The Bird Man of Aride

April 19, 2002 | Tags: Wildlife

Rob McCall, April 2002

Naturalist Rob McCall will be accompanying our Seychelles and Ultimate Seychelles expeditions, which commence in December 2002 aboard Le Ponant. Here, he recounts his first visit to bird-rich Aride Island.

I first became aware of the Seychelles while watching a David Attenborough documentary at the age of eight. Attenborough was cradling an oversize and bizarre-looking coconut, while in the background an azure ocean lapped a white sand shore framed by giant pink boulders. It was a surreal, almost otherworldly scene for a young boy growing up in deepest Hertfordshire, and from that moment, the Seychelles epitomized to me all that was faraway and exotic. At that tender age, I had no inkling that I would spend three months working there - a period that would begin a lifelong love affair with this scattered group of oceanic islands.

Two weeks after finishing my zoology degree at Cambridge, I boarded a flight to the Seychelles. I knew little more than that I would be working as a conservation volunteer on a small island called Aride - home to upwards of a million seabirds and consequently one of the most important wildlife reserves in the Indian Ocean. I knew that I'd be sharing this little paradise with five other volunteers and that living conditions would be basic, to say the least. What I didn't know was that this little island would change my life forever.

On Aride, as nowhere else I had ever visited, birds rule the roost. Our living quarters on Aride were literally borrowed from the birds, and they frequently reclaimed them. I lost count of the number of evenings when I was forced to get out of bed to usher confused Audubon shearwaters from the room. I'll never forget the pungent taste of the drinking water - rainwater that we collected from the guano-encrusted hut roof where seabirds dozed at night. And the sight of pure-white fairy terns fluttering just above my head is indelibly burned into my consciousness.

My stay in the Seychelles was limited to only a few months, but by the time I left I had gained a clear idea of what I should like to research for my Ph.D. In subsequent years, I have visited the Seychelles many times and have been able to visit corners of the archipelago that were far out of reach during my stay on Aride. Places such as Aldabra, an extraordinary raised coral atoll home to more giant tortoises than the Galapagos; Astove, a small island with a reef drop-off that made me feel though I was flying underwater; and Silhouette Island, whose densely forested slopes remain almost untouched by humankind.

Every visit to the Seychelles is special for me. Like a recurring dream, whenever I land on Aride, I can hardly believe that fate has been good enough to bring me back. Showing Zegrahm travelers around the forests I helped to plant, and introducing them to birds that I knew as chicks, is a very special pleasure that I look forward to sharing with you on our forthcoming expeditions.

The Many Faces of Melanesia

April 19, 2002 | Tags: Oceania

Spread across an expanse of the vast South Pacific, from New Guinea to the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, the islands composing Melanesia present a dizzying array of indigenous cultures, magnificent bird and marine life, tropical flora, volcanic islands, and coral atolls. We've designed our Faces of Melanesia expedition, departing 08 November 2002, to present as complete a picture of these islands as possible, an 18-day voyage aboard the Clipper Odyssey. This voyage of discovery, combined with our pre-extension to the Papua New Guinea Highlands and Sepik River, and our New Caledonia post-extension, represents a comprehensive Melanesian exploration.

Traveling on the Clipper Odyssey, we will experience the ways of a different culture every couple of days. We will visit with the Trobriand Islanders of Kitava to view energetic, age-old dances imbued with ritualistic significance. Villagers welcome us with the blowing of conch shell trumpets and traditional songs as we come ashore on Santa Ana in the Solomons. Our stop on Tikopia well illustrates the cultural richness of the region. While Tikopia is geographically part of Melanesia, its inhabitants are actually Polynesian.

The artifacts and handicrafts reflect the ethnic melange. From the canoe builders of the Laughlin Islands to the woodcarvers of Ghizo and the crafters of the elegant headdresses of Ambrym, the artisans of Melanesia preserve the techniques of their forebears. Despite the many differences, the islanders share one trait: hospitality. We shall be warmly welcomed wherever we land.

