Zegrahm Expeditions at Fifteen

December 19, 2004 | Tags: Zegrahm Office

August 1990 - Zegrahm Expeditions begins operations.

November 1990 - Zegrahm opens its Seattle office. Along with overseeing Zegrahm programs, a staff of four employees also handles reservations for Eco-Expeditions, a sister company running small-group safaris. Gradually over the years, we add in-house air and marketing departments.

March 1991 - Zegrahm operates its inaugural expedition, to Vietnam, one month after the travel embargo to that country is lifted.

October 1991 - Recognizing the necessity of protecting Antarctica's environment and ensuring travelers' safety, Zegrahm Expeditions and six other travel operators form the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which follows the multinational Antarctic Treaty System's guidelines for appropriate, safe, and environmentally sound travel to the Antarctic.

November 1992 - Zegrahm participates in the first circumnavigation of the island of South Georgia by a passenger vessel.

July 1993 - Zegrahm launches inaugural adventure travel exploration of the Kuril Islands, in the Russian Far East.

November 1993 -Zegrahm helps organize the first expedition to the frozen reaches of the Weddell Sea to visit emperor penguin colonies.

March 1995 - Aboard the World Discoverer, Zegrahm links the remote Polynesian destinations of Easter Island, Pitcairn, the Tuamotus, and the Marquesas on a single itinerary.

April 1996 - Zegrahm adds the final continent to its list of destinations when it charters the Coral Princess, a specially designed catamaran, to explore the northern coast of Australia from Cairns to Darwin.

May 1997 - With a goal to be the first travel operator to take civilians into space, Zegrahm forms Zegrahm Space Voyages (ZSV), partnering with an aerospace company and pilot training school to offer suborbital flights. As a prelude to space flights, ZSV operates Aquanaut Adventures in the Florida Keys and a cosmonaut-training program in Star City, Russia. In July 2001 Zegrahm sells ZSV to Space Adventures, who ultimately takes the first civilian aboard the International Space Station.

August 1997 - Zegrahm achieves another adventure travel first when it successfully circumnavigates Baffin Island by icebreaker.

February 1998 - Zegrahm creates its DeepSea Voyages division, using manned submersibles to explore the ocean depths. Notable achievements include participating in the inaugural passenger dives to the Titanic and an exploration of underwater volcanoes in the Azores, both in 1999, and the Bismarck in 2001.

November 1998 - With the departure of West Coast of South America, Zegrahm operates travel programs on all seven continents within the same calendar year for the first time.

December 1999/January 2000 - Realizing a plan ten years in the making, Zegrahm's First Light expedition departs for the Ross Sea. At 0015 on 01 January 2000, travelers on board the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov are the first people on earth to witness the first dawn of the new millennium.

August 2001 - Zegrahm retraces the path of the historic 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska.

May 2002 - Zegrahm becomes the first travel operator to explore Russia's long off-limits Sea of Okhtosk aboard a passenger vessel.

December 2002 to March 2003 - Fulfilling a promise to return to the Indian Ocean "when we find the right ship," Zegrahm launches a series of expeditions to the Seychelles and Madagascar aboard the elegant sailing vessel Le Ponant.

July 2004 - Across the Top of the World becomes another history-making voyage for Zegrahm, a journey by icebreaker from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean via the North Pole.

2005 - As the new year begins, Zegrahm and Eco Expeditions merge and continue to seek new lands and to devise novel ways to reveal the world to travelers. In 2005 we will launch our inaugural expeditions to Libya; our first circumnavigation of New Guinea; Flight of the Condor, an air safari exploring five South American countries; and in another industry first, our Circumnavigation of North America using exclusively chartered aircraft.

Tasmania: An Introduction

December 19, 2004 | Tags: Africa

Claire Ellis, December 2004

Tasmania, actually an archipelago of more than 300 islands, is ideal to explore by ship. As one of the world's most mountainous islands it has a breathtaking rocky coastline that shows its dramatic role in the separation of Australia from Antarctica many millions of years ago. Also, because the island is relatively small, in contrast to mainland Australia, journeys from port to port are overnight.

Our expedition, on board the Clipper Odyssey, will include the northwest coast and the picturesque fishing village of Stanley, the beautiful east coast and Freycinet Peninsula, Maria Island, the Port Arthur Historic Site, and Hobart and the chance to see the island's unique wildlife, including the rich array of endemic birdlife.

A new experience in the far northwest corner is the Dismal Swamp, an intriguing ecotourism adventure. Travelers can explore one of the largest sinkholes in the world, formed over thousands of years by dissolving dolomite. The forest within the sinkhole is thick with endemic Tasmanian timbers--blackwood, myrtle, tea tree, sassafras, native laurel, and giant man-ferns. We walk a maze or take a 160-yard slide into the sinkhole.

In the hills behind the tiny city of Burnie are lush meadows and hidden streams where the elusive platypus can be spotted. Within Burnie we have the chance to visit the Creative Paper Mills and see artists at work, or to learn the story of the local Aborigines at the Tiagarra Aboriginal Centre.

