Archive for the ‘Plants’ Category

Slide Show From The Antarctic Expedition

March 9th, 2010 at 2:01 am (AST) by Jake Richter

We had several photo pros on board the National Geographic Explorer, including Lindblad staff photographers Michael Nolan and Eric Guth and National Geographic photographers Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson. This photo “team” was always readily available to provide guests with tips and critiques, as well as technical assistance.

Some of the ways they used to help improve the quality of the photos taken by guests was to lead seminars on photography and photographic techniques, as well as have open critiques of submitted photos. There’s no question that general photo quality improved as a whole over the three weeks we were traveling the seas.

The culmination of the photographic experience was a computer-based slide show put together by Mike Nolan, including most of the submissions from the first two critiques, plus a final set of photos, all contributed by a large number of guests and staff alike. There are many amazing photos from our trip included in the slide show, including wildlife, landscapes, abstract works, and even ones of various people you might or might not recognize.

While the slide show was distributed to folks on memory cards on board the ship the last day at sea, I offered to Mike that I could also post it here on our site for on-line access by our fellow guests and their friends and family, and that offer was gladly accepted.

The link below leads to a .MOV file containing the slide show, which can be played back via QuickTime, iTunes, or any of a number of other video players. You can download Apple’s QuickTime here in case you need it.

The .MOV file is just over 50MB in size, and takes about 32 minutes to play through (there are a lot of photos there). There is no sound in the file, so don’t be alarmed if you hear nothing when you start the slide show. I would suggest playing some Jazz or Classical music in the room you view the slide show in to add a nice aural ambiance.

To play the .MOV file, click on the link below, and then save the .MOV file in a local directory on your system. Once it is fully downloaded, and assuming you have QuickTime or another compatible player installed, you can double click on the file to play it. You may also have to click on the “play” button in your video player to start the slide show.

NatGeoExplorerSlideshow.mov

Enjoy the show! And special thanks from all of the guests (including us) to the National Geographic Explorer Photo Team for all their advice, comments, and support!

 

Wild Reindeer and More in the Sub-Antarctic

February 24th, 2010 at 8:13 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We anchored last night in the protected and calm waters of Jason Harbour (or maybe it’s “Jason Harbor”?). Wet snow was once again companion – it had started snowing last night, and had not let up much since.

From our balcony, which faced our anticipated landing spot, we could see penguins (King penguins mostly), fur seals, and off in the distance, a herd of about 15-20 reindeer.

Part of the herd of reindeer we saw this morning - note a couple of bucks still have dangling bits of velvet on their antlers

Part of the herd of reindeer we saw this morning - note a couple of bucks still have dangling bits of velvet on their antlers

Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia several times between 1911 and 1925 – only a couple of dozen total, but they have ultimately thrived, and it’s estimated that there are around 2,000 reindeer now spread throughout South Georgia. They are perhaps among the most destructive introduced species on the island, as they destroy young vegetation as well as certain lichens and herbs that would otherwise flourish. Their diet ultimately also causes soil erosion, which leads to other issues in the ecosystem.

After landing, we followed one of our naturalists, Steve MacLean, through the bogs lining the shoreline towards a large ridge inland. There we caught our first close glimpse of reindeer.

The interesting thing to observe was the interaction between the reindeer and fur seals, where at one point they would simply be hanging out harmoniously (or apparently so), and then some rambunctious male fur seal would take it upon himself to charge at the reindeer and scatter them off. It may not be obvious from their physique, but fur seals can run outrun a running man, so they are also able to give reindeer a good chase.

Fur seals chase reindeer out of their perceived territory

Fur seals chase reindeer out of their perceived territory

Steve also explained how antlers grow, in contrast to horns. Horns last a lifetime, whereas antlers are seasonal – they are cast off at the end of the summer and regrown anew starting in the spring. During growth, antlers are covered by a skin called “velvet” (due to its texture). Velvet is filled with blood vessels which help feed the growth of the antlers (which are effectively bone). Once full antler growth is achieved, the velvet ends up coming off – either by getting old and drying and falling off or during fights between reindeer. Notably, reindeer of both sexes grow antlers.

And, as luck would have it, we saw two reindeer bucks, both with tattered velvet hanging from their antlers, get into a tussle, and that caused a large piece of velvet to get ripped off. After the reindeer had moved on, we found the velvet – pretty amazing stuff.

A piece of freshly discarded velvet with blood vessels and tissue showing

A piece of freshly discarded velvet with blood vessels and tissue showing

And near the velvet was a skeleton of a reindeer, which Steve estimated to be about two years old based on the fact that cartilage was still in place in a couple of the joints as well as the wear on the teeth in the jaw bones we found. Also, because the skeleton had a full rack (antlers), it probably died in about the same time of year as now – the end of the southern summer.

The skeleton of the reindeer buck we found

The skeleton of the reindeer buck we found

Steve also showed us the teeth in the jawbone, which are multi-layered, and in reindeer they do not continue to grow after maturity.

