San Pedro and Bolivian Salt Flats

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Travelling South America
Salt flats covered in water

If you ever get the chance to visit here, DO! 

Luna Valley, San Pedro

Having taken a 23 hour bus from Santiago to San Pedro, I arrived as the sunset over the Atacama desert. Even with the lights of San Pedro, the sky was filled with stars. 

Moonlit sky over San Pedro

San Pedro isn’t the cheapest place to stay because it is located in the middle of the desert and  surrounded by so many tourist attractions, hostels can afford to up their prices. However, whatever you pay, the cost is worth it. The town in very small and basic, with the majority of the buildings in the centre used by the 40+ tour agencies selling exactly the same trips. Although this choice of agencies can be slightly frustrating, it does present a great opportunity for haggling. 

Mountains rising above the ‘main’ street

San Pedro is one of the starting towns for the expeditions across the Bolivian Salt flats. The other options involve starting in Uyuni or Tupiza. The Tupiza option involves a lot of additional driving.

With the surrounding environment of San Pedro being very similar to that over the Bolivian borders. Many of the San Pedro day trips, visit very similar sites to those included in the Salt flat tour. Whilst in San Pedro, I opted for the Valle De Luna tour which takes you to several different stunning landscapes on the Chilean salt flats before finishing at Luna Valley for sunset. 

Las tres Marias
Licancabur volcano
Moulded by the wind over the years

Other trips offered in San Oedro include various astronomy tours to view the spectacular night skies, early morning visits to the worlds largest Geyser field, Sandboarding, and trips into the Atacama desert to see its lakes and weird geological formations. 

Geyser

Whilst the Atacama desert will wow you, the Bolivian Salt flats will absolutely blow you away. The tour involves a lot of time within the car, but stops are frequent and each is as spectacular as the next. 

James flamingos at Laguna Colorada

The three day/two night salt flat tour includes a visit to a small geyser field with magma pools as well as a number of weird and wonderful rock formations located in the vast desert. 

Geothermal pools
Valle de rocas
Laguna Negra
Camel Rock

Another stunning location is the Anaconda Valley, which offers vast views over a small canyon which hosts a slithering green river.

Anaconda Valley

There are also great opportunities to get up close and personal with the local Lamas and, if you’re lucky, they will have been dressed up by locals. Don’t get too close though, the farmers may get angry and the lamas may spit!

Lama fancy dress

The tour includes stops at various multicoloured lakes. These are coloured as a result of the minerals and sometimes bacteria found within them.

Laguna Blanca
Laguna Verde
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo on Laguna Colorada

Most spectacular of all comes on the final day when you make it to the true salt flats, for sunrise. I was lucky enough to time my visit in early April meaning that there was residual water from the wet season. This meant I had the chance for the sky, reflection pictures that everyone wants.

Pre sunrise
Pre sunrise reflections
Reflections on the salt flats
Sunrise
Stunning pastel colours
Almost as awesome in daylight

The rainy season on the flats comes in February and March, so views like this are almost guarenteed at this time of year. However, if there is too much water, many vehicles struggle to make it through the flats to other promised destinations. By timing your trip for the end of the wet season is you get the best of both! Wet ones allowing for reflection pictures and dry ones allowing for the also cliche perspective pictures.

Crushed by a giant foot
Dry salt flats

Before the tour drops you off in Uyuni ready for a warm shower, there is time for visits to a Salt museum, Artisanal market and the train graveyard. 

National flags outside the salt museum
One of the more modern looking trains at the train graveyard (courtesy of graffiti)
Old car at the artisanal market

If you’re interested, I paid 95,000 Chilean pesos for a 3 day trip which included all food and accommodation (one night in a salt hostel), local guide (only spoke Spanish). I also opted to pay the 5,000 extra so that I could pay by credit card. This means if there were any problems I could withdraw the payment. 

Morning silhouettes

For anyone taking this trip I would recommend taking something to protect your face from the dust which, even with the windows closed, can be brutal at times. Also pack lots of warm clothes as early starts expose you to sub zero temperatures before the desert warms up for the day!

