Day 7: Pigsh@t Hitting the Proverbial Fan

February 20th, 2010

On a day when the pigsh@t hit the proverbial fan, we had remarkable highs and lows in New Orleans. This city is arguably the most beautiful in America, with architectural gems galore. Even the parts that aren’t gorgeous are worth looking at. It’s funky, fun, and exciting. But not all was well in NOLA.

We spent the morning walking the French Quarter. Our plan, though, had a flaw the size of a pot-bellied pig. We left Rosie in our hotel room, figuring not much could go wrong. And, in our rush to get out the door, we forgot to take her for her morning walk, giving her a chance to relieve herself. Well, when we returned to the hotel, a perfect stranger was standing on our floor, pointing to the door and saying, “There’s some very strange things happening in this room.” Apparently, the sounds of a squealing pig (one desperate to poop, since to her credit she held it in!) can be confused with all sorts of horrid activities behind a locked hotel door.

We couldn’t get into our room, since the locks to our room had been changed. Our return to the front desk did not go well. After investigating the room, the manager decided that eviction is the only just reward for humans leaving an unattended pig in a hotel that doesn’t allow pets. OUCH!!! In all our travels, we’ve never sunk so low.

We then spent the afternoon, pig in tow, exploring the city, while calling hotels to find one with available rooms and a pig-tolerant attitude. We did squeeze in a visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art, and saw an interesting Disney exhibit. And we switched hotels to the pet-friendly La Quinta, our new hotel favorite.

Despite the challenges with our pet pig, the day had plenty to savor. There are so many stunning houses here. A few years ago, we were fortunate to live in Charleston, South Carolina, a beautiful city. But New Orleans outdoes Charleston when it comes to the number of striking antique houses.

It’s a hoot to walk around the French Quarter, with surprising and bizarre encounters coming fast and furious. Had we been walking with our pet pig, we would have fit right in, but regrettably we were out looking very ordinary while the pig was back in the hotel room breaking the sound barrier. Not our best decision, to be sure.

We ended the day by taking in some of the season opener for Tulane’s baseball team, and somehow managed to win a promotion contest. It was great to see baseball live. We then had dinner at a restaurant here called Luke’s, owned by one of New Orlean’s top chefs, John Besh. Got back to the hotel, Gibson did some physical therapy for his leg, watched some Olympics (curling between Denmark and Canada?!?!), and called it a bizarre day.

Tomorrow, we tour the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, then we plan on visiting a nearby wildlife refuge. After that, we’re heading east. Next stop, Alabama.


Day 6: Cotton Alley

February 18th, 2010

Today, we started in Natchez, Mississippi, a really interesting town with lots to look at. We wanted to go to New Orleans, but I had the brilliant idea to swing through Baton Rouge, to see the Louisiana state capital and the LSU campus. As you shall see, not my best move.

Natchez was spared damage in the Civil War, since it surrendered early. It was largely populated by immigrants from the North, who had no interest in fighting to the death on the side of the Confederacy. The town was the center of the nation’s cotton industry. At one point, 1/2 of the millionaires in the U.S. lived in Natchez!

We toured a couple of houses in Natchez. The first, the Dunleith house, has the worst tour guide we’ve ever encountered. After she spent twenty excruciatingly-boring minutes on the first room of the house, almost the entire tour group left. Dreadful! But it gave us lots to discuss with our kids about public speaking.

The second house was Longwood, which was fascinating. The house was designed as an octagon, and I have to say, I’m surprised the design hasn’t caught on. The house was only partially completed when the Mississippi economy collapsed at the end of the Civil War, and only the basement is finished. But it was an incredibly interesting tour, with (thankfully!) a great tour guide.

Our slight detour to Baton Rouge proved challenging. First, the drive down ended up going through a long construction zone (thank you, ARRA), and we got behind a VERY slow truck. We found the state capitol fine, and hung out there for an hour in sunny, 60 degree weather, which was fabulous. We then tried to go to the LSU campus. I — stupidly — put “Louisiana State University” into my Tom-Tom GPS system, and off we went . . . in a crazily indirect route through some very nerve-wracking neighborhoods. We ultimately ended up at a dumpy building marked “LSU Health Services”, with no sign of any other LSU buildings. At that point, we had our fill of Baton Rouge and headed to New Orleans, never to see any more of the LSU campus.

