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Puma watch-2

3/28 & 3/29 Travel Days 1 & 2.

Start of travel day #1: 

I was up before dawn at 05:00 am. Then I visited (bolted through) 4 terminals, rode 3 crowded buses, 1 bumpy commuter plane, and completed 2+ miles of walking before reaching my jet in LAX. 

The shuttle buses that whisk you between the terminals must also navigate the busy runway paths at LAX with signs along the way that say, “Stop for Airplanes!” ✈️ Which we did. So crazy. Our bus kept bottoming out & scraping the tarmac. I’m surprised how chaotic LAX still is. It was something I would expect in another country, not here. 

No where on my reservation nor my boarding pass did it say what gate I was to go once arriving & deplaning at LAX. Terminal B was all I knew. The terminal map had all the gate numbers identified, but none of the airlines listed. Well, okay how fun is this. I finally found a tv screen in the duty-free shopping mall with my flight# & gate listed. Gate one hundred and forty four. Yes, 144. 

I went up, around, then down again on escalators and fast tracks.  I was so happy that I could jump the long line at the gate in business class. I went through gate 144, no plane. We had to board another bus. 🚌 That was 10 hours out of my day thus far. A 10 hour flight to Santiago was still in front of me.

Travel day #2: Once in Santiago, I had a 5 hour layover. Our boarding gate was yet another bus ride on a busy tarmac to the plane. By 11:45 on March 29th, I was on my way to Punta Arenas, Chile on a 3 hour flight. 

The view from the plane was phenomenal. The majestic Andes Mountain range stretched as far as the eyes could see. I crossed over thousands of miles of rugged volcanic rock scapes and glaciers.

Total travel hours from Carmel, Ca to Punta Arenas, Chile: 30 hours. 🇨🇱 

At the airport in Punta Arenas I met up with Jeff Parker of https://exploreinfocus.com, the Puma Trip leader and shuttled to the hotel. I had a nice hot, relaxing bath and a fresh change of clothes for the rest of the day. A delicious dinner of Fettuccini del Mar awaited us at Hotel Diego De Almagro at the end of our day.

Travel Day #3: Punta Arenas, Chile

 My first real day of vacation started with breakfast at Diego De Amargo Hotel in Punta Arenas. In an Antarctic wind-swept, volcanic ash covered land, you will not find a lot of fresh produce. The daily breakfast consisted of sweet pastry items, doughnuts, white bread & rolls, processed, sugar-coated cereals, previously frozen, thawed or canned fruit, and flavored, sugar filled yogurt. 

  Dr. Thomas Fry & I walked around town in Punta Arenas. There were interesting murals, old churches and buildings to photograph. The main park in town across from the church had a visitor center, a large statue of Magellan and many well-fed friendly dogs, one of which followed us around town for many blocks. Unfortunately, many of the beautiful statues, and plaques around town were defaced with spray painted graffiti. 

  Later in the afternoon we went sight seeing in a rental car to Puerta del Hambre (Starvation Point) & Bahia Mansa. There were many old, dilapidated fishing boats to photograph in the bay. We drove to the very end of the road and hiked about 3 miles along the rocky coast taking nature photos. We were fortunate to photograph the endangered orange bumble bee Bombus dahlbomii.

  Jeff, Tom, & I walked around Punta Arenas and had dinner at a very kitchy restaurant called “La Marmita”. Very good food & desserts.

Travel Day #4: Punta Arenas, Chile.

  I had the opportunity to walk about town again, this time with our leader Jeff Parker. We walked back to the park to find that all the dogs had vacated due to the activity in the square on this Sunday. Between Sunday mass, a military presence, loud anthem music and a demonstration protest parade, there was too much activity for the feral dogs. I had brought a big ham & cheese sandwich from the hotel breakfast buffet for the sweet dog that had followed me around the day before. I had no luck finding him.

  We happened upon a nice chocolate shop, “La Chocolatta”.  I had to buy some fine Chilean chocolates for my coworkers back home…….it is the rule.

  Jeff & I walked a few blocks to the mercado for supplies for our upcoming hikes into Torres de Paine National Park & surrounding areas. There was very little to purchase in the way of snacks other than processed, sugar-filled cookies & candy. I felt bad for the people of Southern Chile since all of their staple food items seemed to be white rice, white flour, white bread, and refined white sugar. There were plenty of frozen meats, canned fruits & vegetables, and packaged, processed foods. I noticed a small produce aisle off to the side. I found one tiny area in the store where a few small bags of packaged, dried nuts were located. I grabbed those and some dark chocolate bars for the upcoming week of Puma Prowling. I bought a six pack of original Coke® which I will drink on vacation. The Coke seems to act like a mild ant-bacterial for me when introducing new foreign gut bacteria on vacation that might otherwise prove troublesome. 

  We then walked back to the hotel with our snack stash in tow. I saw 2 small, skinny black & white dogs that looked like they could really use the ham & cheese sandwich I had made for the big dog I was searching for from the day before. The shy one needed more coaxing, but in the end both dogs got a nice snack.

  I got to share a nice dinner back at the hotel where we met up with the rest of the group. There was our leader Jeff Parker from Texas, Dr. Tom Fry from Colorado, Ray Ellis from Atlanta, Jerry Miller from New York, Tin Man Lee from Los Angeles, and the lovely ZZ from China. All in all a very interesting mix of photographers and adventurers.

Travel Day #5: Rancho Lago Amarga, Chile

Seven travel photographers with loads of gear and our Puma guide, Mauricio, poured into a shuttle van at the hotel in Punta Arenas and made our way to our destination……Torres del Paine or “Puma Land”.

  We stopped in this quaint town of Puerto Natales for supplies for the guests who did not have time to go to the mercado before. It is the gateway town for travelers going to Torres del Paine. It is filled with mountaineering and backpacking stores galore. 

  After about three hours of driving through mostly flat grassland we finally arrived at Refugio Laguna Amarga just outside of Torres del Paine National Park of Chile. 

  Our accommodations once was a thriving, working, 17,000-acre private ranch. They still have a herd of sheep that roam around the ranch.  Refugio Laguna Amarga shares a fence line with the national park. Most of our puma tracking was to take place on the ranch itself which was planned to provide an intimate, private experience for the seven of us. 

  Our photographic journey focused mainly on the wild puma that thrive here and hunt without fear of man both day & night. Wild guanacos, rheas, foxes, Cara Caras, European hares, flamingos, the endangered South Andean deer, and the near-threatened Andean condor also reside in this Darwinian dreamland. The landscape is a mix of rolling grasslands, prairie brush, volcanic ash, Magellanic steppe, rugged mountains, glacial moraines, and jagged rock towers. 

  The first great photo opportunity was the ranch “Refugio Laguna Amarga” otherwise known as The Goiien house. The ranch is situated on a hillside above a meandering river valley. The view from our day room or “la sala” is absolutely breath taking. La sala has a full view of the iconic mountain range of Torres Del Paine of Southern Patagonia.

  When we first walked into the guest house to choose our rooms, we were taken surprise by the smell of skunk. Apparently, one of those striped nocturnal creatures decided to make its home under the guest house. It was noticeably noxious and persistently pungent for quite some time I must say. By day four I hardly took notice.

