The stress of the past few weeks has abated somewhat, but this weekend I get to escape a bit due to my grandmother Snyder’s 90th birthday party in Florida. I took the redeye out of LA last night, slept a bit with the help of one of those goofy inflatable neck pillows, and arrived at 6AM. The inner dork led me to Cape Canaveral, and the day was spent looking at spaceships. The Saturn V rocket is ree-diculous, although I won’t admit whether I did a little dance next to the engines when the crowd had cleared out.
Aaron arrives this evening, and we’re staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disney World. I got here at about 4PM, took a long nap, then went exploring – giraffes, ostriches, zebras, and these crazy long-horned cows surround the place, which more than makes up for the eight and a half billion kids running around. Nature Ryan is inwardly rebelling at the Disney-ification of Africa, but if I’ve got to be in Florida for a weekend it’s a not a horrible place to be. Tomorrow we get to relive our childhoods at the parks here, then Monday it’s off to see the family before heading home early Tuesday morning.
Three weeks ago today I was on a boat in the Caribbean watching whales… it seems like a really long time ago. Returning from vacations always seems tough as you go from an absolute thirst for life and living to a more mundane existence – for me the “day to day” life almost feels like a holding pattern at times, stalling for the more meaningful moments of existence. This return has been particularly harsh for some reason as the shock of the “real” world also came with other realizations – I’ve been in LA for several years now, always thinking that this is just a temporary stop; I’m doing a job that in the grand scheme of things isn’t really making the world a better place or changing people’s lives; I’m thirty-three and single… it’s all a bit heavy for a journal entry, but if this journal is meant to capture major life experiences then the past couple of weeks deserve a note.
I’m not one who handles a lot of anxiety well, and luckily I needed to lose some weight as it has been a rough time lately. But it’s not a bad thing – my dad’s sermons (Skipper is a retired minister, for anyone who wasn’t aware) used to repeatedly return to the subject of how the tough times in life are opportunities for self-discovery and change. And he’s very right – it’s often only when life begins to crack that we notice problems that were otherwise unseen. My dad and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but he taught a good lesson in this case, and it’s one that makes it a bit easier to deal with anxiety by rephrasing the problem in terms of “this is an opportunity” rather than “this is a crisis”. I’m anxious for it to end, but also excited to see what revelations and changes will come out of it.
Clint and Nats are younger than me, so for once I wasn’t the youngest passenger. Despite this fact Clint still presented me with a rainbow bracelet that he found on the beach which I now wear proudly – how many people have a bracelet found in the water by the world’s twenty-sixth best life saver?
The day’s big event was clearly leaving the boat and saying goodbye to Jacqui, Roy, Mike, the crew, and several other passengers. In order to maintain good mental health I bottled all emotion up inside and said brief goodbyes to everyone before joining the remaining passengers for a taxi ride to the hotel and then on to the beach. Most of the group surfed while I watched the waves hoping to see some spectacular wipeouts (there was a “learn to surf” school nearby with many students, but sadly most crashes were slow and un-spectacular), and after a few hours and some pescado for lunch we piled into a van that already contained eight passengers. Undeterred the driver continued to pick up folks from along the road until twenty-two individuals were sitting on top of one another with the van door open to allow excess body parts to stick out. Nats and I figured the record capacity is probably thirty given that there must occasionally be groups of very tiny people that visit the island, but in the normal-sized world it’s tough to imagine squeezing anyone or anything else into that vehicle. After more of Ted’s potent cocktails and torrents of rain we all enjoyed dinner at the hotel, and sadly tomorrow brings the plane that will take Audrey and I back to LA and away from the whales and our many new friends.
One might expect that finding a fifty foot long animal that frequently throws itself completely out of the water would be easy in a place that has between five and seven thousand of said animals; such an assumption would (apparently) be very wrong. Exercising vast amounts of patience and eating vast amounts of snacks we searched for literally hours this morning and had no luck finding cooperative whales, and finally returned to the boat for lunch and of course discovered a mother and calf sleeping a hundred feet from the stern. Unfortunately there is such a thing as “whale etiquette” (who knew?) that states that whatever boat finds the whale first gets it for as long as they want it, but luckily the group that hoarded this whale for the entire day was small and allowed six of us at a time to join them. Being in the water with a sleeping whale is all kinds of awesome, in case previous journal entries didn’t make that fact clear.
