Monday, September 26, 2016

Galapagos Islands: Holy Amazingness

If you've heard about the Galapagos Islands it is likely because of all the unique animals that live there and how they helped Charles Darwin craft his groundbreaking book Origin of Species. Giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies are among the most popular of Galapagos' wildlife. But there's also the sea life.

The islands sit at the confluence of several Pacific ocean currents, the same currents that first brought humans to the islands in the 16th century. These currents also deliver a high amount of plankton which is a foundational nutrient for many of the planet's sea dwellers and sea birds. They're all here, too.

And it's AWESOME!

Upon my arrival at San Cristobal Island I was greeted by sea lions hanging out on every corner. Chilling on the boardwalk, 

sitting on the sidewalk, 

and frozen in place in a park as a slide for children of all ages.

So I headed out to SCUBA dive at Kicker Rock because there were rumored to be hammerhead sharks out there. Alas, I saw no hammerheads, but did notice a couple white-tipped sharks and sea turtles through the hazy visibility made by thick plankton.
The SCUBA dive was a little disappointing, but it was good to get back to it 6 years after my last (and first) dives in Indonesia.

I'd heard through the backpacker circuit that one could book a last-minute multi-day boat cruise around the Galapagos and save a lot of money. Many of these cruises cost $3000-$7000 when booked in advance. Since I have time on my side I gave myself 9 days on the islands hoping that I could find a 5- or 6-day cruise that fit inside that window.

And so I did.
A few days after I arrived the Domenica was leaving for a cruise and I was welcome to join for the discounted price of $1700. It was totally worth it. 

The boat held 11 passengers in nicely appointed cabins like mine.
We had three excellent buffet meals every day and a naturalist guide who took us on walking and snorkeling tours around the islands. 

Each morning found us at a new island where at 8am we went ashore for a walk of around 90 minutes. These walks took us past amazing bird colonies, giant tortoises, sea lions and more. We had 2 or 3 more excursions each day that included snorkeling, kayaking and more hiking. There was also a hot tub on the boat. 

Giant tortoise: one of the poster children for Galapagos. Alas, they don't let you ride them anymore.

As I go through life I'm finding that one of the parts of life that I value most is the opportunity to spend time with other animals in their native habitat. Many of my most cherished memories are from times spent in nature when animals were present. Grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, wild orangutans in Indonesia, komodo dragons, manta rays, bugling elk in Yellowstone.

Now I can add to that list.

Sally Lightfoot crabs? Yes, please. This vertical wall was crawling with 'em.

Cruising albatross...

The albatross are not nearly as graceful when on land. But their 10' wingspan is impressive. Watching them soar about mere feet above my head reminded me of the condors in Peru.

These frigate birds wowed me around sunset one evening cruising on the boat. At times I think I could have touched one, they were so close. Their wingspans are about 8' and when I was in Rio de Janeiro I saw them soaring through the sky high above. But I never saw them land. They've been recorded to fly over 40 miles without flapping their wings.

This is a young frigate bird sitting down. In Rio I never saw one of these birds land. My guide and group are in the back.

More sea lions. They look like seals to me, but are sea lions. I don't know the difference but these ones migrated here from California a long time ago and are a bit smaller. A trip highlight was swimming with one of them while snorkeling. It was darting all around me, playfully. I hope to receive underwater pics to share that were taken by others on the boat trip.

UPDATE: Here's a video of me swimming with a young sea lion. This was awesome.

Soaring pelican.

Cruising pelican. This bird is about 2' off the beach and there were a couple of them that were cruising back and forth right in front of me. Fantastic.

Land iguana. There are also marine iguanas that go swimming. This guy was big.

These are nesting swallow-tailed gulls with chick.

And now...drumroll please....what you've all been waiting for...

Blue-footed boobies!

And here's a downy, baby, boobie. So c-u-u-te.

The animal interaction was amazing. We were allowed to get within 6' of all these critters and they were all totally cool with it. Seeing so many gorgeous creatures so close was really fun. I also had wonderful snorkeling experiences and I hope to get some underwater photos from my companions to share with you in another photo dump. Cuz there were sharks and penguins and turtles and more.

I never knew I would be such a fan of the sea birds. They are big with 8'-10' wingspans that make them super fun to watch. Seeing albatross and pelicans and boobies soaring freely was phenomenal. I could sit and watch them all day long.

Being close to these animals out in nature feels to me what living is supposed to be about. It is so easy for us to think that cities and concrete and cars and glass and steel are what life is about. But, for me, I'll take the seas and skies and plains and mountains and all the non-human animals that populate them. It makes me feel more alive and more human during my brief existence on this planet.

I don't really feel like writing more right now, but I'll probably throw up another Galapagos post within a week or so. I also really enjoyed living on the boat and should write more about that.

List of animals seen up close and personal:
blue footed boobies
masked boobies
red-billed tropic bird
giant tortoises
sea turtles
white tipped shark
galapagos shark
sea lions
marine iguanas
land iguanas
many, many colorful fish

Monday, September 12, 2016

My New Website:

There's a new easy-to-use resource for people who are dealing with losing a parent:

I know, I know. The name is blunt. There are already plenty of touchy/feely-titled resources about grieving and loss and such. This one is different.