The tops of the teeth in the reindeer jaw bone we found - note the multiple=

The tops of the teeth in the reindeer jaw bone we found - note the multiple layers of enamel and dentin

Moving on, we came across a number of elephant seals, including a group of young males molting, a much larger male by himself, and a “weanie” – an elephant seal pup that has been recently weaned. They all had large doleful, almost alien, eyes, which Steve indicated was the result of their need to be able to see with even the smallest bit of ambient light at the extreme depths that they typically dive at to find food.

A group of elephant seals during their molting phase

A group of elephant seals during their molting phase

An elephant seal 'weanie'

An elephant seal 'weanie'

We ended our walk along the beach, where a large variety of kelp had washed up, and some King penguins could also be found.

A pair of King penguins bids us adieu

A pair of King penguins bids us adieu

We considered the morning to a splendid one – full of discovery and enlightenment, even though all of our outer clothing was thoroughly soaked from the never ending wet snow.

More photos as well as larger versions of the ones above can be found in my Flickr pages.

 

It’s Snowing Snow in South Georgia

February 21st, 2010 at 10:03 am (AST) by Jake Richter

After about 30 hours of moderately unsettled seas we arrived at the island of South Georgia this morning, around 7:30am. We were informed during one of the several fascinating lectures yesterday to make sure to call it South Georgia or “the island of South Georgia”, but definitely not “South Georgia Island”.

The mountains and glacier ice in the Drygalski Fjord are stunning, as a lone albatross flies past

The mountains and glacier ice in the Drygalski Fjord are stunning, as a lone albatross flies past

The other thing pointed out to me in the last day by Tom Ritchie was that while South Georgia is down around 55º south latitude (over 5º north of the area defined by the Antarctic Treaty to be Antarctica), it is still in the Antarctic Convergence. The Antarctic Convergence is a climatic zone which surrounds the Antarctic continent. While not universally agreed upon, there is a belief that islands within the Antarctic Convergence are also part of Antarctica.

However, whether South Georgia is part of Antarctica or the Subantarctic region doesn’t really matter much to us – what’s important is that it’s an island rich in wildlife and nature protection instituted after centuries of slaughtering seals and whales, and thus has an amazing natural and cultural history.

South Georgia is an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, and is administered by the governor of the Falkland Islands. Money to support a small governmental presence on South Georgia is funded by strictly controlled fishing licenses in the waters surrounding South Georgia out to 200 miles (a prime location for Patagonian Toothfish, also known as Chilean Seabass) as well as eco-tourism.

South Georgia does a pretty amazing job to educate visitors about its efforts to preserve and restore the ecology of the area, requiring all visitors to review a video about the preservation efforts as well as the rules of visitation. Visitors must also sign a form which acknowledges they have seen the video as well as have disinfected and cleaned all their gear to avoid any foreign contaminants like seeds, stems, or food, from getting onto South Georgian soil. The packet of information the government of South Georgia provides to visitors is excellent too, including a detailed map of the island and key historic sites, a history of the area, information on the wildlife, and, of course, the list of rules of behavior.

Our view at breakfast - snow falling on the windows with beautiful fjord waters just barely visible in the distance

Our view at breakfast - snow falling on the windows with beautiful fjord waters just barely visible in the distance

In any event, our arrival this morning did remind us that we are definitely in cold climes – be they Antarctic or sub-Antarctic, as the air temperature was just above freezing, and for the first time on our voyage we actually saw snow. Lots of snow. And four hours later the snow shows no sign of abating – if anything, it has gotten heavier.

Snow on the rocks looks almost like powdered sugar

Snow on the rocks looks almost like powdered sugar

Snowflakes fall on the railing of our balcony

Snowflakes fall on the railing of our balcony

The snow makes for some great views of the area, but is heavy enough to prevent us from safely going out for a landing or even a Zodiac cruise. We cruised all the way up into the Drygalski Fjord this morning with some spectacular but snow-obscured scenery and are now heading into Larsen Harbour in the hopes of finding a better anchorage. However, because the land around Larsen Harbour has been designated a vermin-free site (rats being an invasive species here), no landings will be possible.

Bits of glacier dot the water

Bits of glacier dot the water

Some immediate differences we noticed from the land and islands of the Antarctic Peninsula, however, are an abundance of kelp in the water (a variant grows in the area of the Antarctic Peninsula, but not heavily due to the benthic scraping of icebergs) and lots of green plant life on the rocks, including lush grasses and tussock grass.

Kelp grows here in large quantities compared to the little there is at the Antarctic Peninsula

Kelp grows here in large quantities compared to the little there is at the Antarctic Peninsula

Another difference from the Antarctic Peninsula - an abundance of green vegetation, including tussock grass

Another difference from the Antarctic Peninsula - an abundance of green vegetation, including tussock grass

 

Visiting Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

October 24th, 2008 at 2:11 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I have been promising some more travelogues from prior trips. Below is one from my and Krystyana’s trip to Costa Rica last month.

For our second weekend in Costa Rica, on September 13th, Krystyana and I decided to take a two-night, three-day trip to the Tortuguero area of the country. Our tour provider was, once again, Costa Rica Expeditions.

Tortuguero is the location of a national park, and is situated on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in the north easterly part of the country. The park is a protected area for all sorts of animals, fish, plants, and especially for sea turtles. Thousands of turtles use the beaches of the Tortuguero area for nesting every year. And inland are magnificent jungles.

