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Svalbard – Of Ice and Polar Bears

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Longyearbyen 78º13′ north, the town lying farthest north in the world.

As our plane came in to land the small collection of buildings lay off on our port side set in a classic ice-cut valley, still with snow-covered peaks all around. The nursery school teacher sitting next to us on the plane pointed out where she worked, a cluster of ice-strengthened vessels lay at anchor in the calm waters of the fjord and we touched down. It was May, springtime in the Arctic and adrenaline coursed our veins as we contemplated the adventure that lay ahead.

Once our group was all settled in to our trappers-style, Basecamp Hotel we held our first briefing for the dog-sledding day in the morning!

Being on a sled, pulled by a team of six huskies across pristine snow is an adventure unto itself. Our experience however was so much more. It was all about the dogs, handling them, petting them, harnessing them up and bringing them to the snow. So keen were the dogs to pull that they could only be walked on their back two feet. The harnesses were designed to lift the dogs while walking them. They hopped. Woe betide anyone letting all four paws touch the ground or the dog would run – pulling you with it!

Before the afternoon of boarding our vessel, we explored the area, as far as the limited road network allowed, picking up on myriad seabirds, eider ducks, arctic foxes, barnacle and pink-footed geese, Svalbard reindeer and even a super rare close-encounter with a vagrant short-eared owl!

Finally, the time had come and our newly refurbished expedition vessel, the M/S Freya, was eagerly awaiting our presence. We were a baker’s dozen, plus two bear guides / expedition leaders (Jens and Vide), captain and crew. Immediately we felt at home. We headed out of the fjord to the west before turning north into the Arctic Ocean. Our very first day out, in stunning scenery we had already bagged our first polar bear, a walrus on pack ice and a pod of beluga whales! Our karma was good. With 24 hours of daylight everything was one long day and we used the light to keep looking as we travelled. The weather was sublime and on our first Zodiac tour Jens announced he had spotted another polar bear – this one closer. As we approached we realized that the ‘one’ bear lying in a snow hole was in fact two – a mother and one year old cub. Approaching further they both got up, walked down to the shoreline, now a few meters from our boats and began gnawing on an old whale jaw bone that had, according to Jens, been there several years already. We watched, incredulous as the two hungry bears tried to glean sustenance from the old bone. An outstanding sighting tinged with a large dose of sadness as we realized that if she could not catch a seal soon, made harder by the global-warming related receding ice conditions, they both may not make it.

We revisited the couple twice more throughout the day until they finally walked up from the beach and slept in a tight huddle.

Things just got better and better. The weather was excellent and the bird cliffs of Alkefiellet were stuffed to the gills with Brunnich’s guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes. Anything even resembling a perch on the dramatic, basaltic cliffs was now occupied by a bird preparing to nest. The scene was spectacular and even the bergy-bits of floating ice were crammed with guillemots looking, for all the world, like groups of penguins in the south.

Our next bear sighting was another mother but with two young cubs. We stayed with them at the edge of the fast ice where we watched at some distance as she stood, stoically, without moving a muscle, over a seal breathing hole, for eight hours, while the cubs played further away. After suckling her cubs she walked off into the distance and we continued on our journey.

Another intimate polar bear experience was with a large male, fat and healthy looking, after having eaten a seal. We stayed in his company a full 18 hours as he dug snow hole after snow hole trying to get comfortable. He sat, squirmed, yawned and came down to the shoreline to pose as we clicked away hundreds of images between us.

Soon it was time for some intimate walrus encounters and after having spied a large male on the pack ice we edged closer in the Freya. Apart from the odd glace in our direction the huge pinniped was unperturbed. After some great shots including its reflection in the still waters we decided to drop the Zodiacs for a fresh angle. The rewards were worth it and we had some stunning opportunities from virtually under the animal. Happily, the walrus population in Svalbard seems to be on the increase and we look forward to many more such encounters in the future. Another fabulous walrus experience was after we landed at one of the beach haulouts. Making our way in stages, slowly, slowly to the colony we sat unobtrusively close enough for some portrait photography and just simply to watch in awe at their comings and goings.

Another polar bear was spotted in front of a glacier – now totaling 8 individuals. We could not approach due to fast ice but loved seeing him in the majesty of his environment. To finish off, after what had been fabulous bear sightings so far, we decided to revisit the area where we had seen the mother and cub. Incredibly she was still there and gave us some more awesome viewing. From posing in front of a glacier to climbing rocks and walking the shoreline in front of us, to stalking harbor seals – nothing short of spectacular!