  Our first lunch at the ranch was a delicious baked salmon with mashed garbanzo bean as a side preceded by a vegetable soup. Not a bad start I must say. Right after lunch a young man came up to the window with a hairy armadillo that he had found roaming in the field. ZZ and I ran outside to delight in this very interesting animal. We were warned not to pet his back since the long hair-like structures were actually more like quills. Instead we got to rub his belly. The young man set the armadillo loose and off he went to continue his foraging. We followed him for a while snapping some photographs.

  Now it was time to pack our cameras into the van and prowl for pumas. Our scout had spotted one earlier that morning and off we went to try to find the cat again. It is unusual to actually spot a cat, let alone photograph one the first time you set out to find a puma here, but the God’s were with us this day. The cat was spotted near Lake Sarmiento so we set off on foot together. She was spotted laying in the tall grass so we began to photograph her. I had my 150-600mm lens so I was able to get a decent photo of her from a distance. After a while she got up, set her eyes straight onto me, and began to slowly walk up the hill right toward me. She came within about 15 feet from my position. I heard Jeff Parker snicker and say, “Let’s see what you’re made of Karen”.  I have to admit being in the presence of this stealthy, wild,  predatory cat was an amazing feeling.  Her gaze had been locked onto to me for a long time it seemed, then she moved her focus to something on the hill above me. Jeff reminded me to take a breath once she broke her stare and walked around to my left side. I had not realized that I had actually stopped breathing. I then released a long, cleansing exhale.

Puma in front of me-Ray Ellis  The cat was on the move up the hill past the group. The 8 of us stayed within view of her. It was a hefty climb from our lakeside position up to the top of these steep, thorn bush covered hills. The Puma continued to walk and stalk as the afternoon sky began to dim. At the pinnacle of the hill the cat watched and waited. The group watched and waited with her. A light rain began to fall so we donned our rain gear and covered the camera lenses with plastic bags. The rain did not deter the stalking huntress, so we continued to follow her on a parallel path with prudent distance.  

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  The puma continued to lay in wait amidst the brush until the night began to fall. Dim lighting makes action photography near impossible so we packed up and started our long journey back to the car. We would have to wait another day to spot a puma with a fresh kill.

  This was an incredible 1st day in Puma Land that exceeded all of our expectations. Once back at the ranch we had dinner together. Dinner always started out with cut-up white bread & margarine and a bowl of soup. The main course was well-done, substantially tough beef with polenta. Vegetables were not a part of the menu for most nights.

Nightfall was very cold. Unbeknown to us, The electricity at the ranch is turned off after 10pm. There are no lights, and there is no heat until morning when the generator gets turned back on. It was too cold to take a shower by the time we got back to quarters, so I just used some wet wipes to bathe and made a plan to get a shower early in the morning.

Travel Day #6: Torres Del Paine, Chile

 We all needed to be up by 06:30 to be in the shuttle van ready to roll by 07:00 am. I was very surprised to find myself in complete darkness inside of my room. The entire guesthouse was freezing cold inside. The heat had been off all night along with the electricity. I was not all too happy about that since I very quickly succumb to numbness in my hands, feet & nose due to Raynaud’s disease. Not having a thyroid gland exacerbates the problem since I have no temperature regulation due to a previous total Thyroidectomy. There was no hot water so I washed my face by patting it with a corner of my bath towel that I had dampened. The rest of the body got the wet-wipe treatment.

  I put my headlamp on which luckily I had thought to bring in case we were out prowling for puma after dark. The breakfast buffet was dismal. There were a few fruity, sugar-filled yogurt cups, cold, white bread, cheese slices, ham slices, margarine and jam all in separate Tupperware containers on the table in the common area which I called “La Sala”. There were also cookies, crackers & cereal bars, instant coffee, and hot water.

  Some mornings there was even a little milk available for the coffee. There were always 2 big bowls filled with white refined sugar which no one touched to my knowledge. To be totally honest, there was not one single item on that table that I had ever had as a part of my morning diet for over 40 years. Breakfast, which usually is my favorite time of the day was a very sad time for me at the ranch. By the grace of God I had brought 2 apples and a jar of peanut butter which would prove to sustain me most of the week to come. 

  I was glad to be in the shuttle van by 7:00. At least there was heat in there. The day turned out to be cold & rainy. We had a Guanaco photography shoot this day as no puma were to be found._KAS2362

  I found delight in photographing pink clouds over the mountain peaks and rainbows around every turn. The ranch had many antiques that I enjoyed photographing. There were old phones, Peacock® sewing machines, a box radio, a wooden turntable, a Remington® typewriter, and a severely out of tune piano. There was decaying farm equipment, and a rusted old stove out on the grounds as well. 

  Dinnertime was the standard ranch fare of plain white bread with hard, un-spreadable margarine, a bowl of broth with a big chicken leg and a piece of floating corn on the cob. This is a Chilean dish that was actually quite delicious.

Chicken Soup

Ranch Fare

  After nightfall the weather turned ugly. The wind howled all throughout the night and then the rain poured down in buckets. I found it difficult to sleep. I had never heard wind like this before……This was only the beginning.

Travel Day #7: Torres Del Paine, Chile

 Morning came. My room was extremely cold and dark. There was no heat, no light. I was miserably cold. I got completely dressed so that I could tolerate the cold weather inside the guest house. I shuffled into La Sala for our non-breakfast buffet. 

  I had one of my apples that I had brought with me from Punta Arenas along with the peanut butter I had purchased from Puerto Natales. I poured warm water from the thermos from the non-breakfast buffet over the spoonfuls of canned coffee powder that was offered. There was at least a little milk to make the coffee powder palatable. Apparently the non-breakfast buffet is set up in La Sala each night after midnight by the ranch owner.

  We then packed all of our camera gear for the day into the van & drove into the unknown before sunrise. From left to right we had Mauricio as our driver, ZZ, and Tin Man in the front seats, Ray from Atlanta, Dr. Tom from Golden, and our fearless leader Jeff Parker in the middle row who manned the side door. I was by the window in the back row with Jerry from NY at the right window. In between Jerry & I were always 2-3 small backpacks. We set out each morning with our long lenses in our laps & the tripods in the cargo area in the very back. ZZ & Tin Man had 4 Nikon 850s with lenses varying from 400mm to 600mm prime. Those big, heavy monsters rode in the back with the tripods. We had more camera lenses than people in the van at all times. 

  Overnight it had snowed on the mountain peaks. The air temp was noticeably colder than the previous mornings. I had no less than 5 layers under my snow parka and I placed warmer packets inside my coat pockets and into my Merrell® snow boots. 

  The water levels had risen to near flood stage overnight in some areas according to one report. Per Mauricio, the amount of rainfall we had gotten in a few hours was what Southern Chile typically receives over many, many months as it is a high desert climate. We searched for Pumas all day. Most of us stayed in the van while the guides got out to scout. It was just too cold to venture outdoors in the windy, freezing rain. We got out for a few landscape & raging river shots though. 

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 Travel Day #8: Torres Del Paine, Chile  

The ranch was dark and cold again on this morning. I was feeling run down & tired. There was no heat again and no lights in the guesthouse. I put on no less than 7 layers of clothing, wool socks, my snow boots with heat packs, and a fleece beanie topped with a headlamp to find my way to La Sala for hot coffee. The non-breakfast buffet in La Sala had nothing to eat but processed ham, square sandwich type cheese slices, plain, cold sliced bread, cookies, crackers, sugar-filled yogurt cups and lukewarm water for the instant coffee powder.  There was not even milk on this oh so grim morning for the instant coffee. I was tired, cold, hungry, out of T.P. in my toilet cubicle, and the straw that broke the camel’s back…..no crema para cafe’. I was NOT a happy camper. 