Bright and early, at 6:30pm, a Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van was waiting to pick us up at our hotel. The folks who picked this up were kind enough to offer actually take all of our baggage and store it in a secure facility for the three days that we were going to be away but I had prepaid the hotel, so we just left every thing in our rooms.

Travel to Tortuguero via the tour typically involved ground and boat transport in one direction, and a charter plane flight in the other.

Our plane to Tortuguero - a Gippsland Aeronautics GA8 Airvan - smooth ride, but tight quarters for a big guy like Jake

One of the interesting things that we discovered when we originally booked this trip was that there was a 25 pound per person limit on baggage for the flight segment, and that the flight typically occurred on the return from Tortuguero, but Douglas, our great agent at Costa Rica Expeditions was able to rearrange the flight schedule for us in a way that guaranteed we could have more luggage with us by flying on the outbound on an empty plane. That was very helpful as my camera bag alone was about 25 pounds, and of course we had our clothing and shoes as well.

Tortuguero's canals and rivers and jungles start getting closer as we prepare to land

We were brought to a small private airport on the north side of the San Jose near the high-rent district where the president of Costa Rica lives. From there we boarded the small eight-seat plane for Tortuguero. The flight was about 35 minutes and took us to the small hamlet of Barro del Colorado on the northeast coast of Costa Rica, above the Tortuguero National Park.

The sign welcoming us to the airfield at Barra del Colorado - no problems with livestock on the runway, this time

Upon arriving in Barro del Colorado we were met by one of the people from Tortuga Lodge – our home for the next three days. His name was Riccardo, and as it would turn out, we would be spending a lot of our time with him. In a ride which took almost an hour, Riccardo took us by riverboat to Tortuga Lodge, which is just outside of Tortuguero Town. Tortuga Lodge is owned by Costa Rica Expeditions, incidentally.

As aside, it is interesting to note that there actually are no real roads and therefore no cars or other large four-wheeled vehicles in the Tortuguero Town area. Instead, all traffic – including all shipping of goods and transportation of people – is handled by very long and narrow river barges on the Tortuguero River and the surrounding canals and inlets.

We had a full reception committee waiting for us at Tortuga Lodge - made us feel very special

As we arrived at Tortuga Lodge we found a number of the members of the staff waiting for us on their pier, including the manager of the property, Duane. We felt quite honored by the turnout. They gave us welcome drinks, took our bags from us, and guided us to breakfast, as it was only about 9am. Breakfast was wonderful. We sat next to the swimming pool, overlooking the water of the nearby river, and had great granola and fresh fruit.

By the way, I should mention that pineapples are the number one export of Costa Rica, and everywhere we ate, fresh pineapple was readily available, and it was incredibly delicious – a nice golden color, juicy, and sweet.

We were also offered our choice of eggs and breakfast meats and as much extra food as we wanted. It turned out that all the meals at Tortuga Lodge were a fixed set of courses, different for every meal and from day to day. And all were excellently prepared. The service was very good too. The only things not included in our package were beverages other than water and juice, and those were inexpensive.

After breakfast we were taken to our room, which was at the very end of the property, on the north side near some tall trees. In those trees were some howler monkeys. We were warned not to go close to them because they were rather spiteful and were known to throw feces at people that came too close to their trees.

Fisheye view of our spacious two-bed room at Tortuga Lodge - no air conditioning, but fans and screen windows took care of that

Our room had two large beds in it, a nice bathroom, but the only air conditioning we had was in the form of heavy-duty screens on the all windows so there be a constant airflow through the room. There were also a couple of ceiling fans – one above each bed. We were concerned about the lack of cooling equipment, as it was quite hot and muggy (the humidity in Tortuguero is quite high during much of the year, we’ve been told), but it turned out to be a non-issue, because we actually managed to sleep quite well due both to exhaustion as well as cooler temperatures at night.

After unpacking and settling in, we headed out and explored the lands and vegetation of the Tortuga Lodge with a couple of our cameras. We came across iguanas, spiders – there were lot of spiders… big spiders… colorful spiders… lots of spiders – and all beautiful in a macabre sort of way. They are kind of frightening but very cool looking all at the same time.

Another shot of the big grasshopper

We also encountered our first basilisk lizards, which are a rather prehistoric looking type of lizard which runs on its rear legs. I think Ray Harryhausen used them in the movie The Lost World back in the 1920s. When they are young and smaller (and thus weigh less), basilisk lizards can actually run across water.

Another basilisk lizard at Tortuga Lodge

We also found some very large grasshoppers, a couple of strawberry poison-dart frogs and we were also shown a “ting” frog. It is a little brown frog, and its name “ting” is derived from the noise it makes at night, which is kind of sounds like someone clinking nice wine glasses together.

Our first local creature was a Ting Frog, so called because of the sound they make at night

We also took the exploration as an opportunity to go to the reception area and sign up for an afternoon guided walk through the protected Tortuguero National Park.

And strawberry poison dart frogs were not uncommon as long as you didn't mind going into the shrubs to find them

Lunch featured marinated grilled veal pierced with skewers of sugarcane and finished with a chocolate torte drizzled with a natural fruit syrup.

