Friday, May 11, 2012

Dolphin Encounters

Murray and me

Bailey torpedoed off into the distance, leapt out of the water, flipped in the air, plunged back in, and speeded back, skidding to a stop in front of us, eager for accolades. We all applauded and thanked her for the impressive performance. She seemed genuinely delighted to please. And then, just as suddenly, she turned her back to us and swam off to meet up with a friend! Rumor has it that she has a young boyfriend!

Bailey is a six year old Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin living at Anthony's Key Resort in Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras. The Roatan Institute for Marine Science (RIMS) is based at AKR and runs the dolphin program. They offer dolphin 'encounters' and educational programs. At the moment, there are approximately 27 dolphins of all ages who live there.

Dolphins have held a special place in my heart since I was young. When I worked as a crew member on sailing yachts in the Caribbean, and elsewhere, we often saw dolphins out at sea. They would occasionally come and swim alongside the boat. Sometimes they would turn on their side, to look up at us. So, when I was recently choosing a travel destination for the purpose of re-charging, I thought of the dolphins at AKR. This place had been on my travel bucket list for years.

What I like about the AKR/R.I.M.S. dolphin program, as opposed to many other places where you can 'swim with the dolphins', is that these exceptionally intelligent marine mammals have quite a lot of space in which to live and thrive. Although there is a fence along their enclosure, there is also a gate that always remains open, so they are actually free to come and go as they please. But, this is their home, with obvious benefits, so they choose to stay stay there.

Occasionally, the dolphins go out and swim around the area, on their way to a diver interaction or a performance in front of the R.I.M.S. facility. They can be spotted swimming along side one of the boats. They follow along, much like a pet dog follows a car or a bicycle. Sometimes, they're just not quite ready to go home, so they linger in the lagoon.  In addition, the dolphins are free to opt out of 'encounters' or performances.  If they don't feel like participating, they can go off and, well, do dolphin things!

Sharks? Nah, just a group of playful dolphins!

The dolphin's home at AKR

The dolphin encounter experience started with a boat ride to Bailey's Key, just across the lagoon from AKR. There were about 15 people, some of whom I recognized from our snorkeling excursions. We walked down the pier to a cabana, where an instructor briefed us about dolphin anatomy, behavior, and what to expect during our interaction.

The pier to Bailey's Key

The Cabana at Bailey's Key

Getting to know dolphin anatomy 

He advised us about dolphin etiquette: the do's and don't's of interacting with the dolphins. I was pleased to observe that the dolphins' safety was the R.I.M.S. staff's main concern. For example, we were not allowed to bring our cameras into the water−but for a few minutes−for fear that we might inadvertently hit the dolphins with our cameras.

Then, the instructor placed us in groups and we headed out to into waist deep water, joining the trainers and dolphins. They told us to line up side by side so that the dolphins could swim along, in front of us, and not get confused. Our group would be meeting Bailey, and Lauren, her trainer.

Our group encounter

This photo is from another group encounter which I photographed.
It shows the way we stood, side by side, to 'pet' the dolphin.

Bailey and Lauren, during our encounter

Lauren was attached to a red cooler, which floated next to her. Occasionally she would open it, grab a fish, and give it to Bailey. However, she explained, dolphins don't just interact with humans for the fish—that's not their primary motivator. They're just naturally very social creatures and genuinely love interacting with humans, as has been documented throughout history. They also love attention, applause, and accolades! So, we were supposed to make a big fuss when Bailey showed off! 

Bailey then swam in front of us and allowed us to 'pet' her. Since I was the first in line, I reached out, and gently touched her smooth skin. After the tactile intro she went back to Lauren, who gave her a fish. We were quick to applaud, thank her, and tell her, "That's a good dolphin, very good dolphin!" She squealed with apparent delight!

But, Bailey's mind was elsewhere, and she kept taking off to go visit her friends, who were either in different groups, or just playing around. So, Lauren enlisted another willing dolphin, Murray, to come and play with us humans. 