We eventually left them and began wending our way home to Longyearbyen. We were rewarded by a very rare sighting of a Steller’s eider duck and a mother and calf blue whale as we were almost home! This time Svalbard really delivered. We are never after quantity but always look at the quality of the sighting as the indicator of a successful trip. Add to the mix an unbeatably fun group (members of the Rare Bird Club of Bird Life International), guides and crew. This trip would be hard to top. Karma was indeed with us.

The Undiscovered Jewel – Guyana

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I have lived in Ecuador, South America for 32 years and have travelled the continent extensively. One destination that retains an inexplicable calling is Guyana.
Having published arguably the two most important coffee-table books on the country I have been privileged to have traveled its length and breadth by road, boat and helicopter. The continent’s only English-speaking country, Guyana is virtually pristine and rich in biodiversity including a ‘full house’ of the South American giants. An undiscovered jewel it is, with good reason, a firm favorite in our suite of expeditions.

Pete Oxford Expeditions is proud to jointly lead many trips with the Oceanic Society a USA based conservation NGO, the first in the states to be dedicated to ocean conservation. This was no exception and after assembling the group at Georgetown’s colonial Cara Lodge we headed out the following morning in our privately charted Cessna caravan aircraft to land at Guyana’s most iconic destination – Kaieteur Falls. This stunning waterfall, set in the wilds of a pristine forest is the world’s highest single-drop waterfall, several times higher than Niagara at 741 feet. With a choice of spectacular lookout points and no barriers whatsoever the experience transports the visitor back to an ageless time when Nature was still in charge. As if that was not enough, in the falls we absorbed ourselves in finding the endemic golden frogs at the base of the leaves of the humongous and omnipresent giant bromeliads.

Before returning to the aircraft we ducked into the forest to the well-known lek of one of the country’s most flamboyant birds. We easily spotted the gaudy, bright orange male Guyana Cock-of-the-Rock on his favorite perch. Obligingly he let each of us photograph him in his element offering various poses as we did so.

Taking off from the dirt strip at the falls the pilot offered both port and starboard sides an intimate aerial view of the Potaro River thundering over the escarpment as we turned north to Fairview and the Iwokrama forest. Checking in to the Iwokrama Lodge on the bank of the mighty Essequibo River our first call was to Sankar – a huge black caiman that has been hanging around the dock for many years. Portrait photography of this living dinosaur was spectacular as his prehistoric gaze stared down the barrel of the lens to be immortalized in an image.

Iwokrama has been well studied scientifically and is well known for its huge biodiversity. Many species are endemic to the Guyanan shield on which the lodge sits and are different from the main Amazon rainforest. This is of particular note to birdwatchers who ‘flock’ to the area for new ticks on their list.
On our boat ride on the river, using a spotlight we found many more caimen, some roosting birds including the very attractive capped heron and two tree boas hunting for food.
From Iwokrama we had elected to leave to our next destination – Atta Lodge and the Canopy walkway – via open truck at night along the ‘main road’. Although the dirt track is indeed the main artery connecting the coast to the interior and the Rupununi Savannas it travels in a virtual straight line through primary rain forest. It has become the best spot in Guyana to see jaguars. We had a good spotlight, drove slowly and had our eyes peeled. Although I’ve seen quite a few on this road before, this time we were not so lucky and the jags remained elusive.

At first light, we hiked the 500 meters from our lodge to the canopy walkway – a series of 3 platforms some 30 meters in the canopy. We spent the morning looking at the birds that came through and listened to the unmistakable, megaphonic, sounds of howler monkeys.
From Atta we were preparing to drive to a spot from where we could hike into the forest to hopefully find a harpy eagle – the most powerful eagle in the world. Camera packs were already loaded in the vehicle when, unbelievably, an adult harpy flew right into camp! A harpy in the hand, was definitely worth one in the bush so we stayed and marveled at the one that had come to us.
Our next stop was Rewa – an Amerindian owned and operated eco-lodge. Rewa is known for its healthy population of arapaima, another South American giant and one of the largest fresh water fish in the world. It was not always so, but once the community realized that the population of arapaima was dwindling they initiated a self-imposed moratorium on fishing these fish for 5 years until the population was seen to increase. Arapaima are territorial and obligate air-breathers, meaning that they periodically break the surface to gulp air. Individual fish can therefore be identified by size and sex to the trained eye. Hunting with bow and arrow the fishermen can then selectively take individual fish in a sustainable manner. Their entire project has been heralded as a conservation success and numbers are once again at a high level. We spent an afternoon at one of the well-known arapaima lakes, surrounded by giant water-lilies and waiting for the huge fish to break the surface, gulp and roll.