Veal skewered with sugar cane - it was delicious - great food at Tortuga Lodge

In preparation for our walk in the jungle of the Tortuguero National Park, we were advised to wear rubber boots because of the mud we would like find in the rainforest. There was quite an assortment of boots behind the reception building, and I even found a pair that almost fit my rather large feet.

We were then taken by Riccardo, our boat driver from earlier that day, to the national park and spent about an hour and hour and a half with him, wandering along a lush jungle trail through the park to look at the variety of plant and animal life that existed there.

A bird related to the cormorant, drying its wings in Tortuguero

Among the things that we saw along the trail were several species of monkeys – spider monkeys, what they call white faced monkeys or capuchins, and also howler monkeys.

A clearer shot of a different species of toucan in Tortuguero

We also saw a variety of birds, but the most special find was a toucan, as we were not aware that toucans existed in this part of Costa Rica. We thought they were only on the Pacific side of the country. We also found numerous leaf cutter ants and yet more spiders and even some beetles too.

A small eye-lash viper our guide Riccardo found for us - quite poisonous, but very pretty

But by far the coolest find was the eyelash viper, a rather poisonous but very small snake. The eyelash viper we found was bright yellow and all curled up and tucked in under a fallen piece of old timber. It was the size of a small tea plate, but we were told stretched out it would be about two feet long. If the snake had not been bright yellow we would never noticed that it was there, and even then we only found it because Riccardo spent quite some time trying to find a snake for us.

Back at the Tortuga Lodge we had ourselves a wonderful dinner and set forth with another guide, Fernando, to see turtles nesting on the protected beach in Tortuguero National Park. We encountered a light drizzle, and ending up wearing ponchos that the staff at Tortuga Lodge had thoughtfully provided us with.

There are actually two viewing times each night that have been set up by the park rangers – 8pm and 10pm – and each resort is put in a lottery every night to see during which of two those slots their guests can go to observe the turtle nesting. In our case we were lucky enough to get the 8pm slot.

I should note that one disappointment that we faced before going on the turtle nesting trip was learning that we could not take cameras with us – even those that basically only shot in infrared, such as Krystyana’s Sony Cybershot, as there were concerns that any sort of unnatural lights could upset the nesting turtles and prevent them from making a nesting attempt.

Fernando took us by boat to Tortuguero Town, and from there we walked about a mile to our appointed meeting spot a few hundred meters inland from the beach. We did not wait on the beach itself because the rangers did not want us frightening the turtles away while they were trying to nest just by our mere presence.

We waited at the meeting spot for about half hour with a growing group of other people from other hotels and tours. Ultimately we had about 40 people in our section. We finally got a call from rangers indicating that they found nesting turtles at a particular place on the beach. Fernando led us there and in the light of the full moon we could actually see a couple of turtles coming up on the shore from the ocean, the moonlight reflecting off their damp shells.

We had to be careful to stay a fair distance away in order to avoid spooking the turtles, but as we found out during the course of the two hours that we were on the beach, a couple of turtles did indeed abort their nesting attempts because they came out of the water in spots near our group and were too unnerved to crawl much further onto the beach. They turned back into the ocean to try to make their nesting attempt later.

The way the rangers and our guides managed to avoid spooking the turtles too much while observing them was by using flashlights that had red filters on the lenses because turtles, as with many marine organisms, don’t actually see light in the red color spectrum. I use the same type of red light when night diving in order to not frighten fish and other creatures and thus be able to observe them in a more natural state.

The turtle nesting beach on which groups are guided and shepherded at night in the Tortuguero National Park are about five kilometers long. During the peak season, which occurs during July and August, there were as many as 700 people a night participating in watching the turtles nest.

The turtle species spotted nesting are primarily green turtles, although occasionally leatherback and loggerhead turtles are seen too.

Throughout our two hours together, Fernando explained a variety of aspects of turtle behavior, including how turtles mate and nest, how the temperature of an egg in the nest will determine the sex of the newborn turtle, the low survival rates of baby turtles, and much more. He also told us that on some busy nights during the peak of the nesting season there have been as many as 2000 nesting attempts recorded during a single night on the 30 kilometers of beach in and surrounding Tortuguero. That is just phenomenal. Back on Bonaire it’s noteworthy if we get even a few recorded nesting attempts a night, but 2000 in one night? Wow. Then again Bonaire does not have the same sorts of beach length or composition that Tortuguero has.

Another interesting thing Fernando explained is that each turtle makes numerous attempts over the course of couple of months period to nest and to lay eggs – typically laying a handful of nests over a two month period. The female turtles crawl all the way into the bushes at the top of the beach to dig their nest, as that is likely to be the most protected area for the two months it takes for the eggs to mature and hatch. However, with some many turtles nesting multiple times, a turtle may in fact dig into another turtle’s preexisting nest and destroy some of the turtle eggs that are in there. And, in fact, we witnessed just that situation occur the night that we were on the beach. The turtle we watched laying eggs had actually exposed another turtle’s nest and ejected a number of those older eggs onto the beach with her forceful digging attempts, using her flippers.