The journey east and south down the coastline passes unspoiled and uncrowded beaches with names such as Bay of Fires, The Gardens, Binalong Bay, Chain of Lagoons, and Friendly Beaches, until we reach the pink-granite peninsula of Freycinet National Park and the aptly named Wineglass Bay. This perfect half-moon beach is listed as one of the top ten beaches in the world by Outside magazine. We go ashore and walk this beautiful bay and coastal region. Later, in nearby Coles Bay, we kayak or explore the beaches and the national park's interpretation center.

From Freycinet the journey heads farther south to Maria Island. The whole island is now a national park, and its history is a microcosm of Tasmania. French explorers first documented Aboriginal customs here; the British created one of Tasmania's first jails; and then in the late 19th century an Italian entrepreneur tried to create a Southern Hemisphere Arcadia with vineyards and a silk factory. Now Maria Island is one of the foremost places in the state to see wildlife, including Cape Barren geese and Forester kangaroos.

As we continue south, the views change to steep, dark dolerite cliffs that form narrow, cathedral-like columns, and the cliffs at the mouth of Port Arthur Harbor are said to be some of the tallest in the world. To sail into the harbor is to relive the journey made by thousands of convicts transported to Van Dieman's Land almost 200 years ago. Today, Port Arthur Historic Site is a picturesque village set on manicured lawns, and tells a fascinating Australian story.

The coastline from Port Arthur to Hobart shows a different beauty, and the wide Derwent Estuary frames the path up the river to Hobart, guarded by Mount Wellington. Hobart is much more than Australia's second oldest city. As the capital, it offers the best of amenities, but with a relatively small population, it is free of a larger city's usual woes. It is unpolluted, easy to explore by foot or car, and it takes only 15 minutes to be out in the countryside. It also has some of Australia's best colonial architecture, which makes for a beautifully proportioned city profile. Salamanca Place is right beside the harbor and is a perfect spot to wander and stop to browse for anything from fine crafts to fine wines. From Hobart we have many exploration opportunities, including a local wildlife park where resident naturalists present such species as wombats, possums, and endemic birds.

Before the expedition begins, our pre-voyage extension presents additional days among the landscapes and wildlife of Tasmania, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, the Tasmanian devils and quolls at Trowunna Wildlife Park, and the little blue penguin colony near Launceston.

The Bears of Brooks River

December 19, 2004 | Tags: Americas, Wildlife

The annual return of Pacific salmon to the rivers of the north, in numbers beyond calculation, represents a massive delivery of protein and nutrients from the oceans to the land and the forest. The salmon drive that entire coastal ecosystem, and, in particular, they feed the bears.

To be sure, there are grizzly bears that live where the salmon runs don't reach and who never partake of that seasonal abundance. But those bears are smaller and less numerous than their coastal cousins. To see the biggest bears in the greatest numbers, you must come to where the salmon run.

One such place is the Brooks River in Alaska's Katmai National Park. The Brooks is only a mile and a half long, a mere connection between two lakes, but for sockeye salmon, it's the only gateway to the many spawning streams that feed the upper lake. So many fish crowd into the river that it seems to turn red and run backward. Midway along, they must surmount six-foot-high Brooks Falls. They mass in pools at the base, preparing to leap. For the bears, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet.

On any given day during the peak of the run, some 25 or 30 bears visit the area. Bears are normally solitary creatures, and sharing space with so many of their kind forces them to resolve some issues. They must establish temporary territories at good fishing stations in the river, and settle on a dominance hierarchy. An individual's position in this seasonal bear society must be constantly maintained, defended, and revised. These matters require a great deal of interaction--posturing, bluffing, displaying, and sometimes violence. There are winners and losers. Watching the bears at these times is like watching a Shakespearean play.

There are several kinds of actors on this stage. There are subadult bears, males and females, trying to make their own way in the world, but lacking experience and size. They find themselves marginalized and bullied by bigger bears. There are mothers with young cubs, who must be constantly wary of large males, but if confronted, are ferocious in defense of their offspring. Their tenaciousness wins them a place at the table. And there are the big males, ponderous brutes who are among the largest land predators on earth. When one of them arrives, the tenor of the proceedings changes. Territories shift around as they displace less-dominant animals, and a ripple effect spreads through the community.

It's a grand show, and one of the great wildlife spectacles on the planet. And there's gallery seating available. The National Park Service has provided viewing platforms immediately above and alongside Brooks Falls, and by staying alert and adhering to the regulations, it is possible to stand almost shoulder to shoulder with these magnificent animals. You can watch them playing and fighting, struggling and thriving, and living their unfettered lives. Meanwhile the salmon leap and battle on, passing once more on their age-old cycle, giving again their gifts to the land and its inhabitants. The bears stand in, and partake of, a literal river of life.

Insider's Choice: Burma and Laos

October 20, 2004

Our expedition to Burma and Laos via the Golden Triangle of Thailand is always a big hit among our well-traveled clients. They love the people first of all, but also the rich cultural history, as well as the amazing scenery and unique natural surprises all along the way. I have been traveling regularly to Burma since 1977, and have led every Zegrahm or Eco Expeditions exploration of that country, the first almost ten years ago. It is always an exciting journey for me.

