We were approached a few months ago by Dr. Michele Goldsmith about using some still shots from our video to prepare the attached Tedx Talk. Though her views are pretty negative on the aspects of ecotourism we support especially concerning the Mountain Gorillas, we thought it important to share her message for the sake of open an honest debate.
After leaving Dominica and our fantastic experiences swimming and observing Sperm whales we made the 1000 mile journey northward via Puerto Rico to join the team at Aquatic Adventures in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Since it is not easy traveling in the Caribbean our journey took several days travel but we finally climbed on board the Turks & Caicos Explorer, our live-aboard dive boat home for the next 6 days and headed out 80 miles to the NNE finding the Silver Bank. These grounds were made famous in colonial times when Spanish treasure ships came to grief on poorly charted coral reefs and deposited lots of treasure on the shallow banks in storms. This was a return trip for us having had the experience in March 2012 and been so moved by it that we vowed to come back for more. We were not disappointed.
Our main objective in coming to Dominica was to observe sperm whales in the wild with the benefit and guidance of local researchers and guides. Because of its is unique Caribbean geography (and bathymetry) Dominica is one of the few places on Planet Earth that you can observe sperm whales in an ocean environment near land and in relatively protected and calm warm water. For much of the last decade researchers under the direction of Shane Gero and Hal Whitehead have been studying a resident population of about 20 family groups that live in the region. Sperm whales are highly social animals and, like elephants, form large family units made up principally of female family members with juveniles. Social units are required to share in the protection and rearing of young sperm whales as adult whales must dive to great depths to feed and youngsters cannot dive deeply for a number of years after birth. They are often accompanied by relatives who act as “care providers” at the surface while mom dives for food. Principally squid in the dark ocean depths.
We were very fortunate to acquire permits from the government of Dominica and get to sea with ground operators who have been part of The Sperm Whale Project team for a number of years. Most of the individual whales we observed were known to our guides and even had names and a family lineage which we learned. Male sperm whales come of age around their tenth birthday and at that point leave the family unit to join bachelor herds who travel the ocean mostly in northern climes nearer to the ice to feed and generally “learn” to be the man. Unlikely that male whales return to their home path in later life but studies of this are as yet unknown. Among the beautiful interactions we experienced we did connect with a near mature young male of 8 or 9 years who provided a spirited encounter (now posted) on YouTube on our channel – aleutiandream.
Whale Tale: Face to Face with Earth’s largest Predator.
Our journey to Dominica, the Nature Island proved to be everything and more than we could have hoped for. The island is, in jest, referred to “as the one island in the Caribbean that Christopher Columbus would recognize if he returned to the area”. It is a beautiful forested mountainous paradise that rockets in several peaks out of the sea to as high as 4700 feet on one peak. Because of its severe geography and the lack of a proper protected port it has been relatively left alone over the centuries and escaped significant development. It features beautiful waterfalls and remote canyons for hikers, trekkers and birders among others. It is a destination for many who enjoy the active sport called “Canyoning” . We saved this experience for another trip but did manage to spend two full days exploring the forests and coast for their endemic birds. Absolutely beautiful. Of note several sites on the island were used as locations for the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean a few years ago. For our purposes the main attraction was the ability to gain permits from the government of Dominica to join a locally based research team who is studying a local population of Sperm Whales. These family groups are in the general area for almost the entire year to raise their young and feed in the warm deep waters which are rich with “arrowhead squid”.
In the final stages of packing for another expedition into warm waters in search of the largest predator on planet earth – the Sperm Whale. The stuff of legends especially well known to the New England whalers of our Cape Cod and the Islands region, these incredible creatures boast the largest brain on the planet too. If you watch the attached link you will learn a bit about where we are going and why. Dominica, in the Antilles, is one of the preferred locations for Atlantic sperm whales to mate and rear their young. We are fortunate to be linking up with a Canadian research team that will give us an up close an personal experience. We are praying for fair weather.
Underwater camera gear checked out and adrenaline is starting to flow. With only one flight a day into the island we are over-nighting in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico before we head south.
Will be checking out our new GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition cameras amongst the other gear we usually take. Dominica has some unique endemic birds as well and we will spend a few days hiking its mountainous forests.
Hawaii’s history and culture are visible on the Big Island for those who look for this evidence. The western and northern part of Hawaiʻi island known as the Kona – Kohala Coast gets very little rainfall during the yearly seasons. We stayed in the area in Puako which gets less than 15 inches per year. It is a desert. It was also the area that King Kamehameha the First made his ancestral home.
Kamehameha I took control of the Kona and Kohala districts in 1782, but for eight years since then fought in a number of inconclusive battles. After returning from Maui in 1790, he was attacked by his cousin Keoua Kuahu’ula who still controlled the East side of the island. He returned to the village of Kawaihae, where he had spent some time earlier. A respected Kauna (priest) named Kapokahi suggested building a lueakeni heiau (sacrificial temple) to gain the favor of the war god Kukaillimoku
Puʻukoholā Heiau meaning “Temple on the Hill of the Whale” was the result, probably on the site of an older temple from about 1580. It was built entirely by hand with no mortar, in less than a year. The red stones were transported by a human chain about 14 miles long, from Pololu Valley to the East. Construction was supervised by Kamehameha’s brother Keli’imaki’i, involving thousands of people.
Every year more than 2,000 humpback whales migrate to Hawaiian waters. A population of up to 600 inhabits the waters off Big Island’s western coast.Humpbacks come to Hawaii for two reasons: to mate and to give birth. Most Hawaiian humpbacks travel 3000 miles from Alaska where they spend their summers, but whales in Hawaii have been recorded traveling all over the Pacific, coming from as far away as South America and Russia.
