Friday, November 25, 2016

Where to Swim with Sea Turtles in Hawaii

Sea Turtle in the Sun Rays at Mala Pier
Turtle over the wreckage
Turtle Pictures
   It feels good to be back in Hawaiian waters. I am back for another season as Expedition Leader aboard the Safari Explorer with UnCruise Adventures. On the week long cruises we kayak, snorkel, hike, and explore the islands of Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and Hawaii. As expedition leader it is part of my job to figure out the best places to take the guests to based on weather, wildlife, wind, visibility, and a host of other intricacies that play a factor. Something I always try to do is to find a good turtle snorkel spot to show off some of most charismatic sea life to our visitors.

Clouds Above
Flying through the sky
  We have a chance to encounter sea turtles at any of our snorkel spots, however Maui seems to be the hotbed for green sea turtles. The wreckage of the old Mala Pier and the vast coral reef at Olowalu are two of my favorite spots for almost guaranteed turtle sightings.

  The pictures here are from one snorkel at Mala pier, while the video was taken at Olowalu. Even though it has been raining lately and the water was a bit murkier than normal it still looked like this! So if you are coming out to Maui, put this one your list. And if you can't get enough of sea turtles then you can find high detail large format sea turtle pictures for sale here:

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Getting to the Lava, Big Island, Hawaii

   How to see the Lava Ocean Entry on the Big Island of Hawaii

   One of the best nature spectacles on Earth has just gotten a lot easier to see. Checking the USGS Kilauea Volcano eruption update page show the lava is still entering the ocean. This is something worth seeing. It used to be difficult, and at times illegal, to make your way out across the fresh lava fields to see the active flow cascading over the cliff into the sea. I went two years ago in March, and had to sneak out past the county guards who were there to make sure only those that went out with a tour group gained access (check out that story here). Now it is a whole different story.

Where did this come from!?
   Guards are still at the end of the road, where the far reaches of the lava flowed across the town and beautiful black sand beach of Kalapana in the early 1980's. But now the guards are there to help you park, point you to the bike rentals, and remind you to sunscreen up and take plenty of water. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up but this felt like an alternate reality. Could things have shifted 180°? Now in the parking lot were bicycles to rent for $20-$25, porter potties, and families selling cold drinks. Then I saw the reason behind the big changes...a road.

  Somehow they had built a road through the impossible. One of the guards explained to me that 2 years ago, shortly after I had snuck out past the guards, the flow changed directions and started heading towards Pohoa town. I remember seeing this on the news, but what I didn't hear about was the emergency road that was quickly being built from Kalapana to Chain of Craters road which comes down from Volcanoes National Park. Just in case the residents of Pahoa were cut off by an advancing lava flow they could use this new gravel road as an emergency escape route. This feat was accomplished through the worst terrain you could imagine, over 10 miles of uneven lava flows filled with cracks, crevices, and subterranean tunnels. But somehow they did it, and now that the lava is flowing back into the ocean you can ride a bike the 5 miles without even breaking a sweat...all while someone looks after your car.

 We were in such a good mood from the ease of things that we decided to hike the 10 mile round trip so we could go slow and take some pictures of all the changes. Because of the road access some Kalapana locals have returned and put up small, off the grid houses in the middle of the lava flow. I noticed most had imported soil in to build up a foundation, rather than try to jackhammer and bulldoze the lava itself. I noticed one residence along the way put up a mailbox with the address, "Hot Lava, Hawaii" on it. I think we are a little off the US Postal Service route here. A sign said, "Feel free to leave notes" near the mailbox. Whether these new plots carved out of recent lava flows are old residents moving back in or homesteaders looking to claim the newest available land in the world, I could not say. They must know that it is only a matter of time before the next flow comes back. They are a resilient bunch so only time will tell.

 A gate in the road signifies the entrance to National Park lands. This is about 2.5 miles in, and far in the distance a plume cloud is starting to come into focus. More porter potties line up here along with trash cans. People in Hawaii are wonderful about caring for the land and no trash was seen along the entire 5 mile trek.

  A faint line of smoke can be seen far up the hillside towards the source of all of this lava, the Pu'u O'o Vent, which has been continuously erupting since Jan. 3rd, 1983. But it is down to the coast where the road will take you which is were the real show is, the lava ocean entry.

An adventurous hiker in front of the smoke cloud
  Finally getting off the gravel road you turn left and head across the lava for about 200 meters to a cliff overlooking the ocean. Across a small bay with a newly formed black sand beach a massive, poisonous plume of smoke and gas churns and rises up. Luckily the NE trade winds are normal here which will take the poisonous acid cloud out to sea. You would not want to be downwind of this cloud. That is why I would suggest coming in from the Kalapana direction instead of the Chain of Craters way.

