Returning to Galapagos

A very sandy sea lion pup at Gardner Bay.

We always love returning to the Galapagos Islands. It’s a place that never fails to amaze first time visitors, and it continues to inspire us year after year (this was our 12th year of Photo Expeditions there). As a photo destination, Galapagos always delivers with starkly interesting and beautiful lava landscapes, a fantastic array of wildlife so close that anyone with any kind of camera can capture wonderful photos, and with the pleasures of the astounding undersea world. There are not many places in the world where you can take photos of penguins while snorkeling.

The Galapagos are great any time of year, with most of the wildlife species present in the islands year round. Nonetheless, there are definite highlights in certain seasons. In addition to seeing the resident birds, land and marine iguanas, we particularly enjoy visiting the islands in November and December to photograph giant tortoises in the lush green vegetation of the highlands on Isla Santa Cruz . It’s also a time when there are oodles of new sea lion pups – terminally cute!

Here in the Pacific Northwest when we think of crab, we usually think of delicious, freshly cooked Dungeness crabs. In the Galapagos, however, the best crabs are only for looking at. And those are the dazzling Sally lightfoot crabs that always make intriguing photo subjects. Against the black lava rocks, hiding in a crevice, or adorning a wave-washed shoreline, they add a brilliant spark to photos.

Sally lightfoot crabs dot a wave-washed shore on Isla Santiago.

Clockwise: swallow-tailed gull, red-footed booby, reb-billed tropicbird, magnificent frigatebird.

Pelicans crowding the local fish market.

One of the unexpected pleasures each week is pausing at the local fish market by the docks in Puerto Ayora. As the purveyors clean and sell fresh fish hauled from the local boats, a throng of avid brown pelicans follow their every move waiting for scraps to snag. At times there’s also a resident sea lion waiting patiently at the fish cleaner’s heels, or even standing beside him like a friendly pet dog. Only in Galapagos!

The Galapagos seems to always find ways to surprise us, even after many years of visiting the same areas. A peaceful morning on Isla Fernandina became charged with action for Rikki’s group as they watched a scene unfolding with pelicans, a great blue heron, and a gang of sea lions in a large but shallow tidal pool. As Rikki describes it, “The young sea lions were playfully chasing each other and the pelicans (it must have been driving the pelicans nuts). The heron was quietly fishing off to the side. It snagged a fish but suddenly a pelican flew by and snatched it away, right out of its beak. Then the sea lions joined in chasing fish, but now the pelicans were chasing the sea lions trying to steal their catch. One sea lion chased its fish right up onto the rocks in front of us but the heron promptly stole it away. This particular sea lion was quite determined and went after another fish, deftly eluding the pelican in chase, and wound up at my feet with its prize. Hard work for one fish.”

In November and December the water here is cooler, green and rich with nutrients. We have frequent opportunities for snorkeling, and it’s common to see sea turtles, sea lions, and Galapagos penguins in the water with us. Always a highlight is the opportunity to see and photograph sea lions while snorkeling. They are extremely fast and graceful, playful but elusive. We never tire of trying to capture them with stills or video.

You can see more underwater photos from the Galapagos, as well as find our underwater shooting tips with examples of the magic of optimizing underwater photos on our latest PHOTO TIP: Getting Started with Underwater Photography.

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Voyaging South Through the Inside Passage

Humpback whale sounding in Stephens Passage beneath the ragged peaks of the Coast Range.

Just as we thought we were getting caught up on our blog entries, off we went on another adventure. So it’s time to work on wrapping up 2011, getting ready for an exciting new year.

As the summer sun began to wane in Seattle, we ventured northward once again to join the National Geographic Sea Lion on her yearly voyage south from Alaska. This is a trip we’ve done many times along the gorgeous Inside Passage from Sitka, Alaska, through British Columbia on down to Seattle. This itinerary is always full of beauty and variety, with the changing weather adding its own improvisations to the mix.