We actually found egg fragments, and even a couple of whole eggs, sitting on top of the sand near the new nest. We had an opportunity to actually hold one of the ejected eggs and found it to be quite heavy. It probably weighed about two thirds of a pound, which surprised us – it looked like a ping pong ball, and we therefore expected it to weigh less. We gently placed the egg back on the beach but Fernando told us that there was no chance that the egg would survive without being in a nest, protected from the sun and predators, and that just by having been flung out of the nest would have killed the baby turtle forming inside. That was rather sad and unfortunate, but that is also a normal product of nature.

Krystyana and I spent many minutes actually watching a large green turtle lay her eggs and then cover her nest. It should be noted that once turtles actually start laying eggs, they go into a trance of sort and kind of ignore the outside world, which is why it was safe for us to observe the egg laying and not disrupt the process merely by being nearby. All in all it was a pretty fascinating experience.

Ultimately we saw about 10 turtles come ashore and most of those continue to actually make making their nesting attempts in or near the bushes. Turtle nesting is a time consuming process because it takes the turtles in order about 15-20 minutes to make it 150-200 feet from the water’s edge into the bushes at the top of the beach and then probably another half hour to dig the nest where she is going to lay her eggs.

It’s a lot of work and we felt kind of sorry for these turtles, watching them struggle along on land, a place where they really were never designed to exist for very long. Their bodies are designed to be sleek and elegant in the water, but natural history dictates that nesting must occur above the water line, as that’s where the eggs have to hatch, in the sand. The cycle starts afresh with the next generation when the baby turtles have to crawl out of their nest, across a huge stretch of sand (relative to their tiny size) and finally end up in the ocean to continue a mostly aquatic life, until it’s time for mature female turtles to nest, on the same beach on which they were born.

One other lesson we learned that night was “bring bug spray”. There were a fair number of mosquitoes and biting insects on the beach, and without bug repellant we would have been very itchy and covered in bites. In fact, bug repellant is kind of a must when venturing anywhere near large growth in the Tortuguero area, since mosquitoes are very common. We did find, however, that while traveling on the bigger rivers, as well as while near the buildings and at meals at Tortuga Lodge, we did not have any mosquito problems.

We slept well that night and the following morning, after another very nice breakfast, we headed out again with Riccardo. This time it was to go and do a canal tour by boat in the Tortuguero National Park. This involved us being on a boat that could hold probably about 10 people. However, because we were there during low season, the tour consisted of just two of us, Krystyana and myself, along with Riccardo as our guide. That was perfect as it allowed us to stop for prolonged periods in places with good photo opportunities.

A crocodile lurks, waiting for prey, in the waters near Tortuga Lodge in Tortuguero

We spent probably around three hours in the canals looking at and looking for all sorts of interesting creatures. We saw several species of herons, a number of other bird species, some bats, a couple of green basilisk lizards, and several caiman (which are a species of crocodile. We also saw a crocodile too. We also observed all three local species of monkeys in the jungles along the canals – spider monkeys, white faced capuchins and howler monkeys. And, of course, there was the lush green jungle itself, which was simply beautiful.

A very cute capuchin monkey ignored us while foraging in the trees above the canal-6

Another set of unusual creatures that we saw on our canal tour were other tourists who were taking similar canal tours with various other tour companies. Amusingly one of the people on the other boats was Laura, a fellow student from the ELISA Language School back in San Jose who had told us that she was going to be out in Tortuguero the same weekend we were.

We headed back to Tortuga Lodge and had another wonderful lunch, took a little bit of rest and then headed off in the afternoon with Riccardo again, this time to go kayaking in the canals. Krystyana and I each had our own kayak, and Riccardo had his and guided us through the canals – a different set of canals from those we had explored earlier that day by boat.

A heron species we don't know found along the canals of Tortuguero-2

We saw even more different kinds of birds during our kayaking, and being by ourselves with no other people around, I decided to try and “speak” howler monkey, ultimately establishing a sort of bellowing rapport with a couple of male howler monkeys. They sound a bit like sea lions. My conversation caused Krystyana much consternation because she was afraid that they might actually come down and try to attack us. I was more concerned about having things whipped at us, so I tried to ensure we were outside feces hurling range.

Another cool thing we saw were juvenile basilisk lizards actually running across the water on their rear legs – another thing we had not expected to see during our time in Tortuguero.

A spider monkey eats while suspended upside down in Tortuguero

One of the nice things about kayaking is that is very serene and peaceful (other than the howler monkey conversation, of course), in part becaue we did not have to deal with the sound of a boat’s motor. We were out for over two hours and then returned back to Tortuga Lodge to enjoy their wonderful warm swimming pool. We stayed in the pool until after sunset and then had another great dinner.

After dinner we opted for a tour of our own – exploring the Tortuga Lodge grounds at night, in the dark, using our flashlights for navigation, with the intent of taking pictures of whatever interesting things we could find with our cameras and strobes.

As we shined our flashlights around on the grass and trees we noticed these little tiny spots of white light reflecting back at us. When we went closer to these reflecting spots, we found they were the eyes of spiders. Fortunately there were not huge spiders, but we just had never realized that spider eyes reflect light, might in the same way that the eyes of shrimp and other crustaceans reflect light underwater at night.

