Steve Steals the Blog for a Day.

Lisa went off for the day and left the keys in her blog, so I get to sneak in and make a few comments and observations about things that struck me on this trip.  :-)  First off though, in all of the Humpback excitement, we forgot to post video of our dolphin friends from the Solomons:

As you can see, this was a nose-level view from the front of our relatively fast moving small boat.  Luckily for us oldsters, this was during the week in which we were sharing the resort with three young people from the UK, who were eager to capture the moment with both their GoPro and mine:

Beth Poole (at dolphin nose level) was visiting her brother Noah and his friend Ultan Wood, who were near the end of their gap year volunteering at a Solomon Islands' school.  In addition to diving, snorkeling, and eating, we enjoyed exploring the differences between "real" english and that which they speak in England.  :-)

Things I thought were Interesting

Solomon Islands: 1. Training a dog to live on (and guard) a sailing yacht.  2. How little it costs to mail souvenirs back home, rather than carting them around in your bags (especially convenient when they are made from "plant materials" and would have to be declared upon entering all subsequent countries).

Papua New Guinea: 1. The difference between the international air terminal in Port Moresby (world class) and the adjacent domestic terminal (Greyhound class). 2. The waving of obvious tourists through and around lines and checkpoints at the domestic airports.  Weird and uncomfortable, but like the differences between airports, shows the importance of tourist dollars even in this resource rich country.  3. The relief to find out that an airport security guard was the next to use the ATM after I left my card in it.  Oops!

Sydney, Australia: 1. After more than a month of travel, it felt so much like home, but so many little differences! 2. Business people dress much nicer for the office than in Nashville. 3. The large number of people doing cross-fit during breaks from work.   4.  A crowded speakeasy hidden in an alley and accessed via a "fire escape" down to the basement; many female guests in period clothing from the 1920's.  But wait--Sydney never had prohibition, and the bar is named after the US Attorney General in office when the Volstead Act became effective.  5. Cheers, Mate!

Vanuatu: 1. The affordable tropical getaway for families in most parts of Australia--We stood out like an Australian couple visiting Cancun's tourist area. 2. Checked off a new food--stuffed flying fox (aka Fruit Bat) in Port Vila; "tastes like pigeon." 3. Formerly known as the New Hebrides Islands, it was jointly administered by Britain and France before independence in 1980. 

Fiji: 1. Despite the political turmoil of the past decade, it stands out as a well-off country among the South Pacific Island nations. 2. Maybe we should have stopped to take a picture when driving over the 180th Meridian (aka, the real "date line," apart from jigjags to keep countries on the same calendar day). 3. On both the liveaboard diveboat and on Taveuni Island, we had the opportunity to dive with gentlemen who began diving before I was born!  

Tonga: 1. Less than three hours from New Zealand; 2. We saw and tried to puzzle out a new (to us) game: "Netball." This is sort of basketball, but without dribbling, backboards, or flexibility between positions. 3. The King still has real power here, even though the absolute monarchy was phased out in 2010. 4. Tongans are big people.  For example, their Queen was over 6 ft. tall and 300+ pounds when she wowed the crowds at the coronation celebration of the 5' 4" Queen Elizabeth in 1953: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-queen-of-tonga-by-janie-hampton.html?m=1  5. The country  is very religious and everything closes on Sunday.  Modest dress is also expected; Lisa was among the very rare women who exposed any leg above the knee (despite wearing her longer shorts). 6. It is a resource poor country; its main export is its people. Up to 2/3 of its citizens live abroad and send healthy remittances back home.

In General: 1. School uniforms are the rule in Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga, whether for Private or Public schools at all ages.  2.  Still seems strange to us Americans that young men match ties with a "skirt" (Sulu/Tupenu/Sarong)--so too, for businessmen/lawyers in Tonga (and likely Fiji). 3. If you order breakfast eggs in the South Pacific, they are served on thick toast, but no accompanying bacon--and if you order a side of bacon, it will not be cooked to a crisp.  Think medium rare....  4. Educational requirements and opportunities vary widely between countries and maybe as much so within countries--inhabitants of small rural islands who are concerned about education must sometimes pay to send their grammar school kids to school on other islands, with trips home (by small boat) each weekend. 5. So-called middleman stereotyping is an unfortunate human universal.  I had several conversations with island natives who referred to the ethnic Chinese merchants on their islands in terms that could have been lifted straight out of 19th century stereotypes about Jews. 6.  If in doubt, ask if someone is from New Zealand, not Australia.  Generally, Kiwis care about such things while Aussies laugh.  