Kick about at one of the lunch stops

For more images from the Bolivian Salt Flats check out my album

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And The Rest…..

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Antarctica
First Year Ice in the Weddel Sea

Something that surprised me about my recent visit to the Antarctic Peninsula was that the ice was equally as impressive as the Killer Whales, Leopard Seals and the Humpbacks.

Incredible Ice Statues
Sunset

Nothing can prepare you for the different shades of blue captured within these floating structures and the size of the slabs is simply staggering! 

50 Shades of blue
Drifting Iceberg
Icy reflections
Spectacular Glacier
Still seas approaching the Antarctic Circle
Inspecting the sea ice
Kelp Gulls at sunset
Recently rolled iceberg

Fortunately conditions allowed us to make it south past the Antarctic circle!

Sea ice thickening

And if the Ice isn’t enough the landscape and mountains ain’t half bad either!

Gentoos awaiting the incoming storm
Neko Harbour
Its not just blue you see
Antarctic Landscapes

Its been a while since I posted pictures of my penguin friends so here are a few of my favourites from the Peninsula where I was finally able to see the Holy Grail of Penguin species; The Emperor Penguin. As well as all three species of brush tail, magellanic and rockhopper.

Adelie Penguin taking in the views
Gentoo bracing against the storm with the National Geographic Explorer in the background
Chinstrap standing tall
Lonely Emperor Penguin

For more images check out my two Antarctic Galleries….

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Killer Whales

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Type B killer whales, Antarctica

Next to tick off the bucket list, the world’s top ocean predator – the killer whales. Having never seen these before, I travelled to Antarctica with very high expectations, knowing estimates of these animals in Antarctic waters to be somewhere in the region of 70-80,000.

Killer whales ahead

On just our second day in Antarctic waters, we kept the schedule free and were instructed to get outside and look for big black and white animals. Within a few hours in the Weddell Sea, we were surrounded by several groups of Type B killer whales.

Type B killer whale alongside vessel
In the ice
Young killer whale diving

We were lucky to have killer whale scientists on board the ship and within a few minutes of the sighting, they were launching the Zodiac in order to get closer to these animals and collect their data.

Killer whales were intrigued by the research Zodiac
Launching the drone

The scientists, from the NOAA, were using drones to fly above the animals and take pictures, which give them accurate information about the size and health of the whales. This new technique of observation also allows them to see what the whales are getting up to beneath the water, observe new behaviours and also make more accurate counts of pods.

Pod size can reach 80-100

As you can see, the killer whales in the pictures have very brown colouring where stereotypical killer whales would be white. This is a result of the cold water temperature – the brown is actually diatoms (a type of single cell algae) living on the surface of the whales. Normally, killer whales would have a good blood flow to the skin, which would prevent this diatomaceous growth. However in cold waters, this would involve the loss of too much energy.

Scarring is from raking and/or scratching on ice
Youngster and adult
Heading right for the ship

If you look closely at the images, you can see round circular scarring on the whales, these are from cookie cutter sharks, which are only found in the tropics, a bit bewildering considering these killer whales are seen in Antarctic waters all year round.

Circular scarring on the saddle patch – Type A killer whale

Also, it was strange that the same individuals, photographed on different days, often had high diatom growth followed by clean skin. The NOAA team previously put tags on these whales which showed that they make very rapid journeys to the tropics to get manicures before swimming all the way back south!

Mother and calf

Next up were the Type A killer whales, which are much more like the killer whales seen in the northern hemisphere. These are larger and tend to be more black and white than the Bs and they feed on Minke whales and elephant seals.

Bull breaking the surface
Bull, mother and calf

Using a combination of the saddle patches, markings and fin shape it is possible to identify individuals using photos. We were lucky to see the same group of Type A killer whales near Ciervo Cove on both expeditions, as confirmed by photos.

There are two types of B killer whales. ‘Little’ Bs, which tend to dive deep and feed predominantly on fish, supplemented by the odd penguin! And ‘big’ Bs, which opt for washing seals (especially Weddells) off the ice to feed. Having seen the little Bs several times already, we pushed further into the Weddell sea into the thicker ice and, as we hoped for, we found a group of big Bs, giving us the “full house” for the area we had been.