Adults can attain lengths of up to 60 feet, but most humpbacks max out at around 45 feet. At birth the calf weighs only about a ton (mom weighs up to 50 tons), but it comes out already measuring nearly 15 feet in length. After watching diligently from the shore for more than week from several locations and witnessing the telltale signs of mother and calf pairs interacting from time to time we finally got the chance to get out on a boat and see these magnificent creatures close up. This youngster was barely a week or two old and was learning to breathe and dive along side its mother. It treated us to a couple of “baby breaches”.
Absolutely fantastic encounters with turtles and reef fish by snorkel. We were tipped off to a location several 100 yards off shore where Green turtles gather to get “cleaned” by willing reef fish who feed on the algae that gathers on their shells. Incredible to see.
Volcanoes are monuments to Earth’s origin, evidence that its primordial forces are still at work. During a volcanic eruption, we are reminded that our planet is an ever-changing environment whose basic processes are beyond human control. As much as we have altered the face of the Earth to suit our needs, we can only stand in awe before the power of an eruption. There are few places on our planet that one can witness the origins and Volcanoes National Park’s Kilauea Volcano is one such place.
Of Hawaii’s birds, the honeycreepers (Drepanidinae) are most famous, having put on what is arguably the world’s most dazzling display of adaptive radiation–an explosion of species from a single unspecialized ancestor to at least 54 species that filled available niches in the islands’ habitats. In fact, speciation in the Hawaiian honeycreepers dwarfs the famed radiation of Darwin’s 14 Galapagos finches. Robert Fleischer, Cheryl Tarr, and Carl McIntosh at the National Zoo’s Molecular Genetics Laboratory estimate that the honeycreepers’ ancestor arrived three to four million years ago; others put the arrival farther back, at closer to seven million years ago. This ancestor–one colonizing species of finch, possibly a Eurasian rosefinch (Carpodacus sp.) or, less likely, the North American house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)–started what proved to be an evolutionary snowball. “There must have been a lot of open niches, and the birds hit the islands and speciated very rapidly,” says Fleischer, who studies the genetics of fossil and living Hawaiian birds. Rapidly, in terms of geologic time, is thought to be within the first 200,000 to 300,000 years after the first finch touch-down.
Nectar-feeding honeycreepers evolved dramatically curved bills designed for probing and extracting the nectar from the flowers of Hawaii’s endemic lobelias and other plants. Insectivorous honeycreepers developed thin, warbler-like bills for picking insects from the foliage. Seed-eaters developed stouter, stronger bills for cracking tough husks. Some species probed or cracked bark with strong hooked bills seeking wood-boring insects, thereby filling a niche woodpeckers do elsewhere.
Honeycreepers shared the islands with an array of other unique bird species. In 1991, Storrs L. Olson and Helen F. James of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History described for the first time 32 extinct species they identified from bones found in lava tubes, sinkholes, dunes, and excavated Polynesian refuse piles (middens) on the main Hawaiian Islands over the past 19 years. Three others had been previously described. When their analyses are through, at least 20 more species will likely be added. These recent findings conjure up a vision of an almost mythical world where birds, not mammals, dominated. Large flightless waterfowl called moa nalos were the islands’ large herbivores. A harrier, a hawk, an eagle, and four owls topped the food chain as predators. No mammals patrolled the ground (Hawaii’s only native land mammal is a bat), and, with the need to fly gone, many of the castaway bird species, such as endemic ducks, ibis, and rails, lost their powers of flight.
The rare `akia pola`au occurs in only a few areas of upper elevation on the Big Island. Its bill is the most unusual in the honeycreeper family. The lower bill is short, straight, and stout. With mouth agape, it is used to chisel holes, woodpecker style. The upper bill is long, curved, and slender. It is used to probe, pierce, and pull insects and caterpillars from the hole. The male is brilliant yellow with a black mask; the female is dull green with a less distinctive mask and slightly shorter bill.
The `akepa is an insect-eating bird with a short, straight bill. The male is blaze orange; the female is gray-green with tinges of yellow or orange on the breast. It is the only Hawaiian honeycreeper that always nests in natural tree cavities.
The largest endangered forest bird in Hawaii is the ‘Io (Hawaiian Hawk). It is frequently seen soaring high above the tree canopy in search of birds, large insects, mice, and rats. Rarely seen in the 1960s and 1970s, hawks are now frequently observed from the coast to the tree line on mountain slopes.
It was an easy sell to our adult children and their spouses to join us on Hawaii’s Big Island for the Holidays. As a young family we frequented this special place almost yearly, usually in the spring, and we hold many fond memories of our time exploring there. In fact our passion for birding was given a major boost by a chance meeting in the 1990’s with a local naturalist and entrepreneur, Rob Pachenco . His company, Hawaii Forest & Trail, has flourished and is a model of responsible ecotourism in the region. In fact we arranged several exploratory excursions into the Mauna Kea rainforests with HFT naturalist and bird specialist Garry Dean, who had guided us on our last visit to the island in 2004. And of course not to be missed is a journey into Volcanoes National Park which we did and spent a beautiful day into the evening in the shadow of the great Kilauea Crater, one of the few accessible active volcanoes in the world. It has been erupting continuously for 29 years! So include some spectacular snorkeling, body surfing and opportunity to get up close and personal with a newly born humpback whale calf and its mother all in a primordial setting of moonscape lava rock with average dry temperatures of 80 degrees…it was magical. Since there is much to review from this expedition we will explore through several posts.