Back Home!: 1. Steaks on the grill and heirloom tomatoes.  :-)  2. Discovery that letting cars sit for three months during Nashville's summer is a great way to propagate mold in the interior and heat/AC systems.  :-(

I hear Lisa coming, so that's it for now

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Wow, just Wow!

I could probably bore you with several more posts of whale pics and videos, but I think this will be the last one.  We had 2 absolutely awesome days of interactions that were totally different.

The first was an entire morning spent with 3 adults that looked like they were doing ballet together, and enjoyed showing off for us.

Steve's arm gives scale and shows how close they were.

Steve's arm gives scale and shows how close they were.

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That's the view we'd get as they came out of the blue towards us, getting closer and bigger, until...

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... they passed closely to give us the once over (multiple times!).

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They seemed to be as curious of us as we were of them.

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In the afternoon of that same day, Nai'a received a call saying that a day boat had found a whale tangled in line, and asked if we would come help.  I don't have any pictures to share, as I was asked to video the rescue from the skiff, to document it.  It is illegal to be in the water with scuba near the whales, but we needed a record to show that we were not on a lark, but hopefully providing a very serious service.  Another guest had a GoPro underwater doing the same thing.

She was floating at the surface with a line across her back and around both pectorals that had weights on the ends and pinned her pectorals to her body.  The divers approached her carefully, not sure how she'd react to the bubbles and noise.  She was so exhausted that she tolerated them quite well.  As they cut the weights free (using steak knives from the boat!), she suddenly thrashed because her pectorals were now free.  However, there was still a line encircling her tail multiple times and it was causing her to hold her tail up and back at an unnatural angle.  One of the divers slowly advanced along her side, touching her the whole way and trying to maintain eye contact.  As he was trying to cut one of the loops, he figures that the sawing motion caused the rope to rub in the cuts that were already there, and she thrashed strongly again, tossing him away.  Luckily, he lost only his mask and was a little stunned, but made it safely back to the skiff.  The remaining rope was able to be unwound from her tail by the snorkelers and divers remaining, without having to get too close to her.  Everyone on the boats cheered when we saw all the rope free of her, and we left her alone, floating quietly at the surface, hoping that her cuts will heal and she'll survive.

The next day, after leaving these 3 beauties, we met up with a (probable) "adolescent" who had lots of energy and was definitely showing off for us.  Interestingly, he had completely white pectoral fins, which is new and unusual for Tonga.  Typically, the Tongan humpback population has dark coloring on the tops and white underneath, while humpbacks in other parts of the world are white on both sides.  (hmmm... who's your daddy?)

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We had some really nice close passes...

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Then he started to get a little too close for comfort.  It was almost as if he was playing chicken!

That's me, trying to back away.

After that, we got out, to leave him to play by himself.

This was actually taken on the first day, when I wore my hood.  I decided I didn't need it.

This was actually taken on the first day, when I wore my hood.  I decided I didn't need it.

We traveled between lots of islands that looked just like this.

We traveled between lots of islands that looked just like this.

I can't think of a catchy way to close this current chapter.  So, I decided to share my favorite "girls" with you again.  'Til next time...

Whale behavior

It was fascinating to watch their moves both above and below the water.  Humpbacks are known to be pretty acrobatic, and I was lucky enough to catch some of their antics on camera.

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"Pec slapping" was a common occurrence.  Their pectoral fins are very elongated and they use them for maneuvering, as well as just to make some noise!

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We read and heard about tail slapping, and saw a little of that, but much more of lobbing it about.  This juvenile entertained us one afternoon for several hours (!) of surface activity.  It reminded me of a little kid mastering a new physical skill by practicing on and on...

Another one proudly showed off its ability to raise its tail completely out of the water and hold it there for several seconds.

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"Spyhopping" is cool to see both on the surface, as well as below.

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Breaching was awesome to see, and you could see the tell tale splashes for miles.  However, capturing it on camera is a different story.  There's no warning before they launch out of the water. However, sometimes an individual will keep practicing, or several will show off for each other, giving you a chance to have your camera trained in the general vicinity and hope you get lucky.

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A momma was apparently teaching her baby how to do it:

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We were early in the season of this Tongan population of whales coming north from Antarctic waters, to calve and breed.  We didn't have many mom and baby opportunities, but we were treated to the bull run and a fair amount of surface activity.

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This baby had been practicing breaching over and over, so I got several neat shots at quite a distance.  When I zoomed in on this one, I was thrilled to see its mouth open.  Apparently they almost never do that in Tonga, as there's no food for them, and they have to wait to return to Antarctica, to feast in the krill rich waters there (near the end of the year).