Big Bs
Weddell seal sensibly opting to rest on land rather than on the ice

Since conditions were calm, the ever eager scientists launched the Ribs and returned with some alarming images of the whales. The whales were not in particularly good health, with much of the skeletal features of the animals visible in the pictures. Possibly, this was a result of lower prey scarcity, with very few Weddell seals observed on the ice. However, at this stage the scientists could only hypothesise.

We also had a team from CBS on board who did a piece on these encounters, which you can see by following this link below…

Fortunately, the trip did not end on this low since sightings continued wherever we went. My season culminated with one of my favourite nature experiences ever, as a group of 40 little B’s passed straight across the bow of the vessel in the crystal clear Antarctic waters.

Too close to photograph
Just a few of the pod

Clip showing footage from a couple of the Killer Whale encounters

Humpback Whales

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Antarctica

 

Humpbacks Whales feeding

Another blog from my latest amazing trip to Antarctica, focussing on Humpback whales this time. You’ll be glad to know that there is less blood than in the previous post.

Humpback in front of a glacier

Having lived for a year on South Georgia, immersed in the depressing history of Antarctic whaling and the impact of humans on Baleen whales, it was amazing to sail through Antarctic waters and see first-hand how the whales are bouncing back. Sightings of baleen whales were frequent with the most common being  humpbacks: these majestic 36 tonne beasts were almost ubiquitous throughout, it was an absolute pleasure.

Fin whale over the continental shelf
Minke whale in the Weddell Sea

Almost without fail, by the time breakfast was served on board National Geographic Explorer, there had been a blow, or a sighting of the distinctive hump, or flukes of these animals.

Fluke and dorsal hump!

Possibly the best experience of my time on board came as the sun was setting on an already eventful day of killer whales and penguins. Stupidly thinking the excitement was over for the day, I retreated to my room in order to download a few photos, when the call of ‘feeding Humpbacks’ came out over the tannoy.

This is what I emerged on deck to see

As a kid, I read about bubble net feeding whales and had seen footage of it numerous times on David Attenborough documentaries. For those others who have seen this footage, you will understand why seeing this activity has been on my bucket list for years. However, travelling to Antarctica, I had no expectations of ticking this off the list, since it was my understanding that such behaviour had only been observed in Alaska!

Bubble net feeding is obviously a foraging method where the humpbacks blow clouds of bubbles around their prey at the surface. This traps the prey between the bubbles and the surface allowing the whales to swim up with their mouths open and take huge mouthfuls of prey. 

The video bwlow shows one of these events happening and you can see the bubbles at the surface before the humpbacks lunge through open-mouthed

Humpback whales that spend summers in the Antarctic, exploiting the rich cold waters, migrate north to spend the winters in the tropics around Costa Rica. Here, there is an overlap with the Northern Humpbacks that spend their summers in Alaska and migrate south also to Central American tropics. The hypothesis is that these Northern whales, having learnt and practiced the behaviour in Alaska, migrated south to Central America before continuing through to Antarctica.

More feeding

As a result, you now have whales practicing bubble net feeding in Antarctic waters. The humpbacks have uniquely marked flukes which allow them to be identified.

Markings on the flukes

Hopefully, the individuals we photographed in Antarctica will have been observed previously in the world and we will get a better understanding of how this behaviour has spread.

There were small groups of feeding whales all around

And when you get bored of the whales (as if!) the sunset and the ice aren’t too bad substitutes!

Sunset

Leopard Seal Vs Gentoo Penguin

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Antarctica

CAUTION: “Nature red in tooth and claw” warning.

This post contains graphic pictures which some readers may find disturbing.

Leopard Seal vs Gentoo Penguin

My recent trip to Antarctica had many incredible highlights. I was lucky enough to see a ridiculous amount of wildlife with many memorable encounters.