Murray was pregnant although they weren't sure how far along. Dolphins have a gestation period of 11-18 months. Someone asked if they have a breeding program, and the trainer answered, "No, what goes on at night, huh, stays there…well, we don't know what goes on at night!" Everyone laughed! So, the dolphins are free to choose their mates. They are apparently thriving in their environment because there are dolphins of all ages there.

Pretty soon we had both dolphins, Bailey and Murray, and their trainers, interacting with our group. They showed off their agility and skills with some flips, tail walks, and backstrokes (the dolphins, not the trainers)! Throughout the encounter they were very vocal and demonstrated all of the different sounds they make. I'd love to know what they were saying. Although researchers have not quite figured out how to interpret dolphin chatter, the trainers said that by working with them on a daily basis they do get to know their personalities and have a good idea of what they want. I guess it's kind of similar to how one gets to know one's pet.

Then, came the time for photo opportunities with the dolphins. The trainer chose Murray for the job. There were two photos: one where you hold the dolphin and one where the dolphin 'kisses' you. Well, most folks were part of a couple, so for the first photo each partner got on either side of the dolphin. Since I was alone, the trainer helped Murray and me get into position, but then I was left to hold the 400 plus pound dolphin by myself! I had my doubts, and wasn't at all sure if I'd be able to do it, especially since there was a bit of a current, making us humans somewhat unstable. But, I held her, cradling her underneath with both my arms, and then realized that if I adjusted my legs, I could actually place her on my lap! Oh my God, that was amazing—I was holding a dolphin on my lap! 

Murray and I manage a smooch!

Dolphins live to be about 25-35 years old in the wild, a bit longer in a place like AKR, where they are protected. In fact, at the moment, there is a 42 year old pregnant dolphin there! 

Our dolphin encounter came to an end, we said our goodbyes, and Bailey and Murray swam off with their friends. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. 

"Please be considerate of the dolphins and do not disturb them after hours—this is their private time!"

For more information on the Anthony's Key Resort / Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences 
dolphin program click here

Sadly, we humans continue to pose the greatest threat to dolphins, and other marine mammals.
There are many organizations helping to save dolphins and Cetaceans, in general. 

Stay tuned for more dolphin interaction experiences.

Please note: I have in no way been comped by Anthony's Key Resort. 
This post is purely describing my personal experience, and is solely for entertainment purposes. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

#FriFotos Flowers

This week's #FriFotos theme is 'Flowers'. I was delighted to hear the announcement on Tuesday, 
as I love both color, and flowers. Consequently have quite a collection of flower photos. 

I love Tropical flowers.
This is my favorite type of Heliconia.


Another Heliconia

Moving North, one of the first flowers to appear in the Spring: The Daffodil.

Then, of course, come the Tulips.

Magnolia Blossoms 

 Cherry Blossoms

The Wisteria garden at Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square, PA.

Blooming Hydrangeas are ubiquitous in Nantucket,
and throughout areas of the Northeast during the Summer.

Pretty Petunias: a favorite from Spring through the Autumn.

Vibrant Zinnias.

Zinnias? I don't know, but I'm partial to the shot.

Mum's the word in Autumn: Chrysanthemum's, that is!

#FriFotos is a weekly Twitter event which takes place on Fridays. People from around the world share images which match the weekly theme. #FriFotos was founded by Jonathan Epstein (@EpsteinTravels), owner of Celebrated Experiences. There are two regular co-hosts: Stephanie Diehl (@TravelDesigned) and Charles Yap (@CharlesYap). In addition, two guest co-hosts are invited to participate each week.
For more information on #FriFotos and the rules of the forum, click here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Latitude Adjustment

"Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
Nothin' remains quite the same…"-- Jimmy Buffett

As I floated in the clear turquoise waters over the coral reef, I observed a school of Blue Tangs, which were accompanied by several other fish, like Yellowtail Snappers, Grunts, and Sergeant Majors. It had taken a few days, but I was finally unwinding and relaxing, which was the purpose of my getaway to a tropical Caribbean Island where I could go snorkeling, play with dolphins, and practice some 'hammocking'!