The day’s other highlights included the return of the Cirque du Soleil founder’s thirty million dollar yacht (which apparently is currently being used by this guy), an awesome “fly by” with a mother, calf and escort, and some snorkeling through two of the wrecks that are out here – since the reefs have been charted for well over a hundred years one can only imagine what sort of captain made the decision to deviate from the course that every single other boat follows (“You know what? We’ve never tried going left here – let’s give that a shot.”). We’ve all gotten fairly comfortable with one another at this point so Nats played gatekeeper at the hot tub tonight until I crashed through, missing a step and toppling in while everyone already in the tub demanded drinks. Tomorrow morning is our last trip out amongst the whales before we lift anchor, and as always it’s sad to see the trip coming to an end after six very fun-filled days.
This is a good photo.
This is a broken boat.
Today was simultaneously great and slow – apparently rain makes the whales leap out the water in exuberance and then disappear completely, so we had whales breaching just off of our bow but were never able to get in the water with any of them. Since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to see a whale throw itself out of the ocean, and today fulfilled that dream many times over. Audrey got all of the best photos, but even without great photos it was an experience that in every way lived up to expectations.
The people on the trip and the staff on the boat have been great – the passengers have been divided into two “tenders”, so interactions have been mostly with the twelve people on our boat. Ted and Renee are people I knew before and who are both tremendously impressive. Renee’s friends Tanya and Mike are both amazingly positive, fun and energetic. Tanya’s mom Kay has been a trooper, and for Phil and Susanah, the boat’s Canadians, this is their third whale trip. The Australians (Clint and Nats) have been loads of fun and by far live up to and exceed Clint’s ranking as the world’s 26th best lifeguard. Roy and Jackie have brought a bit of Wyoming to the trip and have given as well as they have taken in the witty back-and-forth as we search for whales.
Happiness factor: 9.9.
I’m writing this while sitting next to Robert, one of the ship’s engineers. Each week he writes a message, put it in a bottle, and tosses it overboard. He says he gets an email or letter back for “about one in twenty”. That is awesome.
The trip continues to improve on a daily basis – not only did we get to swim with a number of whales, chase along next to two “rowdy groups”, and spend some time with a fin slapper, but a whale surfaced ten feet from the boat and snotted on us – from this day onwards anytime someone touches my face I can proudly say “That’s where the whale snot hit me”.
Visibility is improving but still murky, so when we’re diving with the whales it’s usually tough to make out any details until they near the surface. In some cases the surfacing can be pretty dramatic – I’ve got video of a calf rising from below, swimming at me, and passing a few feet away as I swim backwards; visibility was not a problem during this encounter. The above-water encounters are equally thrilling – three times now we’ve motored along at good speeds next to whales that were racing along, battling each other and surfacing a few feet from the boat. The cheering tends to be loud and spontaneous during these encounters. I’m writing this now from the boat’s top deck with crystal-clear stars overhead, the sound of three whales swimming past behind me, and the anticipation of tomorrow building.
Humpback whale fin slapping.
I suspect that this trip may be one that has a slow build-up to a grand finale – yesterday we saw whales from the boat, but weren’t able to dive with any. Today we found several whales in the morning that seemed ready to let us dive with them, and then a big male would arrive, another pair would displace our whales, or some other circumstance would prevent getting in the water. We did have an awesome experience with a “rowdy group” – four males fighting for the attention of one female. Finally, right around lunchtime we found a cooperative mother and calf and did several dives, and while visibility was poor it was still pretty awesome to be in the water and watching a whale; the experience of seeing a baby whale peek out from under its mother and then slowly rise to the surface in front of you is not something that will soon be forgotten. In addition, at one point we were in the water, unable to find the whales, and while returning to the boat turned around to find them swimming ten feet below us. Denise was signalling me to return to the boat, while I was signalling that to do so would involve swimming between a mother and calf (generally considered to be a bad idea that can lead to being smashified by whale); this was another experience that won’t soon be lost to memory.
Lunch was delayed two hours while we played with the mother and calf, and after a quick bite to eat we went back out to absolute silence on the water. After some searching we found two whales that were surfacing at a sixteen minute interval, but each time they would go down we were unable to find them in the depths. Sadly the photography hasn’t yet yielded anything worth posting, although if it calms down or visibility improves then anyone would be able to take a nice shot of a whale underwater, breaching, fin slapping, or just surfacing, so with luck I’ll get a few of those soon.
After a moderately turbulent ride over here we arrived in the Silver Bank this morning, literally with whales surfacing, jumping, and fin slapping all around us – the number of whales here is phenomenal, and it’s generally impossible to stand on deck and not see at least four or five of the beasties. However, due to the mysteries embedded in the brains of these fifty foot long giants they DID manage to disappear completely any time we got in the water near one, so swimming with whales will have to wait for at least one more day. Our best opportunity today came at the end of the day when we found a tolerant mother and calf, dispatched Nelson to verify that they were OK with having people in the water, and then watched agonizely as Tom radioed a boat that was motoring in our direction to find out if they had been working this set of whales. When the affirmative answer came Nelson was frantically making the “get in the water” hand signals, and it was with some confusion that he was finally brought back to the boat.