In addition to our encounters with these thousands-of-years-old cultures, we shall witness history of a more recent vintage. A dramatic juxtaposition exists between the tranquility of island life today and the historical reality that this was the setting of the savage battles waged as Japan and the United States strove for control of the Pacific in World War II. Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, was a turning point in the war. There, we will visit war memorials and Henderson Field. Offshore, divers and snorkelers can explore Iron Bottom Sound, so-named for the large numbers of Japanese and American ships sunk beneath the waves. Today, these sundered vessels provide habitats for colorful reef fishes and luxuriant corals.

The natural wonders match the variety of the human inhabitants. Geologically, the islands represent three types found in the Pacific: volcanic, uplifted coral, and coral atoll. The Vanuatu Archipelago remains a hotbed of seismic activity. Its nine active volcanoes, two of which are below sea level, form part of the Ring of Fire. The dramatic terrain of some Melanesian islands was another factor that kept the human populations divided into small cultural and linguistic communities and impeded their penetration by outsiders.

The remarkably fecund landscapes make for spectacular birding and botanizing. During our Faces of Melanesia expedition in 2000, we identified 140 different species of birds. With our naturalists, we will hike the forests and marshes of Espirutu Santo, home to the rare chestnut-bellied kingfisher, mountain starling, and Santa Cruz ground pigeon. Other colorful species we may encounter during our travels include lorikeets, black-naped terns, and the greater frigatebird.

The undersea world dazzles with its kaleidoscope of life. As an ichthyologist and a diver, I am greatly anticipating November's departure. The seas of Melanesia are some of the warmest and clearest in the world. We will be able to snorkel or dive nearly every day of our voyage. Whether you prefer to snorkel off a pristine sandbar in the Laughlins, or join our dive master over a reef drop-off, you will come face-to-face with an astonishing variety of fish.

The vivid underwater landscape presents a tapestry of hard and soft corals, ranging from delicate seafans to staghorn formations, replete with colorful sponges, anemones, and giant Tridacna clams with iridescent blue mantles. Fish species are too numerous to list, but, among others, they include parrotfish, neon damsels, striped harlequin tusk-fish, and elegant Moorish idols. Of special interest will be our exploration of the USS President Coolidge, a troop ship that sank near Luganville during World War II and is one of the world's greatest wreck dives.

It is impossible to catalog all the wonders of this region. Come with me this November aboard Faces of Melanesia and experience firsthand the fantastic natural setting and time-honored traditions of Oceania.

The 1899 Harriman Expedition Retraced

October 20, 2001

Roberta Foster, October 2001

Roberta Foster is a teacher of gifted and talented students in Mount Olive Township, New Jersey. She won a trip on The Harriman Expedition Retraced expedition by entering a drawing sponsored by the National Geographic Society through their Geography Bee and donated by Zegrahm Expeditions. We asked her for her impressions of the journey.

For two weeks this past summer, I was one of the luckiest women in the world. I had won a ticket on The Harriman Expedition Retraced, a voyage that combined much of the best scenery, wildlife, and history that Alaska has to offer with the reenactment of a historic venture undertaken a century ago. It's easy to come to Alaska and be impressed; it's another thing entirely to be informed at the same time.

A typical day included timely lectures or slide presentations on the historical or scientific significance of the landing we were about to make, wonderful meals and snacks, and trips ashore. Often we went by Zodiac. These nimble little boats provided speedy access to otherwise unreachable areas such as seabird rookeries, intertidal ecosystems, and remote beaches. In towns we generally had a pier landing and bus shuttle service from the ship to sites of interest. We always had choices described to us, all equally enticing: long, medium, or short walks focusing on history or nature and led by the experts on board.