Anthony's Key

Blue Tangs

Murray the Dolphin

The fine art of 'hammocking'!

My husband, Ashton, had 'planted the seed' a couple of months ago. He thought―quite rightly―that I was suffering from caregiver fatigue and needed a break. My mother, who is 87 years old, has Alzheimer's Dementia, lives with us, and I am her primary caregiver. Ashton very generously offered to take a 'staycation' so that I could have a proper vacation (going on a vacation together was simply not feasible). He was witnessing my downhill spiral into caregiver depression and knew I was burnt out. He was worried about me and knew the cure: travel! 

Coincidentally, I had been having recurring dreams about being on a tropical island, surrounded by aquamarine waters, and colorful fish and corals. In my dreams, I wanted to get to the water and go snorkeling but there was always an obstacle in my way. It was not unlike the dreams I used to have, nearly 30 years ago, which had led me to a move to the Caribbean in the first place.

At first, I dismissed the idea, but Ashton finally persuaded me. What clinched the deal was that one day, while we were on the phone discussing this, an e-mail from Anthony's Key Resort in Roatan, Honduras, popped into my inbox. Paying attention to signs has always served me well in the past, and I took this as a sign. Maybe I really did need a change in Latitude to change my growing unpleasant attitude!

I found myself booking a trip to AKR, which is a renowned dive resort that also caters to snorkelers like myself. In addition this is where the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences is located. So there would be ample opportunity for interactions with dolphins, which I was very excited about. Also, I needed to have good communication with the home front. This was not a time to 'fall off the grid'. The trip I booked seemed to meet all of our requirements.

The Blue Tangs moved in unison from one coral to another. As they did so, I followed them with my gaze, calmly breathing in and out through my snorkel as if practicing meditation. And, like meditation, I have always found snorkeling to be very therapeutic, calming tense nerves and an anxious mind. Yes, this was exactly what I needed.

Please note: I will be blogging about my experience in Roatan over the next few weeks. 
So, stay tuned for more.

In addition, I want to be clear that although I enjoyed staying at Anthony's Key Resort, I was in no way comped for the experience. All views are my own.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Celebration of Spring

Never say 'never'. After living in the tropics for years and making bold statements like, "I'll NEVER live up North, in the cold again," my husband, Ashton, was just a tad bit worried about how I would adapt when we moved to Pennsylvania. To his delight, I am now thoroughly enjoying all four seasons! 

However, Spring really is special with everything reawakening from its Winter dormancy--plants sprouting from the barren ground, trees and shrubs blooming, naked brown trees bursting into green, and flowers modeling their brilliant colors. 

But, a picture is still worth a thousand words, so here are a few photos.

A Forsythia explosion!

Cherry Blossoms

Magnificent Magnolias

Azaleas pretty in pink

A busy bumble bee

Sprouting into Spring

An explosion of red berries!

Happy Spring! 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Paddling the Pacuare

“BACK PADDLE, BACK PADDLE, BACK PADDLE!” screamed our guide Roberto as if it was a matter of life and death. We were going through our first Class IV rapids, which he called the “cemetery”, down the Pacuare (pah kwah ray) River in Costa Rica. The inflatable raft in front of us, carrying a Dutch family, was stuck in a “hole”, a whirlpool that was sucking it under. And we were in the rapids right behind them. If we landed on top of their raft, well, that wouldn’t be good. We were able to back paddle enough that somehow Roberto stepped out of the back of our inflatable boat onto a boulder and single handedly held on to it by the straps, stopping it from colliding with the nether raft. Once that boat was free, then it was our turn to go through — there was no turning back. Roberto yelled again, this time, “FORWARD PADDLE, FORWARD PADDLE, FORWARD PADDLE!”
But, we were novices and unable to power through it. The river was clearly winning. Then there was chaos. I was catapulted across the raft into my husband, Ashton, hitting my helmet protected head into his life vest covered chest. Now, we were in the middle of the hole, the cemetery...the toilet, as I preferred to call it. We were tossed, turned, swirled and nearly sucked into the hole. Ashton’s side of the raft was being pulled below and I had visions of my husband getting flushed under.