A small boat going in close
  From here you can find yourself a good place for pictures and videos, sit back, and enjoy the show. Once the sun starts setting the scene in front of you changes. More and more shiny black rocks start glowing orange and small explosions at the ocean entry light up the inside of the smoke cloud. Small sightseeing boats jet in for close looks but are all out by sunset time to make it back before dark. The helicopters are all packed away as well. So to enjoy the true show the hike, or now bike, is the way to go. If you are staying in Kona and don't have a rental car then an organized tour group like The Volcano Experience can get you over to see the show.

Large Format Eruption Pictures For Sale
   Once darkness truly settles in the glowing orange becomes intense, like no other color I have witnessed in nature. The churning cloud takes on a life of its own and the crashing waves seem to be in an eternal fight to push back the inevitable growth of the island. It is an amazing sight to witness new land being created right in front of you. But you never know how long this flow will last before changing directions again, going underground, or drying up all together. This could be the last ocean entry on Hawaii in our lifetime, but then again, it could continue for another thousand years. In either case, don't wait. If you can't get out to Hawaii now, then at least you have the video below. I fear it will only wet your appetite.

  Seeing the lava ocean entry and the Volcano National Park is one of the "Big 3" adventures that are unique and must do's if traveling to the Big Island of Hawaii. Find out what the other 2 are here and see if you can complete the Big 3 challenge!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

How to Scuba Dive South Africa

How to Scuba Dive South Africa from the cold waters of Cape Town to tropical reefs at Sodwana Bay

   Everyone knows about the wonderful land animals and parks of Africa. But for many travelers around the world the knowledge underwater life of South Africa is limited to a short clip of 'air jaws' or great white sharks leaping out of the water. Now I understand why this might scare some scuba divers off from thinking about planning a dive trip to South Africa but those in the know have found amazing diversity among South Africa's dive sites that are a true hidden treasure. For those of you still reading you may just have what it takes to take the plunge and find out about these hidden gems for yourself.

     Planning a dive trip to South Africa could be done in several visits or in one larger trip if you have a bit of time. Luckily right now the South African Rand is the cheapest I've seen in 30 years, hovering around 13.5SAR to 1 USD. In other words it is the right time to go. This makes rental cars, plane rides, and accommodations fairly cheap. I'll go over the big diving options as if you are going to do one big trip.

Mola Mola encounter, Cape Town
Dive with friendly Cape Fur Seals
  The easiest direction to go during your trip is from Cape Town in the Southwest corner up to Sodwana and Johannesburg in the NE corner. You can get a one way rental car from Cape Town airport to Joburg which takes care of all your transportation in one fell swoop. Make sure you get unlimited kilometers on it as the last time I did this drive my car started with 38km in Cape Town and ended with 5420km in Joburg. We took a few detours along the way. The other option would be to dive Cape Town, fly and dive Durban, then dive to Sodwana and Joburg from there. This would cut out over half of the driving distance overall, but you would miss the scenic Garden Route, Addo Elephant Park, the Drakensburg Mountains, and Great White Shark cage diving...although it is possible to the great white as a long day trip from Cape Town.

Cape Fur Seal off Cape Town
Nudibranchs galore in the cold waters
  Starting out in Cape Town means the diving is cold! We hit 54degrees on the Atlantic side off Hout Bay. Here are chances for shipwrecks, swimming in a tornado of fur seals, or chance encounters with mola mola On the slightly warmer side of False Bay, east of the Cape Peninsula, rocky reefs are visited by sevengill sharks and sometimes it seems that every inch is covered with invertebrate life. Among these are my favorite underwater invertebrates, nudibranchs, colorful sea slugs of which many can only be found around the Cape and nowhere else in the world. So both macro and wide angle photography opportunities exist.

Up from the depths: Prints for Sale
   Since you have a day of not diving before your flight out, or if you are self driving then the small town of Gansbaii should be next on your list. This is the epicenter of the great white shark cage diving phenomena. During the winter months (June-July) trips run out to Dyer Island to watch 'air jaws' leap out of the water with an unsuspecting sea lion in its mouth. And all year you can head out with a cage diving company, climb over the side of the boat down into the cage, and wait to hold your breath and submerge when a shark is drawing near. It is a great chance for photos and close encounters with one of the Earth's great predators in the wild. You can check out the post of my white shark adventures here.

