Beautiful nature to brighten up the day
I’ll never forget the jolt of amazement when I rounded a bend on the elevated walkway and saw this view. To capture the breadth and the feeling of power emanating from such close proximity to the rushing water and billowing spray, I took four images, from side to side, and later stitched them together in Photoshop, creating this stunning panorama, which includes the Iguazu River and San Martin island.
It’s early afternoon in Argentina’s Patagonia, and on Peninsula Valdes, the seaside town of Puerto Piramides is throbbing with tourists lining up to pay for their whale-watching tours. The little hamlet has grown up around these tours, with lodging, restaurants, souvenir shops and a tourist information bureau all catering to the trade and brimming with business.
Beyond the last restaurant, on an ultra-wide beach fronting a horseshoe bay, there are no boat ramps. Instead, tractors—like monstrous crabs—chug across the sand, pushing and pulling tour boats into and out of the ocean with the aid of long metal arms. Ignoring the vehicles, groups of sunbathers and daytrippers dot the sandy expanse. There’s plenty of room for everyone.
From the ticket office, we march in line to the beach after donning our bulky orange life jackets. Across the sand we go, up the metal steps to the boat’s deck in search of a good seat. During a lengthy orientation in both Spanish and English (mostly Spanish), a tractor pushes us into the sea, and at the proper depth, we float off the trailer and are on our way to see the whales.
It’s speculated that right whales, both Northern (Pacific and Atlantic) and Southern, got their name because whalers declared them the “right” whales to kill. Preferring shallow coastal waters, they swim slowly, passing close to ports and lingering on the surface. All of which made them easy to harpoon. And once killed, they conveniently floated thanks to their thick blubber layer, which was rendered into oil.
Eventually, they became even more prized for their baleen—a tough yet flexible material that forms a giant sieve in each side of the whale’s mouth, allowing it to strain flea-sized copepods (tiny crustaceans) and krill from the water for food. An adult whale must eat a billion copepods a day to supply the minimum 400,000 calories it needs. Polite society, however, decided that baleen was more useful as corset stays, stiffeners in fashionable gowns, umbrella ribs and horsewhips (hence the phrase, “He whaled on me.”)
Even though no longer harpooned for their blubber and baleen, right whales are still fighting for their lives. All are endangered, but the eastern North Pacific population, numbering less than 50 animals, is critically endangered, while the eastern North Atlantic population may be considered functionally extinct, with only ten or so individuals left. Leading causes of death include collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, but in Patagonia there is a lesser-known problem: seagulls.
Kelp gulls might be responsible for hundreds of southern right whale deaths—especially calves—near Peninsula Valdes. They land on the whales, pecking at them to tear off chunks of skin and blubber for food. The hours of harassment and extensive wounds cause stress and weaken the whales at a time when mothers are fasting and expending energy to feed their young. Since this is a recent discovery, no solutions have been found.
Right whales can weigh up to 90 tons, and an adult female can grow to 49 feet long. The male’s testicles weigh around 1,100 pounds each—the largest of any animal and easily surpassing the larger blue-whale’s 120-pound testes.
On this day, no males are available for corroboration, but before long, we spot a mother and calf. They venture close to our small boat, a mass of black skin and white tubercles or callosities that look like clinging barnacles. The callosities appear white thanks to large colonies of cyamids (whale lice).
The whales bob up and down on the water’s surface, checking us out, the mother positioning herself between the boat and her calf. Familiar with barnacle-clad humpbacks that spy hop, I strain to see the right-whale’s eye watching us, but it’s nowhere to be found. I learn that it’s halfway down the massive head, near the corner of the mouth—a curved, plunging line that separates a voluminous lower law from a long, thin upper jaw that reminds me of a safe-deposit box lid with a low hinge, or a trap door leading to a storage cellar.
Perhaps because of the odd mouth and lack of a dorsal fin, it seems like the whale is swimming upside down. I’ve heard that these animals can dive to 600 feet, sometimes flipping over and brushing their flat heads along the seafloor, waiting for the currents to sweep food into their cavernous mouths.
On occasion, I can see the mother’s blowhole. It looks oddly like the thick-lipped mouth on the Dairy Queen commercial, opening wide to suck in air or blow out a water spray, then closing tight before a dive.
