North Atlantic Humpbacks in Winter

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For the 4th consecutive year we made our way south out of the frigid New England winter to spend time with our friends at Aquatic Adventures who run expeditions from the Dominican Republic to the Silver Bank to observe North Atlantic humpback whales in their winter habitat. As many of you are aware 2015 is showing the northeast portion of the US and Canada some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded in addition to record amounts of snowfall. The Boston area, near where we live on Cape Cod, had already recorded more than 2 meters of snowfall by the time of our departure (in mid February) and more was on the way.  And we were also very excited to join whale researcher Jenn Tackaberry from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA for our week on the Silver Bank. Jenn has studied Gulf of Maine whales for a decade but this was her first chance to observe humpback whale mothers and young calves (3 – 5 weeks old) as they learn the ways of the ocean in safe Caribbean waters without predators.

We made the 10 hour passage (80 miles off shore) from Puerto Plata out to the Silver Bank in relatively calm waters. However for the following five days we had strong winds and choppy seas to deal with making underwater photography a challenge. And the weather did not dampen the excitement of the expedition team as we observed these beautiful mammals conducting the child rearing and mating rituals that they have been doing here for 100’s of millennia.

Here are just a few images from the experience and once again it was unforgettable. For more information about these expeditions and to learn more about the partnership between Aquatic Adventures and the Center for Coastal Studies AND how you can help – please check this site. www.coastalstudies.org/aquaticadventures

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Check out this short video we have just posted. It was inspired by one of our fellow travelers.

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Read more.. Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Report from East Africa: Lake Tanganyika

Our African Odyssey continued in Tanzania as we ventured by small plane south and west to the shores of Lake Tanganyika and the Mahale National Park. Our friends at Africa Easy http://www.africaeasy.com/ had suggested we make this visit off the usual safari path to Greystoke Mahale Camp on the shores of this crystal clear African Great Lake. Lake Tanganyika is the second largest fresh water lake in the world by volume, and the second deepest, in both cases, after only Lake Baikal in Siberia and it is also the world’s longest freshwater lake.  The lake is divided among four countries – Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and Zambia. In truth, most of the Lake, because it is long and skinny, borders  Tanzania  and the DRC which was clearly visible from the Tanzania side.  The water flows out of the Lake into the Congo River system and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. This jewel of fresh water in the middle of the Albertine Rift Valley is remarkably pristine and home to more than 325 fish species many of which are endemic to the area. Visitors who like to fish or even snorkel will not be disappointed however when we asked about the snorkeling opportunities we were presented with a formidable release of all liabilities form due to the presence of crocodiles! We decided to stay out of the water this time.

Upon landing at the airstrip on the lake’s edge we linked up with our guides from Greystoke Mahale who trundled us aboard a basic dhow called Wolfe for the 90 minute ride south to the camp. We spent the next four amazing days in this special hideaway. And because we were traveling off season we had the camp practically to ourselves.

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Mahale Wolfe

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Mahale NP

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Palm Vultures over the Mahale Mountains

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As we arrived at Greystoke Mahale we were greeted by a gregarious white pelican who is known locally as “Big bird”. It was only later that we learned he is a big internet star having been “retained” by the folks that make GoPro cameras to be a celebrity “stuntbird”. You may have seen Big bird during the holiday season at stores that carry GoPros. His Learning to Fly video was featured on YouTube and every department store kiosk in the world. You can check it out here if you haven’t seen it.

Mahale Big Bird

“Big bird” meets “The Gorilla guy”.

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We spotted this vessel on the second day of our stay. Wow what a story. The M/V Liemba is an affectionately known icon of Lake Tanganyika. She has been chugging up and down its waters for over eighty years. The ferry departs from Tanzania’s border town of Kigoma on the north of the lake each Wednesday afternoon. She stops in at a number of small Tanzanian lakeside villages before reaching Zambia’s Mpulungu town two days later where she turns around and heads back up.  Originally known as the Graf von Gotzen, the old steamship was built in Papenburg, Germany in 1913. She was disassembled in Germany and shipped to Dar es Salaam. From there she was transported in pieces by rail to the Kigoma shipyard. At that stage the Dar es Salaam– Kigoma railway had not yet been completed and so the Liemba was carried in pieces by porters on the final stretch to Kigoma. Yikes!

