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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Igazu Falls, Exploring the Argentina Side

Iguazu Pictures for Sale

 Exploring Iguazu Falls, Argentina 

  Argentina and Brazil share a border at one of the new seven wonders of the world, Iguazu Waterfall. I have to admit that I was not prepared for the amount of waterfalls, how much water was moving, and how close the boardwalks would put you to the heart of the action. For a photographer you have so many different angles to shoot, from below the falls, next to the falls, to standing feet above the falls looking over the Devil's Tongue itself. Since the falls are located in a forested area you also have a chance to see some wildlife like cuatis and capuchin monkeys. There are lots of butterflies flittering about as well as some colorful birds.

Viewing platform on the Brazil side
Visitors about to get wet
 Heidi and I walked outside to catch a  local bus in front of our hotel (Marco Polo Suites), which would take us right to the cataracts for 65 pesos each (about $4 each). However as we were waiting a car with a young Argentinian couple pulled over and said we could jump in with them for the same price as the off we went. The falls were only a twenty minute ride away and cost 330 pesos to enter (about $22).

  Once you are inside it is geared for you to go at your own pace. Different color coded boardwalks take you to different overlooks and parts of the falls. My favorite was the upper boardwalk which ended in a platform hovering a few feet over the biggest part of the falls. However I will say that amazing pictures were to be had from all the different boardwalk paths. If you keep a close eye out you may even see caimans hanging out in the rivers below some of the boardwalk bridges.
Long Exposure Falls and Rainbow

 If you want to check out all the best pictures from my Argentina trip you can see them here: 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Hike Patagonia: Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Balancing Rock near the beginning
  The beauty of hiking from the town of El Chalten is the wide array of hikes that you have to choose from. I wrote about two of them (Chorrillo del Salto, and Laguna Torre) in previous post but on day three we wanted a real challenge, but also something a little different. We did a bit of research and felt like taking the path less traveled to a high 360 degree panorama was going to be the way to go. I am sure glad this was our choice. The hike to Pliegue Tumbado overlook was fun and challenging, and had a mind blowing view from the top.

Glimpses of mountain pillars thru the trees
The hike starts from the National Park visitor center on the same trail that leads to Laguna Toro. The National Park material says the length of the hike is 7 to 8 hours, although we did it in under 7. The way there is all uphill, all the time. This was a big change from the long flat portions from the two hikes before. Because you are constantly climbing you get to travel through different ecosystems. And views of mountain spires grace the horizon every so often.

So many options: El Chalten hiking map
 After forking off the Laguna Toro trail you enter a deep forest. The understory isn't overcrowded but the canopy gives a nice respite from the wind and rain if you have either. A stream runs through the forest but I wouldn't drink this water as there are lots of cows in the area. There is another stream almost all the way to the top that has good drinking water.

  All of a sudden the forest just ends. We found ourselves on a high alpine tundra with view of Mt Fitz Roy and Torre. The mountain massifs get closer and closer as you climb higher and higher through the tundra. Once you reach the viewpoint at 4500ft above sea level the view is one of the best in Patagonia. This is what postcards are made from.

  We looked down over the edge at the same glacier-fed lake, "Laguna Torre" that we had hiked to yesterday. And now I finally understood what the view could have been from the lake. The clouds that had been hiding the mountain peaks all around us dissipated leaving us with a scene I will never forget. As I sat eating my picnic lunch I couldn't help but strain my eyes to try and see if anyone was climbing the famous Mt Fitz Roy. It was the middle of summer on a bright sunny day but I still put on my windbreaker and rain pants just to stave off getting chilled from the cold wind. It is possible to get snow here even in the middle of summer.

Patagonia Back Pack with Patagonia Backdrop

   I couldn't help snapping a picture of my patagonia backpack in front of this picturesque Patagonia scene. Since it was uphill the entire way to the top, the way back was a fast paced downhill. We still stopped and took in the sights along the way, but a cold celebratory beer was definitely calling our names back in El Chalten.