A very untypical day occurred early in the voyage. It was the day that native artifacts, collected a hundred years ago by the original Harriman expedition, were to be returned to their rightful owners, members of the Tlingit tribe. Edward Harriman, in the spirit of anthropological inquiry common in his era, had taken totem poles, carvings, and other artifacts from what he assumed was an abandoned beachside village at Cape Fox. When it became known that the objects had spiritual and ancestral significance to the Tlingits, plans were made to return them. The importance of this repatriation was evident as we arrived at Cape Fox, many of us exhilarated by our first Zodiac ride, to find Tlingit representatives greeting us with stately and moving drum beats and chants. Each of us had the opportunity to add a piece of bread as an offering to the ceremonial fire that had been built on the very beach visited by the Harriman Expedition a century ago.

Later that day we docked in Ketchikan for the actual transfer of the ancestral objects from the ship. Quite a crowd awaited us, many in traditional native garments. Flags were flying, TV news cameras were covering the event, and there was a feeling of excitement. On our deck were many huge wooden crates containing the objects that had been collected from five museums. The crates were removed to the pier by crane where they were opened, inspected, and greeted by Tlingit elders. It was a very emotional scene.

Repatriation was clearly the most significant and solemn event of the trip, but many aspects of the expedition matched it in impact. One cannot exaggerate the stunning natural beauty of Alaska. Each morning brings a new and unexpected view out the porthole, from the startling color of glacial water (like milky jade), misty snow-topped mountains, lush forests of hemlock and spruce, astonishing glaciers of dazzling blue ice, and captivating creatures not commonly viewed in the "Lower 48": humpback whales, sea otters, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, brown and black bears, and a staggering assortment of pelagic and shore birds. I think I doubled my birder's life list during this trip.

Viewing and identifying Alaskan flora and fauna were not left to chance or speculation; expert naturalists were on hand at all times to direct our attention to the air, sea, or shore for a noteworthy sighting and to explain with infinite patience the difference between a seal and a sea lion or a horned puffin and a tufted puffin. Ashore, they led nature walks, and their explanations of sights along the way brought wonder to mosses and flowers and land features that could easily be overlooked without an expert to bring them to our attention.

Certainly one of the most valuable features on this trip was the presence of these naturalists, scholars, and other experts who were readily available to explain what we were about to see, what we were seeing, and what we had seen. This trip provided the unique opportunity not only to view the mountains and glaciers, explore the towns, tour the fisheries and oil pipeline terminal, but also to meet and talk with the native Alaskans, examine intertidal ecosystems at close range, walk on a glacier, and be able to identify wildflowers, pelagic creatures, and geological formations - certainly not the sort of activities associated with the typical Alaskan cruise.

These authorities presented many of the controversial and contradictory issues that confront Alaska: this beautiful and pristine region is also the source of precious oil and timber; the unspoiled nature of the landscape is also the very thing that brings in thousands of tourists; the delicate balance of Alaska's ecosystem is threatened by the industries that provide a livelihood to many of its people; the conservation laws that control hunting and fishing threaten the subsistence lifestyle of the natives who have lived in Alaska for millennia. There are no easy answers, and the editorial pages of Alaskan newspapers make for interesting reading.

As a teacher I will have much to share with my classes this year thanks to my lucky win. In addition to viewing dozens of my slides, my students will learn about the native cultures and wildlife of Alaska, simulate the frustrations and thrills of the Klondike gold rush, and debate the complex issues facing this state. Although I was the only winner of the prize awarded by Zegrahm, many students will get to share my prize.

Nordic Summer: Journey into the Ice

October 20, 2001

Nadia Eckhardt, October 2001

For those of us accustomed to life in more temperate climes, the word "summer" evokes a particular set of images and activities. Among these are trips to the beach, barbecue dinners, and, of course, long, long hours of daylight. Well, if you love the gifts of the season, but want to experience them from a new perspective, we offer summer's bounty in an entirely new setting.

On our Nordic Summer expeditions, departing 27 June 2002 aboard the M/S Endeavour, you will witness beaches as you've never seen them, crowded not with lifeguards, sun worshippers, and swimmers, but with kittiwakes, fulmars, and walrus. You'll enjoy your barbecue on deck in the crisp northern air, and if you love long summer days, nowhere are they longer than above the Arctic Circle. In addition, you'll sail beautifully carved fjords, explore wondrous archeological sites, gaze upon Europe's largest seabird colonies, experience the vast array of Arctic mammals - seals, walrus, whales, and more. Moreover, you'll behold the grandeur of endless ice fields.