She was used to transport cargo and armed troops for the German army until 1916. That year, following the British take over of the Central Line Railway, she was sunk by her German crew who would rather have her at the bottom of the lake than fall to the victorious British army.AND THEN she remained underwater for eight years until 1924 when the British retrieved her from the lake floor, rechristened her the M/V Liemba and reinstated her as a cargo and passenger vessel. Today she transports some 600 passengers and their goods up and down the length of the lake, providing a vital life-line along its route. Amazing but true!

Mahale Primus

“Primus”, the alpha male of the Chimpanzee troop at Mahale

The main attraction at Mahale is the opportunity to track and spend time with a group of chimpanzees that have been habituated to the presence of humans. Meet “Primus”, the alpha male of the troop of 264 chimpanzees that live in the Mahale Mts. above the camp. If his demeanor looks tough that is because he is a brute. Primus rules this troop of chimps like a tyrant – with fear and intimidation. We learned from the local guide that this is not unknown in chimpanzee culture. According to the local naturalists Primus took over the colony just a few years ago by assassinating his predecessor in a bloody coup d’etat with the aid of some co-conspirators. And Primus must defend his supremacy every single day including the right to breed with all of the mature females by constantly harassing and physically abusing potential challenging males with force. Hence his scarred face and attitude that radiates “I am a bully”. He is a dictator and feared by all. The pattern repeats itself down the line of successor dominant males who each know where they are in the troops’ pecking order. We were surprised to observe this kind of behavior from our closest living primate relatives…but then again after thinking about this a bit…we understood more clearly.

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Male chimp known as Darwin

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Mahale Pels Fishing Owl

Very rare sighting of Pels Fishing Owl!

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Collared Sunbird

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This beautiful fish became dinner

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African Fish Eagle on the hunt

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Sunset over the DRC

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Greystoke Mahale Camp

Greystoke Mahale Camp (owned by Nomad) is a true gem and away from the usual safari destinations. Flights arrive just a couple times a week so stays are for a minimum of 4 nights. Chimpanzee trekking,  can take much of the day as with guides visitors search in the Mahale Mts to find chimps. We were very fortunate and in three days of trekking we never had to walk longer than 90 minutes to catch up with the chimp trackers. Once found we spent the 1 hour (regulation controlled) observing troop behavior and then still had lots of opportunities to observe and experience the beautiful lakefront forest and the birds and animals that live there. Cam and Kate, Camp Managers were delightful and fun. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and highly recommend a visit if you are considering remote destinations in East Africa.

 

Read more.. Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Report from East Africa: Tanzania

After spending more than 17 days exploring The Seychelles and Aldabra Atoll we disembarked in  Zanzibar, the island gateway to East Africa. Zanzibar City sits on the west side of the island of Unguja in the Zanzibar Archipelago and its charming Stone Town holds a great deal of historical significance into the shaping of the region. We spent a couple of nights here on our way into the wilds of Tanzania. Here are a just a few impressions from a very brief stopover.

Dhows Zanzibar

Stone Town is a fine example of the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa. It retains its urban fabric and townscape virtually intact and contains many fine buildings that reflect its particular culture, which has brought together and homogenized disparate elements of the cultures of Africa, the Arab region, India, and Europe over more than a millennium. The ruling Islamic dynasty of Zanzibar and its foreign merchants became very rich and embellished the Stone Town with palaces and fine mansions. These were built in a variety of styles and traditions, which were amalgamated and homogenized into a characteristic Swahili architecture. In addition the east African slave trade, started by the Portuguese, assumed large proportions in the 18th century, when slaves were required in large numbers especially for the French sugar plantations in the islands of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. We visited the oldsite where the Slave Market took place as it has been preserved almost exactly. Quite a moving experience to imagine the horrors that took place here.

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During our short stay on Zanzibar we made a surgical strike outside the city to search for a rare primate that is only found here – the Zanzibar red colobus monkey. …and we got lucky with some up close views.

Red Colubus Zanzibar

From Zanzibar we ventured westward by small plane to Arusha, the gateway to beautiful wild areas in the north and western parts of Tanzania. We were met by our guide for the next two days and then drove (on rough roads) for about 3 hours into The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), a conservation area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 110 mi west of Arusha in the Crater Highlands.  Our destination was the Ngorongoro Crater, a large volcanic caldera within the area, is recognized by one private organization as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. It is  the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera. The crater, which formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself two to three million years ago, is 2,000 feet deep and its floor covers 100 square miles Estimates of the height of the original volcano range from 14,800 to 19,000 feet high and the elevation of the crater floor is 5,900 feet above sea level. We were fortunate to visit in the short rainy season time when few tourists are present an we organized our game drive to begin at sunrise to among the first to venture down into the crater from our lodge on the rim.  We were greeted with a beautiful green landscape and lots of relaxed animal and bird residents just waking up. It was wonderful!