The Ted showed up last night, the taxis showed up today, and after a forty-five minute ride through streets filled with all manner of safe, corteous and law-abiding drivers there are now 24 passengers and ten crew members aboard the Nekton Rorqual ready to cavort with whales. The boat itself is shaped like a box on skis, which apparently makes it ugly and slow but stable. With nine foot seas forecast tonight stability is a good thing, although a combination of meclazine and pasta will hopefully keep the vomiting to a minimum (in this case “minimum” means no vomiting – I am not a fan of the barf). We’re supposed to arrive at the whale grounds at 11AM tomorrow, at which point the boat will anchor and the festivities will begin.
Audrey and I ate dinner at a place that was on a low cliff literally feet from the waves last night – the seas got angry and walls of water were shooting twenty-plus feet into the air behind our table. She ate lobster, I went with the fishes, and there were a healthy number of pina coladas thrown in for good measure – it’s a rough life.
The ocean stayed rough today, and visibility was down to a few feet while snorkeling so most of the fishes remained clouded in whatever the stuff is that makes visibility bad. Ted and friends arrived late in the evening, I was introduced to a number of people whose names I almost immediately forgot, and we’re now less than twenty-four hours away from taking a boat off for the whale extravaganza. Happiness factor remains very high.
It’s late… today was much like the past five days – wakey, food, lazy, beach (fishies), nappy, food, lazy, rainy, sleepy. Audrey got here last night so I now have a dinner partner, and Ted and company arrive tomorrow evening. One and a half more days of lounging until whales.
The fishes have finally been found. After several days of not seeing any signs of ocean life at all – fish, crab, shell, seabird – I finally found a reef about 100m off of the beach that has a respectable variety of the little buggers swimming around. My brain has serious deficiences when it comes to remembering the name of any fish other than “parrot fish” or “shark”, so aside from a single parrot fish I’m sadly unable to name any of the myriad critters that were encountered on the afternoon swim.
Also, an addendum to yesterday’s finding about ice cream and hookers – while enjoying a delicious and refreshing strawberry popsicle about an hour ago I was accosted twice. There are two possibilities:
- A lot of people are out looking for a little Afternoon Delight in this town, and I happened to wander through during rush hour.
- While ice cream indicates “Please do not proposition me”, a popsicle signifies “I would appreciate it if you would ask me if I need a girl, massage, or in some other way prevent me from eating this scrumptious treat.”
It is unclear which possibility is more likely, and also somewhat mystifying how I’ve now written two consecutive journal entries involving the world’s oldest profession.
Lonely Planet describes the town I’m staying in thusly:
“The inescapable fact of Sosua is the prostitution – it’s the sex tourism capital of the north coast. Bar after bar is full of sex workers, and men both single and in groups can expect to be accosted and propositioned, on the street, on the beach, and even in restaurants.“
Either things have quieted down since this book was written or else I have managed to avoid the worst of it by staying in during the evenings, but aside from a few “Hey baby”‘s and a demanding group of ladies who hang around on one particular street corner offering “massages” I haven’t seen much of this “inescapable fact”. That said, I have noticed that I get fewer cat-calls when I’m eating ice cream – apparently a grown man enjoying a double-scoop cone doesn’t quite scream “HORNY!” like a guy unencumbered by frozen deliciousness might.
The slow-down plan has gone into full effect – rather than chasing all over the island I’ve decided to settle down in Sosua and enjoy the beach life. This plan comes with significant advantages – prior to this evening I had never eaten surf and turf, but that was rectified tonight in a very, very good way. Happiness factor: 9.8.
The day’s other notable event was the advent of the beach filter. Much like someone who lives next to train tracks will eventually learn to sleep through the nightly ruckus, I seem to have developed some sort of portly-geriatrics-in-small-swimwear filter that has served me well and makes the beach experience much more pleasant. With this new-found ability to mostly ignore distractions on the beach, what remains is a generally-impressive display of the human form, although I’m still unable to avoid a shock whenever a guy in a banana hammock strolls past – I’m very, very hopeful that the necessary filter for that scenario will engage as soon as possible. In addition to people-watching, the day’s beach trip also provided a chance to get some sun and do some snorkeling. Two hours after starting out I returned sandy, whiteish-red, and without having seen a single fish, but between the bikinis, the soft sand, the crashing waves, and the great weather I wouldn’t really change much. The whale trip starts in five days, and until then there will be much napping, sunning, swimming, eating, and otherwise enjoying the latitude.