Articles posted by Renee Bish

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A Galapagos Adventure Like None Other

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November 11, 2016

It wasn’t that long ago that I was visiting the Galapagos Islands for my second ‘trip of a lifetime’. Last June I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the islands for the second time in a year, though this time was so much different than the first.

In June I visited the islands under the guidance of Pete Oxford and got to experience them as much more than a tourist, and more like a local. Having been a founding member of the Naturalist Guides Association in the park and lived on Santa Cruz, Pete introduced me to the islands and the exotic animals that live there as one might introduce a close friend. I was amazed by the intimate details Pete provided on any given animal’s behaviour and the natural history of the islands we set foot on.

While I was only in the archipelago for 10 days I walked through colonies of frigate birds and colourful boobies, swam with a Galapagos shark (and lots of other species), sealions, marine iguanas, turtles and schools of colourful fish and was able to visit with the giant tortoises and endemic finches that brought Darwin’s name to the forefront of science. Like me, you too might have these things on a mental checklist for when you make it to the Galapagos. However, I’d like to share with you that as satisfying as it is to be able to say you did or saw all these things what makes a trip to the Galapagos truly special are the small details – the ones that aren’t in the travel books. For example, laughing while a frigate bird attempts to build a nest from unconventional material (see one of our past blog posts), being shocked as rays leap out of the water; displaying a new behaviour, experiencing the difference first hand (or I should say foot) between red, white and black sand between your toes. Perhaps the most memorable for me was spending over an hour with a flightless cormorant couple while the male retrieved seaweed from the ocean to help his partner build a nest.

Experiences like those I have already mentioned are possible with a little luck on any trip to the Galapagos. However, what allowed these daily unforgettable memories for me was travelling under the leadership of someone like Pete who knows the islands inside and out and spending as much time out in nature as possible. One thing that many people may not realize about the Galapagos Islands is that the park limits the time tourists are allowed on land so that the animals and plants experience minimal impact. Generally the allowed time is sunrise to sunset. However, that does not mean that if you visit the islands you will be on land this entire time; the tour companies set their own timelines. Since many tourists do not want to be up early or out late in most cases this results in losing some of the precious few hours one has in the Galapagos. If your goal is to get unique photos of the islands and the wild inhabitants of them then this can be heartbreaking. This was not the case when travelling with Pete Oxford Expeditions. This is also where we set ourselves apart from the other companies.

When I was there in June, Pete and I spent every minute we could out shooting from daybreak until sunset. That meant being all but alone on the islands for hours on end while the other tour companies still had their travellers on the deck of their ships. This led to us seeing natural behaviours not exhibited around crowds of people and getting to know the islands without feeling rushed. This too is the essence of the trips we plan at Pete Oxford Expeditions!

Wai Wai

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It was a place I never expected to reach. In the deep south of Guyana, while working on images for an aerial photographic book on the country, we took off from Dadanawa Ranch, once the largest privately owned ranch in the world and across the expansive South Rupununi savannahs to the edge of the rainforest. Flying further south, over a dense and pristine canopy of green, the massive palm thatched cone of the communal hut (benhab) of the Wai Wai stood proud above the foliage. Our direction of flight first took us over the now seldom used community center on the edge of a great bend in the Essequibo River offering a sense of serenity, calm and belonging. Where the human footprint still looked small against a backdrop of wilderness – rare sight in today’s world. We landed our chopper at Gunns, in the Konashen region amongst the community buildings. Now missionarised the Wai Wai are a small indigenous group of Guyanese Amerindians living close to the border of Brazil. The Wai Wai hold title to a now protected area of 2300 square miles and still retain a deep sense of cultural identity. Despite their western apparel and hunger for possessions from the developed world, they maintain a strong affinity with the forest, relying on it to provide food and building materials. Indeed, a privilege to visit such a remote community who have received few visitors but hope, one day, to host foreign tourists to be able to showcase the incredibly diverse fauna that includes regular sightings of jaguars.

Pete Oxford

Meet Pete

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OK, me next! I am a ‘hunt & peck’ guy on the keyboard and well renowned for having ‘sausage fingers’!

The shot above is at the house where Reneé (she was the one looking like Torpedo Woman with the whale shark a few blogs ago) and I spent a tad over two years living in a national park in South Africa recently. A truly wonderful experience where Hippy the hippo slept next to our bedroom every night and would sit  in the water a few meters away while we had a braai, apparently just looking for company. Where the elephants played most days in the water in front. Where lions regularly walked nonchalantly past the house  and where Lightning, a leopard I finally managed to habituate, would hunt in our yard and even sit on the same wall in the shot above! If anyone out there is interested I’ll show a couple of shots down the road of Lightning. The rumour in the park was that I was two-timing Reneé and that Lightning was my new girlfriend. Yes we were close, but…

On this particular day Piggy, a warthog who had no doubt that he was special, popped around for part two of the photographic course I was offering to the locals as part of our community integration policy. He passed the first course with flying colours (yes pigs CAN fly). By necessity this was a practical course only as Piggy had trouble gripping a pen between his cloven hooves.

