Tag Archives: ocean

Of humpback whales and dolphin pods, in NYC

As incredible as this may sound to some, for the past few years, humpback whales have been making a regular appearance in the waters off New York City. Once driven to the brink of local extinction during the city’s whaling years, the whales are said to be back in these waters, after nearly a century.

One of the key reasons attributed to the return of the whales is the decades of efforts invested in cleaning up the city’s waterways. This improvement in water quality has led to an increase in the numbers of marine microorganisms like zooplankton and algae, which in turn has rejuvenated the entire food chain. Thriving numbers of menhaden (also known as bunker), a small fish that feeds on these microorganisms, has enticed the humpbacks to return to NYC’s waters to feed. Other initiatives like enforcing catch limits for industrial fishing, have also helped maintain the number of these small fish.

The last time I saw a whale in its natural setting was in Kaikoura (NZ), over 11 years ago. Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world to see sperm whales all year round. More recently, in 2016, I wrote about a sperm whale carcass that had washed up on the shores of Singapore, possibly the victim of a ship strike in the South China Seas. The skeleton of this female sperm whale found a final resting place in the local natural history museum, and is used to educate visitors about the many dangers faced by these behemoths in today’s waters, the main ones being ship strikes and plastic pollution.

During my recent visit to NYC, between visiting family and meeting old friends, I managed to squeeze in not one, but two (!) whale watching trips (on two separate days, of course).

The journey from my hotel in Tribeca, to Riis Landing from where the American Princess ferry departs for its whale watching tours, took about two hours. Getting to Riis Landing can seem a little daunting for a first-timer to the city, so I’ve included directions at the end of this post.

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View of the ocean from the ferry

 

Catherine Granton from Gotham Whale, the naturalist on board, was terrific with educating visitors on onboard about whale protection programs like ‘See a spout, watch out’ as well as simple things one could do in daily life to protect the oceans, like not using plastic bags or straws. Here are some more easy to do tips for protecting the ocean.

Gotham Whale lists 59 different individuals in their Humpback Whale catalog but sadly, none of them made an appearance on either of my tours. I sat staring at the horizon, recalling every image of lunge feeding humpbacks that I had seen on social media, hoping the scene would unfold before my eyes any second…. but it didn’t! 😦

I’m completely aware that we cannot control nature, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. We did see plenty of bottleneck dolphins though…..

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A surfer off Rockaway Beach, cannot believe his eyes as dolphins swim by him!

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More bottlenose dolphins! Empire State Building is in the background.

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A close-up of the bottlenose dolphins 

 

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Another pod of dolphins swims by

There have been some spectacular humpback whale and cownose ray sightings on the trips after mine. Hopefully, the city will continue to control shipping traffic and pollution in these waters, and some day in the future, there will be another opportunity to see NYC’s humpback whales. Till then, fingers crossed!

 

Directions to Riis Landing: Take the A train to Far Rockaway and disembark at the 67 Beach Street station. Walk out of the station, past the line of stores, towards the Shop ‘n Save/YMCA and take the Q22 bus from outside the YMCA. Get off at the very last stop, Fort Tilden and walk back to the main road (where the bus turned). Cross the street and walk to your left for a few seconds. You will see the Riis Landing signboard, right opposite the main entry gate of Fort Tilden.

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The Riis Landing entry gate

 

Bonus tip: There’s a food truck outside Fort Tilden, Breezy Dogs and Shakes, that’s a real lifesaver after 4 long hours at sea! Refuel there before heading back.

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By the sea at Scheveningen, South Holland

I first heard of Scheveningen thanks to Van Gogh’s 1882 painting ‘View of the Sea at Scheveningen’ (also known as ‘Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather’). This was one of the two masterpieces stolen from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in a brazen heist in 2002. The other stolen painting being ‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen’, originally painted by Van Gogh in 1884 and then modified in 1885, possibly immediately after his father’s death in March 1885.

Thankfully, both paintings were recovered in 2016 after a lengthy investigation by the Naples police and were put back on display at the Van Gogh Museum on 22nd March 2017. On that day, amidst a sea of tourists and Van Gogh admirers, I caught a glimpse of the two paintings. Photography is not allowed inside the Van Gogh museum, so sadly, I have no pictures of the two paintings.