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Nogorogoron Crater

We were thoroughly enamored with our visit down to the crater. The vistas were impressive and for the most of the day we were all alone with Nature!

 

 

 

 

Read more.. Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Report from Africa: Ultimate Aldabra

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A few weeks ago we foretold of our long anticipated expedition into a remote island group off the African east coast in the southern hemisphere. Aldabra is officially part of The Seychelles but lies 700 miles southwest of the main Seychelles group and capital Mahe. Designated a World Heritage site for the protection of its unique and magnificent biodiversity Aldabra is very seldom visited by anyone outside of the research and conservation communities. Most visitors arrive by private yachts seeking the absolute beauty and solitude among an ocean ecosystem few will ever see. We were fortunate to join a group on a small ship in Mahe and made the long journey comfortably visiting and exploring a few of the granitic Seychelles on our way to the Aldabra Group.

Upon arrival at Aldabra Atoll we coordinated our activities with the research team stationed there to take advantage of unusually calm weather to explore the atoll’s lagoon with mask and snorkel when the daily tides permitted. The Atoll itself was immense measuring more than 23 miles across making it impossible to see the outer edges of the lagoon from our entry points on the atoll’s west side channels. These incredible channels were accessible only by shallow draft inflatable boats  a few hours a day when the incoming tide flooded the scorched sandy shallow seabed which goes dry at low tide every 12 hours or so. Our amazing experiences included performing fantastic ‘drift” snorkels where one floats into the lagoon with swift moving currents running at 2 – 3 knots along with fish, rays, sharks, turtles of all shapes and sizes as they make the journey into the lagoon to feed on the high tide pools of life that flood in. Because fishing activity is illegal and the conservation zone is protected around Atoll many very large fish and sharks are present and show no fear of human presence given the protection they have enjoyed for more than 40 years.  The sights were absolutely magical.

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Common dolphins outside the Aldabra Lagoon

 

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Spotted Eagle Rays

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Brown Booby

 

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Green Turtle leaving the Lagoon on a falling tide

 

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Red Footed Booby

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Crab Plovers, Aldabra Atoll

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A school of Jacks

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Anemone and Clownfish

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Island of Mahe, The Seychelles (Granitic Isl)

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Island of Mahe, The Seychelles (Granitic Isl)

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Fairy Terns, Aride Is.

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The Wall, Astove Island, Aldabra Group

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Rare gathering of 40 large Sting Rays – Aldabra Lagoon

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Black tipped reef Shark, Aldabra Lagoon

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Aldabra Rail, A Rare Endemic

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Aldabra Giant Tortoise, This fella is likely more than 250 years old!

Longliner off Zanzibar

Longliner off Zanzibar

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Chart of the west end of Aldabra Atoll

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Land Crab – Aldabra

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Aldabra Mangroves

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Island Sky, Off of Aride Is. The Seychelles

 

Astove Wall

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The Wall, Astove Island, Aldabra Group

 

Mangroves at Aldabra

Read more.. Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

African Odyssey Unfolds

We have just wrapped up our field work on Cape Cod working with the Massachusetts White Shark Team as the cold winds of winter start to blow and the leaves are falling. Our boats are now stored for the North American winter. Just in time to launch into our next wild adventure which will take us back to Africa for the 7th time since 2009. And believe it or not we are barely past scratching the surface in exploring this amazing continent. Our focus once again is on wild life and wild places, most of which will be new territory. We will plunge into the onset of equatorial summer on our first stop in The Seychelles with a particular interest in diving in the southwestern portion of the archipelago , a world heritage site called Aldabra Atoll. From Wikipedia we learn that, “Sir David Attenborough called the south western atoll of Aldabra “one of the wonders of the world”, and it is also known as one of “crown jewels” of the Indian Ocean. Aside from its vast population of tortoises, it is also the largest raised coral reef in the world with an elevation of 26 feet (7.9 m);  a habitat for the biggest crab, the cocunut crab; and habitat for the Indian Ocean’s Aldabra rail, the only surviving flightless bird species of its kind in the world.” We are particularly excited because Aldabra is uninhabited, extremely isolated,  and is virtually untouched by humans. Not many places in the world so fortunate. Quite ironically it has been months since we have actually been in the water so we are looking forward to being a fish again in warm clear water.