This whole glowing spider eye thing freaked Krystyana out a bit, so we ended up staying out of the more densely vegetated areas in the back of Tortuga Lodge that night. After the initial discovery, I didn’t disclose to her all the additional glittering eyes I ended up seeing as I was looking through the bushes and through the grass for good camera subjects. I will say that there were a lot of spiders in sizes ranging from just an inch centimeters across (leg end to leg end) to as big as five or six inches. None of these was particularly threatening, and some were downright beautiful, but it was a bit creepy nonetheless – I was very glad to have long pants, hiking shoes, and a long sleeved shirt on, just in case.

Another big spider waiting to pounce at night

Among our non-arachnid finds were a sleeping basilisk lizard, some poison dart frogs, many big frogs and toads, as well as a number of interesting bugs and plants. We did not find any ting frogs, although we could definitely hear them all around.

Upon retiring to our room, exhaustion from the day’s activities brought deep slumber that night – fortunately with no spider dreams. The following morning after breakfast we joined another nine departing guests for an hour-long river boat ride to our bus pickup point at Cano Blanco. That was the closest point where the road actually kind of got to Tortuguero.

Along the way to Cano Blanco we actually almost got stuck in the canal because at one point the water level was so low relative to the muddy bottom in the canal that we had only about one or two inches of clearance. Fernando (our boat captain that morning) got us through, but only with a lot of churning through the mud. We observed some other boats coming the other way that actually did get stuck, and the crew had to get out and push the 50 foot long boat through the shallowest part.

As we neared Cano Blanco we also ended up seeing a flock of black headed vultures, as well as roseate spoonbills, another bird species which we found to be a real treat. On Bonaire we have large flocks of Caribbean flamingos, which are just as pink as the roseate spoonbills, but seeing wild spoonbills was cool.

The real bonus was seeing roseate spoonbills in the water

During our three and a half hour bus ride back to San Jose we saw some interesting sights, including banana fields, the relative poverty of some of the smaller villages along the dirt road we were on for the first hour, and truck pulling a horse behind it (instead of the other way around).

A man rides his motorcycle home, laden with groceries such as bananas, in Costa Rica
We arrived at our hotel late on Monday afternoon, tired but happy. Our trip to Tortuguero was more than we had hoped for, both in terms of experiencing the jungles of Caribbean Costa Rica, and with respect to the service we received all along the way. Extra kudos go to all the folks at Costa Rica Expeditions and Tortuga Lodge. We were pleasantly surprised to find a small property in the middle of the jungle which provided such excellent service, facilities, activities, and not at all least, great dining. And the wildlife we had a chance to observe close up and even interact with (in case of the howler monkeys) was incredible.

Definitely put a multi-day visit to Tortuguero on your expedition list if you visit Costa Rica, and don’t let the fact that September is rainy season scare you away from visiting. Just minimize your time in the bigger cities and spend your time out near the wilds.

 

Lots of Miles, Lots of Countryside – Three Provinces, Three Days

October 17th, 2008 at 11:21 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

In case you might have been worried about us falling (or driving) off the face of the earth, rest assured that we’re alive and well and presently in the city of Moncton in New Brunswick.

We left Louisbourg on Cape Breton on Wednesday morning for Pictou in mid-Nova Scotia, intent on timing things well for the 4pm ferry to Prince Edward Island. We stopped off at Harbor Quilt Company, a quilting store and gallery outside of Antigonish, and then had lunch at Gabrieau’s Bistro in downtown Antigonish.

Gabrieau’s had an interesting looking menu, but the we found the service to be pretty terrible. Our waitress mis-heard a couple of our orders, and when asked about it, explained what she thought she heard and then left without offering to correct things. She was also quite slow and difficult to flag down. The food that we ended up with was also underwhelming. The spicy Thai beef salad used deli-style roast beef, which gave it an odd flavor. The Caesar dressing lacked any real flavor. The Asian baby back ribs and vegetable and chicken stifado were better though. And the two different cheesecakes we had were a disappointment too. We did note that a table with a different waitress appeared to have had a much better experience, but that was little comfort to us, and a different waitress would not have improved the food at all anyhow. So, if you’re tempted by Gabrieau’s when in Antigonish, contemplate your alternatives first.

One of the issues with the service at the restaurant was that we were now getting concerned about making the ferry, as time was starting to get a bit tight. Turns out to have not been an issue at all because I misread the ferry schedule, and the ferry left at 2:45pm (which we had, by then, missed), with the next one at 6pm.

To burn time, we ended up taking a leisurely stroll through picturesque Pictou (with the only thing marring the pretty harborside being a factory of some sort across the bay) and then had some tea before heading to the ferry terminal.

At the ferry terminal, while waiting for the ferry to arrive, we came across another rather distinct wild creature – a real, live fox. Turns out this fox has become an opportunistic feeder and waits for ferry travelers to toss it food scraps. The fox provided us with about 20 minutes of entertainment before it scooted away with the arrival of the ferry.

A fox at the Caribou Ferry Terminal near Pictou, Nova Scotia

A fox at the Caribou Ferry Terminal near Pictou, Nova Scotia

An hour and a half later we were driving off the ferry in Wood’s Island, on Prince Edward Island on our way to the island’s largest city, Charlottetown, and also the most unique and attractive of all the various accommodations we have had so far on this trip.