But I digress. Since the move to Amsterdam, the Hubs was missing the beach and blue waters, which we had gotten so used to in Asia. So we decided to head to the beach we had read so much about – Scheveningen. It was a cold and cloudy day and I was hoping people would stay indoors, but they obviously thought differently. Apparently Scheveningen is a popular destination, even in winter.

A train and tram ride later (about 1.5 hours in total), we were at Scheveningen beach. Wanting to pay our respects to the North Sea, we dipped our feet in the water, knowing fully well that the water would be freezing! Suffice to say, we were cold for a really long time after!

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Feet in the freezing water – definitely a first! 

We wanted to get to a quieter part of the beach, so we walked past the pier to the northern end and stopped at the furthermost restaurant on that stretch, Het Puntje, meaning ‘the tip’ in obvious reference to its location.

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View of the pier at Scheveningen, from the northern end of the beach

Rarely do I recommend restaurants (I find most of them pretentious and impersonal) but stepping into the Het Puntje felt like visiting an old friend. A cozy fireplace, rustic wood and rattan furniture, quirky accents – it had all the elements of a charming country home. The friendly owner (and his dog!) kept checking on us throughout our meal and we chatted with him about our lives, the restaurant, the WWII bunkers nearby and so many other things. The food was absolutely fantastic too! Well worth the long walk on a cold beach. By the time, we done with our meal, the sun was out.

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Sunny view of Scheveningen pier from Het Puntje

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two of the many WWII bunkers built by the Germans as part of the Atlantic Wall

Wanting to grab some sunshine while we had the chance, we climbed the steps next to Het Puntje, leading into the Meijendel.

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Entry to the Meijendel Nature Reserve from Scheveningen beach

Meijendel is the largest interconnected dune area in South Holland and stretches between Scheveningen, Den Haag (The Hague) and Wassenaar. And while on the subject on South Holland, please allow me to clarify that ‘Holland’ and ‘Netherlands’ are not synonymous. Holland is the collective term for only two of the 12 provinces in the Netherlands, the two provinces being North and South Holland. The reason behind why the two terms are used interchangeably goes back in time to the Dutch Golden Age. But once again, I digress.

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Dunes of the Meijendel Nature Reserve from a distance

We entered the Meijendel and took a leisurely stroll along its periphery. Heard several bird songs but no luck with reindeer though.

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The one black sheep in a large herd grazing in the Meijendel

Post lunch was not the best time to go hiking, so we made a mental note to return to the dunes, and walked back to the pier. Meijendel ranks as one of the top-10 bird rich areas in the Netherlands, so a second visit is a definitely on the cards for me.

Schevenigen is an easy day-trip from Amsterdam. Take the train to Den Haag and from right outside the Den Haag train station, board Tram 9 (direction Scheveningen Northern beach). Disembark at the Kurhaus, an ornate historical building originally built in 1884-85, that now functions as a hotel. The pier is only a couple of minutes away.

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The Kurhaus from the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Under the pier at Scheveningen

As we walked along Scheveningen beach, it was a joy to watch the tall grass sway in the wind, the oystercatchers pecking in the sand, the antics of the pet dogs and their owners. And not to forget the mysterious-looking WWII bunkers in the dunes, which I’m told are now closed to the public.

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A doggy enjoying some sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Oystercatcher digs in the sand for its meal

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An European Herring Gull basks in the sun at Scheveningen promenade

All in all, a lovely afternoon at Scheveningen beach! Highly recommend a visit, if you happen to be in the vicinity.

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Legends of the Coco de Mer

One of the most enigmatic plants I’ve encountered in all my travels is the coco de mer palm. The only natural habitat of this endangered palm are the granitic islands of Praslin and Curieuse in the Seychelles.

This iconic palm holds several records in the plant kingdom. The fruit borne by the female palm of the species is the largest and heaviest in the plant kingdom. What is even more remarkable is that when the fruit is dehusked, the nut inside bears an uncanny resemblance to the nether region of the human female body!

A cultural symbol of the Seychelles, this rare nut embodies the uniqueness of the flora and fauna found on this island nation. Even the Seychelles visa stamp bears the shape of the coco de mer nut!

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The Seychelles visa stamp in the shape of the coco de mer nut

The best place to see the coco de mer is the rich ecosystem of the Vallee de Mai palm forest on Praslin island.

In ancient times, these bi-lobed nuts were found washed up on beaches as far as India and even the islands of the Malay world. According to Malay folklore, this mysterious nut grew on a magic tree (pauh janggi) in a massive whirlpool known as the Navel of the Seas (pusat tasek). The legends surrounding this palm are as tall as the palm itself.