In early September, we typically find salmon still running in the streams on Chichigof Island, a great place to look for bears. At Pavlov Harbor, we waited patiently with a small and dedicated group of photo-graphers by the tumbling river below the falls. Sprinkling rains came and went as the tide slowly rose beside us. Even-tually our patience paid off as a large, coastal brown bear came out of the woods a short distance upstream. The bear waded out into the river, snagging fish for an afternoon meal.

Southeast Alaska is rainforest country, and we encountered a fair bit of rain during the first few days of this voyage. The stormy clouds cracked open in dramatic fashion during our full day in Glacier Bay National Park, giving us rays of sun spot-lighting the mountainous landscapes, then rainbows over icy fjords and glaciers. The first glimpses of autumn were colorful daubs of yellow cottonwood trees accenting the land.

Continuing southward from Juneau, we encountered large numbers of humpback whales in Stephens Passage, three diving right under the ship. Then came a large group of killer whales moving northward, with the peaks of Admiralty Island as a backdrop beneath the late afternoon sun.

Misty Fjords National Monument was decked out in her finest gossamer veils of clouds draping the spiky forests and steep fjord walls. The clouds transformed the landscape, trailing the forests with thin pale wisps in places, and thicker opaque strokes reaching into dark valleys.

Sailing southward in British Columbia, the northern lights swept green in pulses across the night sky behind us. Dawn in the secluded waters of Aaltanash Inlet was stunning, with slowly swirling fog drifting amid beaming sunshine, creating one of the most memorable days of the voyage.

Our grand finale came in Johnstone Strait where we had wonderful views of a resident pod of killer whales swimming past our ship on a calm and sunny afternoon. As grand finales should, it just kept getting better as we then encountered an enormous group of Pacific white-sided dolphins moving up the middle of the strait. There were many hundreds of animals all together, surging in small gangs in our stern wake, others leaping skyward ahead of us time and again. Our many years of practice photographing dolphins in Baja California paid off, as these “Lags,” (as we affectionately call them for their Latin name: Lagenorhynchus obliquidens), played as perfect subjects.

The final good thing about this particular itinerary is our quick commute home from the pier in Seattle.

PHOTO TIP:
In Southeast Alaska, one often encounters “moody” weather which can occasionally make for very memorable photos. We were pelted with rain in the town of Petersburg — really yucky!, but by the time our ship began leaving the harbor the rain had let up, leaving low clouds wrapping the edges of town. Many people disappeared into the ship to dry off, get a hot drink, and likely missed some very brief but exquisite scenery at ships and piers appeared and disappeared in the gauzy fog.

Click on this link to our Photo Tips pages for more in-depth information on Optimizing Foggy Scenes.

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Catching Up: August in Southern Africa

Fabulously colorful lilac-breasted roller in flight. ©Rikki Swenson

In August, we headed back to Africa to lead a Lindblad/Bushtracks Southern Wing Safari traveling to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and on to three safari areas in Bostwana. As we settled into our airplane seats, Jack asked me if there was something special I was really hoping to see this safari. I hardly paused before saying, “Leopard cubs. I’ve never really seen more than a glimpse of leopard cubs.”

Before our safari began, we did a reconnaissance trip to a couple camps in Zimbabwe to learn more about these areas, and what the Zim safari experience has to offer our guests. We spent four nights at two camps in Hwange National Park: Davison’s Camp and Little Makalolo. [Everything went smoothly, the wildlife was good, but as we plan for 2013, we’re going to continue putting the emphasis on the private reserves and concessions in Botswana and S. Africa where we have a bit more flexibility, and we know the photo opportunities are fantastic.]

Elephant herd heading to water (Sepia tone). ©Jack Swenson

The absolute highlight in Zimbabwe was a woodpile hide (a blind) on the edge of a large waterhole at Little Makalolo. It was obvious this waterhole attracts lots of elephants as evidenced by the tons of scat on the ground. As we headed out on a game drive that first afternoon, with the sun’s rays growing golden in the sky, we could see long lines of elephants coming in to drink at the waterhole. We instantly knew that was where we wanted to be. We spent the next afternoon in the hide, and it was marvelous! The cozy 4-seat hide is made up of a strong metal frame with large tree trunks piled around the sides to prevent the ele’s from getting too close. Of course it’s relatively wide open, offering easy access if a lion came along, but our guide brought a rifle, so we felt comfy.