We had booked two nights at The Great George, which is a collection of suites and buildings spread out over a block or two. The main reception area looks and feels just like one might picture a club room at a posh British gentleman’s club. The staff at the hotel was excellent and efficient, and within a short time had directed us to our lodging – a standalone house called The Dorchester.

The Dorchester was a two story house with two large bedrooms and excellently appointed bathrooms upstairs, along with a den, a living room (with fold out sofa), a kitchen, and another bathroom (this one with a washer and dryer) on the main floor. And all at a price cheaper than some single rooms we had stayed in so far. And the king size bed (one of the few we have encountered in the Canadian Maritimes) was perfect in terms of comfort – nice and firm without being hard.

Should you ever visit Charlottetown, The Great George is where you have to stay.

We arrived pretty late – around 8pm – but the front desk staff was able to suggest a couple of restaurants for dinner, and we settled on Sims Corner Steakhouse and Oyster House. Nice ambiance, but very spotty service. The food itself was quite good, with excellent appetizers and decent main courses. A particular favorite were the extremely fresh and plump PEI mussels. I also had some local oysters, and Canadian rib eye. Linda and I also enjoyed a very good Margaux with our meal. The food is definitely worth a trip to Sims, but be aware the service may be lacking a bit in terms of efficiency (and we’re used to island-time service back on Bonaire, and this was worse).

Our next day was spent driving around the center of Prince Edward Island in search of Anne of Green Gables and other diversions.

First, let me say that PEI (as Prince Edward Island is known) is beautiful and pastoral – outside the city the buildings are far apart with large fields separating them, lots of the fields used as farm land, with sprinkles of cows and horses here and there.

However, being the middle of October, we found just about every retail store and accommodation we drove by closed until next May or so. It appears that the main season for any sort of activity runs May through September – five months. The rest of the year things just close down and hibernate. The same applies to places like Cape Breton, as we noticed this past week.

We did find one shop open – Rustico Bay Wool Sweater Company, where the owner, the aptly named Kathy Winter, was also getting ready to close down for the season. Kathy was among the few people we had encountered on our trip who had heard of our home island of Bonaire. We ended up getting Bas a set of very soft and warm Alpaca wool gloves and being offered a couple of nice PEI apples (which tasted like Cortlands) on our way out.

We managed to find the PEI Information Center in Cavendish barely open – brochures were being boxed up in anticipation of closing down the center for the season this weekend. We did get some good advice on things still left to see, and then headed to the nearby park to explore some fabulous sand dunes.

Cavendish is one of the places where Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables (and numerous other books featuring strong female heroines), lived for a good bit of her early life, and many of the settings in her books, as well as the characters, were drawn from her own experiences and observations on PEI in the Cavendish area.

What we found fascinating was how much of the local tourism industry had evolved around a fictional teenage girl from a book published in 1908. In addition to the house used as the model for Green Gables, the birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery, and a couple of museums, a vast number of commercial enterprises had all hopped on the Anne bandwagon. We saw Anne of Green Gables chocolates being promoted, the Kindred Spirits Inn (using an oft repeated phrase from the Anne books), and several amusement and theme parks all based on the characters and stories of the various Anne of Green Gables books.

Anyhow, after the dunes we visited the Anne of Green Gables Museum near Shining Water. The museum was actually a museum about Lucy Maud Montgomery, and situated in a house owned by relatives of hers where she had spent a fair bit of time during her younger years. In addition to furnishings and memorabilia actually mentioned in some of her books, we saw excerpts from her journals, signed first editions of her books, and photos and stories documenting Lucy Maud Montgomery’s life. Pretty interesting. We also learned that the book Anne of Green Gables at one point was required reading in Japanese schools, and thus the whole area, and the museum in particular, was a major Japanese tourist attraction.

Amusingly, we found that a not insignificant number of the tourists to the area believed Anne was a real person instead of the fictional character that she actually is. That said, Anne certainly seems to have a life, and following, of her own.

After the museum we continued our scenic drive, ultimately ending up in Summerside, another city, about an hour from Charlottetown. We were starving by the time we got there, but sadly had no idea where to look for a good restaurant (not having brought our Fodor’s or AAA guides with us, foolishly), and ended with experimenting with “Chinese and Canadian Cuisine” (the subtitle for every Chinese restaurant we had so far seen in Nova Scotia and PEI) at China Star Restaurant in the heart of a rather desolate Summerside. The food was not bad, but as we had ordered a couple of Szechuan dishes, we had hoped for more spice and flavor. A fine place to go if you’re hungry. By the way, the “Canadian Cuisine” thing is apparently something that is almost required if you’re serving foreign foods in this area, as we’ve learned, as it tells less adventurous diners that it’s “safe” to eat there – they can get their sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, fried fish and scallops, and french fries in addition to whatever else might be on the menu.

We continued our scenic route back to Charlottetown, with the sole highlight being a farm for miniature horses, several of which were out in the yard by the road. They were absolutely adorable, and quite friendly. Bas was convinced we should go buy one right then and there, but we explained that we only had four seats home, so if we got the small horse, he’d have to stay behind. He wisely decided this might not be the right time for a miniature horse after all.

