Monday, April 30, 2012

SAILING WITH STRANGERS


The customs man tells us it's time to leave Palau. Heading out with a nice German couple, Martin and Corinna, on their sailboat the Ivalu. They were looking for crew, we were looking for passage out of Palau. For additional photos, check out their blog.

Their mission on what has now been an almost two-year voyage...to educate people about garbage in the ocean and what all of us, but especially locals in the places they visit, can do to alleviate some of the mess. 

More when we reach dry land, which should be in 10-12 days, depending on the winds and weather. 

SWIMMING WITH 1,000,000 JELLYFISH

One of the more unique and alien experiences on this planet has to be floating weightlessly in a warm salt water lake while surrounded by a few million pulsating golden jellyfish. But that's yet another underwater attraction Palau has to offer.

The island country's famous Jellyfish Lake is hard to describe in words. Better, check out a few photos from more qualified photographers (or at least a few picture takers who remembered to charge their camera batteries the night before their swim). A trip to Palau is not complete without a visit. 

In addition to saying hello to the millions of jellies, we did manage a few additional dives out in the Pacific. A few photos below. Sorry, but we can't get enough of the ocean life in this place. 

Speaking of the ocean, we met a German couple this week with a sailboat that's heading to the Philippines tomorrow. We asked if we could join--they said yes. Depending on the wind and weather, it should be a 10-12 day sojourn. 

Hopefully, we can check in again briefly tomorrow before we meet Palau-an customs officers and head out. More to come.
A school of yellow snappers swimming past us at the dive site Blue Holes. 

Angel Fish feeding on a hard coral. 
Nemo's cousin hanging out at home in his anemone. 
Kip's favorite...another clown triggerfish, this one cruising with some yellow snappers.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

$45 MILLION. NO PEOPLE.

Where are the capitol's politicians? Or security? Or even the visitors?
We've been spending a lot of time underwater lately. Like 15 of the past 19 days. We're not complaining, mind you--when you're in places like Palau and the Philippines, diving is much of what you're meant to be doing.

But sufficiently waterlogged, we headed out to see what Palau had to offer above sea level.


First stop has to be one of the most bizarre attractions in all of the Pacific--Palau's capitol building. While the structure is architecturally impressive, its location, history, and cost are mind boggling. 

Palau is a nation of 20,000 residents, whose average income is around $10,000. The new capitol, which took more than 20 years to complete, cost some $45 million to build.

That's three month's wages for every island resident. You have to think folks would have much rather seen that money placed elsewhere. Like decent roads. Better education. Improved healthcare. Faster internet capabilities, perhaps? 

Even crazier--the place wasn't built near the existing capital city. No, the politicians decided to build the government palace in an area miles away, literally in the middle of a mountainous, undeveloped, remote jungle area known more for being unknown and under-explored than most anything else. 

We spent most of an hour at the property. We knocked on windows. We drove right up to the front door and took crazy photos. And we did not see one other live person the entire time. 

Fearing dehydration (and arrest), we headed back to the water's edge. There, we stumbled upon Palau's famous giant clam farming operation. 
Giant clams growing at the Palau Bureau of Marine Resources.
A filtration tank at one of Palau's clam farms.

Beginning in the 1970s, Palau was one of the first places to succeed in mass production of giant clams, the largest of which can weigh more than 500 lbs. Those are some big clams. Giant, even. 

The offspring from breeding stock here have been sent to places around the world to seed additional farms. We know you're enthralled. 

The Palau Bureau of Marine Resources grows many of the monsters, as we learned after a quick visit to their farm just north of Koror, the largest city. The organization is also responsible for patrolling the surrounding waters and shark sanctuary, which rationalizes the need for some impressive machinery, including the fast boat below. The pink hibiscus on the right was pretty and nearby, and it's one of Liz's favorite flowers ever. 
Helping protect the Palauan fisheries.

  
Roadside hibiscus.




We did manage a quick snorkel on the far northern tip of the island chain. Highlights...a friendly local fisherman, a five-foot barracuda, and a fish trap filled with six white-tipped reef sharks. The fisherman assured us he would do his best to catch the barracuda and also alert the trap's owner so that the sharks would be released immediately. 