After a long day, with too much driving, we ended up in New Orleans. Tomorrow should be fun, and I for one am hoping we stay a couple of days.

No videos today, or particularly good Rosie stories. She ate lots of grass at the grounds of the capitol, and turned lots of heads in Natchez. And at one point, a bunch of Japanese tourists at the State Capitol “oohed” and “aahhed” over her.


Day 5: Mississippi Meanderings

February 18th, 2010

Today we started in Vicksburg, site of a crucial Civil War encounter, and then headed south on the Natchez Trace, arriving tonight in Natchez. Not a lot of driving today, which was great, and lots of fun exploring. Mississippi has its appeal. And we got some great videos during the course of the day.

I’ll start with the videos, since they do a good job of capturing some of our fun today. We caught sight of an armadillo on the side of the road, and got a great video of this bizarre creature foraging. The armadillo is truly one of nature’s oddities, although when you travel with a pet pig, you’re hardly in a position to throw stones.

While in Vicksburg, we needed to pick out new sneakers for our kids, who seem to go through a new pair every three months. We thought it might be fun to take our pet pig Rosie into the store and see how the clerk responded to our request to fit her for a new pair of shoes as well. The clerk either believed we were serious, or was an incredibly good sport (or both), but we put together a fun video of Rosie’s trip to the shoe store.

Finally, in Natchez, we came across a restaurant called the Pig Out Inn, and just had to bring Rosie in, and inquired as to what their pig menu looked like. They offered to seat the five of us, but didn’t have much in the way of food for pigs. If Rosie knew the role of pigs in the Pig Out Inn, she would have high-tailed it out of there. We had fun making a video of this trip to the Pig Out Inn.

In Vicksburg, we spent the morning at the Vicksburg National Military Park, site of the long seige that General Ulysses S. Grant waged on the Confederate Army, which was a major triumph for the north and catapulted Grant to head the entire Union forces and, ultimately, become President. We drove through the park, checking out a series of monuments that states had built to honor their dead in the exchange.

We then went to the Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, which was a so-so destination at best. Overall, I’d say I found Vicksburg a lot less interesting than I hoped. Other than the Military Park, there’s not a lot to be seen, and the town is more run-down than I expected.

We then had a wonderful drive down the Natchez Trace, which is a lovely road running from Nashville to Natchez, although we only took the last forty miles of it. It’s largely deserted, runs through gorgeous southern forest, and was a great way to spend the afternoon. We stopped for an hour or so, and Sterling played with Rosie while Gibson and I played baseball. During an hour, less than a dozen cars passed by. This would make a fabulous location for a bike ride in spring or fall, and is someplace we’d love to return to.

Tomorrow, we’ll check out Natchez, which sits right on the Mississippi River, and should have some interesting older houses.


Day 4, Hello, Vicksburg!

February 17th, 2010

For those willing to put the effort into a family driving trip, there will be rewards. Today was one of those spectacular days. We covered Birmingham and Tuscalossa, Alabama, and Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Despite a fair amount of driving, we had one great family experience after another.

But first, some comic relief. Tonight, we gave our pet pig Rosie a bath here at the hotel. This short video may well be the first time you’ve seen a miniature pot-bellied pig getting scrubbed up.

Now, back to our trip. We started the day at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which was a powerful experience at a wonderful museum. Our family has been focused on the Civil War in recent months, so it was interesting to try to explain to our children how it was that almost a full hundred years after the end of the Civil War, black Americans were still fighting for some semblance of equality. And while we were there, we coincided with three buses full of young school kids from Birmingham, and not one was Caucasian, which caused our kids to ask, “So, are the schools here integrated?”

We then hit the road west, and peeled off the highway into Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama. We stopped at the Jemison home, where Robert Jemison Van Der Graaff (inventor of the Van Der Graaff generator) grew up, then went on to explore the campus. It’s a wonder anyone can find their way around the town, since every other street is called “Paul Bryant Drive” or some variant thereof.

During lunch, we were tempted to play the “catch a live lobster and we’ll cook it for you” game (only in Alabama!). Then, as we continued west, we stopped briefly in Jackson, the capital of the state. When we lived in South Carolina, we thought of Mississippi often. South Carolina, over and over again, ranked #49 in the U.S. (in jobs, education, income), with Mississippi keeping SC from being rock bottom. I often thought South Carolina’s state motto should be, “At least we’re not Mississippi.”