Other curious mother-calf pairs check us out, too, but finally we head for shore, passing various sea birds and a colony of seals. The crab tractors are waiting for us when we arrive at the beach.
You can check out Jerry’s video here:
Sharing this sunset from a few nights ago.
I’m standing on the rocks below Diamond Head, and the structure you can see on the hill at right is the Diamond Head Lighthouse. Most people view it from above, when they climb to the top of Diamond Head Crater on a hiking trail and look down from the pinnacle.
In the 1800s, with so many ships running aground on reefs and shoals during the night, something had to be done, and in 1878 a lookout station was built. Its first attendant, John Peterson (from Sweden), known as “Lighthouse Charlie,” was on duty seventeen hours a day, watching through his telescope for incoming vessels. He lived in a small cottage nearby and was paid $50 a month.
When a steamship ran aground in 1897, a stone tower topped by a fixed white light was built. In 1918, after Hawaii was annexed as a territory, the federal government built the current lighthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It stands 55 feet tall, 147 feet above sea level, and its 1,000-watt electric light magnified by a 7,300-candlepower lens can be seen 18 nautical miles away.
This week’s theme—solitary—really resonates with me. Although I love being around people and I’m usually the last one to leave a good party, I find myself needing a lot of alone time. Time to think. Perhaps that’s because I’m half photographer and half writer, and what’s a writer to do without time to think and record those thoughts? So I spend half my life being solitary, knowing that whenever I’m ready, the photographer half can come out to play.
What do you think of when you see this image? Has the boat left him adrift in the vast ocean?
Fascinating hummingbirds. They’re the tiniest birds in the world, weighing between 2 and 20 grams (a penny weighs 2.5 grams). They can see and hear better than humans. They can even see ultraviolet light. Yet they have no sense of smell. Their hearts beat about 250 times per minute at rest and up to 1,260 times a minute while flying. Their wings beat about 70 times per second, but up to 200 times per second when diving. Their metabolism is roughly 100 times that of an elephant.
I’ve never seen a hummingbird here in Hawaii, so on a recent visit to San Diego, I was delighted to find a colony of them hovering around my house-host’s feeder. I could have watched them all day, but time did not permit. Here are just a few shots from my short time with these captivating creatures. And some more hummingbird facts that might surprise you.
Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly both forward and backwards. They can hover in midair, fly sideways and even upside down. They can fly at an average speed of 25-30 miles per hour but can dive up to 60 mph.
Hummingbirds do not mate for life. Females do all the nest building, and males do not help raise the young. Baby hummingbirds cannot fly and remain the nest for 3 weeks. A hummingbird’s average life span is 5 years, but some can live for more than 10 years.
A hummingbird’s brain is 4.2% of its body weight, the largest proportion in the bird kingdom.
Hummingbirds are very smart, and they can remember every flower they have been to and how long it will take a flower to refill.
A hummingbird does not drink through its beak like a straw. It uses its tongue, which is grooved in the shape of a W and has tiny hairs on its tip, to lap up nectar from flowers and feeders.
An average sized hummingbird will have about 940 feathers.
30% of a hummingbird’s weight consists of flight muscles. In comparison, human pectoral muscles are about 6% of body weight.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds have been known to travel 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico to breeding grounds. The trip takes an estimated 20 hours. Some hummingbirds will travel over 2,000 miles, twice a year, during migrations.
Contrary to popular misconception, hummingbirds do not migrate on the backs of geese. Geese fly on different migration paths or fly zones than hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds need to eat on average 7 times per hour for about 30-60 seconds (so I have to ask myself, how does a hummingbird make it 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico?), and will visit an average of 1,000 flowers per day for nectar, lapping it up at a rate of about 13 licks per second. They also eat small soft bugs for protein.
To sleep, hummingbirds go into a hibernation-like state called torpor to conserve energy. When in torpor, they appear dead and have occasionally been found hanging upside down. It takes up to an hour to fully recover from torpor.
Hummingbirds are only found naturally in the Americas, as far north as Alaska and as far south as Chile.
There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds.
A hummingbird’s favorite color is red. They pollinate flowers by rubbing their forehead and face in the flower as they get nectar.
Early Spanish explorers called hummingbirds flying jewels. Can’t argue with that.