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This was my best momma and baby shot, due to poor water visibility and a protective mom who didn't want to hang around.

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My favorite pictures were those with direct eye contact.  It was so amazingly thrilling to watch this enormous creature glide effortlessly by you, with its eye locked on you the whole time.  (By the way, these two photos are not enhanced or zoomed at all.) 

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What a memorable, magical experience!

More to come in another posting...

Tonga's whales

ATTENTION: Be sure and click on the phrase "view this email in your browser" to get the full effect of the videos. 

There are only two places in the world where you are allowed to swim with humpback whales - the Silver Banks off the Dominican Republic and Tonga.  We really didn't know what to expect or hope for, as these are wild animals and that's a mighty big ocean.

We returned to the Nai'a (we had spent the first 10 days of our current excursion on her in Fiji, diving) for a 9 day trip of whale watching and hopefully, swimming with humpbacks.  If anyone's interested in geography, Tonga has 3 main island groups, and we sailed around the middle one, Ha'apai, looking for friendly whales.  Nai'a is the only liveaboard boat to have a license in Tonga, with the majority of licenses granted to day boat charters in the northern most island group of Vava'u.  So, in essence, we had pretty much any whales we found to ourselves.

We boarded the boat and got settled in on the first evening, and then tried to sleep (fairly unsuccessfully) as she sailed north (for about 8 hours) from the main island of Tongatapu to the islands of Ha'apai.  Sunrise wasn't until about 0700 (it's winter there).  We'd have breakfast at 0730 every morning, before sailing back and forth between islands looking for spouts, signalling whales at the surface.

The first full day was pretty uneventful (compared to the rest of the week), but we were all excited to see 2 whales circle the boat a few times, and we got to see just how big our new friends were.

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There were 16 guests aboard and we were split into 2 groups of 8 to go out on the Zodiac skiffs for closer encounters, and hopefully snorkeling with the whales.  We spent our second morning in a calm bay by an island with 2 adults who rested down at about 30-40 feet for a few minutes, before rising up for breaths, only to settle back down and hang nearly motionless.  Four of us were allowed in the water at a time, with a guide, while the other 4 waited somewhat impatiently for our turn in the water. 

(I inadvertently left on the filter for underwater pictures, when I took this shot)

(I inadvertently left on the filter for underwater pictures, when I took this shot)

The two we met that morning were so calm and not at all bothered by the little creatures floating on the surface.  They absolutely made eye contact with us as they rose each time.  It just made your heart swell (as well as totally blowing you away) to make that kind of connection.

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The next day was blow your socks off adrenaline day!  We were fortunate enough to happen on to a "bull run" of 11 adults swimming nearly full on, near the surface for miles.  According to our "cruise directors", this is pretty rare, and we were lucky to be in a skiff beside them all morning.

(again, I forgot about the filter being on, in all the excitement)

(again, I forgot about the filter being on, in all the excitement)

A still picture just doesn't do it justice, so you'll have to bear with me through several videos:

The video above was when we first found them, and were keeping a respectable distance.  We then got closer:

Steve titled his video "Close Encounter":

So, my version of that event was a little different:

I'll close with one that shares the majesty, power and grace of our new found buddies.  (don't worry, there's at least one, and probably two more blog postings on this chapter of our trip)

Fiji and Tonga (land)

When we would go diving from the resort on Taveuni, this was the part of the larger island, Vanua Levu, that we would see every day:

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... and this is the beach where we spent our hour breaks between dives:

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That picture was taken at high tide.  At low tide, the area of beach we could walk on was enormous, as the slope of the beach was so shallow.

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This was the view we had going back out for our second dive each morning (looks like a painting, doesn't it?).

The restaurant at the resort had some interesting takes on dishes.  A "chicken bacon wrap" was just a chicken breast wrapped in bacon.  "Cinnamon rolls" (served at the evening meal) were soft dinner rolls with slight cinnamon seasoning.  "Cheesy burger on flat bread" turned out to be a cheeseburger between 2 slices of homemade soft white bread.  "Beef stroganoff" was pieces of beef steak served with mushrooms, but no sauce or noodles.

We left Taveuni on a very small plane (less than 20 seats), and this was a view we had of the cockpit (just like Steve, the pilot likes to be comfortable):

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Steve really wanted to contribute this video - as this blog flies from Fiji to Tonga.