Boat trips on the river from Rewa also showed us several troops of monkeys, a plethora of herons, large-billed terns and black skimmers. Night walks produced many smaller animals and birds not least of which were a dozen or so pink-toed tarantulas!
Our last stop was to be the famed Karanambu lodge – home of the ‘otter lady’ the late Diane McTurk. A legend in her own lifetime Diane had dedicated the latter part of her life to rehabilitating giant otter orphans back to the wild. Steeped in tradition and the true spirit of pioneers Karanambu is a delight and worthy finale. Through a combination of walks and boat rides, we could secure great views of many bird species and of course giant otters. These, the longest otter species in the world, are highly endangered throughout most of their range with Guyana being one of the last strongholds of the species. Highly social animals they are very efficient predators and seem to be able to catch a good-sized fish any time they put their mind to it.
Perhaps the highlight of Karanambu however was our early morning sojourns by 4×4 out into the Rupununi savannas. With a local vaquero (cowboy) on horseback to guide us we always managed to get excellent views of one of the animal kingdom’s most bizarre denizens – the giant anteater. A strange animal indeed, somewhat laterally flattened the shaggy beast walks awkwardly on large claws that it uses to break open hard termite mounds whereupon it squats on its haunches to lap up the teeming insect with its long sticky tongue.

The camaraderie of a great group, lively meal time conversations and the wonder of new life-time experiences our 2018 Guyana trip lived up to expectations. I miss it already!

Bettys Bay

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Welcome to our new home in South Africa!!
We are now ‘officially’ based in Bettys Bay in the Western Cape, living 40 meters from the ocean, within a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the ocean in front of the house designated a Marine Protected Area!
Life is good!

We have a host of wildlife in the ‘garden’ which is an area of protected Fynbos vegetation, part of the smallest Floral Kingdom on earth, between us and the sea. With no fences to define our property wildlife moves freely to and fro. Angulate tortoises wander through, mongooses, striped mice, dassies and rare, endemic grysbok antelope. Even a leopard has been spotted close to the house!

Ten minutes walk away is the largest mainland colony of African penguins, while fur seals sit on the rocks at low tide just offshore. We have even seen Cape clawless otters on the coastal path not 100 meters as the crow flies!
The coastline is stunning, dominated by a series of white sandy beaches, coastal dunes and gorgeous rocks all fringed by a swath of thick kelp forest – a naturalist/marine biologist’s dream!
Just the other day we went out in our neighbor’s boat for a look around directly in front of the house. We saw 2 Bryde’s whales, fur seals, many rafts of 80+ penguins, gannets, shearwaters, skuas and gulls and were surrounded by a large pod of more than 100 common dolphins. Getting into the water in the kelp forest we saw several of the small, bottom-living puff adder sharks, tons of rock lobsters and were swimming with a beautiful 7-gill cow-nosed shark!

There was a storm that came through 3 days ago and, never having found a nautilus shell, decided that it might be a good time to look for one. We found 4!! One broken, but three of these extremely delicate cephalopod shells in perfect condition. Like I said, life is good!

A gift from Rocket

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Cassidy, the 9 year old on our recent Galapagos trip, named this sealion Rocket. She stayed with us in the water for almost an hour, shooting past each of us in turn and showing off her acrobatic prowess. She was obviously having a lot of fun with us.

In this case I was the last out of the water and she still would not leave me alone. It was as if she was worried that I might get out too, leaving her without a playmate. Apparently, according to her, the only way to keep me there was to offer me a present.

She grabbed a puffer fish, shook it up enough so that it inflated in self-defense, making it much more of a fun play thing and then dropped it in front of me.

A Galapagos of firsts…

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It was to be a two-week family charter spanning three generations, each member of the trip with their own hopes and expectations. The patriarch was a high-powered business leader and even before we set off we openly discussed his fears of being ‘captive’ for two weeks aboard our luxury vessel. The matriarch was like a sponge ready to soak up as much high powered natural history information as possible – both are ardent conservationists. The four kids, from 6 to 10 years old, were the best prepared youngsters we have ever had the pleasure of leading on a trip. Their preparation already included a deep understanding of Galapagos species, ecosystems and threats, they had arrived fully kitted out with wetsuits and had undergone intensive pool training picking up weights off the bottom of their local swimming pools, honing their water skills to maximize on all the snorkeling the trip had to offer. They spent downtime writing journals, plotting our course on their individual maps, drawing pictures of the wildlife and writing postcards to friends to be posted from the famous Post Office Barrel. The whole thing was a delight from start to finish.

