Sunday, May 29, 2011
My Top 10 (+1) Whale Watching Sites in the World – Part 1
During my Naval career, I was fortunate enough to have had several foreign postings, many deputations and occasional circumnavigation and ocean sailing expeditions thrown in for good measure, besides of course climbing all over the world, for which my bosses always allowed me to go; even at the cost of operational commitments. And now when I sit back and gaze at that wonderful period of my life I am often led to believe that perhaps my Commanding Officers were actually glad to get me out of their systems, else how can one explain that never once were my leave applications turned down or my request to go climbing or sailing while on deputation. Perhaps more bizarre, absurd and dangerous my expeditions were, more they were merry as they could have hoped that I won’t return and they had seen the last of me and what a benign and legal way of getting rid of a real pain in the butt; for I was that for sure. But jokes apart I am primarily thankful to the Indian Navy and to all my superiors and colleagues for giving me such incredible opportunities to do the things that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
During my ocean voyages I got the opportunity to visit some of the furthest flung and inaccessible regions on our planet, places where one can only go if you have a seaworthy boat, plenty of time and resources. Besides exotic islands, lagoons and shipwrecks, corals and sea life, I also visited some of the finest whale watching sites and this post is to share that experience with you all. As I only believe in experiential learning and assimilation of facts, I will name the top ten whale watching sites that I have personally been to and not necessarily that they are so rated otherwise.
So before I wrote this post, I did a bit of research and realized that out of the top ten sites recommended by Nat Geo and other very reputable travel portals I had been to most and was equally surprised that some of the places I have been and would mention in this post, do not feature in those official top ten whale watching sites. Now this is a certain faux pas as how can these ‘official’ sites on whale watching overlook Greenland, Tonga, the Chilean Peninsula, Norway, Iceland or Scotland to name a few. But then it is indeed tough to come up with top ten whale sites in the world since there are so many each equally enchanting. Never mind, this is my personal top ten whale watching site list, so here goes. Perhaps some of you would go to these locations one day and I am sure many of you must have already been to these places, so if you have then please share your experience too with your comments. So like the good old Capt Nemo would have said, ‘Take your seats, tighten your seatbelts, put on your life jackets and let’s go on the ride of your life’.
So, what on earth is ‘whale watching’? If you thought it means watching whales wearing watches or watching whales that are watching us (humans) then you aren’t that far from the truth. There are many leisure activities devised by man that does not entail you to undergo any sort of physical exertion or discomfort yet can be labelled at the borderline of ‘adventure’ for example wildlife safaris in South Africa, sailing on a flat-bottomed gig down the Nile, Camel ride through Jordan, tandem para-jumping in New Zealand, summer hike to the top of Mt Fuji, sipping wine atop a pagoda in Cambodia, boating in Lake Titicaca, the ridiculously puerile trail to Machu Picchu or taking the cable car to the roof of Europe in Chamonix and then empty your glass of celebratory champagne under the shadows of Mt Blanc.
These activities fills you up with bliss, gives you a feel of living on the edge, bloats your heart with the milk of human kindness and suspends you at the brink of an abyss where you know that you are safe yet in a moment you could be in grave danger. And in all such ‘leisure’ activities, one that stands out and apart is whale watching. Since while watching whales from a kissing distance out of an open boat or a covered one (depending on your paying capacity) you are witnessing nature in its grandest. The sheer smooth body that emerges out of the oceans, then leaping out in the air like a champion acrobat, blowing air like geysers and then suddenly disappearing in a blink... is sheer magic. No words or amount of ululation can capture what whales do to your eyes and imagination. The only thing certain is that even if you are the most reticent and non-verbal person on earth, a whale watching experience even if it is only for 20 minutes, will leave you hoarse and dehydrated since by then you would have blown your vocal chords with shrieks of excitement and inexplicable joy.