Due to the category 5 cyclone that hit Tonga dead-on in Feb. 2018, we ended up staying on the main island of Tongatapu, rather than taking a ferry over to 'Eua (pronounced "ah wa").  The accommodations there had been heavily damaged, and they weren't able to rebuild enough to be open for us.  That island is known for a very laid back vibe, where you whale watch from shore, and maybe go on hikes for bird watching.

So, we made the best of it here - catching up blogs and editing the too numerous pictures and videos we'd taken for the last 10 weeks.  We also took a full day tour around the entire island, seeing all the "sights".  The road signs at intersections commonly listed the tourist sights, rather than any upcoming "towns".  The notable sights were blowholes, Tsunami rock, Captain Cook's landing site (in 1777), a natural bridge, and the Tongan version of Stonehenge:

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The Natural Bridge was one of our favorites, due to its isolated nature and the beauty of the sea in contrast to the rocks and vegetation.

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Tsunami Rock didn't sound like much, but we trusted our guide to show us the "real" Tonga, so we went along with it.

Apparently, there's a hole in the surrounding reef that corresponds to this "rock".

Apparently, there's a hole in the surrounding reef that corresponds to this "rock".

Our hands down favorite was the Mapu'a 'a Vaea Blowholes.  We expected several blowholes, but weren't prepared for several kilometers of coastline lined with them!

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Flying foxes are some of the largest bats in the world.  We actually saw them out during the day, as they are insect eaters (sadly, I never got any pictures of them on the wing).  Like this fella, we're just hanging around, waiting to join the Nai'a again for close encounters with humpback whales.  

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Bula! from Fiji

Bula is the common greeting in Fiji, usually said with hearty exclamation.  We spent a week at a dive resort on one of the smaller islands, Taveuni, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  The resort was very up-market for us, and I reveled in the space, luxury and awesome food (and cocktails!).  We had originally booked only 4 days of diving, giving us 2 days to explore the island.  However, we were loving the diving so much, that we bagged any idea of going to see "yet another waterfall", and opted to dive every day we could.

Teardrop butterflyfish

Teardrop butterflyfish

The water was definitely colder than nearer the equator (duh!), and was 78 degrees, where it had been 85 degrees in Papua New Guinea.  Both the hard corals and soft corals were very healthy.  The red and lavender clumps in the picture above are soft corals.

We're going to try and set up a Google folder of pics, for those who want to see more, and leave links within this blog, but Steve just told me that we'll have to wait until we get back to the States to do this.  So be watching for a blog with links, to come!

Longnose filefish

Longnose filefish

So, in the meantime, I'll send on more interesting fish pictures and videos.  The fish above is pretty uncommon, and looks like no other fish we've seen yet.

In the next video, note the unicorn fish in the middle, with the white tail. (what a cool shape, and very apropos name)  We don't remember noticing this species before, but they were here in large enough numbers to make schools  You may want to watch the video a few times and see all the variety, as well as density of the fish.

The next fish, a Yellowtail Coris, when it is a juvenile, looks like this:

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... and as a teenager, it looks like this:          (the adult is pretty bland)

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In the next video, watch the color change of the Cornetfish (the long, narrow one hanging above the coral).

A Blue Ribbon eel is one of the most colorful to be found:

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He says "Vinaka" (thank you) for tuning in today.  I'll post another Fiji blog in a few days.

I can't resist closing with a sunset shot.  These are the true colors we saw (there was no enhancing or editing done to this picture)!

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Explosive news from Vanuatu

The island of Tanna is one of the more southern ones, as well as very rural, with mostly subsistence farmers making up a majority of the 11,000+ population.  We stayed on the western coast at a VERY rustic accommodation, but were glad we were on that side for the cool breezes and beautiful sunsets.  Snorkeling was in a crystal clear Blue Hole, which was quite a bit cooler than what we had gotten used to, closer to the equator.

The water was extraordinarily clear, and the hard corals were just layered over each other.

The water was extraordinarily clear, and the hard corals were just layered over each other.

The main reason we chose this island to visit was Mt. Yasur, the world's longest continuously active volcano (since first discovered by Captain Cook in 1774) and it is actually easily accessible.  

It was not very imposing, even from the ash plain at its base.

It was not very imposing, even from the ash plain at its base.

We were packed in 10 people to the short bed of a "Ute" (utility vehicle) and driven up steep rutted roads of packed ash to a flat area, where we walked on up for our first glimpse of the (not so) sleeping giant.

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We had heard rumbles and occasional roars when we were lower down, heightening our anticipation.  As we stood near one edge, we heard a boom, and then the cloud rolled up, along with debris that rained down (luckily back into the caldera, and not onto us).