We stopped at the state Capitol, and our pig got out to check out the grounds. She seems to be very anti-government (or at least, objects to the Mississippi state government), and made a strong statement by leaving her mark here. Perhaps she objects to all of the pork getting tossed around these days.

During the day’s drive, Elizabeth was reading a guide book (Off the Beaten Path in Mississippi), and the author talked about the impact his pet dog had on his travel experience. He said people were so drawn to his dog, and then immediately were warm and open to him. Well, he should try traveling with a pig for his next book!

While we’re on the topic of driving, we have found our rhythm while on the road. I usually do the driving, while the kids focus on their home-schooling. Elizabeth will occasionally get some company in the front seat (see right), and otherwise works with the kids on school topics. And I’ve gotten pretty good at multi-plexing between driving and teaching algebra.

We arrived for the night in Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. We don’t know if we’ll stay one night or two, but are excited to check out this town tomorrow. Best of all, the temperature here is finally starting to feel spring-like, and we love the feel of a warm sun and temperature above 50 degrees.


Day 3: Travels With Rosie

February 15th, 2010

WARNING — Today was a bit of a yawner. One of the things that goes with a driving vacation is the occasional uneventful day — a day when you’re mostly getting from point A to point B. Unfortunately, point B (Birmingham, Alabama) is frigid, so we still haven’t shaken the cold.

We slept in late this morning, and spent a leisurely morning with our friends in Atlanta. Our kids had a blast playing with their Bearded Dragon Spike and two dogs. And their kids really love Rosie. A neighbor really wanted to meet Rosie as well, so Elizabeth and Sterling took Rosie on a neighborhood walk.

We decided not to spend much time in Atlanta. It’s a great city with lots to do. But it’s also a city that’s easy to get to from Charlottesville (direct flights daily), and we’ll be back many times in the future. Besides, with Birmingham, Alabama, beckoning, why dawdle in Atlanta seeing things like a great zoo, the nation’s best aquarium, the High Museum, . . . We did go to the Atlanta History Center, and spent time on their Civil War exhibit.

After a quick lunch, we headed west, through pretty uninspiring scenery in western Georgia and eastern Alabama. There are advantages to a slower-paced drive (as Gibson said from the back seat, “It’s so much better to drive, because you see so much.”), but today was a day where the “fast forward button” would have been nice.

At one point during the drive, Elizabeth had Rosie in the front seat on her lap. She then needed to call the architects working on some revisions to our house, and she was juggling a cell phone, architectural drawings, and a pig! Thank goodness she wasn’t driving. And I was relieved that the pig didn’t eat the drawings, something she could easily do.

We ended the night by taking in the new Percy Jackson movie, despite snow here in Alabama! We left the pig in our hotel room, and hoped that the staff doing turn-down service would take the “Do Not Disturb” signs on the doors seriously. The signs seemed to do the trick, and Rosie was still here when we returned, with plenty of loud snorts from the bathroom where she sleeps.

I doubt if we’ll hang for long tomorrow in Sweet Home Alabama, but the prospect of a five hour drive to Vicksburg isn’t appealing. However, the forecast of temperatures above 50 in Vicksburg, together with all the things we want to do there, is pretty motivating. So I’m hoping my next couple of reports are more interesting than this one.


Day 2: Travels With Rosie

February 15th, 2010

“I like pigs. Cats look down on us. Dogs look up to us. Pigs treat us as equals.” — Winston Churchill.

First, to set the record straight, while Churchill is clear about his feelings about pigs, I’m not. At this point, call me undecided. Maybe by the end of this trip, I’ll have made up my mind, for now now, I’m just not sure how I feel about our daughter’s pet pig. Now, back to our trip . . .

Well, it’s still incredibly cold down south, with no let-up in sight. We’re now in Atlanta, where there’s still some snow on the ground, and more snow forecast for Monday. We’ll keep driving until it gets warm or we hit water. Why do I feel that we’ll hit water first?

This morning, we were slow out of the starting blocks. The night passed uneventfully, with the four of us in beds and Rosie on the bathroom floor. I generally get up early, and tried to get a newspaper (“We don’t have newspapers on weekends”) or an early cup of coffee (all out) at our hotel. We found a Peete’s but — in a way that can only happen in the deep South or on a Caribbean Island — it took twenty minutes to get coffee and juice.

Despite some early hassles, we were happy that we exited the Sheraton without being arrested for pig smuggling. As you can see from our luggage cart, though, we may not have been completely transparent about having a pig with us during our stay. Where’s Rosie?