National Geographic Explorer and a leopard seal during a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove

Leopard seals are number two in the Antarctic food chain, second only to killer whales. The majority of sightings are very relaxed with these seemingly lazy animals apparently spending most of their lives hauled out on ice flows, relaxing and sleeping.

Very relaxed
Chilling

These sightings are great because they give you an opportunity to see clearly the markings which make each individual distinctive and identifiable; they also allow you to see the size of the animal, which can often be difficult when they are in the water.

Leopard seal relaxing

Female leopard seals can reach 5 metres in length. They are generalist predators and will feed on whatever is locally abundant, including krill, other species of seals and penguins. I visited Brown Bluff on the Antarctic continent twice within the space of 10 days. During my first visit, the few leopard seals we encountered had been feeding on krill, 10 days later the story was very different.

Penguin on the menu

With Gentoo and Adelie penguin chicks both beginning to explore the shallow waters, local leopard seal observations were much higher as they were sighted patrolling ice floes and shallows for penguins.

Young Gentoos in the shallows

From ashore, it was incredible to see these animals pursue penguins through the shallows at great speeds for their next meal. The amount of kills and hunts observed by all on board was staggering.

Leopard seal checking out a potential meal

As we headed back to the ship in the Zodiac, we came across a hunting leopard seal and decided it would be rude not to see what happened next …

So close

The attack, although spectacular and very interesting, was very depressing to watch as the leopard seal played with its prey for a considerable amount of time before finally opting to eat,

Leopard seal with prey

Leopard seals use the friction of throwing animals against the water to open up their prey and rip bite-sized chunks of meat off the penguin.

Leopard seal carnage at Brown Bluff
Once dismantling commenced, the penguin was consumed very quickly
Ripping the penguin apart
Dinner time

All for a bite of food

Mouthful of penguin
The carnage continues
Very efficient

South Georgia for Kids!!!!

This entry is part 44 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

I was recently approached by Will Harper-Penrose from Woodmansterne Primary School and Children’s Centre via the wonderful medium of Twitter. His year two pupils were learning about the Antarctic and exploration, and he got in touch to ask about the possibilities of doing a Q&A Skype session.

Unfortunately, South Georgia’s internet connection was not up to a Skype video so, on hearing that, Will came up with a much more imaginative way to ask the questions. Being a music teacher, he composed a song for his pupils to sing, asking questions like ‘Have you seen a penguin sliding on its belly?’ and ‘What do you eat in Antarctica?’

As you can see for yourself, the video, song and dance are awesome and put a smile on everyone’s face on base. Completely aware that this amazing video would outshine any video of mine, I used my surroundings on the island to assist me, featuring penguins, seals, icebergs and boating, here is a compilation of some of my footage from a year on South Georgia.

I hope that this will entertain the kids and hopefully inspire one or two to become polar scientists

 

Galapagos – The Best Bits

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

Best Island

Genovesa

After a long overnight cruise we arrived at one of the most northern islands, Genovesa. This island is ridiculous. Everywhere you look there is wildlife, before we even landed we had seen Galapagos Sea Lions loafing on exposed rocks, endemic swallow tailed gulls fighting over scraps of unlucky crustacean and three species of boobies surveying the coastal waters for fish. The island itself is unbelievable, it is absolutely covered in nesting seabirds. Unique to this island are the red footed boobies and the Genovesa mockingbird but the supporting cast of breeding, masked and blue footed boobies, frigate birds, Short eared owls, tropic birds and Galapagos storm petrels weren’t half bad either.

The east side of this island is absolutely swarming with storm petrels. You could spend hours here watching the tropic birds trying desparately to navigate safe passage through the awaiting frigatebirds to their nests. Whilst I was doing just this, we were lucky enough to see a Short Eared Owl grab a Galapagos storm petrel out of the sky with so much agility and ease. What made this even more spectacular was when this owl set about devouring its prey it was clear to see that it only had one eye.