  I walked outside into the morning darkness where I found Mauricio standing by the van. I tossed my gear in the vehicle and told him that I was going to have to leave the Puma photo tour after our morning Puma Prowl. When he asked why I wanted to leave I told him that I was not expecting an “indoor camping” experience. Camping is only fun when you “know” you are going camping.

 The only reason I went with the group that morning truly was because riding in the van into the stormy Patagonian wilderness was actually warmer than staying behind inside the guesthouse that was climatized for a meat locker. I just needed to get my numbed toes and fingers rewarmed, get a good hot shower, and perhaps even a hot beverage at a place that served milk in the morning with their coffee. The ranch was not far to Puerto Natales where I suspected I could find modest accommodations, a restaurant, electrical illumination, room heat, hot water, and perhaps  a few different day tours. At least I had options. For now though, I needed to stay with the heated van so I could survive a few more hours of this Patagonian wind & cold. 

  Off into the wild we drove once more. This time Dr. Tom & I rode in the front seat. It was toasty by the heater vents, and the 3 day chill began to defrost from my body. I could feel my toes again.

  As the trackers looked for a puma on the 17,000 acre ranch land, Mauricio drove our team through Torres Del Paine park. The wind was blowing enough to make whitecaps on the lakes and even smaller ponds. We came across Chilean Flamingos that I really wanted to get photos of. It was a challenge to get a clear shot even on a tripod with that wind. The Flamingos were trudging against the waves to forage for their food.  We found some Black Necked swans, Spectacled ducks, and Rheas too.

  Luck was with us for Pumas this day. The trackers found a sleeping Puma up in the hills out of the wind. The sun actually came out for a visit as well. We watched the puma resting for awhile, but there are only so many resting Puma photos one can take. Another puma was spotted near the Ranch with 2 cubs and a fresh Guanaco kill, so we rushed back to get some shots before nightfall. 

  We got our cameras set up across the river from the Guanaco kill before sunset and waited for the mom cat to return with her cubs. The diminishing light and the wind made for some challenging photography. I shot some video footage of the action since the still photos were not going to come out crystal clear at that distance and low light readings. This puma & her cubs have their range close to the ranch. Her name is Mata Oveja, or “Sheep Killer”. She is a fierce huntress, but a doting mother to her cubs. Once all three cats had their fill of Guanaco meat, the mother Puma cleaned the blood from the faces of the cubs and covered the carcass with grass & dirt. To watch a Puma mother and two cubs eating together was an experience of a lifetime.

  Meanwhile, back at the ranch…….Our dinner was being prepared. The usual fare of white bread with un-spreadable margarine, soup, tough, well-done meat, and a starch of some kind. Vegetables were scarce. Dessert at dinnertime was either a flavored, sweet custard pudding or thawed, sugary fruit over another starch. Most nights I gave my dessert to one of the hungry guys. ZZ never ate dinner at the ranch. I suspect she was smart & brought her own food with her. I do have to say that whenever salmon was served, it was cooked to perfection. I also need to mention a delightful spice that I was introduced to by our server, Marielle. It made the meat & the soup very tasty. It is a Chilean spice called Merkén made from smoked”cacho de cabra“.  I am now in love with this spice.

Our team leaders were successful in convincing Juan, the ranch owner, to keep the heat on for us in the evening as temperatures had been dropping into the 30’s. I am grateful that I was able to continue the tour. A little warmth was all I needed along with a little milk for the morning non-breakfast buffet.

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 Travel Day #9: Torres Del Paine, Chile

  Our morning began a little more comfortably with heat, then eventually, the lights went on at the ranch. The non-breakfast buffet was the same, but at least there was some milk for the instant coffee that I could take on the road in my new “Jeff Parker Photography” travel thermos. 

 The wind was fierce this morning for photography.  We got an early start for Laguna Azul landscape photos. Unfortunately the raging wind blew white caps over the lake which smashed our hopes of getting photos of the towers reflecting in the lake this morning. The wind was blowing so hard that tripods were getting blown over. I cranked up my ISO to try to get a clean shot of the Crested Caracaras that were clinging onto a tree branch. In dark, windy conditions the photos did not turn out so clear, but we had to try anyway. A newly formed pond had appeared during the night, so I took my camera over to that spot to photograph the Spectacled duck pair wading in there. 

  We spotted many Guanaco remains throughout every field we roamed. This 17,000 acre ranch was like a Guanaco killing field. It was kind of eerie really, which matched the dark, windy, chilly feel of the morning. I managed to snap a few good Darwin’s Rhea photos as we drove around the desert landscape. Many grey foxes ran about as well. The wind and the cold began to pick up even more. We decided to head back to the ranch a little early. 

  Meanwhile, back at the ranch……..lunch was being made for us. We unloaded our gear from the van and downloaded & backed up all of our photos from the morning shoot. The wind was blowing even harder than before. The Patagonian wind was not the occasional strong gusts like we have in Carmel & Monterey Bay. It was a constant, pounding, powerful, screeching force that was completely unnerving. This supernatural wind blast event continued throughout the entire night and into the next morning without slowing down one iota. I could see the window glass in La Sala actually bowing  inwards! I was afraid the picture frame windows would shatter & send glass shards throughout the living area. We opted to close the door of La Sala & hunker down behind the relative safety of the door & wall in the hallway area. Of course, you cannot say that you have had a true Patagonian weather experience without hurricane force winds and battering sideways rain darts cutting into your face. I received a mini micro-dermo-abrasion treatment on the way to the dining hall without ever stepping foot into a spa salon here at the ranch. 

  As my old friend Robert from Florida always said, “Adventure is rarely fun while it is happening.” Yeah, like that.

  We had to move our table away from the windows. The wind was bowing the glass window inward and was letting rain pour inside onto the tables & floor as if no glass were there at all. 

  Ray from Atlanta said that this Patagonian storm event topped any wind or rain he had ever experienced in all his travels to Alaska or Iceland. This was truly beyond anything I had ever experienced. Photos & video really cannot do justice the the power of the wind & rain we experienced over a 48 hour period. It just never let up. There were exactly 2 healthy, green trees before this storm on the ranch that could be viewed from La Sala. There was but one left standing by morning.  And the wind continued to scream.

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Travel Day #10: Torres Del Paine, Chile

There was no real let up to the powerful wind event. The rain poured nonstop all night like no deluge I had ever experienced. New, giant ponds had formed overnight and over the roads, and snow had re-dusted the hillsides. Maurico proclaimed, “Nunca have we had this much rain in so few days.” He stated that the rain we received over the past few days is about the normal yearly total.

  The wind continued to howl and push us around like rag dolls as we prowled for Puma. At least it was not raining. Photographer’s beanies and spectacles flew off of from their heads and faces. This was without question the strongest and longest wind event I had ever experienced in my 6 decades of travel. What was curious about the Patagonian wind behavior was that there was not just an occasional strong gust, but rather a constant, beating, injurious blast that never ended. 

  This Patagonian high desert is completely inhospitable & rugged, yet somehow the wildlife thrives here. It is a wonderland of odd and diverse creatures clustered here that normally are not commonly found together elsewhere. From Armadillos to Flamingos to Ostrich-like birds to penguins to Camel-like creatures to predatory cats all interact here. Watching the Guanacos “gallump” over the hills en masse and observing the Rheas trotting about in a zig-zag pattern through the thorny brush, and viewing the Andean Condors in the sky made me wonder if this place had really changed all that much since ancient times. The large fauna species like (Litopterna) a horse-like animal, Saber-toothed cat (Smilodon), giant ground sloths (Megatherium), Volkswagon-beetle sized Armadillos (Glyptodon), and huge hoofed mammals (Toxodon) are now gone, but many of their descendants remain. 