The purpose is to help adult children of dying parents with the nuts and bolts that go beyond care-giving and grieving. It is intended for families who's parents don't work with a trusted attorney and a veteran financial planner that have all their interests tied up with a nice pretty bow. My goal is to reduce the stress on families in an already stressful time by simplifying a heretofore overlooked perspective.

In 2001 I lost my mother to ovarian cancer and in 2015 my father to esophageal cancer. One of the things that jumped to my mind after learning that my father was terminal was:
Holy crap! What are all the things that my sister and I need to sort out with him before he dies? Is his will up-to-date? What about his desires about health care and comfort as he nears the end of his life? Are there any stories or words of wisdom or anything that he wants to share with us?
All of those thoughts were piled on top of the already stressful job of care-giving, which I did along with my sister for the last 4 months of his life after his diagnosis and during his rapid decline. He wanted to stay at home and being back in my childhood home taking care of him was the most stressful thing in my life. I don't even have cats.

When I went online searching for help, I did not find what I was looking for. Sure there are a million books on grieving. And there are a million financial planners and attorneys who do estate planning -- working with the parent to get all their affairs in order. But what for the children of a parent who didn't do all that planning? I found nothing.

I started writing a book that will become a resource that weaves a little personal memoir into a step-by-step guide for adult children of a dying parent. It needed a companion website and so was born

It is version 1.0 as-of this post and I welcome any and all feedback.

It offers two free resources -- a checklist and a guidebook. I want it to help people now and to begin building a brand that I can be leverage later into a small business via the forthcoming book, consulting and speaking engagements.

Feel free to reach me through the contact page on the site with any thoughts or feedback.

Friday, September 9, 2016

On Whale Watching and the Psychology of Photography

The guy next to me didn't look up from his camera viewfinder for the duration of the spectacle. He watched the glory of nature through a tiny little screen instead of enjoying the awe in actual space and time.

I grabbed only this one, mediocre photo because I was too busy smiling and laughing at the delight of watching humpback whales soar out of the ocean like Michael Jordan dunking from the free throw line. Equal parts power and grace, a dozen times over.

The humpback whales hang out around Puerto Lopez, Ecuador from June to September and my timing has finally landed me in the right place for whale watching. Best $25 I've spent in awhile.

It was amazing.

You have already seen pictures and video of whales breaching so any photos I could add would be redundant.

Why do we so often think that the most important part of such a sight is to get a good photograph of it?

Is it because we are a professional photographer? Unlikely.
Is it so we can remember it years later? Perhaps, but then shouldn't just a couple decent shots suffice?
Is it so we can impress our friends and family with our exploits? Probably. This is because we need to stroke our egos.

It reminds me of my time in Indonesia when I had this amazing experience with wild orangutans. Sure, I snapped a couple photos for my scrapbook. But I was amazed how everyone else spent far more time with their eyes glued to their tiny camera device screens than on the actual wild orangutans that were hanging from vines 10 feet in front of us. Like these whales, I'll never forget the orangutan experience and that isn't because I have photos. It's because it kicked ass and I paid attention.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca

There's a classic 4-day trek in Peru's Cordillera Blanca ("cordillera" means mountain range in Spanish) called the Santa Cruz trek that goes from the village of Vaqueria to the village of Cachapampa. It is 50 kilometers long and goes over a pass at 15,500' elevation.

I set out on it last week, feeling strong and going solo instead of joining a tour group that uses donkeys to haul gear. Shortly after starting out I met two hikers -- Julie from USA and Franklin from Cusco, Peru -- and walked with them for much of the trek.

Here they are on Day One hiking up toward the pass:

Everything here is higher than what you may be used to in Europe or the USA. This trek started at about 11,500' above sea level and camp on the first night was at 14,001'. If I were in the States this campsite would be considered monumentally high and people who hike up to it would write a blog post about it. Ahem.
But here you can see I'm still in the valley surrounded by peaks from 18,000' to over 20,000' high. Awesome. This was the second highest campsite I'd ever spent a night at.

I was feeling strong and met the high point of the trek, Punta Union, at over 15,500' on the morning of Day Two. This would be a 3-day trek for me carrying all my own gear, not a 4-day trek like the tour groups do with donkeys. Insert smugness here.

It was cloudy on the side of the pass I hiked up, but the other side of the pass was clear and offered majestic views like this one.

And this one, made only slightly less majestic by the human form preening in the foreground:

Day Three was spent hiking down the valley along a beautiful river and past some of the group encampments. This trek is contained within Huascaran National Park, Huascaran being the highest point in Peru at 6,768 meters or over 22,000' elevation.

My smugness was short-lived, however. For while hiking out of the valley I was passed in quite rapid fashion by some trail runners. They were holding a first-ever trail running marathon along the 44k route I had just hiked in 3 days. The winning runners did it in just over 4 hours, almost like a normal road marathon time for me (back in my old running days). Amazing. They went up and over a pass at 15,500' like they were running up Summit Ave. in the Twin Cities Marathon in St. Paul, MN.

Here's one of the top female finishers posing in front of a throng of beer company sponsor photographers while the locals take a break from bailing hay by hand to watch.

Good times in the Cordillera Blanca.