This was not how I had envisioned our first full day in Costa Rica. Ashton and I had just flown into San Jose’s Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria, from Miami, the day before. We were on a much needed vacation from demanding jobs. Even though, at the time I traveled for a living—approximately two weeks out of the month—Ashton and I were overdue for an actual vacation and quality time together.
I was a corporate inflight manager in the private aviation industry. It was my job to accompany my billionaire boss, his family and guests on his private jet, a Gulfstream V, and to organize the in-flight portion of the trip from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. To an outsider my job and schedule seemed ideal; however, I was nearly aways “on call”. My cell phone never left my side and never got turned off, much like a resident ER doctor on call—only I wasn’t doing anything as lofty as saving lives but catering to the wealthy and powerful’s whims. In addition, their demands required perfection. It was taking a toll on me physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and most importantly on my family. 
I was ‘married’ to my job—and my job came first. My husband was well aware of that. I was more familiar with the owners’ preferences that those of my own family. In addition, my mother, who was 82 years old at the time and lived with family in California, had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia. This was after having major back surgery at the beginning of the year. I was the only child, and didn’t know how I could continue to balance my responsibilities. I felt like a pressure cooker ready to explode. I needed a vacation to unplug, decompress, and figure out my life.
But, now we were in the ‘hole’ and I was struggling in an altogether different way. Somehow my leg had gotten stuck under the middle inflatable divider—I couldn’t move it out. I had visions of the boat flipping and becoming fresh water fish food.
The guys asked me, “Are you alright?”
I yelled something to the effect, “Nooo, I’m not alright—do I look like I’m alright?”
I was finally able to wiggle out from under the inflatable divider, but suddenly noticed someone was missing, “where’s Monica?” I looked around for our Canadian rafting partner, imagining her desperately struggling for her life under the raft, fighting for air, or worse—head banging the rocks.
“She’s alright, she’s alright,” Philippe , her boyfriend answered. “They’ve got her,” he said, meaning the safety rescue kayakers.
After a few more terrifying seconds the river suddenly freed us. We were resurrected from the cemetery, spit from the hole, plunged out of...the toilet bowl.

Paddling the Pacuare
(Please note: Images by Tico's River Adventures)
(Also: slide show best viewed by clicking on YouTube)

We paddled over to a river bank on the right, next to the other raft, and picked up a terrified Monica who was having difficulty breathing after her sudden dunking. This episode had been exactly what she had feared when signing up for the trip—what we had all feared. We were beginners what had we been thinking?
“The Pacuare River, just east of the mountain coffee growing town of Turrialba, is renowned for having some of the best white water rafting in Central America.” Ashton and I had read online while doing research for our trip. But, our travel time was limited and the Lower Pacuare where white water rafting companies conducted day trips, were class III & IV rapids. Now, I had read and watched enough adventure stories to know that the levels run from I to V, the latter being the most difficult, and VI supposedly being impossible to run.
“Maybe this is too advance for us,” I voiced my concerns to Ashton on the morning of our trip—perhaps a little late. “Have you ever been white water rafting?”
“Yeah, once...about twenty years ago!” he admitted. It had dawned upon us recently that we were now considered “middle aged”; where you realize that events happened 15, 20, even 30 years ago. “And you?” he asked.
“Huh, once in New Zealand...17 years ago!”
“SHIT!” We could be in trouble.
Promotion and advertising had won out over common sense on the previous evening and upon our arrival in Turrialba we had booked the trip. Now, in the early morning, it didn’t seem like such a good idea. Our river guides, however, didn’t seem too concerned with our lack of experience. Due to the current relatively low water level, they said, the majority of the river was actually a Class II. We took comfort from the knowledge that our fellow rafters were also inexperienced. Why that should make us feel better is not a question that can logically be answered.
Our guides also seemed very safety oriented having the required gear—life vests, safety helmets—and one guide per raft, four guests to a raft. In addition, there were the guardian angels, the two rescue kayakers, always near the rafts. This gave us that warm and fuzzy feeling we were looking for in an adventure rafting trip.