We then headed southeast toward Atlanta, passing through the westernmost corner of South Carolina on the way. A couple of years ago, we lived in Charleston for four years, but never made it to this region of the state. Well, today we finally made it to Spartanburg, briefly (see left for scenery) and concluded that Spartanburg makes Scranton or Gary look good.

But we loved Greenville, a cute little town with a great downtown area. We ate lunch there, and strolled around the city. We had heard good things about Greenville, and we were really captivated by it. Funny how some out of the way places can be so appealing.

The same phenomena that happened in Roanoke was repeated in Greenville, with Rosie turning lots of heads. I’m sure the adults we meet have all seen pigs before (although many of the young children probably haven’t), but there’s something about seeing a pig in the middle of the city. It reminds me of the way people used to react on the old television show Candid Camera. At one point today, someone a half block away was yelling congratulations to us for having such a “great dog.”

Greenville, it turns out, is also hometown to Shoeless Joe Jackson. Our son is a big baseball player, and has always been interested in Shoeless Joe. So we were excited to see his statue in a city square, and to be reminded of how he was banned for fixing the World Series — a series in which he played excellent baseball and forever denied involvement in the fraud.

In Atlanta, we’re staying with our great long-term friends, the Seabrooks. They have two great boys, and a household full of pets (two dogs and a Bearded Dragon), so our gang is having a blast. We went for a river walk this afternoon, and watched some of the Olympics tonight after a fabulous dinner. Now that we’re back on the east coast, we’re able to spend time with our very best friends, and are really thankful for the proximity.

At this point, we don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow night. We’re debating heading west toward Vicksburg and New Orleans, or east toward the Okeefenokee Swamp and Jacksonville. We’ll spend a bunch of time tomorrow exploring Atlanta, and then figure something out.


Day 1: Travels With Rosie

February 13th, 2010

Our driving trip through the Southeast got off to a terrific start, as we got in great explorations of Roanoke (left) and Lexington, VA. Weather was great, and driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains was glorious. And traveling with a pig proved to be, well, full of surprises.

Have you ever walked down a city sidewalk with a new puppy? Well, walking in downtown Roanoke with a baby pig was an eye-opener. EVERYONE wanted to see this pig. Children wanted to pet her, adults wanted to photograph her. A group of street people were all over her. Almost everyone was excited to see her, and she brought out huge smiles in everyone. It was surreal to see a pig bring out the very best in humanity.

We did encounter one couple who seemed scared to death of this “ferocious” pig. They would look at her, but always stay fifteen feet or so away. But, with this one exception, Rosie was a smile machine, bringing out great big grins and laughs along our path. Anyone single in a city looking for a way to meet people . . . well, get a miniature pot-bellied pig.

At one point, as we walked along, a cab driver stopped and honked at us. We thought he was trying to convince us to use his taxi services. But, no, he wanted to know where he could get a pig like Rosie. “Where did you get it?” “How much do they cost?” “What do they eat?” “How much bigger will she get?” I have a feeling we’ll be hearing these questions a lot on this trip.

Not that everything about Rosie in the city was all that attractive. This pig can poop. She must have launched twenty little poop balls while we walked around Roanoke. We brought a lot of Kleenex with us to clean up, but ran out. And sometimes the poop didn’t exactly get away from the body cleanly. If you look closely at the photo on the left, you’ll see the exact size of her poop balls. Also, Rosie proved to have interest in eating anything in her path. ABC gum . . . down the hatch. Old cigarette butts or bits of paper and plastic, yummmmmm. We quickly learned that we couldn’t just watch all the people gawking at her; we needed to make sure she wasn’t eating something harmful or disgusting.

We had lunch and a great visit to Lexington, Virginia, a town new to all of us. Lexington is home to two universities — Washington and Lee and Virginia Military Institute. Curiously, the colleges are located right next to each other. Pick which is which from the photos on the right.

At VMI, we toured the Marshall Museum, dedicated to the life of General George C. Marshall. Marshall commanded some 11 million troops on the European Continent during WW II, then architected the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the War. He was the first military officer to win a Nobel Prize. And he later served as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and President of the American Red Cross.

We also managed to check out the Natural Bridge, complete with some really impressive icicles. Pigs were not welcome here, so Rosie stayed in the car as our trusted guard pig. Believe it or not, at one point in time, Thomas Jefferson bought the Natural Bridge from the King of England.