 

 

For Addie, the cutest six-year old you could ever meet her target was to commune with turtles for the first time in her short life. We found turtles by the dozen and the beaming smiles as she lay for ages at a time, spread-eagle on the surface rocking in the gentle swells of the shallows with up to five of the large, indifferent reptiles (as if she were simply another turtle) said it all.

 

 

Cassidy, 9, the go-getter of the quartet was on a mission of proving herself. She swam with the last of us in the water, beat us all to the top of the daunting Bartolomé boardwalk and exceeded her personal best in a hot 10 mile hike along the crater rim of the world’s second largest caldera of Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island. Her other, rather inspired, first was to commit one of her ‘baby’ teeth to the tooth fairy in the depths as the ship’s GPS hit 00 00 degrees latitude on the equator.

 

 

Willa, 10, wanted nothing more than to interact with sealions. Her dream was realized at nearly every landing and, with patience and an uncanny sense of which sealion might be the most inquisitive, spent hours during the trip sitting quietly until the curiosity of a young pup got the better of it and Willa was accepted and even became the object of a sense of playfulness from the kindred mammalian spirit.

 

 

Finn, 8, the only boy, of course wanted to see sharks. By the third day he had already broken free of the invisible reins of his parents in the water and was diving down to meet the docile white-tipped reef sharks on their own terms. Good street cred for next term in school!

 

The parents were enthralled by the wonder expressed by their kids and likewise for the grandparents for both generations of offspring.

 

The matriarch relived the magic of the islands that we had shared with her 23 years previously while the patriarch, after the first week and going in to the second had shed all sense of stress and previous reservations, it was almost as if he wondered why he had to get off the boat after 14 days as if he had found his new home!

 

For us, every trip brings something new and in this case it was two things, first a young humpback whale in the shallow waters of Floreana Island that swam alongside and even under our zodiac, secondly to bring our vessel alongside a stunning broad-billed swordfish (our first) sunning itself at the surface of the glassy waters of the rich Bolivar Channel.

Bespoke Ecuador

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We recently had family visit from the UK. Starting with the amazing churches of downtown Quito, said to be the best-preserved colonial center in the whole of South America. Even for non-religious folks the ostentatious splendor of a multitude of Spanish churches and cathedrals, dripping with Inca gold and Catholic artifacts is always a sensory overload coupled with a deep sense of history and subjugation.

The aim, in part, was to open the eyes of young Katie to a different world where travel and immersion in new cultures goes a long way in educating intelligent young minds – or as Mark Twain once said: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness …

Day two and our sojourn began in earnest. We headed south to one of Ecuador’s highest snow-capped peaks, Cotopaxi (the world’s highest active volcano). With a jeep full of mountain bikes we then headed down the impressive slope of the volcano, from 4560 meters, to the flatter paramo below. A classic cone, Cotopaxi rarely disappoints. Our destination for overnight was to be on the high slopes of Chimborazo Volcano, the peak of which is the farthest point from the center of the planet (due to the bulge in the earth).


On our previous visit, at Christmas with friend from New York, we had stopped at Calpi animal market. With no stalls for the livestock and little or no discernable order we pushed hordes of tethered cattle out of our path to make headway through the throng. The local Indians, dressed in ponchos, felt hats and sandals, joked with us, offering the best price if we would just buy one of their cows. Then we arrived at the pigs. Ten or so piglets per merchant radiated on taught ropes like spokes of a wheel from the stakes in the ground. In a squealing cachophany they were doing what pigs do – all but one – a little chap with a particularly squashed looking face. After some haggling Owen and Ana bought him. Stopping for a few snacks, declining the roasted chicken feet, we bought some fruit, including a few things that the piglet might enjoy. He quickly settled in, as any other passenger might and was quite at home as we continued in the minibus towards Chimborazo. Our quarters were simple and set within a small indigenous community of pastoralists who mostly tended a herd of alpacas. Rosa was our host, a lovely woman whom Renee and I had come to know fairly well over fifteen years of visits. She owned a cow, five sheep, several dogs and now, after a somewhat sad exchange, she owned a pig too. A promise was made that the pig, now named in my honour as Peter, would enjoy a long and happy life and the business of building him a nice place to live was attended to. Many of the human dwellings meanwhile were merely tiny sod huts with a thatched roof, low doorway and a fire set in the middle of the floor, for warmth, cooking and boiling water. The entire insides were blackened with soot.