The black specks in the sky are not dirt on my lens, but the falling rock debris.

The black specks in the sky are not dirt on my lens, but the falling rock debris.

We then advanced up another slope to get our best view of the fireworks.  There were two active vents, which often blew at different times, but occasionally simultaneously.  The sulphur odor was overwhelming at first, but amazingly, you quickly got used to it.  

the caldera

the caldera

The early show

The early show

a close up of the far vent

a close up of the far vent

a double shot

a double shot

Unfortunately, we were frequently downwind, and received a generous coating of fine, gritty ash on everything (hair, clothes, camera, mouth).  But oh my!  Was it worth it!  Witnessing the power, and even seeing the pressure waves as the sound hit you was truly awe inspiring.

Enjoy the video (especially the audio - that's really how loud it was), but forgive the focusing.

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So long from Tanna and Vanuatu!

Vanuatu the beautiful

We have been on 2 of the 83 islands in this peaceful nation, and going to our third tomorrow.  Even though it's "dry" season, that's relative when there are rainforests.  We first stayed on Efate, in the capital city of Port Vila, and enjoyed it enough.  We were in a beach front resort, but the snorkeling was just ok, and the water was definitely colder than where we had been diving.  The all day tour to various key sites was underwhelming, but we got some interesting photos.

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At a kastum village visit, we renewed our vows, complete with warrior threat at the end.  The weavings around our waists are both decorative and show value.  The basket Steve's holding and the wild boar tusks in our hands are the bride price on the island.

an isolated beach

an isolated beach

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Unfortunately, we didn't get to swim at this tranquil waterfall and river, due to not being told to bring swim gear before we left, as well as running out of time on the tour and needing to move on fairly quickly.

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We're now on the island of Espiritu Santo, and I LOVE it!  Much more peaceful and full of natural beauty spots like the beach above.  We had Champagne Beach to ourselves when we first got there, and can't even imagine what it's like when a cruise ship docks and there are hundreds of people here.  The snorkeling was pretty good, with us seeing some fish we hadn't seen yet, but there was some pretty strong wave action to contend with.  We had fresh coconut water, from the coconuts bought at a roadside stand, and then hacked open on top by the machete wielding van driver.

Then on to Nanda Blue Hole.  Rain water percolates through the volcanic soil and joins into underground rivers that surface into these crystal clear (and chilly) swimming holes.  This one is up to 50 feet deep.

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This picture is not enhanced at all.  The water really is that blue!  It was so refreshing to swim and rinse off the salt water from our beach visit.

Yesterday, we did an all day tour to Millenium Cave.  The name is derived from when it was opened to tourists in 2000.  We were driven 45 minutes on a very bumpy and pot-holed road (that also included a portion of a WWII runway) and arrived at a village.  We met our guide, who walked us through the jungle to a second village 20 minutes away, on a slippery mud track, and even crossed a ravine on a bamboo bridge.  The bamboo logs were fresh green, and slippery with mud coated shoes.

At the second village, we met the rest of our guides (a total of 8, for 10 guests!), and were given life jackets to wear for the rest of the trip.  We hiked another hour and a half (!) on sometimes precarious paths, and up and down steep slopes that required wooden ladders that you needed to back down.  Quite the excursion!

Little did we know that this was the easy portion of the hike

Little did we know that this was the easy portion of the hike

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This was actually an easy ladder, with a handrail.  Later, there were multiple nearly vertical ladders that would turn at a 45 degree angle to continue descending the hill.  I was too busy watching my foot placement and trying to not put my hands in too much mud, to take any pictures of the most challenging ones.

Entrance into the cave (my camera lens had some water on it)

Entrance into the cave (my camera lens had some water on it)

We then hiked 30 minutes through a pitch black cave (that was up to 60 ft high in places), using flashlights to try and illuminate the slippery footing through the stream bed we waded.  At one point, my left foot got caught sideways between two rocks, as I was stepping forward with my right.  Ouch!  The guide had to extricate it, but luckily it was just badly scraped and bruised, but not twisted.  This part of our trek seemed interminable due to my painful ankle, but I tried to keep looking up and around to appreciate the majesty of the place we were in and watch the little bats flitting about.  The light at the end was very welcome, along with a lunch stop.

The happy survivors

The happy survivors

Next came 30 minutes of "canyoning", and thank goodness for strategically placed rebar handles and ropes.  I lost my footing again, and ended up sliding under a big boulder, but luckily didn't hit my head or get hurt more badly than a few scrapes and bruises.  Steve and the guide had to pull me back out the way I slid, as I couldn't raise myself.