   Next stop is Durban, or more precisely the Aliwal Shoals which are about an hour south of Durban, near the town of Umkomass. The Aliwal Shoals are the rocky remains of an ancient sand dune about 3 miles off the coast, which makes this an advanced place to dive but worth it for the chances of incredible shark encounters. Dive operators here boasts encounters with Tiger sharks, ragged tooth, bull, mantas, dolphins, and whales sharks are all possible. Certain species are seen at certain times of the year though so plan accordingly. Another bonus to the area is its location near the famous Sardine Run. During the months of June and July trips can be put together from here and weather permitting getting you out into the crazy action of the sardine run. As I travel the world searching for shark species to photograph and dive with this location is always high on my hit list.

The last stop on the South African diving tour boasts warm waters, coral reefs, and tropical fish. Dive operators in the town of Sodwana, near the Mozambique border launch their boats right off the beach, through the surf to take divers out to the beautiful coral reefs. I have swam with dolphins, whale sharks, nudibranchs, reef sharks, big school of fish, and found Nemo all in one dive here on the famous 9 mile reef. Going this direction from south to north is my favorite because it just gets easier and easier with the temperature of the water getting warmer and warmer. You can see pictures and read about my latest trip to Sodwana here. The deep underwater cliffs here in Sodwana are where the once thought extinct coelacanthe live. You better be trained to go deep though as the common depth for a coelacanthe sighting is over 100meters (330ft!).

Other South African Diving Websites and Resources:

Taking a break from diving in Cape Town and want to hike, check this out:
 * Best Hike in Cape Town

Looking for decent places to stay along the way with good Wifi? I use airbnb all across South Africa. Meet local hosts or grab an entire house for a fraction of the cost of hotels.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Big 3 Adventures on Big Island, Hawaii

The Big Three Must-do Adventures on the Big Island of Hawaii

Hiking on Lava
  When on the Big Island of Hawaii there are three unique adventures that comprise the 'Big 3'. Hiking out to see the ocean entry where lava from Kilauea Volcano is dumping into the sea, Watching the sunset and then star gazing from the summit of the tallest mountain in the world Mauna Kea, and finally to go swimming on the famous manta ray night dive off the Kona coast. You will need 3 different nights and a pretty good rental car to complete all of these amazing and unique feats so good luck.

Lava Pictures for Sale
   1: Hiking to the Lava Ocean Entry: This can be the deal breaker because even though Kilauea Volcano has been actively erupting since Jan 3rd, 1983 it does not always flow into the ocean. Sometimes the escaping lava can flow back underground through cracks and tunnels, or towards towns like it did two years ago in Pahoa, or just bubble at the lava filled crater lake. You can always go up to the summit where Halemau'mau Crater gives off an ever present glow and visit the informative Jaggar Museum. But to really get a feel for the volcano and to get up close there is nothing quite like hiking out to see the red hot molten rock slowly working its way down to the coast where it explosively meets the incoming waves of the might Pacific Ocean.

After sunset fireworks
  Before making the trip to see the lava I always check the USGS eruption update website which gives precise information about where the volcano is erupting and if there is an ocean entry. Up until a few years ago hiking out was either with an organized tour, or attained by sneaking out for miles over the uneven lava rocks of other recent flows. Now it is as easy as ever. There is a gravel road that was built as an emergency escape route for Pahoa residents 2 years ago when the lava flowed towards that town. Now the road provides safe access for hikers and bicyclist for the 5 mile distance out to the current lava ocean entry. You can even rent a bike right there at the Kalapana parking lot. Either mode of transportation you choose the best way to do it is to head out in the late afternoon, then sit and watch the ocean entry until after sunset. The orange glow that gets brighter and brighter as night falls is like no other color in nature and definitely a must see.

Close encounters on the lava boat tour
  There are two other ways to see the lava; a lava boat tour, and a helicopter tour. Both are quite expensive when compared to walking out or a $20 bike rental, but will give you different perspectives. However neither of these tours operate after daylight hours so you will be missing one of the best parts of lava viewing, that beautiful glow in the dark orange. And if you hike out there is always the possibility of ducking under the suggested safety line and out across the lava field to get up close with flowing lava. While getting close is a wild experience you can melt through the bottom of your shoes and as with everything in Hawaii be respectful, since some believe the lava to be a form of the goddess Pele' and very sacred.