More about the legends of the coco de mer in my article for the Sep-Oct’16 issue of PASSAGE, the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore.

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(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

 

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For information about hiking in the Seychelles, read my posts about the Anse Major Trail and the Trois Frères Trail.

Read about my birdwatching experience in the Seychelles.

Click here to learn about the legendary Coco de Mer palm.

For a flavour of Seychellois cuisine, read my post about Bazar Labarin.

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Hiking in the Seychelles – The Trois Frères Trail

Always looking to experience a different part of Mahe island in the Seychelles, I accompanied a few of my local friends for a hike along the Trois Frères Trail.

If I thought the Anse Major Trail was tricky, then the Trois Frères Trail turned out to be even rockier and fairly steep. Not complaining though as the sweeping views of Victoria and the islands beyond, made the hike completely worth it! 🙂

The name Trois Frères (French for three brothers), comes from the trio of imposing granitic peaks overlooking Victoria. Covered with luxuriant vegetation, including introduced spice trees like cinnamon as well as native palms and screw pines (pandanus), these weathered cliffs are also home to the only carnivorous plant in the Seychelles, the pitcher plant Nepenthes pervillei.

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Pitchers of the carnivorous Nepenthes pervillei seen along the trail

As I tagged along with some friends for this hike, the exact directions are a bit fuzzy. But I found this brochure online that tells you how to get there. The starting point of the trail is a cul de sac which also serves as the car park.

The trail itself is less than a kilometer long but feels like more because of the steep gradient. After climbing for about 30-40mins, we came to a view point which offers a spectacular view of Victoria, St. Anne Marine Park, Cerf and the other eastward islands.

We had however, not checked the weather that morning. And before we knew it, the heavens opened up, ruining any chance of a sunny, dazzling view or a good panorama shot! And it also became impossible to spot or photograph any birds 😦 A lone white tailed tropicbird braved the rain and seemed to enjoy riding the wind current.

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View of St. Anne Marine Park and the nearby islands from the viewpoint

There is a path that goes all the way to the cross at the top (height of approx. 700m). But we didn’t dare venture ahead in the rain.

According to Seychellois historian Julien Durup, the original wooden cross at the top of this peak was erected on 4th November 1956 to commemorate the visit of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburg, on 19th October that year. As the wooden cross eroded away due to the elements, it was replaced much later by a concrete one.

I leave you to enjoy these rain filled pictures from the Trois Frères trail viewpoint. Hopefully, there will be better weather next time!

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The calm before the storm…

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View of the airport in the distance

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Victoria and beyond….

 

For information about hiking the Anse Major Trail, click here.

Read about my birdwatching experience in the Seychelles.

Click here to learn about the legendary Coco de Mer palm.

For a flavour of Seychellois cuisine, read my post about Bazar Labarin.

More here about the islands of Praslin, Curieuse & Cousin.

 

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Birdwatching in the Seychelles

With all of Seychelles dazzling white sand beaches, sun-kissed cerulean waters and lush granitic landscapes, it’s easy to overlook all the elegant creatures that call this picturesque island nation ‘home’.

Not for me though! Birdwatching has become an integral part of all my recent travels and Seychelles was going to be no different.

The granitic and coralline islands of Seychelles are home to 12 endemic bird species. In the brief time I spent on Mahe, Praslin and a few of the nearby islands, I was fortunate to observe 6 of the endemics and photograph 5 of them.

Here’s a look at the 5 endemic bird species I’ve photographed so far….

The Seychelles Black Parrot (Coracopsis nigra barklyi) is the national bird of the Seychelles. Less than 900 individuals remain in and around Vallee de Mai on Praslin island

The rare and elusive Seychelles Black Parrot is the national bird of the Seychelles. Photographed in the primeval palm forest of Vallee de Mai on Praslin island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Seychelles Bulbul (Hypsipetes crassirostris) was photographed in the primeval palm forest of Vallee de Mai on Praslin island.

This Seychelles Bulbul was also photographed in UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vallee de Mai on Praslin island

The regal Seychelles Blue Pigeon spotted along Anse Major Trail in northwest Mahe

The regal Seychelles Blue Pigeon spotted resting in the thicket at Anse Major Trail in northwest Mahe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seychelles Sunbird - Anse Major Trail, Mahe Seychelles

The sprightly male Seychelles Sunbird with its iridescent throat

The endangered Seychelles Magpie-Robin (Copsychus sechellarum) photographed on Cousin Island during our 2009 trip. Less than 300 individuals remain in the wild.