Intimate view of elephant life from the waterhole hide. ©Jack Swenson

We watched with delight as hundreds of elephants came and went from the waterhole over a couple hour’s time. There were big males, protective mamas, and little youngsters, plus every size in between. Every so often, an elephant would come over to the hide to inspect, glare down and show us who was boss with head shaking and ears flapping. Of course the most fun was watching the littlest ele’s as they romped through the water, splashing about, trying to figure out how to use their trunks. One ele was having so much fun flopping down in the water, goofing around, and was always underfoot of these massive adults (though no one gets stepped on). Just as we thought it couldn’t get any better, our guide offered us sundowner cocktails and snacks as we watched the waterhole show. The light was gorgeous and it was an absolutely magical experience.

We flew back to Victoria Falls to meet our safari group, a really super gang of travelers, and spent the next two days at, and around, the Falls. We had a wonderful afternoon cruise aboard a pontoon boat on the Zambezi River exploring the islands and shorelines above the Falls. Everyone had great views of the safari’s first elephants and hippos along with a stunning sunset. From Vic Falls we headed west to Botswana and Chobe National Park.

Elephants emerge from the Chobe River as we watch from our pontoon boats. ©Rikki Swenson

Elephant "snorkeling" across the Chobe River. ©Jack Swenson

Chobe is renown for its massive population of elephants. The highlight of every visit there is spending time by boat on the Chobe River in the late afternoon watching big family groups of elephants coming down to the river to drink, bathe, and sometime swim over to graze on the lush islands that dot the river. The biggest ele’s can easily cross the deep water, but the little ones definitely have to swim, using their trunks as snorkels as they make their way across.

Small, but dazzling malachite kingfisher. ©Jack Swenson

All this was tremendous to see and photograph, and there were also hippos, crocodiles, and awesome birds including the dazzling malachite kingfishers adding to the variety. This time on the water is what we think is best about Chobe, and are look forward to returning next year on our special Botswana & S. Africa Photo Safari.

To read more and  find out whether Rikki got to see her leopard cubs, see a gallery of images from this safari, and photo tips for shooting wildlife in low light…

click here to read more

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Catching Up: Norway and the High Arctic

Polar bear surveys its icy domain, Arctic Ocean. ©Rikki Swenson

In late May we flew east to Bergen, Norway, where we joined the National Geographic Explorer for three voyages over 28 days. This was Rikki’s first voyage on the “North Cape” itinerary along the coastal fjords of Norway, to Bear Island, and on to arctic Svalbard. It was a great voyage, visiting many stunning and unusual locations. Jack had done this voyage several times, many years ago, and was delighted by the various new places that the ship now visits, including some wild and little-known fjords. Svalbard also holds a special place in our hearts, as its where we exchanged marriage vows 14 years ago this summer.

Winter's fast ice breaking up in Hornsund, Svalbard. ©Jack Swenson

Once we were up north “in the ice,” we had excellent luck finding polar bears, thanks to the diligent eyes on the bridge constantly scanning the ice. The “old eyes” prevailed, with Jack spotting the first bear every voyage, and many thereafter. [Rikki had been cautioning him about all the staff with younger, expert eyes, so he was very cool when she asked him about the first bear, “Who spotted it?” His reply, “The old eyes.”]