  Our daily journey through this Darwinian dreamscape appeared very similar to the scientific accounts that I have read in the past about the Pleistocene Epoch. This place describes an ancient place in time where the herds of game animals roamed the prairies, flocks of flightless birds trotted across the range, exotic mammal species foraged along the water’s edge, birds of prey soared through the skies, and ferocious saber-toothed cats stalked and preyed on the game animals. 

  With heavy camera gear in tow, our small group of adventurous photographers raced up the windswept hills to catch a glimpse of a Puma cat resting high above the lake in the rocky cave formations. The wind was so forceful that it kept me from drawing in a complete inhalation as if to steal my breath away. Upon finally reaching the apex of the hill, an enormous blast of Patagonian Monster Viento was awaiting my arrival. It felt as if I had struck a brick wall. I was blown back and nearly rolled back down the hill. If not for the heavy zoom lens I was holding low to the ground as ballast, I would most likely would have been airborne. 

  Once having found “relative” shelter from the wind by laying flat on the ground, I tried to catch my breath. I began to cough quite a bit and could not seem to stop. I could taste a little blood from all the coughing. I’m sure I burst a spontaneous Alveolar bleb that afternoon. 

  We had to wait for our breathing to slow down and for the wind to slow down prior to climbing the last hill up to the caves where the cat was. I climbed the steep hill behind the group watching my step on the uneven terrain over grass tuft mounds and thorny plants while the wind pushed me around at will. A gust of wind got the best of me and I got blown right onto one one those prickly plants. The seven layers of clothing protected all but my right middle finger which was badly impaled. I got up and continued up the hill like a drunken sailor, not at all too graceful or dainty. I did not realize it at the time, but my right hand was bleeding profusely.

We crept up to the summit to catch a glimpse of the Puma they called “Blinca”. She can be identified by a badly scarred right eye due to being attacked by a male Puma when she was only a kitten. Males apparently attempt to kill the young kits so that the female Puma will go into esterase again. Blinca is a fighter and a survivor. We watched her as she rested on a rocky outcropping that overlooked an expansive river valley and herds of Guanacos. We positioned our cameras to try to get a decent photo in the wind. I noticed blood smeared all over the camera grip & controls and some blood was even running down the legs of the tripod. “Just lovely”, I thought. “Let’s blood-let ourselves all over the mountain in front of an apex predator”. 

  As darkness began to fall, we pulled back so that the Puma could go on her evening hunt. It was still quite windy, but it did not feel as strong as it had been over the past two days. There were still whitecaps on Lago Sarmiento, small waterspouts, and blowing rain seemed to swirl over the lake from every direction. The wind seemed to have no beginning nor ending, it just “was”.

Mauricio spotted a Grey Fox somehow in the grass in the distance. I snapped off a few last shots for the day.

  Meanwhile, back at the ranch……….the evening soup, a generous portion of tough, shoe leather meat & a new starch awaited us. The Merken was a life saver for flavor. We started having bets on whether the soup would be red, yellow, or green that evening.

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  Travel Day #11: Torres Del Paine, Chile

   I awoke, the room was dark, but the heat was on. I placed my headlamp on and got cleaned up. I could hear people shuffling about the guesthouse which was odd. usually I had always been the 1st one up. For some strange reason it was one hour later at Torres del Paine than what my iPhone alarm stated. It was near time to go and everyone but Jerry & I had the correct time on their phones. 

  I decided to stay behind since it was warm, and I was not feeling like there was going to be a Puma sighting this morning. In fact, without Mauricio I just did not think we would see one again. Mauricio had to get back to Punta Arenas for another commitment, so the last 2 days of the Puma tour were going to be with someone we were not bonded to, in fact, Jeff our tour leader had never met the man prior. As the group drove away into the Patagonian darkness, I enjoyed my cafe con crema from the non-breakfast buffet in La Sala such as it was. I was visited by the little white ranch cat named Michi. I poured her a little saucer of milk, just don’t tell Juan.

  As the sun came out I walked around the ranch grounds blissfully snapping photos of the various wildlife I found. I snapped a shot of the sunlight as it emerged and illuminated the towers in a reddish hue. There were battling guanacos making a fuss. There was a pair of Upland goose, and a beautiful Southern Lapwing pair. 

  We all took notice of the dining hall roof that afternoon. It seems a piece of it went missing on the wind storm the previous day. 

  After lunch we went out for an afternoon drive with the new driver. We all missed Mauricio as our driver/tracker. His positive energy was contagious. This new driver, well not so much. We stopped for a few Guanaco & calf shots and a Crested Caracara that was close to the road. 

  We were called on the radio, a Puma had been spotted by the on foot trackers Junior and the lovely Javiera. We again bolted up some steep, thorny-bush covered hillside to get a glimpse of the Puma cat. Without a highly skilled tracker, you will never see a Puma like we did. They are masters of blending in, and experts of silent stealth. They are in view one second, then just gone the next. It is as if they have some sort of supernatural cloaking ability.   

  The Puma was scoping out some Guanaco from her hillside perch. It was pretty dark, so I just enjoyed watching this cat while she surveyed the land. It was Blinca once again on the hunt. She made her way down the valley to the lake. I chose to hang back & let her hunt. A few photographers followed the cat for a short time from a prudent distance. I heard from them later that Blinca had leaped into the air near the lake and ensnared a flamingo in flight in her claws. No one could get the shot since the cat was so lightening fast. Just amazing.

  Meanwhile, back at the ranch our cook was preparing our last supper. It was salmon cooked to perfection and a colorful yellow starch that tasted like potatoes. Some nights we had a dessert with Calafate berries. There is a saying in Chile about their Calafate berry. If you taste it, you will someday return to Chile. I tasted the berry with some hesitation in case the fable is true. If I do come back, I hope it will be in the summer.

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Travel Day #12: Torres Del Paine, Puerto Natales, and Punta Arenas, Chile

  We were up before dawn to have our non-breakfast buffet at the Ranch. The slightly heated water in the thermos was just warm enough to dissolve the instant coffee powder from the little coffee can that they offer here. We shared milk from a single serve carton for the coffee. The usual fare of white flour bread, cookies, crackers & sugar was also available.

  We were packed into our van by 07:00. I could see my breath in the chilly morning air by the light of my headlamp. We all began to pile in. Just then, our leader noted that the low gas warning light on our vehicle was illuminated. We seven adventurers were all ready to photograph the mountain towers at first sunlight, the golden hour. Yesterday’s guide had left the gas tank nearly empty. Sitting in the darkness, with nothing to see but the condensation in the air as we exhaled, we concluded that it would be a fool’s errand to venture out into the Patagonian wilderness to our chosen morning photo location without ample fuel. The nearest gas station? 62 miles away.

  We are extreme adventurers, yes. Some of us, like myself, are prone to be less on the extreme side nowadays, so we made the prudent choice to wait until sunlight before knocking on the ranch owners door to request a can or two of petrol for our journey back to Puerto Natales. 