The trip ended back in Koror, watching a colorful end to yet another colorful day in Palau. 
Kip pushed Liz out in a boat. So she could watch the sunset. And he could take a photo. Liz was not amused. But the view was stunning, nonetheless.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

HELLO, LITTLE FISHY!


A close encounter of the shark kind. He was harmless, really. Unless you have flippers and look like a fish. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

HAPPY EARTH DAY FROM PALAU

1 of 7 volunteer for Earth Day 2012 in Palau Kip and Liz
A male mandarin fish helps us celebrate Earth Day 2012! He's also commemorating National Poetry Month. 

There may not be a better place in the world to celebrate Earth Day 2012 than the island of Palau. Remote, gorgeous, and surrounded by the deep blue Pacific and some of the most-spectacular fish life on the planet, Palau long-ago established environmental guidelines to protect its reefs and also set up the world’s first shark sanctuary (with much assistance from Pew, Kip’s former employer). Jacques Cousteau would do a jig if he were still alive.

But like any island country with a busy port, even Palau’s waters can get cluttered with trash and debris. In celebration of Earth Day, a local dive shop, Sam’s Tours, joined with a nearby school to organize a volunteer clean-up of the harbor and surrounding reef. It just so happened they were looking for some extra hands.

Sam’s generously provided the tanks, dive equipment, snorkel gear, and kayaks for the clean-up. Around 30 students showed up, joining a handful of residents and tourists. Half the kids ventured out in kayaks to clean the water’s edge. Boat owners ferried student snorkelers around to farther areas of the harbor, and we along with Charity, the aptly-named organizer of the event, cleaned up debris below the surface.  And there was a lot of it…







We even saw some amazing fish while cleaning up!
A juvenile sweetlips swims under the docks of Palau.
A big thanks to Charity for organizing the event, as well as to Sam’s Tours for providing the gear, garbage bags, and the dock.

Happy Earth Day everyone! Get out there and do something good for the planet. The power is yours…

Photo of Captain Planet not by Liz or Kip

Saturday, April 21, 2012

FAREWELL, PHILIPPINES


Dear Philippines,

We’ve had an amazing time. If our visa was longer, we would stay for at least another month. Your people are incredibly patient, kind, and warm. Thanks so much for the wonderful diving, beautiful beaches, numerous-hour bus, boat and plane rides, and Nagaraya Cracker Nuts (peanuts wrapped in a crunchy baked crust…the best snack we’ve ever had). We’ll miss you dearly, and hope to see you again…possibly in a few weeks…we haven’t booked a flight after Palau, so save us a room. It’s not Holy Week, so maybe we won’t have to sleep outside this time.

Love,
Kip & Liz


Top Five Things We Love About the Philippines

  1. Singing in Public—on a bus, in the street, driving a taxi, etc. People never hesitate to burst into song, regardless of where they are, even if they don’t know the words, or speak the language. It’s surprisingly wonderful.
  2. Constant Honking— Honking to say hello, when you approach a curve, when you’re about to pass a car, just because you feel like it. It happens constantly in every taxi, bus, and car. We love it, except when we’re trying to sleep on a six-hour bus trip.
  3. Driving—Always down the center of the road, always fast. Did we mention the honking?
  4. Incredible, amazing, beautiful beaches…everywhere. Really, everywhere.
  5. High Fiving—Little kids still love the hi five. So do we. Not sure why we ever stopped doing it. We resolve to remedy that mistake, immediately. Hi five.

Friday, April 20, 2012

SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS

Around six months ago, a group of local fisherman from the tiny Philippine town of Oslob got famous, fast. Word got out that the men were hand feeding the world's largest (and elusive) fish, the whale shark.

According to local tourism authorities, the whale sharks and fishermen were in competition over the same territory--one group after small krill (the sharks' diet), the other after the larger fish that fed off of them. 

Instead of killing these massive creatures (as has been done in other areas of the world) each day one fisherman would lure the whale sharks away by dropping a trail of krill in the water while his colleagues continued their work. 

Word spread, and local tourists became interested. Nothing like this had ever been done before, not with the ocean's largest fish.