The "old eyes" Jack at 80º North. ©Rikki Swenson

It was early season, and there was still a lot of shore fast ice in the bays and fjords of Svalbard, which meant there was plenty of prime polar bear habitat to scan endlessly with binoculars and spotting scopes. As a result, we found lots of bears. Each of these three voyages had their share of superb bear sightings. We had close up views of a sow with two adorable cubs, and bears with freshly killed seals on the ice. One of the most amazing sightings was our final bear which we found north of the remote Nordaustlandet in the pack ice. We spent several hours watching this lone bear stalking seals. It would wander across broad expanses of drifting ice, searching for seals lying on the ice beside their breathing holes (which also serve as their escape route back into the water). On several occasions the bear found open places in a large floe,

Notches on the ship's bridge for each polar bear sighting. (Some were eating dinner...)

and then proceeded to sneak closer to its prey by submerging and swimming underneath the ice floe. It’s head would then reappear closer to the seal, coming up through soft spots in the ice like the periscope of a submarine, looking around and getting bearings on its prey, then swimming farther under the ice. We all marveled at the bear’s ingenuity, fortitude, and patience as seal after seal kept managing to evade these incredibly stealthy approaches.

Fin whale rising in still waters off west Spitsbergen. ©Rikki Swenson

Sagging Soviet era buildings in Barentsburg. ©Jack Swenson

Our departing charter flight was scheduled late in the day allowing us an extra morning for an unusual outing; a visit to the Russian coal mining town of Barentsburg. This is a place that few westerners ever get to see, and it felt like a time warp transporting us back to the era of the Soviet Union. An occasional coal-laden truck rumbled past us on the streets as we marveled at the strange sights.

Many of the scenic views on this itinerary were too enormous to capture with a wide angle lens, which also has the effect of shrinking dramatic mountains as it fits more of them into the frame. So at times I turned to “stitching” multiple images together to create broader panoramic views. Two important tips for shooting a series of photos for stitching via computer. 1) Turn the camera and shoot the images as verticals. This allows more telephoto perspective and can give additional space for cropping at the top and bottom if the images don’t line up perfectly. 2) Shoot all images to be stitched using Manual exposure mode so that all of them are exposed exactly the same. Using automatic exposures (i.e. Auto or Scene modes, Aperture or Shutter Priority mode), the camera will likely change the exposure as the brightness of the scene changes while panning, resulting in the stitched images ultimately not matching in tone. It may be useful to take an initial exposure reading using one of the automatic exposure modes for reference in setting an accurate manual exposure for the series of shots, gauging the brightest and darkest areas of the scene in advance.

Panoramic "stitched" image of mountains in Hornsund, Svalbard. ©Jack Swenson

A few more images from these three northern voyages.

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Catching Up: Baja California 2011

Long-beaked common dolphins. ©Jack Swenson, 2011

Those of you who have ventured around Baja California by sea will recall how every new day is both blissful and exhilarating. In March and April we spent a month in those sunny climes. We began with some days camping at the beach near Loreto with our aging desert camper van. It was delightful sitting by a flickering driftwood campfire under the brilliant umbrella of stars, and the sounds of lapping waves along the shores of the gulf.

Strangely shaped Boojum trees. ©Rikki Swenson, 2011

We then began our annual ship voyages around the Baja Peninsula, traveling aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird from the lagoons of Magdalena Bay into the magical Sea of Cortez. The two-week “Remarkable Journey” continues to be an absolute favorite voyage. As always, we had countless amazing encounters with whales and dolphins, and so much more: rippling sand dunes, zillions of seabirds, weird wiry Boojum trees, exquisitely painted sunsets, and sharing it all with friends. We’ll miss it next year (but are very excited to be scheduled on the new West African Odyssey voyage next spring). We’ll hope to be back in Baja for 2013.

Job hazards: Cholla cactus chunk in Jack's shoe and foot. ©Rikki Swenson, 2011

In the harbor town of Santa Rosalia, we continued tradition with a group margarita party at the historic Hotel Frances where we showed guests the curious photo technique of “Selective Color” which is possible with some models of Point’n’Shoot cameras. Using this function, an entire image becomes black and white except for one specific chosen color.  Our smaller Canon cameras have this as an option within the “Scene” modes, labelled “Color Accent.” In this mode, the “DISP” (Display) button shows what color is selected (i.e. green). On Canons, pushing the left < selector on the wheel dial while pointing the lens at a different colored object then selects that particular color (i.e. yellow, blue, orange, etc.). On a side street near the hotel we found this classic old dusty VW Bug. I walked up next to it, pointed the camera at it while pressing the color selection buttons (as described above) to select its color (red), then took this shot.