Arriving back to see Rosa I cautiously asked how was Peter the Pig. “Petercito is wonderful”, she said “And so friendly!”. We were delighted and as soon as we saw him, how he had grown and Rosa’s relationship with him we could not have been more pleased. The following morning Petercito was standing up and leaning over his door. He is keen to go to work she told me. “What work?” I said. He has to go out fertilizing and turning the soil she told me!

We left with a vision of a happy pig in our minds as we followed Rosa, with the communal herd of alpacas in her charge as she led them to the slopes of Chimborazo to spend the day grazing.

Back on our mountain bikes we finished the first part of our tour by riding 35km, all downhill, on a beautiful country back road to Ambato.

You too could join Pete and Renee on a tailor-made trip to Ecuador. Having lived in Ecuador for more than 3 decades they certainly know their way around.

Eagle Hunter Expedition

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Mongola’s weather in the mountains out west might be unpredictable, but the kindness and hospitality of the Kazakhs never waivers. Spending a week exploring their territory involves moving our camp site every day or every other day. Depending on the size of the group we pitch at least a kitchen ger and a communal ger, sometimes two.

These get moved from place to place on an old Russian truck. At night this is a windbreak for the eagles. The food, tents and bedding go in on old Russian ambulance, hailing from world war II. These vehicles can go anywhere. When it is cold you just light a fire under it to thaw the diesel for about 45 minutes and then you are on your way.

We move on horseback riding for up to 8 hours. At lunch we get hot tea or coffee made on a stove that is carried on the back of one of the Kazakhs. Meanwhile our Toyota Landcruisers go ahead to meet us at our next destination (possibly the grazing grounds during a different season for one of our eagle hunters) and all the drivers club in to erect the camp so we can arrive to a comfortable place to eat, drink and sleep.

No sooner do we arrive to our new home and visitors from the surrounding area start arriving too.

All eagles need to be fed and put to bed around our gers. After the cooks’ have fed all of us and a mountain of local people most of our Kazakh riding companions disappear to spend the night in local family gers, leaving us to baby-sit their eagles. We have expedition tents to sleep in but in the cold we migrate into the communal ger with our sleeping bags and radiate around the central stove to keep warm. To make sure we have a comfortable night, someone comes in every 2- 3 hours to stoke the fires.

But as we start tucking into bed one of our friends comes in to serenade us with beautiful Kazakh music about eagles and love.

We also have a few of the eagle hunter’s dogs running along for the entire time. Pete’s challenge is to befriend them all so by the end they are eating out of his hand. Your horse just needs to stumble and someone is there to help. If you are not an experienced rider, someone will lead your horse. Where else can you ride for an entire day in the company of golden eagles, in spectacular scenery, crossing over mountain passes and through raging rivers, seeing no vehicles, no permanent homes and no fences. You camp anywhere, you stop everywhere and go into any ger for tea and an unending supply of homemade dairy products made from either sheep, goat, yak, camel or horse milk. These people are generous and fun and could not do more for us if we asked. Can’t wait to get back to Mongolia next year to laugh with and share our experiences and photos with our Kazakh friends who have become like family.
Renee Bish

 

Outer Mongolia

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I remember from my childhood that there were certain places in the world so far out there that they seemed almost mythical; Timbuktu comes to mind. Others were places whose name equated with punishment – to be sent to the Siberian Salt Mines for example. The threat of banishment was reserved for Outer Mongolia. Oh! I wish I knew then what I know now! Having once again returned from this amazing country I wondered how my upbringing would have been different if my parents, at the height of my naughtiness had bundled me up and sent me to Outer Mongolia.

For sure I would have learned at the ‘School of Hard Knocks’, it is a tough place, producing tough people. I would have learned to coax milk from the stubborn teats of camels, the art of extreme horsemanship, a reverence for nature, camaraderie, the importance of family, deep friendships, a sense of welcoming, survival skills to overcome the harsh winters, religious tolerance, minimalist living, an appreciation of the wide outdoors and a constant longing for the taste of hard curd. All-in-all not bad qualities to carry through life.