 

Pete Oxford

 

The Pantanal – Reptile Heaven

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I have no idea why I am so fascinated by reptiles. I’ve been associated with them all my life. My first pet was a snake at a tender 4 years old. I am a director of the public Vivarium in my home of Quito, Ecuador, I am entrenched with the Orianne Society who are dedicated to the preservation of the Eastern Indigo Snake and on it goes.

So, when I walk into a drying pond, as I have done several times, in the Pantanal, to become surrounded by hundreds of Spectacled Caimans (like the one above), just a few feet from me, I get an overwhelming sense of peace, joy, fascination, awe and wildness – but not dread. It’s therapeutic and, I believe necessary to our psyche. They are indeed remarkable creatures and survive in their many hundreds of thousands in the Pantanal, Brazil, one of the great wildlife areas still left on the planet. When they go on to catch a graphically marked armored catfish and pose with it a couple of meters from me then I love them even more! Watch out for me guys, I’ll be back in September!!

Pete Oxford

One more reason to travel

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There are many reasons for travel but this time, for us, it was something new. Pete and I have lived in Ecuador now for 30 and 24 years respectively and we have known our best friends, Tom and Mariela, for almost that long. Much more parochial than us in their travel, they have seldom ventured to foreign shores. Recently they visited with some news. After a routine medical check up Tom was diagnosed with a leaky heart valve and needed surgery urgently for $250,000+ in the US, where he was a citizen, but with no medical insurance. It was a budget which blew that idea out of the window OR, $25,000 here in Ecuador but with a minimum of a 10% risk of dying and no fixed heart operating team (but he was told that they could cobble one together). Stuck between a rock and a hard place I made a suggestion. As a trained nurse in my previous life and having been in a hospital in India, on the point of death by all accounts, with Cholera, I recounted the tale of my unbelievable medical care and how impressed I was. I ventured an alternative. To our surprise, Tom went for the idea. Now suddenly, Pete and I felt responsible so decided to help guide them through the chaos that is the India we love so much and we booked tickets too. Having phoned a good friend in India for a reference for a cardiologist, then haggling for emergency visas, a week later we were en-route to Delhi! Mariela’s 50th was celebrated at 30,000 feet at the back of the jumbo drinking champagne with our new friend Christine, a truly benevolent flight attendant and before we knew it, Tom was in surgery! The care was fabulous and the equipment as modern as anywhere. The surgery team was a highly practiced unit, and performed a slew of such operations on a regular basis! Worse than we thought however the valve had to be replaced not fixed and Tom now is part pig! No more eating pork in that household. Recuperation time was 3 weeks, so having satisfied ourselves that all was well and it was only left for Tom to take it easy we set off in the interim to visit a remote head-hunter tribe in the far north east of India. Back in Delhi, after our sojourn, with a now perky Tom we decided he was fit enough to take him south to the Taj Mahal to sight see. Hence the classic tourist snapshot above to prove that he was there (wheelchair and all). The joys of medical tourism, Tom gets a new heart valve, a look at one of the seven wonders of the world and it only set him back $13,000 (excluding airfares)!! I guess that’s one way to see the world!

~Reneé Bish

Anticipating Jaguars!

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OK, I know its not until September this year but already I’m getting excited about my next trip to the Pantanal in Brazil.

When I first used to go, some 10+ years ago not many foreign visitors were to be seen.

Having got to know the area well I was called in, by the same operator we still use today, to try to photograph wild jaguars that his team was seeing in a new area he was operating in from a floating hotel on the river! The guide and I traveled, we calculated, more than 1000 km on the river over many days, scouring the river banks. We hardly saw another human soul but the wildlife was spectacular. For fun, in my head, I would count the number of caiman I saw. I always got to 500 before lunch and would stop counting! Giant otter families were common, as they still are, along with a host of birds, from the huge jabiru storks, to fish-catching hawks, toucans, macaws and herons. Capybaras are common, sitting stoically on the sand banks, scanning, like us, the scene for jaguars.