Now before we literally jump in, let me first tell you the names of the top ten whale watching destinations that is the official list by general consensus and then would I take you to mine. With no order of priority, they are: Azores, Baja California, Cape Cod, Dominica, Glacier Bay, Hermanus, Hervey Bay, Kaikoura, Monterey Bay and Peninsula Valdes. Of these I haven’t been to Dominica and Monterey Bay. So these two would stay out of my list while few additional ones would be featured. The following list is my own list, hence I am giving it in the order of my priority; the ones that I would recommend and love to go, in a descending order hence my first choice features at no 1.
1. Kaikoura, New Zealand: The location itself says why this is my top whale watching destination; New Zealand is the only country besides Norway to which I am willing to migrate if ever I do. Kaikoura in Mori tongue means a place to eat crayfish. It’s a tiny town on the Pacific Coast of the South Island in New Zealand and obviously far really far from anywhere. Sandwiched by the magnificent and insanely steep flanks of the eponymous mountain range, Kaikoura is a paradise that you can visit while alive. For any hiker or climber, a walk to the top of Tapuaenuku (highest point of the mountain range) is not only recommended but obligatory. While the sea is best enjoyed from the shore, if your are valiant enough then do climb on top of the cliffs and park yourself right at the edge, splaying your body upper half into air and look straight down into the emerald sea and you would be able to see not only the continental shelf that plunges straight into infinite depths but the active marine life.
You can reach Kaikoura by road from Christchurch but I would recommend the train as that by itself is unforgettable. Among whales you will see Sperm, Humpback, Blue, Southern Right, Orca and the rarest and smallest Hector’s Dolphin. The cliffs and shores of Kaikoura would also offer you several species of Albatross, Petrels, Shearwater and seals. While there you must go whale watching, kayaking, dolphin and seal swimming (yes, you can actually swim with them), and if you are a dam good surfer or willing to drink copious amount of the Pacific like me, then surfing. Plenty of places to stay depending on budget but I will recommend the camping ground which has its own resident seals who often visit your tent to wake you up in the morning... how adorably cute!
2. Valdés Peninsula, Argentina: Located on the shores of South Atlantic and stone’s throw distance from the Patagonia Range of mountains, Valdés is any adventurer’s dream come true. The Peninsula is sparsely populated with only one town and village; Puerto Madryn and Puerto Pirámides respectively. Most people just come here for a day trip and then return to mainland but I will recommend at least two days sojourn. The climate is dry and the topography flat, the top whale watching season being from June to December. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and hence there are restrictions to movements and what you can do on your own. Besides Orcas and right whales you will see elephant seals, Magellanic Penguins, sea lions, guanacos, armadillos and gray foxes (this one is not in the sea by the way). It is said that if you could pool in all the lucks of your ancestors then here you may see an Orca snatching a sunning seal from the shores. Well I couldn’t since I didn’t. It is also a great place to dive and snorkel and the sea is always pleasantly warm or cool as you may view it. To me Valdés gives me a chance to combine Patagonia along with the whales and penguins and for that reason alone it remains my whale destination no 2.
3. Lofoten Island, Norway: Among the hundreds of reasons I can name for making Norway as one of my top destinations, not to mention some of my dearest friends who live there, the fjords, rocky cliffs and island outcrops that Norway abounds and sends out like million fingers into the Norwegian Sea and the Arctic Ocean figure pretty much at the top. In winters when all these islands and cliffs are entirely shrouded in white ice and snow and the sparkling blue ocean waves lash relentless on to the cliffs roaring like thunder you just have to be there to realize what primordial forces of nature is all about.
Nat Geo in a global survey has rated Lofoten as the world’s third best island destination, with Faroe Islands as the top (I would cover the island aspects in my future post on world’s top islands). To me Lofoten is the ideal combination of the three loves of my life, the mountains, the oceans and the Arctic Circle. The air is fresh as up in the Himalaya, the sheer granite spires carved by glaciers and the placid fjords along with a distinct cultural heritage of the local fishing villages makes this an ultimate tourist destination even if you don’t like whales. If you can manage to stay in a rorbu (traditional fishermen’s hut) then that’s a bonus. A collision of the warm Gulf currents with the cold Norwegian Sea makes this place abundant in marine life that is palatable to the toothed whales. Hence Orcas are abundant as are other marine lives like the cod (world’s largest Cods are found in Lofoten), mackerel, herrings, and seals.
