larger fish arrived to gorge on them, silver showers erupting from the sea as they leapt to escape. Sharks then took centre stage, circling menacingly, occasionally bumping the boat in the night as they, in turn, chased their supper.

We had anticipated seeing spitting Marine Iguanas, sea lions, finches, Giant Tortoises and Blue-footed Boobies; they were all captivating, but there were surprises too. In a shed behind a small house perched high on the side of a misty volcano, we peered through the gloom and saw a Barn Owl sitting on a beam – only the week before I had been photographing its distant cousins in a foggy field in Nottinghamshire. Another day we waded through a lagoon from our dinghy, enjoyed a lazy afternoon watching turtles that had decorated the beach with their tank tracks, then made our way back to the ship. There was a change of venue for embarkation; two enormous sharks were sunbathing side by side in the shallows exactly where we had emerged two hours before.

Our superb guide, Darwin, is a man of many talents. His university degree had given him the facts he needed for his job, but his great love and infectious enthusiasm for the islands and its denizens comes from within. He is an accomplished free diver, and as we snorkelled in a popping, gurgling world of wavy weeds, gaudy fish, sea lions and iguanas, a tiny Darwin swam far below us, turning over rocks, slowly making his way across the sea bed. He could stay down for ages, one time surfacing covered in angry red welts having fallen foul of a jellyfish. And you should have seen him performing back flips across the beach – he’s not young!

In our dinghy, we followed a Leopard Ray into a cave. Looking out from the gloom to the brilliant turquoise sea we could see a commotion, the surface was being roughened by something and birds were arriving. Fishball! Darwin Jr. slowly negotiated us precisely over the turmoil. The sea was fizzing with small fish breaking the surface under attack by heaven knows what from below, while a maelstrom of Blue-footed Boobies and pelicans swirled above. As if at a signal they, to a bird, turned themselves into arrows slamming into the sea all around us, some of them lucky, spearing a fish. A quick shake, back up into the air, then down again. Looking up from our inflatable rubber boat, thrilled, slightly anxious, we all hoped their aim was good and I felt a flash of sympathy for King Harold at Hastings looking up as arrows rained from the air. Too soon all was calm again, the sea twinkling with silver scales.

It was the true highlight of my trip, among many. The camaraderie with our fellow travellers was hugely enhanced by the thrilling experiences we shared. If my camera had been destroyed it wouldn’t have mattered so much because even at my age, with a dodgy memory, every detail of that holiday is burned into my brain. It was unforgettable.

 

For more information about our 20-day ‘Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands’ holiday which includes a 2-week cruise around the Galapagos Islands please visit the tour webpage.

A Naturetrek Holiday – Who, Me?

A Naturetrek Holiday – Who, Me?

Leopard courtesy of Rob North

By Anne Murray

Although retired, this was my first wildlife holiday. When suggested by a seasoned Naturetrek friend, I probably had a visibly negative think-bubble above my head, populated with a list of things which could go wrong. I have never been attracted to group holidays – what if the others in this small group were not ‘nice people’ (like us!)? Would it be too hot? As a fair-skinned Scot who usually wilts in hot or humid conditions, I tend to avoid even the comfort-zone of Europe in the hotter months. When more adventurous friends enthusiastically recount their wildlife trips, they seem more like endurance tests than holidays. Neither am I a natural bird-spotter – as someone with amblyopia (lazy-eye), binoculars are not ideal for single lens vision, and a monocular is tricky to steady. Tempting though the wildlife of Sri Lanka might be in theory, in practice would I just be a rather miserable encumbrance to my friend, rather than a travelling companion with whom he could enjoy the experience?

The initial dawn bird-spotting experience with the naturalist and his assistant did not augur well, as a combination of early light conditions and slight panic (mine) meant that I practically had to be introduced to a jungle fowl roughly the size of a Christmas turkey! However, once my lack of ability had been quietly noted, the patience and skill of the Naturetrek team was tactfully employed to make sure that I was not overlooked among the other eight more capable birdwatchers. Thus encouraged, I gradually gained in confidence, graduating from just seeing Indian Peacocks, Painted Storks, egrets and Black Eagles to being able to view smaller, well-camouflaged specimens.

Mammals, being larger, presented no such problem, and they were present in both variety and abundance; I particularly liked the elderly Indian Elephant standing knee deep in a lake, thoughtfully selecting and washing the grit out of his salad, supervised by the Cattle Egret on his back.

As a wildlife novice, I would have been content simply to see the more common mammals, but on the second day at Yala we had two amazing encounters. The first was with a female Leopard, just as we were leaving the grounds of our hotel at 5.45am. The other jeep had gone ahead to collect the entrance tickets to the national park, and our driver was alerted to the presence of a significant predator by the alarm calls of Spotted Deer. He switched off the engine and we sat motionless and silent. At first the shape of a Leopard was just distinguishable among rocks on our left but as the dawn rose there she stood atop a flat rock, looking down on us before turning and disappearing down the far side. Our knowledgeable local driver quietly took a small path, tucked in, and stopped. When she reappeared – crossing not far in front of us and seeming slightly smaller at closer range than when silhouetted by the rising sun – she was visibly powerful, sleek and glossy as she briefly turned her head and regarded us with some disdain. Unexpectedly, I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye at this first encounter with such a magnificent creature in her own habitat. I was hooked …

At the end of that day, heading for the gate by a quiet route not favoured by other tourist vehicles, our spotter noticed some activity at a termite mound to the left. A rarely glimpsed nocturnal Sloth Bear had woken early, felt peckish, and decided on an early snack; impressively solid, with huge curved claws part-concealed in the grass, its nostrils and smallish eyes were opening wider,  but as it raised its head to inspect the breakfast callers the demeanour was inquisitive rather than alarmed or threatening. I wondered whether the scent of human was wafting away rather than towards it, as it stood for some time, muzzle quizzically raised, before turning and lumbering off.

Our pleasant group of nine hailed from different backgrounds. I was surprised how quickly we settled down as a co-operative team, and by day four it seemed quite normal to lie recumbent over two seats in our air-conditioned bus to allow a comparative stranger to stretch across to take photographs from the window above. The ‘style’ bit of the holiday did not disappoint, and we enjoyed reviewing the day in five elegant hotels, each offering a distinctive ambience, and range of cuisines.

And the heat? Well, the itinerary was so interesting that I coped well even when climbing Sigiriya rock to view the 5th century rock paintings of well-endowed ‘damsels’ en route to the 200-metre-high ancient royal complex above. Mind over matter, or what? Suffice it to say that we are looking forward to another Naturetrek trip in October!

 

For further information about our deluxe 14-day ‘Wild Sri Lanka … In Style!’ holiday please visit the tour webpage.