We ended the day in Charlotte, NC, a city without much charm. But, after several tries, we found a hotel that accepts guests with dogs. We figured Rosie was close enough, and we’re set for tonight. But several hotels we called said “no way,” so we’re a little concerned about hotel options as we go forward on this trip. So tonight we’re watching the Olympics, and tomorrow, on to Atlanta, with no worries on the hotel front, since we’ll be staying with our long-term and fabulous friends, Connor and Martha Seabrook.

We also got a couple of short videos of Rosie today, including one on the streets of Roanoke, and one in our car.


Travels With Rosie

February 12th, 2010

Tomorrow I get in a rented car and begin driving. To where, I don’t know. But I do know who will be with me. I’ll be traveling with my wife, my two children, and . . . a pig. Yep, no typo. A pig. And we’ll be traveling for three weeks — just the five of us.

Just how did I get myself in this situation? I sure as heck don’t know. It started when my eleven-year-old daughter asked for a pig for Christmas. Not just any old pig, she wanted a miniature pot-bellied pig. And she used Craig’s List to find the perfect pig (thanks, Craig!). So Rosie, born on Halloween of 2009, joined us about three weeks ago, and has quickly become an indispensable travel companion.

So the adventure begins. Three weeks on the road with a pig. Two years ago, we traveled around the world for ten months (without a pig, thankfully), and had everything planned in advance. Now, we have nothing pre-planned. My only real preparation has been buying a copy of Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, so I can contrast pig travel with dog travel. How will hotels react to Rosie? Will she be banned from all restaurants? How will she do in a car? How will I do in a car with a pig? Pigs are supposed to be smart, but so far, Rosie hasn’t shown me much — will that change? Time will reveal. Stay tuned for daily updates on Travel With Rosie.


Wild and Wonderful Costa Rica

April 13th, 2009

We just returned from a fabulous week-long trip to one of our absolute favorite countries, Costa Rica.  It took a while to get there from Seattle, but once we arrived, we made the most of it. 

P1100633 Costa Rica is a wonderful country in so many ways.  It’s a very progressive place, and now generates 95% of its energy use through renewable sources.  They protect over 25% of their land, and the amount that’s forested has doubled in the past twenty years.  Also, the people are incredibly nice, and the diversity of wildlife and plant life is second to none. 

DSCN7681 We flew into San Jose, and drove directly to La Selva, staying at the Selva Verde Lodge.  The lodge is a couple of hour drive north of San Jose, located in the middle of a rain forest.  We met a long-time family friend there, J.D. Willson (more later), who had spent a few hours exploring the area.  He immediately showed us some great reptiles, including a Satiny Parrot Snake.  Also, at the very beginning of our first hike, about 100 yards into it, I actually found a snake.  This would prove to be singularly unusual, as I never saw anything interesting after that, and relied on others to find the interesting sightings.

P1100725 Selva Verde Lodge is basic, very basic.  And the rooms are a long walk from the dining area.  But it got the job done for us, and we had a great two days there.  In addition to just walking the grounds of the lodge, we went to the research station at La Selva, and got a great tour there.  Anyway, if you’re looking for plush eco-friendly accommodations, this area may not be for you.  But if you want to see some great wildlife, this is a great spot, and a must for anyone doing serious birding in Costa Rica.

P1100706 While in the Selva area, we did a couple of other fun things.  One afternoon, we all went on one of Costa Rica’s top ziplines to tour the Canopy.  We went with Adventuras Sarapiqui, who did a great job for us.  Most of the legs (14 in all) were short to medium in duration, but we had a few that were long, high, and over water!  That was exciting.

We also made a night-time visit to the Tirimbina Rainforest Reserve, and got a great overview on research being done there on bats.  Bats are a very misunderstood mammal, since almost all of the more than 1,000 species of bats feed entirely on insects or fruit.  Costa Rica itself has 110 species of bats, and we got to see a few of the species close up.  They were quite tiny, and really interesting to see when they’re still.

P1100787 I made my first trip to Costa Rica twenty years ago, and was amazed at the Corcovado area on the Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa Rica.  We were excited to return there, and I was thrilled to see it’s almost as undeveloped – and beautiful – today as it was twenty years ago.  Costa Rica gets high marks for conservation.