  Eduardo senior drove us from Refugio Laguna Amarga to Puerto Natales for a real brunch and real coffee with cream. The town has many quaint shops and cafes. After our brunch we drove to Estancia Olga Theresa which is a working cattle & sheep ranch that also happens to be a habitat for the endangered Andean Condor. The 700 foot tall cliffs make a safe roosting spot for about 100 condors a night. It boasts the most accessible condor roost for viewing & photography. 

  Eduardo junior is a condor researcher & local expert. We got to learn about these condors before driving around the ranch in 4 wheel drives to the roosting site. Sadly the weather was windy and cold with a constant heavy fog & drizzle which made me decide to only take out my iPhone for photos. It was amazing to watch the condors soar over the expanse of the ranch. I wish the weather had cooperated, but it was still an amazing place to see. Once my extremities began to go numb, it was time to get back into the truck for me. 

Travel Days #13 & 14: Traveling back home

Refer to travel days 1 & 2 and reverse it. It was easier going back since I had the Global Entry Pass for re-entry into the USA which is worth every penny I spent to obtain that card. I just used my phone app & whizzed past the line. Glorious.

In review, we had many surreal once in a lifetime photographic opportunities, quite a few photographic challenges, logistics situations, terrain difficulties, changing weather disruptions, and temperature fluctuations, all along with limited dietary choices. 

  This wild destination of Southern Chile was both challenging and rewarding for me. This was my birthday present to myself as I enter my 6th decade. I highly recommend this entire itinerary to anyone who wants to have an opportunity to stalk along with the Puma, gallup with the Guanacos, forage like the foxes, skunks, and the armadillos, and soar up high with the Condors. You will not just be a watcher, but rather you will be completely engulfed within the experience. As you take in it’s splendor…..it takes you. Patagonia felt like a wind swept, ice age wasteland at first glance, but it could not be more alive.

After a dive vacation I like to write about my experiences. Here goes my story…….

My long awaited, very expensive, luxury scuba vacation was one adventure after another. As my scuba buddy in St. Augestine
always says, “Adventure is rarely fun while it’s happening.”
Nonetheless, it makes for great stories later.