The endangered Seychelles Magpie-Robin photographed on Cousin Island during our 2009 trip. Less than 250 individuals remain in the wild.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Mahe, along the Anse Major trail, I observed one more endemic bird species – the Seychelles Kestrel, but was unable to photograph it. This bird has the unique distinction of being the only bird of prey in the Seychelles.

Photographing some other endemic species like the Aldabra Drongo and the Aldabra Fody, will call for a trip to the remote Aldabra Atoll, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most pristine ecological environments in the world. I won’t even bother telling you about the logistics to get there but hopefully, I’ll make it in this lifetime! 🙂

I also hope to photograph the critically endangered Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher, only found on the island of La Digue. Less than 300 individuals are said to exist in the wild.

There are several other bird species in the Seychelles that are either ‘native’ to this geography (i.e. they established a population in the Seychelles without any human intervention) or were ‘introduced’ a long time ago, either accidentally or intentionally, by visitors.

The Malagasy Turtle Dove (Nesoenas picturatus) is native to several islands in the Indian Ocean

The Malagasy Turtle Dove is native to several islands in the Indian Ocean

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The male Madagascar Fody develops a bright red plumage during the breeding season

The male Madagascar Fody develops a bright red plumage during the breeding season

Many of the Seychelles islands are teeming with species of migratory seabirds which come there to breed – shearwaters, tropicbirds, frigatebirds etc. (More about that in my 2009 trip to Cousin Island.)

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A White-tailed Tropicbird flying in the distance, off the Anse Major Trail in Mahe

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One of the many seabirds spotted en route from Mahe to Praslin by ferry

My favourite seabirds are the very ethereal looking Fairy Terns, usually spotted flying around in pairs or threes, as if putting on a show just for you. You may recall seeing a pair of flying Fairy Terns on your Air Seychelles aircraft 🙂

The ethereal Fairy Terns (Gygis alba) on Beau Vallon beach, Mahe

Fairy Terns  on Beau Vallon beach, Mahe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up-close with a Fairy Tern at Beau Vallon beach, Mahe

Up-close with a Fairy Tern at Beau Vallon beach, Mahe

The Fairy Terns on the livery of Air Seychelles aircrafts

The Fairy Terns graphic on the livery of an Air Seychelles aircraft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(This is the third in a series of birdwatching posts after Singapore and Sulawesi.)

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Savouring Seychellois cuisine at Bazar Labrin

What better day to write a post about Bazar Labrin than today, a Wednesday 🙂

Every Wednesday evening, a group of Seychellois (pronounced seychelwa) food vendors gather by Beau Vallon beach on Mahe island to sell their homemade Creole food. Known as Bazar Labrin, this market is a popular haunt for both locals and tourists alike. According to a friendly cabbie I once met, Bazar Labrin means ‘sunset bazar’ in Creole.

For the duration of my stay in the Seychelles, this bazar was my mid-week dose of food, friends and festivities. Seychellois Creole cuisine is a remarkable blend of African, Indian, European and Chinese influences and this fusion cuisine goes way back to Seychelles mixed roots.

The main island of Mahe is believed to have been uninhabited for most of its known history and was colonized by the French only in 1770. The first settlement party consisted of about 30 people – French colonists, some African slaves and a few Indians. From this mix of original settlers was born Seychellois Creole cuisine.

Coconut based curries, grilled fish, black pudding, banana/breadfruit/sweet potato/cassava chips, fiery chatini (made with fresh, crushed chilies), raw sliced mango or shredded papaya salad – all ultra-fresh, hearty and simply delicious!

My favourite was the chapati stall. Chapati is an Indian flatbread and in this case, is served as a wrap, with a filling of meat or vegetable curry. The lovely ladies there, on my request, ensured they added a generous dash of the chili paste to my order 🙂

The heady kalou (fermented palm sap), also known as toddy or palm wine in other parts of the world, is great to wash down all that yummy Creole food! But before you consume copious amounts of kalou, please ensure you have a friend to take you home.

The folks managing the stalls are friendly and generous with portions. By the end of my stay in Mahe, I knew several of them on a first name basis 🙂

So if you happen to be in Mahe on a Wednesday, don’t forget to make your way to Bazar Labrin. Add the spectacular sunset at Beau Vallon and you have the recipe for a fabulous evening!