Norway belongs to the sea. Along it’s western edge, the forces of water have carved a lacy filigree of bays, inlets and fjords like very few places on earth. It’s the fjords, of course, that capture the imagination. Ice Age glaciers creeping slowly across landmasses, carving out narrow channels that eventually fill with water as the glacier melts and retreats, and seawater encroaches. And they’re deep. Some, such as Sognefjord, plunge more than 4,000 feet below sea level, as deep as the height of mountains bordering them.
Where fjords meet the sea, glacially formed underwater valleys mix with other cross valleys to form a complex array of channels. These run parallel to the coast and are walled off from the sea by a chain of mountainous islands and rocks, making a protected passage along much of the entire 995-mile sea journey from Stavanger to North Cape, Norway.
During the winter, towns deep in fjord valleys can be cut off from the outside world. Snow buildups not only clog roads but can unleash avalanches of snow and rock that plunge into the water, sometimes resulting in fjord tidal waves over 100 feet high.
But in summer, cruise-ship passengers like us find fjords welcoming and awe inspiring, like peaceful blue-green lakes surrounded by snow-capped mountains and replete with ethereal waterfalls and picturesque towns.
This image depicts the merging of old and new, past and present, and the rise of plastic urbanization in the form of cars, roads and buildings. In the words of singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, “they paved Paradise, put up a parking lot.”
I was at least twenty feet away from a fluffy seagull chick, but this mother seagull obviously thought I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If looks could kill. She dive-bombed me multiple times before finally realizing that I wasn’t posing a threat.
I would have liked to ask her why she chose this spot for a baby outing. The chick was on a small church lawn in the middle of a busy Norwegian town.
It was the cutest thing I had ever seen. A baby goose—a gosling—nestled in the pocket of a teenager’s shirt.
I had been visiting friends in the town of Penticton, Canada, a beautiful place surrounded by mountains and lakes. Their outdoorsman son had found an abandoned goose egg and brought it home. He kept it warm, and within days, the shell cracked and a fluffy little gosling emerged. For the chick, it was love at first sight. Thinking the boy, Craig, was its mother, the little goose attached itself to him. Outside, Craig carried the gosling everywhere in his shirt pocket. Indoors, it had the run of the house, its webbed feet padding after him wherever he went.
The gosling also accepted the rest of us as fellow geese, showing no reluctance to approach us. I held the tiny creature in my hands, felt its little feet in my palms, the softness of downy feathers, and I was captivated. We enjoyed watching our new baby waddle through the garden, nibbling small flower heads with its tiny beak. When Craig’s sister played her guitar, the gosling positioned itself within inches of the strings, listening intently and watching her hands pluck and strum.
But Craig knew the adorable little bird didn’t belong in a human environment. He had seen a mother goose and her new hatchlings in the area where he had found the egg and felt sure this was the baby’s mother, so he made a plan, hoping she would recognize and accept her own.
Since I had become as attached as he, Craig took me with him. Together we paddled his canoe across the mountain lake, the little bird rustling around in his shirt pocket. When we spotted the mother goose and her brood near the shore, we drifted as close as possible without alarming them, then placed our charge in the water and started paddling away.
The gosling followed us, its paddle-like feet working overtime.
Realizing this wasn’t going to be easy, I plucked it out of the water while Craig maneuvered the canoe back to our original drop point. This time, after setting the little goose back in the water, we each grabbed a paddle and jettisoned away as fast as possible. The gosling followed once again, honking in desperation. I could hear the distress in its little voice. It broke my heart. I could feel tears welling up, the salty drops trickling down my face. I begged Craig to turn around or let it catch up, but he was resolute. And, as it turned out, he was right not to stop.
Finally we had pulled far enough away. Our little bird stopped swimming. It sat in the water, watching us. It must have realized it couldn’t catch up.
Then an amazing thing happened. The mother goose and her brood glided out of the shallows gently honking at the stranger. In response, the gosling turned and swam towards them. After a brief introduction and some nuzzling—perhaps a goose way of checking I.D.—the whole group glided back to the shore, our gosling among them.
I was sad and overjoyed at the same time. I would miss the little Canada goose, but it was with its family, back in the wild where it belonged.
(published as Back to the Wild, in “The Ultimate Bird Lover,” HCI publications 2010)