Armed with tons of camera gear for above and below the water we hope we can capture the spirit of the place. Here are some beautiful images from other explorers.

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Destination Aldabra

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Our journey will continue with a visit to Zanzibar where we will begin our first encounters in Tanzania. We are extremely excited to travel all the way west into a remote area on Lake Tanganyika where we will spend time with a wild troop of chimpanzees. This region is where Dr. Jane Goodall did her field work. We will then venture into the Serengeti for our first visit into this savannah to discover the summer activity of the great wildebeest migration. Should be pretty green as it is still part of the rainy season. This region is now being seriously threatened by Government plans to put a major paved road into the area which, according to friends, would destroy the Serengeti as we know it forever. Will hope to better understand what is happening here. Ever since I read Peter Matthiessen’s Sand Rivers, I have wanted to see this. From here we will camp (comfortably) in the Ngorogoro Crater before we re-load and proceed to our second home in Cape Town, South Africa to be with many friends and get the chance to view this beautiful country in their summer and yes we be diving with hopes of glimpses of apex predators. So pleased to be spending a warm Christmas among friends there. After several weeks in the Western Cape of South Africa we will again re-load and venture northeast to the Horn of Africa for some exploration of Djibouti on the Red Sea (back in the water) and finally we will spend nearly three weeks exploring Ethiopia, an area so rich in unique culture and fantastic wildlife I will leave the description to a later post.

We will be traveling for 9 weeks. Yikes!! But we are sure the time will pass quickly. It usually does when you are in the wild. And we will try our very best to post reports as internet access allows.

 

 

Read more.. Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Down East at the Autumnal Equinox

We took a few days off from our work with the Massachusetts White Shark Research team to travel to Down East Maine and embrace the onset of Autumn in the New England north country. We were eager to explore a new destination in the mid coast region well known to birders especially in the fall migration. Our target was Monhegan Island , a tiny wooded rock pile about ten miles off the Maine coast. The island is well visited in the fall as it is a famous stop-over for southbound migrants that get blown off the coast in certain weather conditions. Among these visitors are various warblers, other song birds and the raptors who feast on them in these confined island habitats. The island was settled some 400 years ago by English colonists and has been home to fishing families ever since. In the early Twentieth Century a private land trust was set up by a generous benefactor to set aside most of the island as natural woodlands with maintained trails. The result is a beautifully wooded natural preserve of conifers and deciduous trees which at the fall time can harbor some exotic migrant birds who found there way to Monhegan as the last refuge before getting blown out over the Atlantic Ocean. While we were on the island we observed Merlins and Peregrine Falcons constantly in pursuit of the visiting song birds. Warbler highlights included a Cape May warbler, Nashville warbler, Black throated Green warbler, Black throated Blue warbler and many Myrtles. Pam spotted a Scarlet Tanager male and the star bird of the few days was a Yellow headed Blackbird that was way out of its range usually seen west of the Rockies… Pretty amazing sight, though no photos were acquired of this bird.

Meanwhile the islanders were busy getting lobster traps rigged for the big October 1st opening. They were very friendly and knowledgeable about the birding that was going on all around them. We were privileged to join a group of experienced birders which included ornithologist Dr. Trevor Lloyd-Evans from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. The weather was magnificent and Monhegan is truly a magical place at this time of year and we look forward to returning!

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Nashville Warbler Fall 2014

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Raven in the lower foreground

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Monhegan Harbormaster – Shermie Stanley receives his surprise gift. The photograph is of a school of Blue-fin tuna “Giants” taken by legendary spotter pilot and photographer Wayne Davis in celebration of their time fishing together years ago.

Read more.. Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

British Columbia: The Rugged Coast

We are overdue in reporting on some of the details behind our recent journey to the Pacific Northwest. As mentioned in a previous post, our goal was to restock our freezers with a stock of salmon, halibut, ling cod and hopefully have a chance to record some of the truly wonderful wildlife that is resident at this time of year there. Our trip took us north by plane to Bella Bella, a village on the coast well north in BC on the famous cruising grounds known as the Inside Passage. Bella Bella is primarily a First Nations community depending on  commercial fishing as a primary livelihood for residents. From there we caught a ride by water about 20 miles to the south and west to a mobile fish camp anchored in a protected cove for the summer sport fishing season. The camp caters to return visitors who have frequented the beautiful Hakai Pass recreational area before and are comfortable getting around safely in their 17 ft custom fit out for fishing Boston whalers. Accompanied by son Spencer we were eager to get fishing as soon as we arrived. Our perseverance paid off over the 4 days we were on the grounds and managed to return with more than 100 lbs of frozen fish filets to restock our larders. Also sent a few choice pieces to the Smoke house as well. Following are few of the memories. We had a couple of days of dense fog which made it a challenge to get around but when it did clear is was beautiful. And the prize of the trip was a great one hour encounter with a small pod of Transient killer whales.