Photos showed up on the internet. A tourism boom hit Oslob. Soon, international authorities and environmental groups got involved, some claiming the feeding would have a long term effect on the sharks' behavior. Others wanted to study the fish, the feeding, and also set up some guidelines to mitigate potential impact before it happened.


video

As luck would have it, an environmental organization, LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Project) was conducting a study on the impact of tourism and daily feeding on whale shark migration and behavior. They happened to be short staffed the day we arrived. We spent the day helping count, photograph, and identify the sharks that were visiting that day.
Liz talks whale shark behavior with Christine, a LAMAVE staff member.
That was one day and one volunteer opportunity we'll never forget. 

The markings between the gill slits and the dorsal fin are like a whale shark's fingerprint.  Each pattern is unique.




Wednesday, April 18, 2012

TO PACK OR NOT TO PACK?


Some of Kip's gear on the left and Liz's lotions on the right. 

What exactly does a person pack for a year-long trip around the world? 

The short answer, at least for us, unfortunately, is “entirely too much.”

We’ve done our fair share of backpacking trips--from long weekends hiking and camping, to multi-month journeys in faraway locales. We should have a well-honed system by now.

But similar to our dependence on “Serendipity” when it comes to booking travel in advance (don't over-think or -plan it), we relied on past experience and guess-timation for packing our bags. 


Not bright. Not bright at  all, particularly knowing that every item we chose had to fit in packs carried on our backs.

Three weeks into our one-year trip, and we’ve learned two things—Kip is a gear head, and Liz has an over-dependency on lotions, clean underwear, and doctor-prescribed medications (what if we catch malaria or dysentery!).

So here’s the packing list:

IN KIP’S BAG: The Gear: computer, cameras (2), zoom lens, underwater housing, small tripod, remote control for cameras (2), iPhone, associated chargers/chords (lots), books (3), scuba mask and snorkel; The Clothes: flip flops, one pair of shoes, shorts (2), underwear (2), socks (1 pair), shirts (3), pants (1).

IN LIZ’S BAG: The Drugs/Lotions: antibiotics (2 bottles), anti-malarial (2), motion sickness (2), anti-diarrheal (3), altitude sickness (2), sunscreen (2), moisturizers (2), mosquito repellant, first aid kit; The Clothes: way too much clothing, particularly the underwear (15); Miscellaneous: iPhone, books (2), scuba mask and snorkel.

In addition to the fact that we should know better, worse is that it’s not like we’re stuck in places without stores. Hell, much of what we’re carrying is made in the countries we’ll be visiting. 

The only systematic thing we did, which is working quite well, is to use the pack-inside-a-pack method. A small backpack holds what we can’t afford to lose or break. Passports, camera(s), computer, a book, iPhone. The larger bag holds the small pack and items like clothes and shoes. Getting on a bus or boat? Grab the small bag and throw the big one on the roof worry free.

Let it be known, as of today, we pledge, here and now, mostly to each other, to donate locally or ship back to the U.S. at least two items we really, truly don’t need.

For Kip, that means at least one piece of gear. Ideally, two. Heavy ones. 

For Liz, that includes at least one pair of underwear. And maybe one type of lotion. That she’ll no doubt replace. At the very next place we visit. 

THANK YOU!


Cheers to readers Stan B, Marivi M, Jess R, and Sheila Z for buying us drinks (and dinner) in Cebu’s tallest building last night. We decided to get dressed up for the occasion once we realized y’all had given us enough to even have a proper sit-down meal. Kip even washed his hair. 

Many thanks! 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A FIGHTING CHANCE


As children, we find inspiration from all sorts of places. From a good teacher, perhaps. Or a sports figure, a friend, or even a president. The luckiest of us are motivated by caring parents and grandparents. 

Some kids, like the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, didn’t have many positive influences. Working to help his single mom care for six kids, Pacquiao started boxing for money before he could drive. By the time he was 20, he had become a world champion of his sport. His story of street fighter to champion has inspired thousands of kids in his home country, as we found out last week.

At 6:30 am on a Saturday morning, on the docks of the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa, we watched a group of kids between 8-12 spar with each other in full boxing gear. Supervised by three adults, the boys moved across the concrete stones gracefully, their moves defying their young age.

