Wednesday, March 22, 2017

2016-17 Hawaii Season: A Review

Great crew of my last trip of the season
Kyle, Amanda, and Hannah

  As I listen to some of my favorite go-to slideshow songs from this season I can't help but reminisce on the amazing sights, wildlife, people, and events that shaped the 2016-17 Hawaii season aboard UnCruise's Safari Explorer.

Green hills after all the rain on Maui
  The season got off to an auspicious start as Mitch and I were forced to begin the first trip of the season without a boat! But we found a way to rock it and even sneak a little more in than usual. It was a wet winter, with some solid rainstorms coming through. Even though this brought some cloudy weather for a while the lush green islands lasted all season. The crew this season was filled with many veterans so we quickly found our mid-season form.

  The water stayed warm all winter, never falling below 77 degrees. It was a great year for turtles and whales as the sightings for both spiked way above last years numbers. Lana'i turned out to be a sure fire turtle spot for younger turtles, while the cleaning stations at mala pier and olowalu reef provided great sightings as well. I think every single group had turtle sightings this year, including one week in which we saw turtles on four different islands!

  Dolphins were a mainstay as well. We got the dolphin trifecta on a few trips which consist of sightings of bottlenose, spinner, and spotted dolphins. During our blue water hunts we did have some more unusual sightings including blainsville beaked whales, hammerhead sharks, short fin pilot whales, and several unidentified sharks. Unfortunately we did not see a whale shark this year. A couple of albatross sightings and a black noddy were thrown in with some of the other deep ocean sea birds.

But over all it was a year for the whales. We had whales every week of the season, which is no easy task in early November! Once January rolled around then whale song filled the ears while underwater or listening in to a hydrophone.

  We had ever encounter you can think of. We had muggings where the whales kept surfacing just next to the boat then swimming under to the other side. All the while the passengers and crew of the Safari Explorer were running back and forth across the deck to see them. We had tail slaps, pectoral slaps, and huge breaches. We had close encounters on the skiffs and even on a few kayak trips! One time we drifted over a singing humpback where we could all hear the song through the kayak!

  And of course we had some amazing competition pods. We watched in awe as these 40 ton behemoths bashed into each other and jockeyed for position next to the female. But the fight of the year goes to one of the smallest competition groups. We watched two males fight over a female for more than an hour. Over and over they would surface practically ontop of each other, using their weight to hold the other down. The fight escalated into an all out brawl complete with an aerial collision. Bloody tubercles could be seen as they raced to keep up with the female. At one point the blow was tainted pink from one of the fighters. And there is no telling how long it lasted because they eventually raced off towards the off limits waters surrounding Kohoolawe Island.

 Not to be forgotten were all the wonderful guests that put their trust in us to give them the trip of a lifetime. There are some real gems that are attracted to this style of cruising and it was a real pleasure being able to share these amazing islands and some of their secrets with them. I will take a lot of memories from this winter and add some more members into my boat family.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Seeing Yellow: Snorkeling the Big Island

Goatfish galore at Kealakekua Bay
Capt. Cook Monument
  I've been snorkeling and scuba diving all over the Hawaiian Islands in my time living and working here. I have also taught hundreds of people how to snorkel here in different spots around the island. After all of this experience I would rate the snorkel experience at the Big Island's Kealakekua Bay as one the best in the islands for all around snorkeling greatness. The conditions are almost always flat calm here. The reef takes advantage of the geological protection and the political protection by growing into massive coral heads. And the fish are not just plentiful, but also not quite as shy as fish on other reefs. It is almost as if the fish know that no one is going to try and catch them.