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The people give scale to the rocks we had to clamber over and around.  Note the top of the ladder affixed to a boulder at the bottom of the picture.

We were finally rewarded at the end by a 45 minute swim through a river that cut through gorgeously carved stone walls, often dripping with ferns.

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This waterfall was quite refreshing to wash off the mud face paint that we were given before entering the cave.

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All in all, we were very glad to have done the trek but I wouldn't do it again!  Now off to the volcano island of Tanna.

Sydney

Boy, did we need some civilization, after spending a month without it - especially from the electronics standpoint.  We arrived Sat. evening and got settled into our Central Business District (CBD) Airbnb.  Sunday morning, we were out early to find an open coffee and sandwich shop before heading to the local Officeworks to replenish our electronics cache.  As you may remember, Steve fried my computer with a glass of wine to the keyboard on the first week of the trip; I had left my Kindle in the Southwest seat back; and then on our last night in PNG, our power strip started popping, smoking and sending out sparks (waking us up!).  Fortified with our purchases, we plugged everything in to charge and headed out to sight see.

I ended up taking (too?) many pictures of the Opera House - in various light and from lots of different angles.

Sunday afternoon - showing how busy it can be

Sunday afternoon - showing how busy it can be

We happened in to the last tour of the day, at 4:30 pm, and learned lots of tidbits about the history and the construction of this beautiful building.  The architect of the St. Louis Arch, Eero Saarinen, was on the selection panel responsible for naming the best design.  He arrived late to Australia, after the panel had omitted the present design from the competition.  After Saarinen's arrival and reconsideration, however, the design was allowed to proceed and eventually was unanimously named as the winning effort.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was silhouetted nicely by the sunset:

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The next morning we took one of the many ferries that cross the Harbour continuously, to Manly (a suburb with a pretty beach) and walked a bit, but it was a brisk 60 degrees (in the sun), so we didn't venture in the water.  It was quite a difference in temperature, compared to the humid 85 degrees we had become accustomed to in the Solomons and PNG.

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We attempted numerous selfies with the Opera House - most were quite laughable - including this one from the ferry:

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We spent the rest of the day walking throughout the Royal Botanic Garden and admiring all the different plants, as well as getting yet more views of my favorite building.

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Interesting observations about "down under":

- you walk on the left side of the sidewalk when you pass others going the opposite way (mirroring their driving side), and turnstile doors rotate to the left (visualize that difference from the US)

- elevators are "lifts", but they aren't nearly as prevalent as in the US.  There are stairs everywhere throughout the buildings downtown, and the large majority of people we saw were quite fit.

- Sydney was surprisingly quite hilly.  I was reminded of San Francisco (another port city) but on a smaller scale both in size, and pitch of the inclines.

- A woman behind us in line at a chocolate shop (where else would I be?) commented that US money is "all the same color", and was very hard to use when she visited the US recently.  This caused us to recognize that in all the countries we've visited so far, each bill was a different color for the different denominations.

Our next day of walking gave us new perspectives on the bridge and the Opera House:

Roughly same latitude as San Diego (a Mediterranean climate)

Roughly same latitude as San Diego (a Mediterranean climate)

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On our last day, we took advantage of a baggage transfer service, to send our bags on to the airport, so we could explore the city's Taronga Zoo unencumbered.  The grounds were built on a fairly steep hillside, offering nice views of the city from across the harbour.  It was quite a unique layout, and a great use of space (shout out to my sister, for that comment, as well as the recommendation to tour it).

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Sorry - this was the best picture of the "obligate" koala I could get, since I didn't want to pay a lot extra for a "Koala Experience" to have your picture taken near a koala (thankfully, no more holding of the poor beasts).  The Australia section of the zoo was pretty cool, and we saw kangaroos, wallabies, ring-tailed lemurs, emus and even platypuses (only to be seen in an Australian zoo).

What're  you  lookin' at, mate??

What're you lookin' at, mate??

PNG (Papua New Guinea)

Before we left on this "expedition", I think I was most concerned about PNG.  You read that Port Moresby, the capital, is a dangerous, dirty city.  Even 50 years ago, headhunting/cannibalism was still practiced in the Highlands on the main island.  So, I just didn't know what to expect.  I sure didn't expect what we found...  A clean, modern appearing city (at least the parts we drove through) with paved roads, street lights and plenty of cars.  After spending 3 weeks in the Solomons using water as our means of transportation everywhere, it felt like culture shock.