Split into two parts, Nordic Summer links our popular Britain and Spitsbergen programs with the exciting destination of Norway. The first leg travels from the Scottish Isles to Norway, the second from North Cape to the islands of Svalbard. Both itineraries introduce a wealth of natural and cultural discoveries to the adventurous traveler.

Our journey began in Scotland's capital city of Edinburgh. After a day perusing the sights of both the city and Perth, the former seat of Scottish kings, we set sail for the Orkney and Shetland Islands. These isles are archeological treasure troves containing some of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in northern Europe.

From the Shetlands, we sailed north, plying the same route as the Vikings of old. Our early morning entrance into Raunefjorden afforded us our first, breathtaking look at Norway's legendary fjords. Tiny cottages nestled among towering pines, all perched on the sides of steep hills that flowed directly into the fjord.

We spent the next six days experiencing the diverse wonders of coastal Norway, including the spectacular Tokagjelet Gorge and Folgefonna Glacier, the picturesque towns of Alesund and Kjerringoy, and the islands of Runde and Rost, home to millions of nesting seabirds. The first leg of our journey ended at Nordkapp (North Cape), the northernmost point of land on the continent.

The second part of our voyage ventured into the sea ice of Arctic Norway. The dense, shifting sea ice allowed us to conduct this portion of the itinerary in true expeditionary fashion. As the ice-hardened M/S Explorer made its way to Svalbard, we kept a sharp lookout in the Arctic light for polar bears. We had seen seals, walrus, fin whales, and more than 230 species of birds, but a glimpse of the much-coveted bears had eluded us.

Then, five days out of port, success. We had just been served the main course at dinner when Tim was called away. He returned and whispered, "We've got polar bears up ahead." Now, would our passengers be willing to forego the highlight of their meal for bears? Of course. I announced that we were approaching polar bears, and the next few minutes were joyous bedlam as passengers grabbed hats, parkas, binoculars, and cameras and hurried to the deck.

Our captain slowly maneuvered our ship forward, our hull crunching through the ice, until we were within 100 meters of our prize, a mother and two cubs. Amazed, passengers took hundreds of photographs. Our only worry, that the chef would be upset at our ignoring his exquisite meal, was allayed when we spied him on the crowded deck, camera in hand, happily snapping away.

Over the ensuing days, we sighted six more polar bears, an impressive total. Spotting animals in the wild is often a chancy affair, but as Louis Pasteur noted, "Chance favors the prepared mind." Our intensive preparations and constant vigilance paid off. The result was one of the special moments that embody the very spirit of adventure travel.

Nordic Summer was replete with memorable images and moments. From the archeological wonders of northern Scotland to the ice-covered islands of Svalbard; from idyllic fishing hamlets to the remnants of polar expeditions; from the stunning profusion of birdlife to the wealth of Arctic marine mammals, Nordic Summer can stand with the very finest expeditions Zegrahm presents.

The 1899 Harriman Expedition Retraced

October 19, 2001 | Tags: Americas

Roberta Foster, October 2001

Roberta Foster is a teacher of gifted and talented students in Mount Olive Township, New Jersey. She won a trip on The Harriman Expedition Retraced expedition by entering a drawing sponsored by the National Geographic Society through their Geography Bee and donated by Zegrahm Expeditions. We asked her for her impressions of the journey.

For two weeks this past summer, I was one of the luckiest women in the world. I had won a ticket on The Harriman Expedition Retraced, a voyage that combined much of the best scenery, wildlife, and history that Alaska has to offer with the reenactment of a historic venture undertaken a century ago. It's easy to come to Alaska and be impressed; it's another thing entirely to be informed at the same time.