After returning to the boat we had a quick turn around before getting into the sea for our first snorkel. Unlike many of the worlds most famous diving sites, visibility around the islands is frustratingly turbid at times. When you focus on what is causing this turbidity you realise that its not sand or pollution but billions of tiny organisms called plankton. This plankton is here as a result of oceanographic systems and is responsible for feeding the incredible diversity of life that is found both in and out of the water around the islands. Highlights on our first snorkelling trip included, a shoal of golden cownose rays, hammerhead sharks, and a single Galapagos shark.

For the afternoon we moved around to Darwin bay for more of the same. Highlights of the landing trip were white morph red footed boobies and their prehistoric chicks, baby sea lions and also a couple of very obliging night herons. The snorkel was slightly less uneventful although a number of white tip reef sharks were cruising within the bay.

IMG_0361
Red Footed Booby, Genovesa

Best Dive

The best dive site I visited was Gordon Rocks. I had four dives here in total and saw hammerheads on three of these including 46 on one dive. I also had breaching Mola Mola around the boat during a surface interval and two sightings in the water. Other highlights included a Sea Lion eating a barracuda, Galapagos and White Tip Reef Sharks,

Sunfish, Gordon Rocks
Sunfish, Gordon Rocks

Best Snorkel

Be prepared to be overwhelmed! The diversity and the abundance of animals is absolutely breathtaking. There are two snorkelling sites I would recommend one for this diversity and the other for a particular species. The first of these is Kicker Rock which is situated off San Cristobel. Here you will see crazy numbers of turtles, sharks, rays and bait fish but with the water here being deeper and more exposed, visibility can vary greatly. The second snorkelling experience for me was at Sante Fe Islet, with the Sea Lions. Here, you anchor in a sheltered cove where hundreds of sea lions haul out. When you approach in the water the inquisitive ones are quick to surround you for a play.

Hammerhead Sharks, Gordon Rocks
Hammerhead Sharks, Gordon Rocks

Best Wildlife experience

Espanola is very similar to Genovesa in that it is used by large densities of breeding seabirds. I went to the Galapagos preying for my first good views of Albatross but was told that the very best I could hope for was maybe flight views of any recently fledged individuals still lingering in the wider area. During the peak breeding season Espanola is home to 25-30 thousand breeding pairs of waved albatross. However this was mid January after the last birds should have fledged.

The island was still great with huge numbers of Nascar Boobies some with chicks born that day as well as mockingbirds, blue footed boobies and a Galapagos Hawk. When we reached the island top I was shocked to see a fat still, partially downy, Albatross chick looking at me, right beside the pathway. I then went on further to see a pair of incredible adults performing their courting bill tapping behaviour. What the hell these guys were still doing here, I don’t know but I don’t care! It was more than I could ever have hoped for, and to top it off, when we returned to the yacht, we were followed back to Santa Cruz by another adult.

Waved Albatross, Espanola Island, Galapagos
Waved Albatross, Espanola Island, Galapagos

 

Galapagos Galleries

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Continue reading “Galapagos – The Best Bits”

Other useful tips

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos
  • Fur Seal hiding from the morning sun
    Fur Seal hiding from the morning sun

    No matter how confident you are in your sea faring abilities take sea sickness tablets. The trip is incredible but you don’t want to risk anything as manageable as sea sickness ruining it.

  • Buy sun cream in advanced of travelling to Galapagos. Shops have very limited supplies on offer for extortionate prices
  • Take snacks – Snorkelling is hard work and even the most restraint of our team were craving snacks by the end of our cruise. A snickers on Galapagos will set you back $4 in places so take your own!
  • Trip Advisor before paying for anything! It is not possible to review every tour provider and trip however there is a lot of helpful information on trip advisor, especially with regards to the safety of certain scuba diving providers.
  • If you are taking a waterproof camera, look into buying a red filter for your lens!
  • ENJOY!!!

Galapagos Galleries

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When to Visit The Galapagos

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

This is something you need to consider strongly. Some people don’t have the luxury of being able to pick a particular time for their visit. The wildlife at the Galapagos Islands is incredible all year round and I guarantee you will love it whenever you visit. However, if you are flexible, there may be specific species you wish to encounter depending on your interests and you may wish to time your trip to coincide with these species. I thought it would be helpful to put all this information together.