On that first jaguar trip I saw 7 individuals which, for the time, was unheard of. I took the images to National Geographic Magazine where the editors began by not believing they were wild animals (Most previously published jaguar images, posing as wild, were actually done in the Belize zoo!). Indeed the magazine had had a photographer for months trying to photograph them, only succeeding, I believe, with a single individual at night using a camera trap. They snapped up my images even producing a fold out double page spread. I later also learned that I got the cover, in at least one region, when a friend in Spain mentioned it to me by chance.

Jaguars are now commonly spotted (excuse the pun) and visitors are often able to spend quality time with them at a sighting. By now I have personally seen a score or more of different jaguars and come away with some once-in-a-lifetime memories. The big one, the sighting that still eludes me, is to watch a jaguar take down a large caiman in the water. (I did watch an adult female chase a skink all the way down a sand bank into the water once but it wasn’t quite the same!). I am just itching to get back there, to South America’s greatest wildlife spectacle and hoping that this year will be it! Care to join me?

Pete Oxford

Forest Fund

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Reneé and Pete have known and followed Sophia since birth. She shared the Ecuadorian coast with them and, due to inadequate schooling options attended a school set up, in large part, by her mother. It is easy to remember how freely she lived in those days and what an incredibly ‘worldly’ education she received. She was always a sponge, soaking up knowledge and wisdom. Recently she graduated from Harvard University.

Sophia joined us on our 2016 Pantanal trip in Brazil and wowed us all with a talk on her Forest Fund initiative that she started. As per our Focus Expeditions policy, we donated US$100 per passenger which was more than matched by all trip participants. We feel proud to give something back to such a worthy cause.

Forest Fund is an online platform born in a Harvard dorm room that makes conservation direct, transparent, and accessible to everyone. Our conservation targets privately owned areas in the Brazilian Amazon.

So far, most conservation efforts have focused on working with indigenous communities, protected areas, and forest management. We want to work with private owners to conserve and restore private forests. To put this in perspective: there are 325 million hectares of standing forest in Brazil. 125 million ha are on public lands; 50 million ha are on conservation units; 50 million ha on indigenous lands; and 100 million are on private lands. That’s 30% of the Brazilian Amazon for which conservation efforts are falling short.

We are living in a time where what we want to do is finally possible: all rural properties in Brazil are being demarcated, georeferenced, and registered legally; satellite imaging has improved in quality and is updated regularly; and internet technologies and social media allow us to connect people across the globe in an unprecedented way. We will know who owns each hectare, its state of deforestation, and have the ability to share this information widely.

Our solutions are direct. We are here, in field, understanding local economic realities. This allows us to formulate and pioneer efficient and fair conservation strategies.

Our solutions are transparent. Everything we do is documented in close to real time.

Our solutions are accessible to everyone. We work directly with donors and landowners on our crowdfunding platform. Both stakeholders will mold every new solution we pilot. The pilots that work, we scale.

We have all played our part in driving the destruction of our planet’s forests, now it’s time to break formation.
SUPPORT FOREST FUND

Galapagos wows again…

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Having led or guided hundreds of trips to the archipelago over the decades this last one stands above the rest. We knew the Super Group were all as keen as mustard from day one but had no idea we would have 100% participation in all activities every one of which was pushed to the max. The bar has been raised to new heights.

 

 

 

Just being on the beautiful sailing vessel, the SS Mary Ann eating meals on deck under clear skies with frigates flying around and the sounds of sealions calling from the shore already seemed enough. Spending so much time out on deck is the perfect platform to view a host of cool wildlife.

 

Highlights on land were as diverse and wonderful as the islands themselves. Where everything seemed to happen within a meter or two. We watched a short-eared owl feeding on a Galapagos petrel, oyster catchers changing the guard on their nest, tortoises lumbering past to their mud wallows. All 12 of the possible Darwin’s finches. Carpets of marine iguanas (many of them bright red and turquoise), flightless cormorants performing a courtship ritual. Penguins braying like donkeys. Sealions suckling new born pups. All three species of boobies and the magnificent waved albatross.

 

 

This trip however it was the ocean that came into its own and surprised us continuously while snorkeling or viewing from the vessel. Our encounters included a squadron of more than 100 spotted-eagle rays. The dark stain in two feet of water that turned out to be about 40 white-tipped reef sharks, mobula rays leaping synchronously next to the boat. A once in a life time encounter with oceanic sunfish in the deep waters off Isabela Island. Huge pods of dolphins, some taking turns to bow-ride below us. Some rare whales. 30 turtles in a field of view underwater while snorkeling. Penguins and flightless cormorants pecking at us and looking into our masks.

 

It was hard to say goodbye to the group but such a pleasure to have found new life-long friends. Thank you ‘Super Group’ (and the ‘Rat Pack’) and the crew and Captain of the Mary Ann.