At the ‘put in’ Roberto gave us lessons on the basics of white water rafting. He instructed us on his verbal commands and made each one of us individually practice. Finally, after practicing as a team, we were ready to conquer the river, or at least to ping pong down the river, bouncing from boulder to boulder. At the appropriate times we proudly raised our oars, smiled for the photographer ahead, and continued bouncing.

The initial Class II part of the river was gentle, quiet, lush, and tropical. We paddled lazily observing the densely vegetated gorge. Everyone was jovial except for Roberto who was very professional and serious, and becoming increasingly annoyed by Philippe's inability or unwillingness to follow his commands.

“Dude, this is serious stuff.” He scolded Philippe, “pretty soon we’re going into the Class IV rapids and we need everyone, man. People get hurt out here.”
Philippe would actually just hold his oars at times, without bothering to paddle, happy to let the rest of us do the work.
“Is it really going to mke a difference if I paddle?” He asked a visibly exasperated Roberto, who now just sighed.
Just prior to going through the ‘cemetery’, we pulled up to a trailhead and hiked up about 30 minutes to a waterfall. At one point there was a smooth granite slope where not even the traction on my expensive—gotta have them—lime green Keens, could prevent me from slipping and falling on my Portuguese bottom, which did not in any way soften the landing. Swimming under the cool waterfall, however, was worth the hike even though I spent the next couple of days sitting down very gently.

“Okay, are you guys ready for this now:” Roberto asked us after we got back into the raft. We were heading into our first Class IV rapid. “I really need you guys to follow my commands and paddle as hard as you can. Here we go!”

At first we didn’t understand the situation up ahead, but it quickly became clear to us.

We got sucked into this 'hole' called the 'cemetery'
and were spun around as if in a washing machine.
Somehow, thankfully, the hole spit us back out.

Shortly after the ‘cemetery’ experience we thankfully stopped for lunch but everyone was unusually quiet. The guides prepared sandwiches and sliced fruit while we observed the nature around us. I realized that there was something missing on this trip. Ashton and I had read about, “abundant wildlife viewing opportunities.” There was a mention of monkeys, sloths, ocelots, toucans and even jaguars. But, apparently someone forgot to tell the celebrities that they were scheduled to make an appearance. Such is wildlife viewing. So far the only animals interested in visiting us were the three to four inch fish which came up and curiously nibbled on our toes and fingers. 
After lunch, we resumed rafting, with the knowledge that there were more Class IV rapids in our future. Now, even the irreverent Philippe was obedient to Roberto’s instructions. We all had a new respect for this river and understanding of its reputation.
Monica now ducked into the raft in the ‘safety’ position, which Roberto had taught us at the put in, every time we went through another rapid. I didn’t blame her—the rest of us were just thankful that it hadn’t happened to us. Lesson to self: no matter what the company guides tell you, start off with baby steps...maybe a class II or so. 

Finally, at our ‘put out’ near the town of Siquirres, we enjoyed a hard earned cold beer and spoke about the ‘incident’—even laughing about it, as one can only do in retrospect.
Paddling down the Pacuare provided a great start to a week filled with adventure, decompression, learning to ‘go with the flow’, and epiphanies. It was during this trip to Costa Rica that Ashton and I realized we needed to make some important life changes. My life was seriously out of balance and needed drastic adjustment. I was going to have to step up to the plate and care for my mother. There was no way this was going to be possible with my job--I would have to quit my jet-setting job. I was going to need to “Forward Paddle”, accept the challenge, and move on to another phase in my life. 

Please note: This trip took place in August of 2007. I have changed the names of the couple that were with us, since at the time, I did not know that I would be blogging about it in the future. I have also blurred their images. 

I am in no way receiving compensation from Tico's River Adventures (wish I was), nor is this blog post an endorsement. It is merely for entertainment purposes. 

Also note: Most images were taken by Tico's River Adventures.