The trip started with an Airbus ride to SFO followed by a nearly 15 hour scheduled economy flight aboard Philippine Airlines. I hate to spend the money for Business Class, but as I get older I find that I hate being uncomfortable even more. At the last minute I opted to bid for an upgrade. I’m so glad I did. Many Business class lounges are really nice around the world. The Philippine Air business class lounge at SFO was really run down with old looking, unhealthy food choices though. They have overly bright, no wait, “painfully” bright illumination throughout the lounge. It was not a relaxing atmosphere at all.
A long-time friend and dive buddy of mine from Scottsdale won’t fly Philippine Air since the Business class seats only recline to a 78 degree angle. I was pretty comfy at only 78 degrees and the service was exceptional. Even the airline food was good and relatively healthy.
Of note, my Scottsdale friend bugged me repeatedly at our 40th high school reunion last summer to go on this trip until I finally caved and said ok. “It will be REALLY fun & safe”, he said. I have traveled with him before on scuba trips and just to be fair, you could not ask for a better, more competent dive buddy or travel companion.
About 11 hours into the flight I was awakened by flight attendants pulling medical gear out of the compartments above me and scurrying to the cabin behind mine. The flight crew knew I was an RN since we had been chatting previously, and of course, I keep my CPR & ACLS certifications current and active.
I always offer to help if needed, but luckily the well trained flight crew performed high quality CPR and utilized the AED successfully to bring the man back from cardiac arrest. I was happy that the flight had not been diverted and I could get some rest and continue with my trip. This was day #1 of vacation.
Day #2 & 3 were spent on my own in Manila. I caught up on sleep, ate great food, and did a spa treatment to recoup after a long flight. I booked a river paddle trip to see the waterfalls at Pasanjan for a fun day trip. The lush scenery was beautiful outside the big city. Stopping for Buko pie and seeing all the colorfully painted Jeepnees driving around was delightful.
On trip day #4 My buddy Ron caught up with me at the gym and then later in the morning I joined Ron & his lady at the Belmont breakfast buffet. After that it was off to the airport to fly to Palawan and to jump onboard the Atlantis Azores dive yacht. I liked that Atlantis had representatives to greet us at the airport and expedite our travel at each leg of the trip.
I was delighted to discover that I actually had a cabin to myself once onboard ship. There was one bed for me, and one bed for my underwater camera & computer!
I was equally delighted to discover that I got the cabin adjacent to the engine room. I think most folks prefer to be far away from the engines, but the whirring hum of ship engines actually helps me to sleep soundly.
The overnight passage on the ship to our final destination was about 90 miles off the coast of the island of Palawan in the middle of the Sulu Sea. We had crew introductions, diving, ship, & safety info explained, and waaaaaay too many info videos to watch, ugh. My brain was tired & full of ship info.
March 18th was the first day of scuba diving for us. I usually groan when having to do a check-out dive, but in this case I was glad to reorient myself to my scuba gear underwater as I had not been on a dive since July 2016. To my dismay, my newly serviced regulator, or breathing apparatus for the lay person reading this story, would make a loud wheezing, or whistling sound upon each breath I drew. The upside was that my dive buddies always knew I was ok since they could hear every breath. If I held my breath to get close to a fish for a photo op, the divers would look around in concern since they could no longer hear the regulator noise. Once my psi was below a pressure of 2000, the whistle stopped. Aquarius Dive Shop owes me a free regulator service!
I enjoyed the diving, but I have to admit that I was expecting larger, more abundant pelagic encounters. I found that my wide angle lens was not going to work on the reef life in Tubbataha. The fish were extremely skittish, and made themselves scarce when anyone got within about 15 feet away. I figured that a protected area like this would have more sea life that did not fear divers like the Borneo and Papua New Guinea trips that I have done in the past. I also found that my macro lens was not going to bring me the results I wanted since most of the dive sites were in a drift current. Almost every dive was a quick shot from the camera as you fly by the reef like a feather in the wind.
On occasion the dive master would point out something in the distant, murky, deep blue water. The visibility waxed and waned between 30-50 feet in the nutrient rich waters of the coral triangle making it difficult for me to make out what the faint, shadowy figure was supposed to be. Sometimes it was a huge tuna or a reef shark.
On dive day #2 I woke up late and missed my morning coffee. I did not miss the dive though. The dive master pointed out a really BIG shadow in the inky distance. I could see by the tell-tale shadow that it was a whale shark. I could not see any markings, but I could at least say that I had seen the shadow of a whale shark now. The current was swift and unpredictable on this day. I decided to leave the camera on board on my second dive so I could just dive without hauling heavy cameras in the whip currents. Im glad Ron was shooting with his GoPro video when a whale shark came close enough for us to catch a good glimpse. I would have been too far for a photo, but I got to watch this magnificent creature swim by. My 1st Whale Shark!
We had 2 dive groups consisting of about 14-16 divers all hunkered on the reef during one of the dives I took. We were blown one way, then suddenly we were blown to the other direction. It was wicked strong and ever changing. My dive buddy Steve crossed his arms to indicate to me that it was time to stop fighting the current, abort the dive, and head for the surface. The surface waves made it hard to see the zodiac, but our boatmen found us and got us back to the ship. I was tired after that and I opted to sit out on the afternoon dive since I wanted to have enough energy for the night dive and attempt some macro shooting.
This was the day of “The Dive into the Abyss of the Washing Machine”. I am so glad I missed this dive. The divers in the group had a terrifying tale to tell. The current was so swift that one diver almost had her mask blown off of her face underwater. It was explained to me that the divers tried to come up out of the dive as a group while holding onto a broken mooring rope that only reached up to about 21 feet below the surface. They held on to the rope as the current whipped them around like rag dolls. They were literally at the end of their rope. When it was time to surface, they let go of the rope as a group to try to stay somewhat together and meet on the surface. Once off the rope, the divers were caught in a down current that sucked them down far enough for them to say that their ears felt like they were bursting. Then, boom! They were blown back up suddenly to the surface. I may not have the details exact, but oxygen was delivered urgently to those involved. One diver had some uncomfortable rapid ascent symptoms that lasted until the next day. His computer dive profile told the story. It’s unsure if it was sinus squeeze, dehydration, or DCS, but I encouraged him to drink 2 liters of water (no IV fluids on board). He had already been given oxygen previously. This is just the beginning of our adventure.
The night dive I had been looking forward to had to be cancelled due to unsafe conditions. I think it was a good call.
Dive day #3. I set my alarm for 5 am so that I could have a relaxing hot latte and not have to rush around before our first dive of the day. I was just finishing brushing my teeth when I heard a loud scraping sound from below. The cabin floor was rumbling.
I was standing at the sink of the lower aft port-side cabin. The ship stopped moving abruptly and lurched to the starboard side. All countertop items flew by me and onto the floor as I clutched the sink rim for balance. A very clear, loud voice in my head said, “This cannot be good.” “Get the hell topside STAT.”
I bolted out from my cabin to run up the stairwell as water flowed onto my head from I don’t know where. I just know that water flowing inside a boat listing to the side=very wrong.
The minute my feet landed on the dive deck, the crewman rang the alarm bell to call all passengers to the muster station. This was NOT a drill. We were 100 miles from any substantial land mass in the middle of the Sulu Sea just after 5 am, in the dark on a listing ship jammed onto a shallow reef. I saw Ron grabbing life jackets as I put mine on.
I heard him say, “Where is Chris?” “She is not in the room!” I called to one of the crew members to go find Chris since we could not see her yet on the deck. She came around the corner a few moments later and I breathed a sigh of relief. Ron had to go through 3 life vests to find one that was useable. Other passengers had life vests missing the whistle and/or the water activated vest light.
We waited while the crew worked hard to ready the zodiacs. The engine on the port side zodiac was not starting. I watched the crewman pull the engine cord repeatedly before the engine finally turned over. It felt like a living nightmare at this point, but I knew we could survive in the water for a while if we absolutely had to jump ship since A, we all could swim, and B, the water was warm. Luckily it did not come to that. I heard them call for the women to board the lifeboats first. I could not believe this was really happening at this point. Our lifeboat motored away from the ship into the surging sea and into the darkness. I watched the lights of the crippled Azores from the distance wondering if the ship would stay afloat. I imagined the absolute horror of what the Titanic survivors must have witnessed on that night in April 1912. Our zodiac boat was tossed up & down with the surge as the waves splashed over us, soaking our pajamas. We watched the lights of the ship while we bobbed in the water. I somehow had had the wherewithal to grab my Sobe dive light that was on the camera table at the muster station prior to abandoning ship. I had only a bottle of water, a light, and for some reason a speedo with me. All of our dive gear, camera equipment, computers, phones, plane tickets, money, documents, and spare underwear were left behind in our cabins.
A nearby dive boat offered to take us all on board their ship while our crew assessed the damage to the Azores. Dry towels, hot coffee, fruit & toast was offered. We were grateful for their hospitality with all of the unexpected guests they had accommodated.
The crew got the Azores out of the shallows and divers assessed that no hull breach had occurred and that it was safe to continue the charter and start diving by 10 am. This meant that we would miss only one dive on this day.
The captain apologized wholeheartedly for the rude wake up call we received. I can’t imagine how bad he must have felt. We all had questions and voiced our concerns individually. For me, I had lost my confidence in the operation to just go dive right away. The adrenaline had worn off and I was a bit ticked off at this juncture actually. Having to abandon ship in the dark, in a wet, bouncing dinghy BEFORE my coffee, and having to wait on a rescue boat for 4 hours, then motor over to re-board the recently shipwrecked vessel to continue on as if all was okie dokie was not working for me.
A Philippine Navy crew was on the way to assess the ship, so I felt it safer to wait until we got a second opinion on seaworthiness before I jumped back into the water.
Dive day #4. I was determined to catch up on dives since we had to cancel a night dive, and I missed 2 dives due to our shipwreck misadventure. I did dives #1 and #2 and got a few half-way decent shots even though I had to use the cheapo kit lens on my Olympus EM-5 for mid-range shots on the fly in the drift. I tried a bit of underwater video for kicks, but it did not come out even marginally viewable in my opinion.
While preparing my gear for the next dive I saw another diver walk past me to go change in the deck restroom. Fran is in her 70’s, still diving, still traveling the world. She was a hard-core diver in her youth braving the chill of the Great Lakes and even breaking through the ice to go diving. She is a tougher diver than I for sure.
The next thing I see is Fran down on the dive deck. Two crewmen were trying to help her up, but she was not getting up all too quickly. The main dive master, Marian who was otherwise known as Divemaster McDreamy to all the ladies, asked for my assistance to assess Fran. She had slipped and landed squarely on her left knee. The crew got Fran to her back so we could better see what was going on. She was very pale and thought that she might throw up. Her left patella was in a concave presentation and I suspected that it was shattered. Meanwhile the crew had brought the backboard, a splint, and some Ace wraps. After the crew placed Fran carefully on the backboard I assisted Marian with stabilizing the fracture, but in actuality, this crew really needed no assistance, they knew exactly what to do.
Fran was carried inside the main cabin lounge where we could keep her warm & get her out of the wet swim clothing. We carefully elevated and placed support under her leg. Her left foot CSMs (color, circulation, sensation, and movement) were WNL. (within normal limits). I marked the pulse sites for quick reference for the next medical person that took over. I also charted all of the pertinent info & Frannie health stats on paper for the next person. I hoped they could read my writing. We needed to cut Fran out of the bathing suit since we did not want to have to manipulate her leg positioning. Her long time dive buddy Kit was by her side and was able to get a “go bag” ready for her to take to the hospital. The crew had put up a curtain to create some privacy. It was like being in PACU again, only everyone was in swimsuits. Fellow passengers offered anti-nausea meds and pain meds to help. Since Fran was worried about nausea with pain meds she only took the anti-nausea med. Help was on the way so we waited for Navy medics to come on board to help. The Diver Alert Network had already been contacted to assist with arranging transportation to the nearest hospital. The Navy medics got our tough little Frannie onto their vessel and sped away to Palawan to the hospital there.
Dive day #5. I got to go on all the dives that I desired. I did not want to sit out on a dive since life is so uncertain and you never know what may happen if you sit things out. If you sit out, you could miss out. Life & circumstances can turn on a dime, or as in our case, turn on a “dive”. The night dive was fun with my Sola video light. I could see half of the Sulu Sea with that mega torch!
I want a second one so I can do more video clips for more fish behavior footage. Honestly though, I absolutely hate video editing. I may have to hire someone with more patience for that tedious chore.
Dive Day #6 was a 2 dive day since Ron, Chris, and I had to fly out from Palawan on the 24th and we like to have a 24 hour decompression window for flying. I got to finish the dive trip underwater with Ron, Chris, and my dive buddy was Divemaster McDreamy for the last 2 dives, yay.
The long passage back to Palawan was rough and the ship tossed and swayed about while our top-notch Chef continued to prepare our exquisite meals in spite of the impossibility to stand or walk. I collapsed into the giant bean bag on the floor of the lounge so I could stay in place while editing photos. I became enveloped into the bean bag like an Anemone fish in the Carpet Coral as the waves tossed the ship about. This swaying, tossing, and the sound of breaking dishes in the kitchen went on for at least 4 hours or more. I started timing the crashing sounds in the kitchen. They were about 20 minutes apart like the beginning of contractions. I never heard one complaint out of that kitchen. I guarantee that if I was the one trying to cook on that rocking horse cruise, the passengers would have heard, “Screw this, y’all are getting peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, so deal with it.”
A note about the chef. This was by far the best cuisine I have had on a dive trip. I’m talking 5 star, from scratch baked goods, perfectly prepared entrees, and abundance of healthy choices and variety, and knock-your-socks-off desserts that I challenge anyone to beat. All meals were exquisitely and professionally presented to each passenger.
I felt sorry for the seasick folks. For whatever reason I was only chummy to the tummy at the onset of the trip. I did not apply my Scopolamine patch since I hate dry mouth and the reduced alertness I feel on that med.
I have to stop here and mention how professional, polite and accommodating the entire crew of the Atlantis Azores was during this entire trip. We had various diving incidences, wicked currents, barotrauma, ship emergencies, medical emergencies, gear problems, along with other minor injuries and illnesses that could have been much worse if not for everyone’s cooperation, and willingness to work as a team to help one another.
I am grateful that I managed to have some fun and snap a few decent photos in spite of all the challenges we had on board the Azores. I am completely exhausted after this trip and need to rest when I return home. My next dive destination may need to be land based.