Dusty VW Bug, Santa Rosalia, Mexico. (Shot in "Color Accent" mode) ©Jack Swenson, 2011

Jack’s self-portrait in Santa Rosalia (no, not what you’re thinking, this was taken before the margarita party…)

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Postcards and Postings: Catching Up On the Last Six Months

2011 has been such a phenomenal travel year — Rwanda, Kenya & Tanzania, Baja California, Norway & Svalbard, Zimbabwe and Botswana, Alaska and British Columbia — we keep pinching ourselves as we reflect back on these experiences. Now it’s time for us to get caught up here on the blog. Our last entry was about East Africa in January/February, and there is so much to share since then.

As we look back, the last six months were full of wonderful sightings. The dolphins (above) would make you think of Baja, but this was a huge group of Pacific white-sided dolphins in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. The fin whale surfacing right next to the ship again makes one think of Baja, but instead we experienced this unforgettable moment off the western side of Spitsbergen Island, up in Arctic Norway. There was no end to the surprises, including an incredible encounter with leopard cubs in the easternmost corner of Botswana.

Soon to follow, we’ll add photos and stories to fill in a few details from these recent expeditions. You’ll find our updated schedule (via the link above or at right) all the way through the end of 2012, and even mention of our first expedition slated for 2013. We’re looking very equatorial for the coming year, so we’ve packed away the cold weather gear.

That’s it for now, Baja will be posted shortly.

-Rikki & Jack-

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Cubs & Calves & Other Joys of Africa

Impala, topi, gazelles and giraffe on the plains of the Maasai Mara, Kenya.

We’ve been keeping very busy, being the traveling fools that we are, and are now home long enough to upload updates of what we’ve been up to. We can’t gallop into the present without sharing a few images from our annual East Africa Photo Safari from back in Feb. We again had the treat of working with Micato Safaris, now for our sixth year, and again we had day after day of fantastic wildlife sightings.

Lion cubs with Mom and Auntie, Lake Ndutu region, Tanzania.

On two outings at Lake Ndutu we encountered two lionesses, perhaps sisters, one of which had three adorable cubs in tow. When we first found them the mother and cubs were lying in dense brush nursing as the other female was sleeping on more open ground nearby. When the kid’s meal time was finished we expected them to all fall asleep, and we wondered if we’d ever get a good view of the cubs who had been mostly obscured by leaves and branches. Then the mom stood up and led the cubs out onto the open ground right in front of us. She lay down, and the kids began playing, and playing, and chasing each other this way and that, tumbling over each other and pestering their mom, and then grabbing their brother’s tail, and on and on. The show went on for probably an hour. [Wildlife photo tip; if you want to know exactly how long an encounter lasted, or how quickly a predation event transpired, etc., if you were taking photos the entire time you can check the time codes in the EXIF data for the first and last photo.]

The following morning we found the same two females and three cubs, again out on open ground giving us another amazing show.

Lion cubs taking a momentary break from another session of play.

Throughout the safari we enjoyed seeing young of different species, including hyaena cubs which are actually cute at a young age, and baby wart hogs which don’t quite make it into the cute category, but they’re pretty funny to watch with their little tails in the air running after Mom. Baby elephants are also amusing as they often try to act tough with the safari vehicles, shaking their heads and floppy ears, and trumpeting to scare us off. If that doesn’t work to frighten away the intruders, they can always retreat to the safety of their Mom who has been calmly grazing through the whole show.

Curious elephant calf watches us from beneath its mother.

As usual, we can’t wait to return to Africa for more amazing experiences on safari.

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