 

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Black turnstones join a small flock of Surfbirds

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Gulls and auk-lets intensely feed on a herring bait ball

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Female matriarch of the pod…did this surface “spy – hop likely to check us out.

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A young member of the pod did a complete breach just before this frame was taken

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Hakai Pass 2014

This male had a very distinctly deformed dorsal fin. Likely son of the female above

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Hakai Orca

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Rhinoceros auk-let

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Ceremonial native canoes from as far away as Alaska and Washington State were visiting

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Pacific oystercatchers

 

 

Read more.. Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Offshore with Blues

Summer brings with it many changes to the marine environment in and around Cape Cod and surrounding islands. As the ocean currents slowly bring warmer currents from the south the water temperatures rise and some of our migrating fishes return to New England waters along with seabirds who also feast on the bounty that the ocean yields at this time of year. We have longed to hook up with shark conservation legend and filmmaker Joe Romeiro to go offshore to find and swim with Blue sharks in their natural wide open ocean hopefully in clear green and blue water. There is also a chance that a mako shark might bolt into the situation just to liven things up. To accomplish this goal we ventured to Rhode Island to Point Judith for an early departure on board with Pelagic Expeditions, an adventure shark diving operation run by Joe and Brian Raymond. These guys really know their stuff and even though we set out to find clear water in dense fog this Sunday morning – their confidence and experience paid off as we finally broke out of the fog to a sunny flat calm day in the Atlantic ocean. Humpback whales and Minke whales surfaced lazily around us and we waited while our chum slick sent out a call to the ocean scavengers that might be within a few miles of our position. We were also blessed with some close up views of the Wilson Storm Petrel another ocean voyager that makes it’s way to our waters seasonally from deep in the Southern Atlantic, some 9000 miles away. Here are a few shots that tell some of the tale of the day. In case you are wondering we had an absolute blast doing this. Check out Pelagic Expeditions in Rhode Island for more information on how to get in on this local action.

Blue Sharks with Joe Romeiro (11)

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Blue Sharks with Joe Romeiro

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https://www.facebook.com/PelagicExpeditions

Blue Sharks with Joe Romeiro (15)

Wilson’s Storm Petrel gets in on the feeding

Read more.. Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Swimming with the Great Whales

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Links below to two new videos we have just posted to provide some more “color” on these experiences. One compiled from our expedition to Dominica in February 2014 followed by another compiled from footage shot during one incredible day on the Silver Bank – 80 miles north of the Dominican Republic in early March. Please check them both out below.

Sperm Whale Heaven

Sanctuary

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Spotted Dolphins off the bow. Amazing!

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Young male sperm whale checks us out with a close approach to our boat

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Estela – our fellow adventurer on the Silver Bank who inspired the vid “Sanctuary” in this post

Read more.. Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Pacific Northwest Signs of Spring

Our time in the Pacific Northwest has been heavy with family and the brand new babies as our previous posts will attest. However we have managed an outing with our old friend and fellow birder Paula Johnson who lives in the area. Paula was kind enough to guide us to a couple of birding hotspots in the region one day this past week. They are the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in southern Washington near the Columbia River and also the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia.

We got on the road long before dawn, were blessed with some decent spring weather (read no rain) and were rewarded with some excellent sightings of the areas wildlife feeling the urgings of spring.

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Bald Eagle

 

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Tree Swallows were in abundance on their way north to breed

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Nisqually NWR

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A pair of river otters frolic

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A Pair of Cinnamon Teals

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Newly fledged Bald Eagle watching

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Hooded Merganser pair

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Hooded Merganser pair

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A family of raccoons

Dowitchers yellowlegs

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A pair of Wood Ducks

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A Yellow -rumped warbler migrant just showing up at NIsqually NWR on its way north

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Cinnamon Teal Drake preening

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Red winged Blackbird displaying his colors proudly hoping to attract a mate

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A pair of Northern Shovelers

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Read more.. Saturday, April 19th, 2014