Regarding education and worldliness it is always a surprise to us how globally aware a herder in the Gobi Desert often is. Many times, for example, in the ‘developed’ world when answering people that I live in Ecuador they ask “Where is that?” In a nomadic herder’s ger (felt tent), through a translator, when learning I live in Ecuador they might say “Oh!” Between Colombia and Peru. “How is your president doing?” One of the positive benefits of a previous Russian occupation being the Russian radio access.

After a short absence since we were last in Mongolia (Reneé and I for a period even had an apartment in Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital, for 6 months) we were keen to see changes. Apart from the heavy increase in traffic made up of a huge influx of 2nd hand Toyota Prius’s from Japan I only have good things to report. The atmosphere was friendly, pleasant and much less ‘Russian’ than before. Eateries were vastly improved as was service, hotels and shopping.

Over our journey through the Altai Mountains in the west with the eagle hunters, to the ever-changing scenery of the Gobi Desert we reaffirmed many old friendships and formed friends from past acquaintances. Mongolia, to us is much closer to heaven than the hell of old.
We are all guilty of something (overwork, succumbing to the pressures of stress etc.) and if anybody out there thinks that they also deserve some time in banishment then let us know!
Pete Oxford

 

Ecuadorian Volcanoes

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Over the past few weeks we have been doing something that perhaps we should all do more often: take time out and explore locally! Lucky for us, here in Quito, Ecuador our ‘back yard’ includes Cotopaxi National Park, Antisana Ecological Reserve and the Chimborazo Forest Reserve. We have photographed, hiked, cycled and actually relaxed – all in the company of these Ecuadorian volcanoes!

Cotopaxi National Park

We were lucky at Cotopaxi National Park to have a beautiful clear day in a typically cloudy season. The perfectly symmetrical volcano was fully exposed, spewing clouds of vapour from its caldera, there were blue skies above and even the occasional puffy white cloud. Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world and a personal favourite of ours. Many a fond memory returns as we set foot into the biome. We remember spending a lot of time camping with Chagras (Andean, poncho-clad cowboys who range the high paramos to round up fighting bulls). Indeed we published an entire book on the Chagra culture, entranced as we were with their incredible unsung way of life. This visit was no exception, we got to ‘hang’ with them again, marvel at the horse tack, the stirrups and longest lassos in the world.

Antisana Ecological Reserve

The Antisana Ecological Reserve is an area well known for having a healthy population of Andean condors. Incredible birds they have a rich history in Inca and Ecuadorian culture. During our time in the park the low cloud cover, brought the condors lower to the ground. Once almost extinct in Ecuador, condors are thankfully beginning to make a comeback, I have even seen one over Quito before now! Nevertheless our highlight of this trip was in fact another bird – the carunculated caracara. These curious and intelligent birds of prey were seemingly everywhere. We were even able to walk up to one with a freshly killed Andean lapwing that it was ripping into. The peak of Antisana Volcano teased our visual sense as it shyly offered glimpses between the clouds, enticing our promise to return again soon.

Chimborazo Forest Reserve

Our most recent trip brought us into the home of indigenous people living in the shadow of Ecuador’s tallest volcano. Chimborazo which stands at over 6,200m and is in fact the farthest point on the planet from the centre of the Earth! Not only were we welcomed by such a warm community but in our travels we were also greeted by another group – though this one much more tentative. We were very pleased to see the population of wild vicuña now thriving after a reintroduction to its native landscape some twenty-seven years ago. The vicuña, for those of you that may not be familiar is a species of camelid which was bred by the Incas to create a famous domestic hybrid – the alpaca. The only wool collected from a vicuña is from its wispy chest hair, one of the finest wools known from the animal kingdom, it is extremely valuable and soft. As opposed to the other domesticated camelid from South America, the llama, (which was bred from the more coastal guanaco to be used as a pack animal) the alpaca also has an abundant fleece of fine, soft and warm wool.

Now, we admit that part of the reason for visiting these areas was purely selfish – we love being outdoors and any opportunity to take new photos of Ecuadorian volcanoes is always welcome. However, there are ulterior, Pete Oxford Expeditions motives at work as well. In just under 3 months we will be leading a couple of 14 day expeditions to the Galapagos Islands, and we have been scouting potential pre or post expedition adventures to share with our friends that are coming! I would say that any of the above would serve as an exciting balance to any Galapagos itinerary, now the challenge presents itself: which do we choose?

