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April 9, 2012
Written by Pepper Trail
In the early morning we dropped anchor off the Iles du Salut archipelago of French Guiana, home of the infamous Devil’s Island Prison. Our Zodiacs landed first at Ile Royale, the largest island and home to the majority of the prisoners, as well as the prison hospital, church, and administrative buildings. On our arrival, we were greeted by a squirrel monkey sprawled nonchalantly on his back high in a coconut palm. We soon spotted more squirrel monkeys, as well as capuchins. The monkeys are not hunted or disturbed on the Iles du Salut, and are very tame, delighting everyone. We explored the prison complex on our own before being joined by two excellent French guides who put the history of the prison system in context - and in the process debunked many tales of Papillon.
We then transferred to the smaller Ile St. Joseph, where more dangerous and/or mentally disturbed inmates were kept. Here, the ruins seem to grow organically out of the lush, unchecked vegetation at the top of the island, the battered stucco walls painted in startling shades of orange and blue by mold and mildew. The entrance to one cell was nearly blocked by the enormous trunk of a tree, whose roots wound down the narrow corridor like a heavy serpent. It was sobering to imagine the hardships suffered by these men locked in their tiny cells, as the guards walked back and forth on the bars above them, their only roof.
March 29, 2012
Written by Pepper Trail
Today we awoke early as the Clipper Adventurer prepared to enter the famous Narrows of the Amazon River delta. Most of the passengers gathered with the naturalists on the top deck to welcome the tropical dawn and watch the early morning activities of parrots and other birds. We were rewarded with wonderful views of chestnut-fronted macaws, the energetic calling for a red-billed toucan, and most spectacularly, the sight of a magnificent king vulture, drying his wings in the crown of an emergent rainforest tree. Shortly before breakfast, we also spotted a tucuxi, the smaller of the two freshwater dolphins of the Amazon, breaking the muddy waters.
After breakfast, our first Zodiac excursion brought us close to the forest and to the houses of the caboclos, the local inhabitants of the river banks. At the door of every small house, children smiled and waved – and many pursued the Adventurer during the course of the day, shrieking with laughter as they “surfed” our wake.
Following an afternoon rainshower we had our first recap from the expedition team, and a leisurely passage through a narrow channel at sunset, with the naturalists pointing out a variety of hawks and other birds, with several sightings of boto, the large pink Amazon river dolphin. Then it was time for the captain’s welcome cocktail party; the animated conversations filling the dining room reflected everyone’s excitement at our first full day of expedition cruising.
March 19, 2012
Written by Jack Grove.
Herman Melville referred to the Galápagos Islands as Las Islas Encantadas in 1856. When I arrived 120 years later and experienced the enchantment of this archipelago, I understood why Melville chose this title for his short story. However, I believe his choice of title was not simply because the islands were thought to disappear in the night—I believe that Melville felt the magic of the Galápagos Islands.
Early sailors proposed that there was an enchantment to the islands—the seamen would mark the isles at dusk off the bow and find them in a completely different location at dawn. Sometimes the islands would appear to have switched places and other times, they had seemingly disappeared into the sea.
While Galápagos remains mysterious, the islands appear to be staying put. The marine life, however, has begun to fade. Recently, I co-authored a paper on the threatened species of Galápagos; as many as one in five of the threatened marine species may be extinct. Despite this, I am hopeful that we can preserve the islands for future generations and if tourism is properly managed, visitors can serve as a force for good.
I am privileged to serve as a naturalist for small groups of travelers who wish to know these islands. These are not superficial visits; they afford the adventurer an opportunity to delve into the mysteries, the complexities and the challenges of one of the great natural wonders of the world. I am thrilled to be accompanied by Greg Estes, a Darwin scholar and leading authority on the natural history of the islands. Join us this June for a comprehensive, eventful, and exciting sojourn to Las Islas Encantadas...the Galápagos Islands.
March 8, 2012
Written by Rich Pagen.
The bustle of Stone Town, Zanzibar’s main city, was absolutely contagious. The cargo continuously being loaded and offloaded in the port consisted of everything from cement to potatoes to bicycle seats. Just offshore, small wooden sailing ships called dhows plied the open waters, moving people and goods between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania 20 miles in the distance. The voyage takes two to three days to complete, as it has for centuries, relying entirely on wind and sail to make the journey.
We meandered the narrow alleyways of Stone Town, stopping occasionally to admire the wares for sale in the tiny storefronts or on the sidewalk itself. Young men unloaded boxes of huge tiger shrimp directly onto the ground, pausing briefly to move aside for passing pedestrians and small motorbikes attempting to make some progress in the congestion. Two bicycles passed with big metal containers of fresh milk strapped to the rack behind the seat. Meanwhile, a man in a brand new Tanzania football jersey attempted to wipe fish slime off of his shirt, after a bicycle with a huge yellowfin tuna strapped to it brushed past him.
Every street scene was remarkably even more colorful than the previous. Muslim women covered completely except for their eyes attempted to make their way across a busy street packed with daladalas, small trucks retrofitted as people-movers. A Maasai man, dressed in traditional colorful fabric and with shoes made from recycled car tires, rode by on a motorcycle while a Maasai woman, with a plethora of dangling earrings and her head shaven completely, smiled as she spoke on her cell phone. Zanzibar is truly a place of contrasts, a place of commerce, and a place of history where Arabs, Africans, and Indians (among many others) have come together to trade with one another for centuries.
February 26, 2012
Written by Rich Pagen.
The northeast of Madagascar, with its lush cover of rainforest, receives 20 feet of rain a year and is by far the wettest part of the country. This morning, we went ashore on a small island called Nosy Mangabe, where over the course of our landing, we witnessed a good quarter of a foot of water drop from the sky. The swollen streams, spilling over their banks, were brown from the sediment that had washed down the hillsides into them. This was Madagascar rainforest absolutely in its element!
Draped in rain ponchos, we slowly meandered the trails through the lowland forest, ever watchful for the myriad of amazing creatures whose paths we might be lucky enough to cross. At times, we paused along the trail, each of us scouring a different small area of trees and leaf litter in an attempt to locate some of Madagascar’s spectacular endemic wildlife. Then the call, “Chameleon!”, interrupted the metallic chirping of frogs and the patter of water droplets on the leaves of the understory. A female panther chameleon stood on a narrow branch, motionless except for her eyes, each of which independently surveyed the scene around her. Her prehensile tail was carefully curled up behind her, as she waited patiently for insect prey to come within striking distance of her sticky tongue.
Later, the sound of shrieks from the treetops alerted us to the presence of a group of white-fronted brown lemurs. These unique Madagascar primates were traveling quickly through the canopy, likely en route to a fruiting tree for a meal. They leapt from branch to branch, tree to tree, demonstrating clearly to us how well adapted they are to their arboreal lifestyle. We were amazed at the way they didn’t seem to even notice the rain; and then it occurred to us that we too, lost in the excitement of exploring Madagascar’s lush rainforest, had for several hours hardly noticed the buckets of rain falling all around us.