 

B-1

Before boarding The Aggressor live-aboard, the ship’s travel office got me 3 tours around Belize. I paid 3-4 times the normal price to go on these tours since I was not with a designated group. There are no chain stores in Belize, so don’t expect seeing a Starbuck’s anywhere. Belizeans cannot brew a good cup of coffee to save their hides! The only shopping was along a narrow city street with immigrant merchants hawking at all the passerbys to come in. The stores offered only cheaply made trinkets that had nothing to do with fine Belize crafts. The one nice marketplace was guarded and walled off from everyone except the large cruise ship passengers, which I found very odd.

As for the Lamani tour: The ruins were interesting, though the Mask Temple has a plastered-facade which looked cheezy. The Howler monkeys were bellowing away which gave everyone the sense of being in a truly wild outpost. The sideways rain was brutal on this tour. Especially the 2 hour boat ride in crocodile infested waters. The term Bucket Seats takes on a new meaning when on a river tour in a torrential downpour. I sat for two hours in no less than 3 inches of rain that accumulated in my seat. I kept swiping the water out, but it kept re-accumulating. The guide offered Hefty bags which most everyone donned. I should have worn my wetsuit on the tour. It rained so hard for so long that I was worried we would sink! I used my life preserver to protect my face from the force of the wind and rain. The force of the pelting rain was like needles on my skin. FYI-no raingear has been invented yet to protect from this type of deluge. As for bugs…..I never saw one. I developed welts later in the day that grew once I was back at the hotel. I was bitten on 2 unsprayed parts of my outer palms which hurt like hell for a week. I also noticed a few welts on my legs and a painful neck bite. I’m waiting to see what hatches out in 2 weeks time. I was appalled that the Radisson wanted to charge $12 American dollars for a can of “OFF”bug spray. That’s not reasonable, it is clearly trying to rip-“OFF” the customer.

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Mask Temple at Lamanai (Submerged Crocodile)

The Xunantunich ruins would have been nicer if the rain had not been pouring down in buckets. I had my camera in the underwater housing in hopes of getting some photos, but the rain was so heavy that it skewed the visibility of the pyramids even when standing as close as 10 feet away. The visibility was better underwater on this trip. I booked this trip at the supposed end of the rain season. I can’t imagine what the rainy season is like.The cave tours and zip line tours were cancelled due to rain and flooding. The car ferry across the river was interesting. The Belizean ferry was working well with the steel cables and pulley system. We were greeted on the other side by 4 very young military guards all armed with automatic weapons. Apparently, they do not like their photos taken, so I did not make myself obvious. As in every country I travel to, I smile at the nice men with the guns!

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Rainforest Downpour at Xunantunich Ruins

The Belize zoo was actually pretty nice. You can get up close and personal with many of the Belize jungle animals. This owl was trying to offer me his prey.

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Spectacled owl, Pulsatrix perspicillata, with prey.

Crooked Tree Wildlife River tour is great if you have a 400mm zoom lens or greater. The highlight of this tour was seeing my first wild crocodile swimming in front of our boat. They are very shy and getting a photo is near impossible. I would advise forgoing this tour unless it is sunny. Rain keeps the birds in hiding, and overcast skies keep the crocs from getting out onto the banks where they might be spotted on a sunny day.

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Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii)

 

Now on to the Aggressor dive yacht. The Aggressor dive fleet boasts itself as being “The Ultimate in Liveaboards”. I am disappointed to report that The Belize Aggressor was not the ultimate in live-aboard yachts as advertised. The ship is old and tired and should really be retired.

Boat

Aggressor from my hotel window

It has a very small inside lounge that really does not accommodate 18 divers. The dining area is split into separate areas, with a tiny kitchen area separating the two seating rooms. Some of he crew seemed a bit standoff-ish and even a bit grumpy at times. When diving, all food tastes great since you are so darned hungry from multiple dives throughout the day. Strangely, the food was just OK. It was all made from scratch though, I’ll give them that accolade. I noticed all the passengers with Scopolamine behind their ears. Maybe that made the food taste good to them? The seas were not all that rough this week for me to use that drug.

No Swimming

No Diving here

As you climb the ladder down to the old bunkbed staterooms, a strong smell of latrine hits your olfactory senses like a crashing dung wave. They scent is unsuccessfully covered up by a strong stench of some scented chemical that will make your eyes bleed. (Well, actually your eyes will sting & get watery) The dive platform was a good size and had two ladders so divers did not have to wait a long time to get out of the water. The dive platform had 2 warm water showers, which were a nice benefit on this boat. Even with 16 divers we all got in and out of the water without much waiting. The hot tub was out of order which was a major disappointment. The visibility was good all week underwater. The weather was rainy, but not too rough.

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Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate), munches coral.

The underwater life was a bit sparse, and extremely skittish. An over-abundance of Lionfish were seen. The coral reefs were not as robust as I would have hoped and the lack of Pelagic fish was noticeable. During the week a stray reef shark or Barracuda was seen on occasion, about 3 hawk-billed turtles, a distant eagle ray, a few Parrotfish, small yellow-tailed Jacks and some smaller reef fish were found. We did find one sea-horse. A few large Tarpon and some Horse-eyed Jacks hovered under the boat on a couple of our night moorings. I feel like this area is way overfished at this point.

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Yellow-tail Snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus)

By 2015, 45 percent of the fished waters in Belize were to be under the Managed Access system and No-Take zones put into place to protect the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site. It may take a few decades before we see repopulation of this area though.

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Orange long nose seahorse (Hippocampus reidi)

I did manage to snap a few decent shots with my new Oly E-M5, however the Caribbean seems like a desert compared to other seas I have dived.