P1100650 We started out stay at a lodge called Bosque del Cabo, about a half-hour drive from Puerto Jimenez.  The lodge itself is quite nice, and is run by an ex-pat couple from the U.S. with a small baby.  We did a night hike our first night there and saw a few interesting things.  And some researchers gave a very interesting talk about the cats of the Osa Peninsula – ocelots, puma, and jaguars. 

P1100811 The next day was characterized more by what we missed than what we saw, including being a couple of minutes too late to see a Boa Constrictor.  After our uneventful morning hike, we labored through a bollixed up afternoon.  We started with a quick (very quick) stop at the Osa Biodiversity Center, but didn’t stay there long enough to really get a sense of the place.   We then went to a private house overlooking the Pacific, which was a spectacular home with great views.  However, we weren’t really up for spending three hours forDSCN8122 drinks and dinner there.  After dinner, we had a real low point of our trip, as the local guide had arranged for us to go out on canoes and kayaks to catch crocodiles.  He forgot to mention, though, that they didn’t have enough room for all of us, meaning one of us got stranded on the beach at night, for two hours, under attack by sand bugs.  The others spent two hours praying that our crocodile-catching experts would finally get a lasso around a croc’s head.  They did, finally, but this was an event well worth missing.

P1100775 The next morning, we flew into La Sirena Research Center in the middle of Corcovado National Park.  The flight was spectacular, and it was great being in the middle of this park.  We got a decent look at a Tapir during our hike, but some screw-ups on the part of our local guide delayed our arrival into the park enough that morning that we missed the best wildlife sighting times.  We pulled the rip cord on this guide, thankfully, and got the rest of our trip back on track.

P1100883 We ended our trip with a couple of incredible nights at the Nicuesa Lodge, at Playa Nicuesa, a twenty-five minute boat ride from Puerto Jiminez.  This lodge is beautiful, and tucked into a most spectacular area of the Osa Peninsula.  Everyone we met at the lodge was incredibly nice, and we had some terrific naturalist accompanying us on our hikes.

P1100839 The lodge offers lots of great options, and we all concluded it was a place we’d like to come back to.  There are lots of great hiking trails originating at the lodge.  And the beach activities (swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, sailing) are really fun.  The food there was excellent as well. 

DSCN8579 Our last night hike was particularly exciting at Nicuesa.  Our family friend J.D. and our son Gibson were on fire in terms of finding things, and we got several great looks at really interesting wildlife.  My son’s blog post – http://gibson.dintersmith.org – will do a much better job of describing what we saw than I can do, but it was really great.

For our week in Costa Rica, we saw 20 different mammal species, over 120 bird species, and a whopping 61 herp (reptile and amphibian) species.  Between the wildlife sightings, the spectacular countryside, and the wonderful Costa Rican people, it was a great trip.

DSCN7765 We were thrilled to have J.D. Willson with us for our stay in Costa Rica.  I’ve know J.D. since he was three years old, and even then it was clear he was going to be an outstanding naturalist.  J.D. just got his Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of Georgia, and is a real expert on nature.  He’s also an incredibly nice and thoughtful young man, so we felt honored to spend a week with him.  All of us learned so much from him, and our kids in particular got a chance to observe up close how a top scientist approaches the exploration of a new area.  We couldn’t have asked for a better person to show us the wonders of this great Central American country.

P1100965After a glorious week in Costa Rica, we returned to Seattle to find . . . rain.  What a surprise!  We spent Easter Day waiting for a short window of sun for an Easter Egg hunt outside, and finally gave in and braved the elements.  With each passing hour, we couldn’t help but think of life on the trail in Costa Rica.  And as I post this on Monday, April 13th, we’re getting snow here mixed with rain!  Ugh!!

A Whale of A Time

March 6th, 2009

February, 2009, The Baja –  Well, I haven’t posted a single blog since our big trip, and it’s about time I start reporting on our more occasional trips. We’ve taken a few since last June, but we just got back from the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, and this is a trip worth a posting.

P1090781 For our February break, we booked a trip on the Sea Lion, a ship with Lindblad/National Geographic, and explored the bottom third of the Baja Peninsula. We flew down from Seattle to Los Angeles on Friday night, Feb. 13th, and then took the trip shuttle from LA to La Paz Mexico the next morning. We then got on our ship and departed.