At our hotel in Port Moresby, they had an aviary that we could go into, to see and feed some of their beautiful native birds.

A Papuan Lorakeet on Steve's hand

A Papuan Lorakeet on Steve's hand

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This Reggiana Bird of Paradise is their national bird, and is also on their flag.  The tail feathers are used in ceremonial headdresses.  They had a really neat courtship dance, but they only performed when we were outside the cage, so I couldn't get any good video.

The Victoria Crowned Pigeon is the size of a female wild turkey!

The Victoria Crowned Pigeon is the size of a female wild turkey!

On our way to the island resort where we stayed for the next week, we had a very interesting flight connection.  We had two tickets for two different flight numbers on our jaunt to New Ireland.  The first flight was a "milk run" that stopped in 2 small towns before we reached our interim destination.  Before leaving the plane, we confirmed that we had arrived at Rabaul, where we were changing planes.  We dutifully walked through the doors for arrivals, and then found the departures gate, where we and our bags where scanned before entering the lounge area.  Since we knew we had very little time before our connecting plane was to board, we just stood along the wall near the departure gate.  We were waiting for another small plane to arrive, to take us on to our final destination, when I heard someone at the gate yelling, "Kavieng"!  This was our destination, so we walked up to the gate, had our boarding passes checked, and we were walked quickly out to... the plane we just got off!  We smiled and laughed along with everyone on the plane who had watched the silly white people make a circuit through the 2 room airport before reboarding the plane.

The diving lodge on Lissenung Island (off the northern tip of New Ireland - less than 3 degrees south of the equator [our closest approach yet]) was fantastic compared to the spartan accommodations in the Solomons, and the diving was even better!

A nudibranch on a tunicate next to soft coral

A nudibranch on a tunicate next to soft coral

another gorgeous nudibranch!

another gorgeous nudibranch!

For those who want the proper name for those fish, they are Palette Surgeonfish, but everyone knows them as "Dory"!

I'll close with a short video to show the extraordinary diversity of teeming fish life on the reef. 

Now on to Sydney!

Sailing the Solomon Islands

We were picked up from the eco-lodge by the 60 ft catamaran, SV Chemistry, to join Gavin, Luciana, and their dog, Luna, sailing up the Western Province of the Solomons for the next week.  Here are some maps to give you an idea of where we were:

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The map above shows the South Pacific, and identifies a lot of the places we will have been on this trip (Fiji, Solomons, PNG, Australia and Vanuatu).  Below is a map of the Solomons, so you can see the location of the Western Province, and specifically New Georgia Islands, where we sailed.  We went up the west coast of the largest island (where the words "Western province" are noted) and ended at Gizo.

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Leaving the eco lodge

Leaving the eco lodge

Our first night's anchorage

Our first night's anchorage

Our home for the week

Our home for the week

The islands varied in size and if inhabited or not, but all were packed with vegetation.

The islands varied in size and if inhabited or not, but all were packed with vegetation.

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Houses are usually very simple and elevated off the ground (to avoid the changing tides), and villages varied in size from just a few houses, to those including a school or clinic, like the one above.

We visited one village, to see if we could buy some bananas, and soon collected a following of local children.  We felt like Pied Pipers, or the leaders of our own parade.

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At another island, we received some curious visitors:

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Canoes are hand hewn, and very common means of transport.  For the three weeks we spent in the Islands, we rarely saw roads, let alone cars.  When we were to be arriving initially, we had emailed our hostess at the eco lodge, asking if someone were picking us up at the airport, or if we needed to find a cab.  This was the airstrip we landed on:

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Nope.  No taxi.  We were met at the plane and escorted a short distance to the "tinny" (open john boat) for the 70 minute ride to the lodge.

But I digress...  back to sailing.

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When anchored off of another island, these men from their Seventh Day Adventist church, approached the boat and asked if they could pray with us and sing some songs.  Their harmonies were beautiful.

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Next stop - PNG.

Yay! We have Internet!

Boy, do I have a LOT to catch you, my loyal readers, up on!  After leaving the dive boat, Nai'a, in Fiji, we spent 3 weeks in the Solomon Islands.  The first two were on one of the myriad small islands around Marovo Lagoon, at a very small "resort" with only 2 guestrooms with a shared toilet and shower rooms.  Because of the skin bends, I opted to snorkel only for the first week (man, was that hard to watch Steve head off into the deep and come back with great stories and videos of what he saw).  There are some beautiful fish and corals there - and just a few feet from the surface.