Species Best Time Best Island To See Them  
Waved Albatross Apr-Dec Espanola
Red Footed Booby No Set breeding season Genovesa
Blue Footed Booby July-December All around but breed on Genovesa, North Seymour, Daphne, San Cristobel, Isabela
Nascar Booby Aug-Nov (tower island) Nov-Feb (Espanola) Genovesa, Espanola
Galapagos Hawk All year Most Islands
Galapagos Penguin All year West Galapagos although small colonies also at Bartolome, Pinzon and Floreana
Flightless Cormorant All year Fernandina
Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds All Year North Seymour, Genovesa
Swallow Tailed Gull All Year Most Islands inc, Genovesa, Isabela, Espanola
Tropicbirds All Year Breed in small numbers around most Islands -Genovesa, South Plaza
Galapagos Fur Seal All year (Breeding Aug-Dec) All Over
Galapagos Sea Lion All year (Breeding July-Dec) All Over
Hammerhead Sharks Present year round but peak season Dec-May Can be seen all over however best chance at Gordon Rocks diving, and Kicker Rock snorkelling Best place is on liveaboard dive vessel to Darwin and Wolf
Sun Fish June- Dec Gordon Rocks, Punta Vi cente Roja
Sea Turtles Most numerous when mating (Dec) and Nesting (Jan-May)
Whale Shark June-November peak season sightings throughout year at darwin and wolf,
Manta Ray December-May Isabella, gordon rocks, Seymour, Kicker Rock
Tortoises Lay eggs early year Most Islands, Farms on Santa Cruz Very good
Fur Seal underwater
Fur Seal underwater

Other dates to be aware of are that the best visibility tends to be between January and March. The Dry Season is June – December. And the water temperatures are warmest  between February and April.

 

Galapagos Galleries

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Diving The Galapagos

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

If you are an experienced diver and love megafauna then this offers some of the best diving in the world.

Hammerhead Shark, Gordon Rocks
Hammerhead Shark, Gordon Rocks

First thing you need to know is that at present tour cruises are not allowed to offer diving as part of their service. If you want to dive you have two options Cruise on the Specific Dive Liveaboards or Dive on day trips from San Cristobel or Santa Cruz.

Dive liveaboards are the only vessels that are allowed to visit the famous Darwin and Wolf islands. These offer magnificent diving with a huge array of species including mega shoals of 100-200 hammerheads, manta rays and also whale sharks. However by choosing a diving trip you are sacrificing the landing aspect of your cruises since you will spend the majority of your time around Darwin and Wolf which prohibit landing.

It is possible to dive from Santa Cruz and also San Cristobel. This offers much of the same quality diving just to a slightly lesser extent, depending on which trips you opt for. I dived with Academy Bay Dive Centre, in Puerto Ayora, and had an incredible diving experience. Day packages included a safety check dive prior to two dives with lunch and snorkelling during the dive interval.

If you are diving from Santa Cruz, I would recommend diving Gordon rocks. Even though decent in the currents was slightly tricky conditions at the bottom were calm. I completed 4 dives here with highlights including 46 Hammerheads on one dive, 2 sunfish (outside of season), sealions, manta and spotted eagle rays, white tip and Galapagos shark as well as good numbers of large silver fish (tuna and amberjack) and bait fish.

Other popular dive sites are Floreana for its seals and seahorses and North Seymour for its White tip reef sharks and rays.

As a result of strong currents, cold waters and variable visibility, diving around The Galapagos can be very technical and hard work at times. To anyone who hasn’t dived in a while, I would recommend a refresher before you visit The Galapagos, to re-familiarise yourself with everything and to remove any cobwebs/nerves.

Due to the location of the islands, temperatures fluctuate massively between sites, as a result of different oceanographic currents. On average water temperatures are approximately 15 degrees centigrade. So for those of you used to diving in the tropics, be prepared to be a little cold!

 

Sunfish, Gordon Rocks
Sunfish, Gordon Rocks

Galapagos Galleries

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