Like their Tibetan cousins, against all odds, the Burmese refuse to give up their spirit, and they grace all visitors with their warmth and charm. Their religious and cultural sites are a great source of pride to them and instill wonder to every traveler who visits. My favorite place is Inle Lake with its unique floating gardens and an intriguing feeling like no other place on earth.

Mandalay conjures up the romantic mystery of Burma. The thousands of temple sites of Pagan leave everyone in genuine awe, and the Shwedagon Pagoda of Rangoon is, for many, one of the greatest wonders of the entire Indochina Peninsula.

When democracy finally rises on Burma, travelers will swamp the country. They are already increasing steadily. But another reason to get there now is to send a signal to the charming common people of this lovely land that they are not forgotten.

We depart Burma via a remote overland route into the famed Golden Triangle region of Thailand. The contrast as we enter "the Land of the Free" is most impressive. Here, at a luxurious five-star resort on the Thai side, we take time to digest our adventure in Burma and recharge our batteries for our explorations in Laos. Our resort hotel at the Golden Triangle deserves special mention, as it doubles as a private nature reserve with hiking and optional elephant rides.

From our Thai respite, we cross into Laos for a full two-day cruise on the Mekong River and into "Inner Laos." Here the Mekong is intimate and alive with incredible thick jungle vegetation gracing its shores. We see no power lines for two days as we stop each day to visit remote tribal villages whose only access to the outside world is the river itself.

We spend a night at a tranquil river lodge, and although it is the only somewhat-rustic accommodation of the whole journey, it often ends up being the favorite out of all our other, more luxurious, hotels due to its beauty, charm, and singular location along the banks of this enchanting river.

Farther downriver along the Mekong, we explore famous Buddhist caves and finally end our cruise in the old royal capital of Luang Prabang. This peaceful town is so friendly that some visitors fall in love and never leave. The word is out about this special place and the gentleness of the Lao people. Be prepared to find it difficult to say goodbye. Our last stop is the current capital of Vientiane--a fitting place to round out our rewarding journey into Southeast Asia's most alluring of destinations.

Realm of the Russian Bear

October 20, 2004

My first voyage to the Russian Far East, in 1998 aboard an expedition vessel, was a revelatory experience. I knew we would see North Pacific wildlife, but I was absolutely unprepared for the variety and multitude. During our first landing we spotted 40 species of birds, including Steller's sea eagles, Far Eastern curlews, yellow-breasted buntings, and other Kamchatkan specialties. At other sites thousands of seabirds wheeled through the air in such numbers as to nearly obscure the soaring volcanoes that dominated the horizon.

Every day brought its share of jaw-dropping sightings--pods of orcas hunting fish, brown bears foraging near the shore, thousands of fur seals and Steller's sea lions hauled out on beaches, otters gliding through kelp, Arctic foxes skulking through long grass. Each new sighting further proclaimed the region's eminence among the wildlife capitals of the world.

The encounters with the peoples of the region proved just as illuminating. Though very sparsely populated, Kamchatka is home to indigenous cultures such as the Koryak. These nomadic reindeer herders, far from the support systems of urban centers and unassimilated into mainstream Russian life, follow the ways of their forbears, unchanged for thousands of years.

Political realities do sometimes impinge upon the native tribes, however. Only three miles separate Big Diomede and Little Diomede Islands, and their inhabitants share cultural and familial ties. Yet, as the larger island lies in Russian waters and the smaller is part of the U.S., the countries' border keeps the islands' inhabitants apart, a poignant reminder that the intangible barriers erected by political differences can prove more insurmountable than easily crossed distance.

This border and the Russian military base on Big Diomede are vestiges of the Cold War. Closed to travelers during that period, the Russian Far East served a strategic purpose, its bases the first line of defense against their Alaskan counterparts. This onceforbidden status grants a region a certain mystique; during my initial exploration of Kamchatka, I continually felt the sense of discovery, of penetrating a long-held secret.

Along with this sensation I felt an incredible optimism--the most unexpected realization I experienced. If the Diomedes are a sobering reminder of political barriers, then the mere act of traveling to Kamchatka is a hopeful reminder of how quickly those barriers can fall. Such a journey was impossible only a few years ago. The rapidity with which Russians and Americans, for so long implacable foes, entered a new era of cooperation and friendship was both amazing and heartening.

These feelings have not faded, even after many subsequent journeys to the Russian Far East. Next June I will have the great pleasure of sharing the wildlife, scenery, humanity--and possible epiphanies--of the region with a new group of Zegrahm travelers on Realm of the Russian Bear.

Over the past few years, we've been leading shipboard explorations of Madagascar and the Seychelles. As travelers on those expeditions can attest, those Indian Ocean islands are superlative natural history destinations replete with fascinating, often highly rare, flora and fauna.

For 2005 we've expanded the scope of our explorations to include landings in the East African countries of Mozambique and Tanzania. We're presenting our Indian Ocean Safari in two parts: Reunion to Zanzibar and Zanzibar to the Seychelles, both aboard Le Ponant.