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OK, so I started the above note on June 15 in Papua New Guinea (PNG), uploaded the picture, and my computer died for good.  It's now June 25 and we're in Sydney for 4 days.  The first day was spent shopping for a Kindle, new computer and extension plug (this started sparking and smoking on our last night in PNG), as well as getting my hair cut.  So now, I can try and catch all y'all up on our adventure.   Back to the Solomons:

The view out the front of the resort

The view out the front of the resort

I continued to snorkel for the first week of our stay, seeing some gorgeous fish and corals, and accompanied by my buddy, the longfin spadefish, when right off the dock in front:

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I started diving again in our second week there, limiting it to 2 dives a day to "only" 40 feet.  Steve would go deeper with our hostess, and see more sharks than I did, but I saw plenty that was neat and beautiful.

The red fish in the center is a Flame Angelfish; is rare; and was found on only one dive site.

The red fish in the center is a Flame Angelfish; is rare; and was found on only one dive site.

This little guy is a blenny, and is only about 2 inches long.  He darts between holes in the coral, and standing on his pectoral fins to watch for stuff in the water to jump out and grab.

This little guy is a blenny, and is only about 2 inches long.  He darts between holes in the coral, and standing on his pectoral fins to watch for stuff in the water to jump out and grab.

An anemone folded up on itself (that "bag" is super soft and squishy)

An anemone folded up on itself (that "bag" is super soft and squishy)

There was a relatively tame Hornbill named Lucy, who would fly in most days, looking for bits of food to steal.

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That's all for the Solomon Islands diving.  Next post will continue our adventures in the Solomons.

VERY inauspicious start to our South Pacific trek

First, I left my Kindle on the Southwest flight from Nashville to LA, and didn't notice it for several hours, thus too late to try and retrieve it.  So, I was using my laptop as my (heavy) Kindle, after downloading the Kindle app at the airport, and then loading it with the books I borrowed from the library, originally on my Kindle.  

After an uneventful (and actually restful) overnight flight to Fiji, we spent our first day there, just hanging out at the pool and napping and reading in our room.  The next day we boarded the Nai'a, our floating home for the next 10 days.  This is a liveaboard dive boat, where the motto is: "eat, sleep, dive, repeat".  We dove three to four times a day, on different sites every time, and it was fantastic!  After the first two days of cloudy skies, every day after was virtually cloudless, and with constant breezes.

A nudibranch (fancy name for a sea slug)

A nudibranch (fancy name for a sea slug)

Second, Steve was starting to download his GoPro videos to my laptop when he spilled a glass of wine on the keyboard.  There went our computer access, as well as my ability to save my photos. :-(  Luckily, there were very nice shipmates who offered their computers for me to download my pictures and then save them to a thumb drive.

A pipefish (relative of a seahorse) - about 4 inches long

A pipefish (relative of a seahorse) - about 4 inches long

Third, I developed skin bends, which is a mild form of decompression sickness - meaning no more diving for me!  This happened on our 7th day of diving, after I dove to 80-85 ft. to document that little guy in the picture above, and stayed down just too long for my body, I guess.  My dive computer showed I was diving within safety limits (according to tables), but my body disagreed.  My symptoms were a light red rash that itched and hurt, but disappeared completely after breathing pure O2 for a couple of hours.  I had no other symptoms and no residual issues.

As this trip through all these upcoming island nations is mostly diving, I was really bummed.  I intend to just snorkel for a couple of weeks, then do limited diving (only 1 or 2 shallow dives a day).  When we return to the states, I'll see a hyperbaric (diving) specialist, and ask for specific recommendations for the future.

Cleaner shrimp working on one of our dive masters (it tickled when they cleaned mine)

Cleaner shrimp working on one of our dive masters (it tickled when they cleaned mine)

We're now in the Solomon Islands (actually on Guadalcanal, for those history buffs out there), with VERY slow Internet.  We got a spare keyboard from the super helpful IT guy here at the hotel, so I could get a blog post out.  We're going shopping tomorrow to buy one, so hopefully I'll be able to continue to keep in touch.  However, our next stop is a very small remote eco- lodge on another island, where Internet access is spotty at best.  As it took me over an hour to put out this post, we'll have to see if any more posts will be forthcoming in the next month.  We'll be spending 2 weeks at the eco-lodge, then 1 week on a catamaran sailing up north through more of the Solomons, then on up to Papua New Guinea (specifically the island of New Ireland) for another week of diving, before heading back to civilization in Sydney near the end of June.  Hopefully, you'll hear from me before then.

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We'll try and send some of our neat videos, when we can.

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