I had a conference call to attend to when we returned, and we then attempted to do a little bit of shopping in the pretty historic part of Charlottetown, but our efforts were brought up short when it turned out that all the shops, with one exception, closed at 5pm, which is what time we had gone out. We did find one shop, Firehouse Studios, which was open a bit later though. Firehorse is a shop specializing in artistic glass – including fused glass, stained glass, and the like. Some beautiful work there. Plus they also have classes and supplies for making your own glass art. The person working the shop was kind enough to provide us some tips on how to fuse glass and we hope to be able to give it a try ourselves once we get the necessary materials and dust off our kiln.

For dinner we chose Lot 30, which we had been told was the best restaurant in Charlottetown. We left Bas behind at The Dorchester, well fed from leftovers from lunch, and Krystyana, Linda, and I headed for Lot 30. We found the menu interesting and tried to make sure to each order something different so we could do our own tasting. Our waiter was a bit slow and hesitant in responding to our questions, but much better than the one from the previous night at Sims. We enjoyed our appetizers immensely – I had foie gras with scallop and shredded beef, Krystyana had a turnip and apple soup, and Linda had fried local oysters (which were the best appetizer of the three).

But the main courses were a bit disappointing, perhaps in that each of our plates shared key accompaniments with one of the other main courses on the table. For example, my scallops had a vegetable medley which was identical to that for Linda’s duck, and mashed potatoes just like those with Krystyana’s pork belly. And the girls both had another type of vegetable in common as well. First, the flavors of the accompanying items, while possibly better suited to one of the dishes did not translate well to the other in terms of a flavor combined, and second, it seemed to be a bit, well, lazy, at least in terms of creativity. And it also didn’t quite mesh with the descriptions of the dishes on the menu. One area where service was excellent though was in food delivery, in that they always made sure that each person at a table got their course at exactly the same time. However, on the flip side, the food was delivered without explanation, which considering how the food was not as described in the menu, was a bit off-putting.

If Lot 30 was supposedly the best fine dining restaurant in Charlottetown then Charlottetown has a ways to go in terms of fine dining.

Our final day of our three day, three province experience, namely today, started very early, as we needed to drive for about two and a half hours to make it to the Joggins Fossil Institute in Joggins, Nova Scotia for a 10am walking tour. This involved, other than an early departure, driving a number of kilometers over the Confederation Bridge (which also charges a hefty toll of CA$41.50) into New Brunswick, and then back into Nova Scotia. So, in fact, we hit three provinces in about two hours.

The Joggins Fossil Institute consists of a newly built (opened April 2008) museum and research complex atop the cliffs in the village of Joggins. Joggins is a recently certified UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the location of the discovery of the world’s oldest reptile fossil, all the back from the Carboniferous Era around 350 million years ago.

Our tour turned out to be a private one simply because no one else showed up, so we had Brian Hebert, the Chief Interpreter of the Joggins Fossil Institute, all to ourselves for two whole hours. Brian walked up up and down about one kilometer of shoreline (it was low tide in the Bay of Fundy, which Joggins abuts), showing us examples of fossil trees, veins of coal, rock stratification and collapse, details about tidal erosion, and all sorts of other good things.

While it was freezing out (at least for us thin blooded types), with high winds causing a biting chill factor, we braved it out and by the end of our tour were able to find all sorts of interesting fossils of our own in the limestone debris littering the beach below the museum. Unfortunately we didn’t find anything unique enough for the museum to want to put in its depository of fossils. Brian was an excellent and enthusiastic guide, and, as it turns out, one of the most prolific discovers of new and unique fossils in the area. He had recently found the only fossil of a scorpion ever seen in the Joggins area, for example.

After warming up a bit with hot Chai and coffee after the tour, we finished exploring the museum, “donated” to the gift shop for a number of new books, and then made our way back into New Brunswick and the Schnitzel Haus in Aulac, right across the border from Nova Scotia. We had a good hearty German lunch (with pretty reasonable service, for a change), and then made our way to the city of Moncton and the Crowne Plaza hotel here.

There was no clearly marked entrance to the hotel, at least not for bringing in luggage, so we ended having to call the hotel from a nearby parking lot for assistance with our growing pile of luggage. Our room was nice and big enough for all of us to sleep in, but we’re not impressed with the rest of the hotel. The corridors outside our room reek of cigarette smoke (apparently because the rooms themselves are supposed to be smoke free with fines for those who light up in them), and the hotel is located in a kind of grungy part of town, just a block away from a nicer section with lots of restaurants.

As Krystyana is still tired of seafood, we opted for a Thai-Vietnamese restaurant, Vien Dong, on Main Street. I found the food pretty good, but Linda wasn’t thrilled with her soup or any of the rest of the dishes we ordered, commenting that this was basically repackaged Chinese food – she may have been right to an extent.

Service again was quite slow though, but this time possibly because the restaurant was quite busy and there was only one waiter. We also found the beverage options (at least the ones on our menus) rather limited. The portions were huge compared to what we had experienced so far in the Canadian Maritimes. If you’re desperate for Thai food in Moncton, Vien Dong would not be a bad choice in any event.

We got back to our room and started planning our next day, which involves trying to go experience the Magnetic Hill, see the Hopewell Rocks, and then make our way to St. Andrews, near the Maine border.