Observatories and the Milky Way on Mauna Kea
Sub-Arctic Tundra
2. Sunset and Star Gazing on the Earth's Tallest Mountain, Mauna Kea:There is a reason that the world's leading telescopes can be found at the summit of Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island. Standing at 13,802ft above sea level, astronomers often find themselves above the cloud layer and with less atmosphere to look through as they peer into the far reaches of space. But you don't have to be a professional astronomer to enjoy one of the clearest night skies many people will ever see. There are so many stars that I start to lose track of where the constellations are.

Sunset from Mauna Kea
Travelers 'in the know'
    Waiting for sunset is an almost religious experience that you will no doubt share with a few other adventurous travelers who are in the know. And then after a few shooting stars it's time to drive back down the steep, washboard dirt road to the visitor center at 9,000ft where telescopes are set up from 7-10pm and open for visitors to look through. Think about the rings on Saturn, moons of Jupiter, and craters on the moon like you've never seen them before. It is a can't miss experience and one that is very unique to the Big Island of Hawaii. While you don't absolutely need a 4X4 to make it to the summit most of the year, it can be tough if there are more than 2 people in a small rental car, and down right impossible if it is snowing, which it does every winter.

3. Manta Ray Night Dive in Kona: There is a reason that this is the number 1 night dive in the world. Part of the reason is that this is the only place where you can scuba dive at night and almost guarantee extremely close manta ray encounters. The other part is that scuba diving with manta rays is just so cool. These harmless cartilaginous rays dance in an underwater ballet through the lights collecting plankton in their huge mouths. Take a look at the video below to get a taste of what this phenomenon looks like.

  Snorkelers float on top of the water with lights pointing down, while scuba divers sit around the 'campfire' on the bottom with lights pointing up. Plankton is attracted to the lights which in turn attracts hungry manta rays which despite their large size feed on the tiny plankton. It is not uncommon to see 5 or 6 different manta rays during one dive, although some intense nights can have over 30 manta rays seen. It is an experience of a lifetime and definitely earns its place as one of the 'Big 3' adventures on the Big Island.

  There are lots of good operators to go out on the manta ray night dive with like Jacks Diving Lockers, Big Island Divers, and Kona Honu Divers, but my favorite is Kona Diving Co. Their professionalism is second to none as is their knowledge of the mantas.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Bird Photography in Kruger National Park

Hungry European Bee Eater
Grey Headed Kingfisher
Bird Photography in Kruger National Park

 The bird life in Africa is amazing. It is enough to turn anyone into a budding birder. Beautiful bee eaters, colorful rollers, king fishers, sun birds, and all kinds of birds-of-prey abound in places like Kruger National Park. Armed with a new Canon 100-400mm L series lens I was ready to capture all the action.

  There are two methods for getting bird photography in Kruger. You can drive around, cover some distance, and keep an eye out for colorful streaks across the road, or the silhouettes of larger birds up in the trees, but you need to really hone in your bird scanning if you are going to do this on the move. Another method is to find birding hotspots and stay in one place. Several blinds have been setup around the park overlooking ponds. Africa is the kind of place that you can sit and watch one big tree and see dozens of different bird species.

Rare sighting of a Crowned Eagle

Beautiful Sun Bird
   With 'eagle eyes' Heidi in the car we chose the on-the-move method and I think it really paid off. We had several close encounters with perched and hunting bee eaters and rollers. We saw six different eagle species and two different owl species. Our bird checklist was so filled after a week in Kruger. It is a bird watchers paradise. So grab your binoculars and 400+mm lens and enjoy some of the best, most colorful bird watching in the world.

Lilac Breasted Roller showing off
   One shot that I love getting is of birds in flight. There are several different ways to prepare your camera settings for this but here is my favorite. With my Canon 5d markii and a 400mm lens, I bump up my ISO to 320 if there is a lot of light or even a little higher closer to sunrise or sunset. Then I switch to AV priority and keep a very low f-stop, in the f5-f7 range. This will let in the most light which will in turn allow for a very fast shutter speed. 1/2000th or faster will start to capture detail on the wings of flying birds...depending on the species. Hummingbirds of example move their wings incredibly fast so an even faster shutter speed in necessary to avoid blur.

   Being ready to hit the shutter right when the bird decides to take flight can be a lesson in patience but well worth the effort if you get the shot. Take a look at some of my favorite examples here.

Crested Barbet
Lilac Breasted Roller in flight
   For bird and other African wildlife photography click here. Check out this post with bird pictures from just 24hrs inside the park during an earlier visit this year.

Purple Roller

Marshal Eagle

Lilac Breasted Roller

Ground Hornbill
Crowned Lapwing

Pied Kingfisher Scanning for Prey
Southern Masked Weaver