A typical day included timely lectures or slide presentations on the historical or scientific significance of the landing we were about to make, wonderful meals and snacks, and trips ashore. Often we went by Zodiac. These nimble little boats provided speedy access to otherwise unreachable areas such as seabird rookeries, intertidal ecosystems, and remote beaches. In towns we generally had a pier landing and bus shuttle service from the ship to sites of interest. We always had choices described to us, all equally enticing: long, medium, or short walks focusing on history or nature and led by the experts on board.

A very untypical day occurred early in the voyage. It was the day that native artifacts, collected a hundred years ago by the original Harriman expedition, were to be returned to their rightful owners, members of the Tlingit tribe. Edward Harriman, in the spirit of anthropological inquiry common in his era, had taken totem poles, carvings, and other artifacts from what he assumed was an abandoned beachside village at Cape Fox. When it became known that the objects had spiritual and ancestral significance to the Tlingits, plans were made to return them. The importance of this repatriation was evident as we arrived at Cape Fox, many of us exhilarated by our first Zodiac ride, to find Tlingit representatives greeting us with stately and moving drum beats and chants. Each of us had the opportunity to add a piece of bread as an offering to the ceremonial fire that had been built on the very beach visited by the Harriman Expedition a century ago.

Later that day we docked in Ketchikan for the actual transfer of the ancestral objects from the ship. Quite a crowd awaited us, many in traditional native garments. Flags were flying, TV news cameras were covering the event, and there was a feeling of excitement. On our deck were many huge wooden crates containing the objects that had been collected from five museums. The crates were removed to the pier by crane where they were opened, inspected, and greeted by Tlingit elders. It was a very emotional scene.

Repatriation was clearly the most significant and solemn event of the trip, but many aspects of the expedition matched it in impact. One cannot exaggerate the stunning natural beauty of Alaska. Each morning brings a new and unexpected view out the porthole, from the startling color of glacial water (like milky jade), misty snow-topped mountains, lush forests of hemlock and spruce, astonishing glaciers of dazzling blue ice, and captivating creatures not commonly viewed in the "Lower 48": humpback whales, sea otters, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, brown and black bears, and a staggering assortment of pelagic and shore birds. I think I doubled my birder's life list during this trip.

Viewing and identifying Alaskan flora and fauna were not left to chance or speculation; expert naturalists were on hand at all times to direct our attention to the air, sea, or shore for a noteworthy sighting and to explain with infinite patience the difference between a seal and a sea lion or a horned puffin and a tufted puffin. Ashore, they led nature walks, and their explanations of sights along the way brought wonder to mosses and flowers and land features that could easily be overlooked without an expert to bring them to our attention.

Certainly one of the most valuable features on this trip was the presence of these naturalists, scholars, and other experts who were readily available to explain what we were about to see, what we were seeing, and what we had seen. This trip provided the unique opportunity not only to view the mountains and glaciers, explore the towns, tour the fisheries and oil pipeline terminal, but also to meet and talk with the native Alaskans, examine intertidal ecosystems at close range, walk on a glacier, and be able to identify wildflowers, pelagic creatures, and geological formations - certainly not the sort of activities associated with the typical Alaskan cruise.

These authorities presented many of the controversial and contradictory issues that confront Alaska: this beautiful and pristine region is also the source of precious oil and timber; the unspoiled nature of the landscape is also the very thing that brings in thousands of tourists; the delicate balance of Alaska's ecosystem is threatened by the industries that provide a livelihood to many of its people; the conservation laws that control hunting and fishing threaten the subsistence lifestyle of the natives who have lived in Alaska for millennia. There are no easy answers, and the editorial pages of Alaskan newspapers make for interesting reading.

As a teacher I will have much to share with my classes this year thanks to my lucky win. In addition to viewing dozens of my slides, my students will learn about the native cultures and wildlife of Alaska, simulate the frustrations and thrills of the Klondike gold rush, and debate the complex issues facing this state. Although I was the only winner of the prize awarded by Zegrahm, many students will get to share my prize.