Lau wiliwili nukunuku oi'oi ele'ele
Sea of Yellow, Hawaii
  The calmness of the bay makes the conditions great for beginner snorkelers. But the clarity of the water makes conditions great for the most experienced of underwater photography enthusiast. Schools of goatfish and yellow tangs hover of the coral reef. Sunlight filters down, lighting up the different colors below. And for a trained eye, some interesting creatures can be found as well. I have seen white tip reef sharks hiding in caves just 5ft below the surface. I have seen sea turtles and manta rays give the reef a close swim by. Sometimes a playful pod of spinner dolphins will come over from the Captain Cook area. Some of the rarer butterflyfish can be seen such as the reticulated, oval, and saddle back varieties. And perhaps the rarest butterflyfish of them all, the all black morph of the long nose butterflyfish. The long nosed shadow of a fish holds the record for longest fish name in Hawaiian, the 'lau wiliwili nukunuku oi'oi ele'ele'. (or the butterfly fish that looks like the leaf of a wili wili tree and is black). The black morph is almost always teamed up with a normal yellow variety long nose butterflyfish but is easily passed over by the untrained eye.

   But now count yourself as one 'in the know.' And go find that black longnose butterflyfish for yourself. If not then a sea of yellow over a beautiful coral reef will be a nice consolation prize.

 If you find yourself on the Big Island and you do the best snorkel, do yourself a favor and do the best hike. Read about it here. If you are dead set on finding sea turtles and manta rays then click on the links above for my best advice on where to find them in Hawaii.

Happy Adventuring,
Dai Mar Tamarack

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Bond Between Mother and Calf

Energetic Calf Tail Slapping 
Mom's tail dwarfing her truck-sized baby
  Over the years I have written about and photographed many mother and calf pairs, yet it always strikes an emotional cord when I see another. This is one of the highlights of humpback whale watching here in the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Waters off the coast of Maui, Hawaii. Newborn baby whales swim next to their mother, dwarfed by her massive size. They are the only humpbacks getting nourishment down here in the form of milk from their mother. So it is common to see an energetic calf swimming and jumping around a resting mom.
Baby Breach
Adult Breach
    Even though the babies look tiny next to mom, you have to remember that they are still about the size of a small pickup truck the day they are born. They grow quickly, so are less easily recognizable up on the feeding grounds of Alaska. But for now I am grateful to see all these calves playing around me.

Other Humpback Whale related post:
First Humpback Calf of the Season
Humpbacks in the North Atlantic
Bubble Net Feeding Humpbacks in Alaska
Humpback Aerial Collision: Competition in the Breeding Area

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Swimming with Whale Sharks in La Paz, Mexico

Hungry Whale Shark
     Whale Sharks, (Rhincodon typus), are the world's biggest fish. They are a shark, but unlike their more well-known relatives the whale shark does not have teeth. Instead it uses gill rakers to filter out tiny plankton from the ocean water. While it may seem daunting to jump in the water with these gentle giants the truth is you couldn't be with a safer, more harmless animal. And if you are lucky they might just stick around long enough for you to get a feel for just how big they really are.

Emerging out of the blue
   This is what happened on a recent trip to Baja, Mexico. I was sent on a photography assignment for UnCruise Adventures on their small ship cruise down in the Sea of Cortez. Every week the passengers have a chance of encountering whale sharks as the Sea of Cortez is one of their favorite haunts. It is never guaranteed but this week we were lucky. The upwelling brings in nutrients which powers the phytoplankton and zooplankton blooms that the whale sharks feed on. This same phenomena that draws in the whale sharks can make water visibility, and underwater photography a challenge.

Head On Whale Shark
Whale Shark Photos For Sale
   I was down here in late November, and the conditions varied greatly day to day off the coast of La Paz. Wind and overcast skies can affect your ability to spot the whale sharks since you are mostly looking for dark silhouettes just under the surface of the water. They are sharks so they don't have to come up and breath like dolphins or whales. These pictures were from my second day looking for whale sharks when it was calm and sunny. We sailed slowly through the area and spotted a shadow...which turned out to be three feeding whale sharks.

   Finding feeding whale sharks is very lucky because they tend to be preoccupied with their feast and let you swim quite close. This is necessary for pictures since the visibility of the greenish water can be around six feet or so in the feeding zone. Watching the sharks suck in massive amounts of water and plankton through their vacuum like mouth is a sight to behold. It is one of the things that makes me seek out places around the world where one can encounter these majestic animals. Check out some of my other whale sharks encounters here: Maui, Big Island, and Philippines.