They didn't fight angrily. They listened to their trainers, who would stop the action to give feedback. The fights also had to be halted to re-adjust the kids’ gloves and headgear, which was often held on by the Filipino equivalent of duct tape. The weathered headgear would slip down over a fighter’s eyes, or a glove, its elastic long ago worn out, would shift out of place.

One of the adults on hand, who spoke broken English, told us he wished he’d had the support the kids have now. “Since Pacquiao, now everyone want to be boxer,” he said, smiling as he motioned toward the kids and fellow trainers. “I wish I had this, had Pacquiao. Maybe I be world champion, too.”

We asked the man if there was anything they needed to help the kids. New equipment, perhaps?

He said, yes, maybe new equipment would be nice. So while volunteering wasn’t a viable option (Kip really didn’t really want a black eye from a ten-yr-old), helping them get some new protective gear from a local store was.

No matter where they are, kids are going to find inspiration, whether it be at home or school, in the streets, or in the boxing ring.

If you’re interested in inspiring a young person, one great place to start is by serving as a mentor. Big Brother Big Sisters, which links kids in need with adult mentors like you and me, is one such organization. The non-profit operates all over the U.S., and it’s always looking for support.

Another way is to simply Google the name of your town and “mentoring.” You might be surprised by what you’ll find. Or who you could inspire.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

SCUBA DIVING AND SERENDIPITY

Serendipity allowed us to get this photo of a green sea turtle feeding at Tubbataha Reef this week..
When we travel, we don’t book things in advance. We let Serendipity be our guide. Throw caution to the wind. Let the open road decide, etc.


While it’s long been obvious to anyone not named Liz or Kip, last week was the first time we have realized this system of ours is rife with pitfalls.


When you arrive in the Philippines during Holy Week, with no reservations, things don't go well. You pay double for a flight that leaves three days too late. You haul your backpacks from hotel to hotel in 90-degree heat until finally you get that look from your wife and you realize you should have already ditched the “system,” sucked it up, and booked a decent room in advance. Like a month ago.


Serendipity, she’s a fickle lady. But finally, we seem to be back in her good graces.


We had long heard about the Philippines' world famous Tubbataha Reef. One of the planet's top dive spots, the UNESCO-recognized site lies hours and many miles from the nearest land mass. The only way to get there is on a live-aboard dive boat. Of course, those things book up months in advance. We knew this. But we believe in the system. 

The mother-in-law suite. So hard to be cool in here. 
Short story, after a bit of heckling and hand wringing, we ended up finding two spots on the Sakura dive charter, a 25m trimaran, already reserved by a group of nine others. The scuba company assured us, however, there was room for 2 more. If we didn't mind sleeping in the mother-in-law suite. Which we later learned was a windowless hotbox. Accessed only by a hatch in the deck. Just under the anchor. In the very front of the boat. Lovely.
A nudibranch. Look 'em up. They're stunning little gastropod mollusks. 
Turns out, Serendipity was with us the whole time. The diving was spectacular. The food was good, and there was lots of it. Best of all, we actually liked our boat mates...an impressive array of internationals, consisting of two ladies from the UK and an Aussie, all who work in a school in Thailand; an Iranian couple who live and work in Sydney; a dancer and scuba/yoga instructor from Switzerland; a Swedish couple, and a septuagenarian retired American who was never without a smart-ass remark. Obviously, he and Kip got along well.




Most nights, we downloaded photos from the day’s dives. Kip would flash a picture, and the group (sans us) would simultaneously shout the specific species. We learned more about fish identification those five days than in all our years diving. 


Names of fish are fascinating. Really. Things like sweet lips. Nudibranch. Clown Triggerfish.  And the not so fascinating…Varicose Wart Slug, which is actually quite stunning.


The many-spotted sweetlips (foreground) and the clown triggerfish (rear left) swimming with us in Tubbataha.
It was pretty awesome to geek out with people who were so into diving.  We aspire to be that knowledgeable someday.