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Grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), and ?Pilot fish (Naucrates ductor) cruise along the reef.

Finally, the last nightmare of the trip was cramming two boatloads of tired, wet, moldy divers and their belongings onto a large bus. The Dancer had 20 people, the Aggressor had 16. It was a cluster-mess. Some people almost missed their flight. We swarmed the luggage compartment under the bus upon arrival at the airport so we could get to our gates. The Belize airport was absolutely packed like sardines.

In summation of my trip: It was way overpriced, heavily and erroneously advertised as “luxurious”, mediocre to poor cuisine, and a below average diving destination. I hope we do better next time!

Karen Diving Belize

A swim through in Belize

 

 

Visibility in Crystal River was about 12 inches due to rain run-off, so I did not get good Manatee photos. I got one clear photo of the baby Manatee as he surfaced.
The mom was a 1,000 lb behemoth, but I could not see her even though she almost ran me over!
Three Sister’s Spring was super clear and I did a few split shots of the vegetation above water with the root systems below the waterline.  Crystal River, Florida OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                                                                 Ancient, sacred, natural springs are phenomenal to swim in & photograph!

Fossil Shark Tooth Diving in Venice, Florida was challenging with 1-2 feet of visibility.  We had 4+ foot swells, windy white caps, lightning & thunder showers which made for rough day for some divers.
I found 7 small fossilized shark tooth specimens. The Megalodon fossil I sought eluded me this time around.  Next time I will find one.
I did two 90 minute dives in the surge and low vis.Karen OK

Fossil diving at Venice Beach, Florida

Fossil diving at Venice Beach, Florida

Fossil diving at Venice Beach, Florida

Fossil diving at Venice Beach, Florida

Fossil diving at Venice Beach, Florida

Fossil diving at Venice Beach, Florida

July 7th:

I took a red-eye out of LAX for Florida. All the lights were out for passengers to sleep. About 2 hours into the flight, all the TV screens illuminated with the message, “Physician needed in the forward most area of aircraft”.
Then, the announcement for physician needed came over the intercom. To my dismay, I saw no one go up to help. I sighed an”Awe crap” under my breath & went to see if a mere RN would be sufficient for the emergency. They seemed eager for my assistance as I entered the scene and introduced myself to crew & patient.
The bad news: An elderly woman from 1st class had collapsed just outside the cockpit.
The good news: It was NOT the pilot. 😉
The flight attendants were supporting her with cool compresses & attempting to place oxygen on her via mask.  She was refusing 02, refusing assistance, & repeating, “I’m alright, I’m alright.
I introduced myself, and sat on the floor with her. After my initial scene observation & ABC’s (CAB),
I began my triage questions & observations.
Getting her to cooperate & offer up the necessary info I needed to rule out stroke, heart attack, diabetes, seizure disorder, dysrhythmia, hypertension, & other things was difficult at 1st.
She kept brushing everyone off saying “I’m fine”. The family of 8, all in 1st class were being overbearing. I politely asked everyone to take their seat & to not hover as the patient was extremely embarrassed & becoming agitated with everyone closing in on her.
She had given me permission to assess & help, but each question about history, medication, & current symptoms were met with a dismissive, authoritative, “I’m fine!”
Finally I told her to open her eyes & to look into mine. I said kindly, but directly, “You need to be here with me now, cooperate with me and answer my questions so I can clear you to finish this flight.”
If “I” am not satisfied that you are fine, then the pilot will need to land this plane right now, because at this moment, I am not convinced that you are alright.
At that point she let us place oxygen, take a blood pressure, and she answered all my questions appropriately, so that I could rule out any urgent need to land.
My final analysis? Nothing life threatening. Most likely a
vasovagal syncope event.
Basically, an elderly woman with gastric reflux disease, who took blood pressure med prior to flight, became nauseated, hot, & claustrophobic. She was tired, & dehydrated, but thought a shot of liqueur in 1st class would be a good idea. Then when she felt sick to her stomach, she got up too fast, & passed out even faster.
I helped her up and advised her to avoid alcohol & caffeine the rest of the trip to avoid a recurrence of reflux & nausea.
The family & crew was very pleased that I did not tell the pilot to abort the flight plan. So pleased that they all wanted to buy me cocktails for the duration of the long flight to the east coast.
I had to smile and politely decline as I just celebrated 22 years of clean & sober time. 😉
That was day 1 of my Florida vacation.

ImageImage

Padre Trails Camera Club awarded me with this Recognition of Outstanding Achievement!  I won 2nd place for 
“IMAGE OF THE YEAR for 2012-2013”
The winning image was from my 2013 January scuba trip to St. Kitts & Saba aboard the CEX II. It is a macro shot of a tiny Arrow-crab atop a Spiny Sea Urchin which I spotted on one of the wrecks off the island of Saba. 

http://www.diverindeep.com/Photography/Monterey/Monterey-Bay-Area-California/17801486_DkvvG4#!i=2501080766&k=6MBm3GN

On May 4th, 2013 I dove with 4 other underwater enthusiasts off “The Sanctuary” dive boat.

Split shot of "The Sanctuary"

Split shot of “The Sanctuary”

sanctuarycharters.com

The sea was flat enough to waterski on, so I tried some over/under photography.  The air was chilly, and the water temp was 48 degrees! I wore a 7 mm wetsuit with a hooded 5 mm vest, and a heated vest under all the neoprene.  If not for a heated cabin, a cup of noodles & a hot water hose to flush the cold from my suit, I would have missed a second dive.

My dive buddy did not get his PADI dive certification replacement card in time, so he could not come aboard this time.  I had to hang with another couple for safety. We were at a 90′ depth at The Pinnacles dive site which is why I got so chilled on the 1st dive.  Some surge was noticed, but not like the usual washing machine spin-cycle effect that I have become accustomed to diving in Monterey.

The water was a dark green with about 50′ visibility.   The rocky pinnacles were covered in life & color.  There were many starfish in all shapes, colors, & variety. Crabs, Nudibranchs, Turban & Jeweled Top Snails, & various Rockfish were abundant.

The second dive was at “Fire Rock”.  Again, flat & good Viz.  I worked on more split shots of the kelp under the surface & the boat above. There was a light current which carried me past the boat at one point so I dove down to 40′ depth to photograph the hearty, young kelp towers while the sunlight at the surface came shining through.  I got a few shots of a Giant Kelpfish as well.

I did not feel as cold on the second dive, but I was finning around quite a bit more to find good shots & to position myself for optimal lighting.  I had 2 fun dives, and had a smooth ride all the way out of the Monterey Bay past Pescadero Point.  No one chummed the water with their breakfast this time which is unusual (in my experience) on a Monterey dive boat.

I snapped off a few decent shots in spite of my testy Sea & Sea DX D200 UW housing which won’t allow me to change shutter speeds underwater. I have had the thing adjusted numerous times in the past without a permanent fix to the problem.  Perhaps a larger hammer?  🙂

I used the Nikon D200, Sea & Sea housing, Tokina 10-17 mm WA lens, Dual Inon D2000 strobes on 12′ arms, and a Sola 600 focus lamp.

Transparent ShrimpNew photos posted in Monterey gallery today. We did a dive at Wharf 2 in Monterey.  The visibility was about 8 feet, the water temperature was around 52 degrees.  This was a macro photography day.

http://www.diverindeep.com/Photography/Monterey/Monterey-Bay-Area-California/17801486_DkvvG4#!i=2483006661&k=HLfWZ5z