As an aside we have only two spots left on the November Galapagos expedition so jump aboard the S/S Mary Anne with us, spend 14 days exploring the landscape and wildlife that inspired Darwin and then maybe explore mainland Ecuador for yourself for a few days in the Avenue of the Volcanoes all close to Quito.

Until next time, keep exploring!

Pete & Renee

Sailfish – Ocean’s Ambassador

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I was just inspired by a similar piece published by Paul Nicklen, a good friend and hero of ocean conservation. Below is a similar piece I wrote some five years ago, and have to concur with Paul that my experience with Sailfish was as surprising, emotional and exhilarating as anything I too have ever experienced in Nature.

We must learn to respect and conserve our ocean’s predators.

“Don’t end up as a kebab!” my friend Pete Atkinson Skyped me after I’d told him about my upcoming adventure.

It was March, in Mexico, off the Yucatan Peninsula on Isla Mujeres, and it was six o’clock in the morning. I was on the dock, ready to board one of the fleet of a dozen high-tech, game-fishing boats, each bristling with fishing poles, out-riggers and antennas. Clients and crews were cocky with anticipation. Fishing was good – the annual migration of sailfish was in full swing.

Sailfish are one of the most highly prized gamefish in the world. The sport fishing industry sells them as “providing thrilling leaps and a powerful and acrobatic fight”. Personally, I have to admit that I just don’t get it. I fail to understand how the terror of a magnificent, hooked fish, in its desperate attempts to evade death can be entertaining, whether it leaps out of the water or not. Nor do I understand how we view the fish as “providing” such a show as if it were doing it obligingly to please a human audience.

Nevertheless my three compañeros and I were no exception, we were also there to get amongst the sailfish. Our intentions however were different. We wanted to peel back the barrier and witness one of the world’s most incredible fish in its natural environment – from underwater.

Sailfish are members of the billfishes, Istiophoridae, family (which includes all the marlin, the spearfish and sailfish). They are a designated Highly Migratory Species (HMS) and will swim an average of 200,000 miles, through international waters, in their 16 year lifetime. They can grow quickly in their first year reaching up to five foot in length but from then on their growth slows considerably. They are one of the most inshore ranging of the billfish feeding on flying fish, halfbeaks, sardines, small tuna, squid and octopi.

The problem of course is how do you find a few sailfish in a vast expanse of open water. Despite their size of up to nine feet in length and in excess of 120 pounds, they remain elusive. Except that is when they gather to feed.

We slipped away from the dock, scanning the surface out to the horizon in earnest as we motored into blue water. We were not in fact looking for the sailfish themselves – but frigatebirds. With a 6-7 foot wingspan and only a 2-3 pound body weight these aerial masters dotted the sky, lazily cruising on outstretched wings. They were hungry and they too were, indirectly, looking for sailfish.

Then, a mere hour into our day, on the horizon we spotted what we were looking for – more frigates. This time, the birds were flying in a concentrated funnel, swooping down to the surface to snatch sardines from the water. We were already kitted up in wetsuits, weightbelts, long fins, masks and cameras and excitement levels were high. By the time the skipper had reached the meleé and turned our stern into the action, we were lined up on the back rail, filled with anticipation ready to jump.  ‘Délé, Go, Go!” shouted the skipper and we launched ourselves in to the water. The difference between what we had seen in air, watching the frenzy of the frigatebirds, coupled with the occasional, tantalizing glimpse of action below, to what we witnessed as we passed through the invisibly thin surface, was, quite literally a world apart.A large, living, silver ball of polarized sardines was being kept pressed against the surface by as many as 50 swift, dark shapes criss-crossing below and to the side. Sailfish! We kicked frantically, cameras at arms length aiming at the action and firing away with super wide lenses. We were lucky so far but this could well be our only encounter of these elusive fish. The sardines were trapped and the frigates were maximizing on the bonanza held within their reach by the hunting sailfish. As we sped forward, the closer our approach, the more awesome the spectacle became. The whole group was working like a pack of wolves, they were cooperating in the hunt in the typical manner of other apex predators. Lions cooperate, wolves do and so do wild dogs and hyenas, yet for some reason we don’t normally associate fish with any character or individuality but merely within the limitations of ‘tasty’, ‘tonnage’ or ‘something to hook’ – let me tell you, now is the time to take another look.