P1100312 We had immediate great news on this trip. There were three other terrific families with children the ages of our two children. And all five of these kids were keenly interested in nature, so they formed quick bonds. During our travel year, we rarely encountered other kids and, all too often, they were video game addicts. When we went to the Galapagos, for example, the other children almost never went out on the explorations, choosing to stay in their room! And, equally amazing, their parents seemed happy to pay a good-sized amount for a very expensive seven day video-games-at-sea adventure.

DSCN6651 We started on the Gulf of California side, where there is a very dry desert. The Gulf of California is one of the most productive seas on the planet, supporting nearly 900 species of fish, including 90 found nowhere else.  But our focal point for the trip was whales, not fish, and we had immediate great luck. Our very first morning, we got great views of Blue Whales (the largest creature ever), Fin Whales, and Humpback Whales. We had seen all three in Antarctica a year ago, but got superb views on this particular day.

P1090768 The waters on the gulf were relatively calm, and we had a couple of other fun days there. On one day, we went snorkeling at Los Islotes, although the water was pretty darn brisk. We did see some California Sea Lions quite close up, as well as all sorts of tropical fish.

 

P1090977 A highlight of our first phase, though, was a great afternoon playing on the sand dunes of Isla Espiritu Santo. The dunes in Baja are spectacular and so inviting for kids that love to tumble. They did some of the most incredible running dives off the edge of the dunes, often ending up with sand covering every possible body part. The naturalist were great sports and came up with all sorts of contests, and several adults (not this one!) joined the fun.

P1090909 We headed around the tip of the Baja, stopping for a day in Cabo San Lucas. We went on a fun bird walk, and picked up two endemic species – the Xantu Hummingbird and the Belding Yellowthroat. We also got a glimpse of a snake with its head out of the water, although no positive identification has been made as of yet.

P1100172 As we rounded the cape and headed north in the Pacific, the seas got considerably rougher. We were fortunate that things were not too terrible, but we definitely noted the swells. But we knew we were headed north to Bahia Magdalena, home of the Grey Whales, and were looking forward to seeing these whales at close range. At times the whales come close enough to the zodiacs that they can be touched, but we weren’t counting our whale-touches before they hatched. As a family, we’ve had a long history of pretty dismal whale kharma, so we had no challenge managing our expectations down for the final phase of the trip.

P1100227 When we reached the bay, the Gray Whales, as promised, were everywhere. Local guides estimated that some 400 whales were hanging out in the bay. These whales weren’t feeding, but had come to the Baja to mate and to nurse along the young (in some cases, only a few weeks old). We were excited to go exploring!

 

P1100255 We went out into the Bay three different times, and the Gray Whales were all around us. We got some really good looks at many adults and baby calves. The highlight for us was a baby who came up to our Zodiac and ducked under it. We didn’t quite get to touch the baby, but came within a foot or so. While Grays aren’t the biggest whale by a longshot, it was really impressive to see these 60 ton animals at close range. They are big!  And hearing a whale blow air out its spout from less than ten feet is a sound we’ll never forget.

P1100197 While we got some really nice looks at the whales, our whale kharma survived the trip intact. More often than not, we felt we had our best views of other people on Zodiacs getting amazing views of these whales. On Thursday afternoon, we went out on the early shift and didn’t see a whole lot. The late shift, though, ran into two adults and a baby calf that were breaching on a regular basis for about an hour. It was like watching Fourth of July fireworks. Carol Greenspan sent this one picture to us, which gives you an idea of what it’s like to be five yards from a whale that lifts its body 2/3rds out of the water.

P1100291 On our last day, we spent several hours on what may well be the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been on, called Sand Dollar Beach. The dunes were gorgeous, there is no sign of people or buildings, and the water was at a comfortable temperature for swimming. We could have spent a few months on this beach, but just having a full afternoon was a great treat.

The trip had lots of great highlights, but one real lowlight. Our ship had 50 non-smoking passengers, and one bozo who chain-smoked foul cigars around the clock. The ship’s policy allowed smokers to smoke on deck as long as they stayed in the designated locations. On this small ship, the designated locations were a) at the back of the only area with chairs and exercise equipment, and b) a spot about five yards from our room. All too often, the cigar smoke filled our room, and was completely disgusting, and by the end of the trip, I had a headache from the second-hand smoke, and a real issue to take up with Lindblad.

P1100325 All in all, this was a fabulous way to spend a week.  The Baja is just gorgeous and undeveloped.  And the chance to see such amazing whales in close proximity is a real treat.