Big thanks to the crew of the M/Y (motor yacht) Sakura, our dive master, Rene, and the great divers aboard for a very educational week. 
Sun setting over the M/Y Sakura and our last dive on the Tubbataha Reef National Park.
Liz cruising above the Malayan Wreck, a cargo ship crashed on the reef long ago.
Kip hovering over a massive coral while leisure diving (which was super cool for like two weeks in 2009).




Saturday, April 14, 2012

SHARK-INFESTED WATERS


We made it back from Tubbataha (pronounced tube-uh-tah'-ha) Reef National Park today. After five days, six nights and 20 dives with some of the stranger and more beautiful underwater critters around, we were ready to be back above water and on solid ground, at least for a couple days. 

To document the trip, in case anyone questioned our tales, we took an underwater camera along, our first experience shooting while diving. Hopefully you like the images, some of which we thought looked particularly menacing...er, dramatic, in black and white. 

Sharks? Definitely, Tubbataha has plenty of them, including the seven footer above, a whitetip reef shark whose eye seemed fixated on Liz's wetsuit. Meanwhile, Kip hid behind a coral head to ensure everyone's safety, and shoot this photo. We saw two schools of more than 20 whitetip reef sharks patrolling the coral walls around us. 

Giant manta ray? Check. The one below, sporting at least a six-foot wingspan, glided within a few feet of us. It was the first either of us has seen, and was awesome. Definitely the highlight of the trip as far as underwater sights go...


We're exhausted...six nights in a boat crammed with 20 people, doing four dives/day, and sleeping in a 90 degree windowless berth made for a toddler, gave us a few rough nights, but made for some incredible days.  All the more reason to sleep up on deck and catch the sunrise...or not.


I know, our life is rough...more photos to come.  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

SIX NIGHTS AT SEA

http://www.tubbatahareef.org/?page=about

Off on a six-night diving trip to the Tubbataha Reef. Some great images here (Google image search) in case you're wondering what it looks like. 


No internet or phone access, so we'll catch you back here next weekend. 

HAPPY BDAY, LIZ



Big day for Liz...she turns 30 today! Whooo hoooooo! Almost as old as her husband. Or not. 


To celebrate, Liz got breakfast in bed, lots of birthday cards--including an over-sized card signed by friends and family back home--and best of all, a five-day dive trip to Tubbataha Reef, for which we need to pack, shop, and prep. 


Happy 30th, baby! 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

BOAT AND BEACH TIME...PALAWAN STYLE



“Wait, how many secret lagoons are there on this tour?” Liz asked our captain, whose English skills were only slightly better than his boat-parking abilities.

“Two more, then lunch,” he replied, smiling as the rails of our outrigger tangled with those of two more similarly-designed boats moored in front of yet another pristine white-sand beach.

We’d already visited two highly populated “secret” areas on what was sold to us as a "very exclusive tour" around Bacuit Bay, which it turns out has been featured in Amazing Race, Surivor and the latest Jason Bourne film. 

"Exclusive" obviously means just us...and 300 or so of our closest friends. 





The scenery and local entertainment were amazing, the crowds were not, so we opted for our own tour, rented a motorcycle, and cruised the island easy-rider style…almost.


After hiring a bike from Gerardo at RR Tours (he would later save the day...) we took off for the countryside, far away from the tourists and previous day's incident. 

Some 45 minutes and 50 water buffalo photos later...


...sweating in the beating sun, with a gas tank running on fumes, we learned the joy of a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. We were 20 km from the nearest town, we had no water, we didn't speak the language, and we had a broke bike that wasn't ours. 



Luckily, Liz charmed her way into a passing van, got a free ride to town, woke Gerardo from his afternoon nap, and he drove her on a brand new moto to meet Kip, who was a hot mess with the busted bike. 

Crisis averted, we pushed on toward the ocean. Turns out, it was the highlight of our trip so far. After getting a quick drink from the local 7-11...



...we walked down to the beach. 


The pictures don’t do it justice. 




With the help of some local moms and kids who were already out on the sand, we even managed to get in our 1 of 7 for the week. 


Sometimes even paradise needs a little help from its friends.






On to Puerto Princesa, where we hope to catch a live-aboard dive boat on Sunday out to Tubbataha Reef...just in time to celebrate Liz's birthday...