Indeed, humans largely view fish as a resource. We continue to pull them out of the ocean as if the old adage were really true “That there are plenty more fish in the sea.” That may have been true a century ago when fishing pressure was low and the playing field was more level, when we did not totally outcompete the fish with advanced technological capabilities to find and catch them by the hundreds of thousands of tons, and, also, in a time when there were only 2 billion not 7 billion people on the planet. Today however all the billfish populations are at an all time low, several species may already be close to a non-viable population number and may not recover sufficiently once the present long-lived adult population begins to die off while the current kill rate is maintained.

As we moved in yet closer to the hunting pack we began to make sense of the apparent chaos. The prey were being herded into a tight bait-ball. Sailfish would swim close and flick up the huge sail-like dorsal fin like a fence to consolidate the sardines, another would work the opposite side while others stayed below. Colour patterns instantaneously flashed on the bodies of the hunters from a purple-with-blue-spots, to a dramatic silver-and-blue-striping, to a stunning coppery-bronze colour; the revelation was that they were actually communicating. Reminiscent of squid or cuttlefish (mere mollusks), they appeared to be using a kind of chromatic semaphore. The meaning was lost on us except that as they turned in, one at a time, to the bait ball to feed, they most often lit up with a metallic bronze as if signaling “It’s my turn, I’m going in!” Their sails would erect explosively with the whooshing sound of a zip fastener and they would swim until their bill was inside the bait ball. I had been told that they would slash at the sardines with their rough-edged bill and stun a few fish to pick up later. The truth was so much more elegant as, with an almost imperceptible sidewise motion, (virtually only a vibration) it was enough to knock a sardine senseless which was scooped up there and then on the fly. The satisfied sailfish pulled out, the sardines baled up tighter and then another hungry hunter would flash bronze and move in effortlessly to the bait ball to grab itself a bite to eat. Through close observation one could see that the whole process was in fact ordered, refined – gentlemanly almost.In all my travels and close encounters with nature, to be in the intimate company of 50 Atlantic sailfish, in blue, oceanic water was already, after 45 minutes, a major wildlife highlight in my life. Part of the beauty of the experience was the fact that these top predators, who knew exactly that we were there, accepted us completely and let us simply observe.

Yet, these ambassadors of the high seas are threatened, like so much else in the oceans of the world. Even before humans have learned enough about their basic biology, from the moment we have been able we have rapidly and very effectively, been systematically ridding the planet of sailfish. Nor do we understand the consequences. We do know that apex predators in general are the keystone species of ecosystems and without sailfish being present in their pivotal role anything could happen. Maybe no billfish would mean that baitfish numbers exploded, just as no lions results in too many grazers and bush turning to desert so, an explosion of baitfish might eat all the plankton. But, guess what, 50% of the planet’s oxygen comes from oceanic plankton. Who knows what will happen? Whatever happens, if the trend continues, it will not be good.

Why are they threatened? Throughout their range sailfish regularly encounter 30-40 mile long lengths of monofilament nylon, laced with tens of thousands of baited hooks. Easy prey, the sailfish take the bait and drown on the line. The cruel irony is that these highly NON-selective fishing methods are actually targeting tuna and swordfish, yet alongside the dead sailfish may hang a drowned turtle or albatross. Sailfish have a rather tough, undesirable meat and are not even allowed to be landed commercially in the USA. When the fisherman comes to haul in the longline he berates the catch of “trash” fish, turtles and birds as a waste of hook space and they get tossed overboard to pile up on the sea floor. Unbelievably these incredible fish are caught for no other reason than to be thrown away as “by-catch” – a politically correct euphemism meaning carnage and waste.

I could no more imagine killing one of these animals as I could a lion. Of course there are people who would like to do both and I would say to those people “What’s the point? Haven’t we done enough damage to the planet, our home, already?” “Why not just trash your bedroom, your living room or your back yard – surely it’s the same?”

As the bait ball was being eaten smaller and smaller, the desperate sardines became individually more and more vulnerable. Occasionally one would break out from the ball and try to take sanctuary in our wetsuits or use us as a shield. An alert sailfish would soon swerve in perilously close to catch the errant sardine and, as thin as a knife would flex its body and shy away at the last instant in a supreme show of athleticism, the long, pointed bill missing my face by a foot or less. It was then I remembered Pete Atkinson’s comments and knew that if a sailfish had the will it could pierce my body with it’s sword, like a hot knife through butter. Malice was absent however and I felt guilty on behalf of those of my species whose only thought was to wrangle a hooked one.