Heidi swimming next a 'small' whale shark

Heidi and Lucy after swimming with sharks
   By the end of the day we had swam with six different whale sharks ranging in size from 14ft to 30ft. Thanks so much to Christian for taking us out in his sailboat, Lucy for the wonderful breakfast, Heidi for always being up for adventure, and UnCruise Adventures for bringing me down to Mexico. You can check out some of my pro whale shark pics from over the years on my site: or 

Other Baja Adventures: The Last Ride of the White Stallion

Monday, February 20, 2017

Birdwatching in Argentina

From top to bottom Argentina is a bird lovers paradise. Recently Heidi and I traveled across Argentina searching for beautiful views, hikes, and of course wildlife. We knew that incredible hikes to glaciers, mountain vistas, lakes, and waterfalls existed across the country but we were surprised at the amazing birdwatching opportunities.

Austral Parakeet near Ushuaia
     The same places you travel for amazing views; Ushuaia, El Calafate, El Chalten, and Iguazu are the same places that birders 'in the know' travel for big time bird watching. The different environments change from cold ocean in Ushuai, to desert and freshwater lakes in Patagonia, to tropical jungle in Iguazu. Because of this the opportunities to see very different bird species change as well, from penguins down south to toucans up north.

Tern hovering over the water
Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park: We will start down south in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Here a boat trip out into the famous Beagle Canal gives you chances to see comorants, penguins, skuas, albatross, and terns, among other deep south ocean birds. Then a trip into Tierra del Fuego provides a wonderful chance for forest birds, like the Magellanic woodpecker, austral parakeet, and southern caracara as well as freshwater species like the spectacled duck and steamer duck.

Chilean Flamingos, Reserva Laguna Nimez

 El Calafate and El Chalten: A 17 hour bus ride or couple hour flight to the north takes you deep into the heart of Patagonia. Here the snow capped peaks of the Andes Mountains send glacial fed rivers out into the desert-like landscape of Patagonian ranchlands. This uncommon environments is home to some amazing birdlife. Ostrich-like landbirds called rhea run amongst the prickly calfate shrubs, while caracara, condors, and eagles line the fence post and circle the sky looking for their next meal.

Upland Goose, El Calafate
  In El Calafate the edge of the glacial lake a quaint nature reserve called the Reserva Laguna Nimez plays host to a multitude of exotic species like the Chilean flamingo, upland goose, southern lapwings, and nesting harriers. Also if you get a chance to drive towards Perito Moreno Glacier on some of the back roads you increase your opportunities for condor, eagle, caracara, and rhea

Toco Toucan at Iguazu Falls
Scarlet Macaw, Iguazu
Iguazu Falls: All the way on the north eastern border of Argentina and Brazil you will find a totally different environment housing new species of birds. It almost feels like you are descending into the Amazon basin as you walk around the miles of boardwalks set up for sightseeing inside the Iguazu Falls National Park. The trick here is to come early in the morning before the crowds. This will give you your best shot for seeing rare toucan species that call this area home. Great dusky swifts are seen near the waterfalls, their nest actually hidden in the cliffs behind the falling water. Another can't miss are the plush-crested jays. These beautiful birds frequent the boardwalks, especially where visitors tend to stop for picnic style snacks.

Plush-Crested Jay, Iguazu Falls
Plush-Crested Jay
Eagle near Iguazu Falls
Southern Lapwing in Ushuaia
  It turns out that South America is one of the best places in the world for birding. Thousands of species exists on the continent leaving you all kinds of options. Argentina is such a birding hot spot because the country stretches across so many different ecosystems. Just another reason to add it to your travel list.

Austral Pygmy Owl at Perito Moreno Glacier

Austral Pygmy Owl, Patagonia

Hooded Grebe

Woodpecker near El Chalten

Patagonia Images for sale