Besides whale watching and fishing, you must indulge in hiking, golfing (optional), nature walks, rafting (this can be an unusually freezing experience) and of course kayaking, which is synonymous to Lofoten, it being one of the world’s top ten kayaking destinations. Lofoten is a perfect example, like almost everywhere in Norway, how a flourishing tourism industry need not mar or obliterate the local traditions and culture. One word of caution; it is an expensive destination by any standards.
4. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, USA: Well what can I or anyone else say, the name Alaska says it all. This is one place that is a must for anyone with a US Visa on their passport. This is another UNESCO world heritage site and as the name suggests the park is full of glaciers, snow covered mountains, deep fjords, beaches, and freshwater lakes. Despite the abundant glaciers the park is never too frigid even in winters and it has a temperate climate year round. Ideal activities are cruising or kayaking, hiking and climbing, or just hanging out in the park doing nothing at all. The forests have a large population of black and brown bear so one needs to be careful if walking alone or in small groups. It is connected to Seattle by flight to the town of Gustavus and onwards by ferry or smaller plane.
Migratory humpbacks arrive during the summers from Hawaii and feasts on sand lance, Pollack and other fishes and there are abundance of minke and orca whales too and porpoises. Sea lions and seals are found on float ice often breeding and nurturing their cute pups, which are best observed from a kayak. The mischievous sea otters are a delight to watch as they jostle and fight for food or simply hang out into the bay. On land, besides the bears, the park has moose, coyotes, mountain goats, wolves, marmots, lynx, hare and beavers. Avian population is spectacular as they house in the abundant sea cliffs and the rocky shores. Arctic terns, jaegers, waterfowl, songbirds, bald eagles, geese and sea ducks are common. The ideal way, and if you can afford it, to see the marine side of the park is by a private charter boat.
Alaska is a world into itself and when I go there, I don’t feel that I am in the US anymore and there are so many places to go in Alaska that one lifetime is not enough yet Glacier Bay is one that I would strongly recommend to those who don’t necessarily love the mountains or cold places like I do. I went there because I could courtesy some well meaning and rich friends, and I didn’t regret it even for a moment that I spent those priceless hours watching marine life while so many peaks lay unclimbed in the neighbouring mountain ranges.
5. Greenland: It’s hard to pinpoint one whale watching location in Greenland as you see them on both east and west coasts out of several places like Nuuk, Qeqertarsuaq and Aasiaat, or Tinitasiluaq. Greenland as you know is not green and it’s waters comprising of Atlantic, Arctic Oceans and Greenland, Labrador Seas with Baffin Bay and Denmark Straits and proximity to Iceland create a water body that is simply stunning in its offering of sea lives and marine creatures. I love everything about Greenland, including the stuffed Polar Bear that greets the visitors from every entry port into Greenland. The country itself is among my world’s top destinations for myriads of reasons and there are quite a few things I still wish to do there if time and finances permit.
The Innuits are warm and hospitable people and the best way to experience the place is from inside the fishing boat of one of the locals. I agree language could be a problem but their smiles and gestures would more than suffice. As you zip in and out of fjords, having to shove off or hack your way through gargantuan icebergs, you are likely to see humpbacks, minkes, fin, beluga and narwhals (these are found only in the north). Even as you cruise on the sea the mighty cliffs and ice caps on the shore would beckon you and compel you to get on shore and give legs to your imagination. Greenland cemeteries must also be a part of your itinerary for a reason that you got to see to believe it. The easiest ways to reach Greenland is by direct flights from Iceland or UK or Norway. I liked the ones from Iceland since the airhostesses sport such shapely and figure hugging jeans that you are already transported into a heady land even before you have landed.