For now, I’ll let you enjoy these pictures of Bazar Labrin! Bon appetit!

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The menu at the chapati stall

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The line for the chapatis only gets longer as the evening progresses….

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The flour chapatis used as wraps…..

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The chapati ladies in action…..

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The quail eggs man…

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Fried quail eggs almost ready….

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Peeled, sliced & fried – right in front of your eyes! The freshest chips you will ever eat – in this case banana! 🙂

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The kalou (toddy) stall. Pretty potent stuff!

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Lots of yummy homemade cakes, jams and pickles on sale!

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The view to go with your food! 🙂

 

 

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Hiking in the Seychelles – The Anse Major Trail

7 years ago, when we first visited the Seychelles, we were mesmerised by its sheer natural beauty – granitic islands juxtaposed against the clear cerulean waters of the Indian Ocean, powdery white sand beaches, unique plant and animal species. Not to forget the legends of swashbuckling pirates and hidden treasures, friendly locals and the most delectable Creole food 🙂

To experience a different side of Seychelles, we hired a guide and trekked along the Mare aux Cochons trail, in the deep interior of the 3000+ hectare Morne Seychellois National Park.

Recently, we found ourselves in the Seychelles again (long story!). This time around, we stayed in the Beau Vallon area and the calm stretch of ocean there kept us entertained for many days. And the sunsets were just as spectacular as the last time we had visited!

When we’d had our fill of sun, sand and surf; we decided to spend a day hiking the Anse Major trail along the northwest coast of Mahe. This trail too falls within the limits of the Morne Seychellois National Park.

From our hotel in Beau Vallon, it was an easy walk to the bus stop opposite the Beau Vallon police station, on the road leading to Bel Ombre. After buying chili cakes (spiced lentil fritters) from the local store, we took a bus to the Danzil bus terminal.

Walking up the main road to the left of the bus terminus, we got to the residential part of Danzil (lookout for the Batman Studio on your left 😉 ) and continued on till we spotted the Anse Major trail sign.

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The Batman Studio is one of the landmarks along this trail

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The first sign along the trail

The trail is rated as ‘easy’ but the path is rugged in parts and in certain sections, needs to be navigated with care. The views make up for the trickiness of the trail though. On one side were the weather-scarred, granitic rocks covered with lush vegetation and on the other side , an expansive view of the Indian Ocean with Silhouette island visible in the near distance.

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Thick foliage everywhere you look! 

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Silhouette island visible in the distance

Trail marker - Anse Major Trail, Mahe Seychelles

These trail markers were very helpful

On several occasions, we stopped to photograph the birds we encountered along the way – the Seychelles Sunbird, the Seychelles Blue Pigeon and the Seychelles Bulbul. I’m pretty sure I spotted a Seychelles Kestrel as well but sadly, didn’t get a chance to photograph it.

Seychelles Blue Pigeon - Anse Major Trail, Mahe Seychelles

The regal Seychelles Blue Pigeon (Alectroenas pulcherrimus)

The ever so active Seychelles Sunbird (Cinnyris dussumieri)

The sprightly Seychelles Sunbird (Cinnyris dussumieri)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seychelles skink (Trachylepis seychellensis)

A Seychelles skink (Trachylepis seychellensis) basking  in the sun

As we neared the end of the trail, we came to a wooden shelter. And were rewarded with an unforgettable view – a perfect little crescent of a beach with turquoise waters lapping up gently against the shore. This beach is said to be ‘the finest’ in Mahe, though I don’t know how you can identify any one beach as being ‘the finest’ when every beach here looks right out of a postcard.

Anse Major beach, Mahe Seychelles

The first glimpse of Anse Major beach

Oohing and aahing, we hurried along. We had to scramble down a pile of large rocks before we could plant our feet in the cool sand of Anse Major.

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Almost there! 🙂

The friendly beach policeman welcomed us to his domain and was happy to show us around and chat.

Thanks to several pit-stops along the way to observe our surroundings and take photographs, it took us much longer than the prescribed 1 – 1.5 hours. We were really glad we had packed food and water as there are no facilities on this secluded beach.

We had however, forgotten to carry our snorkelling gear along (it was supposed to be a hike, remember?!) So we had to be content with spending the morning in the shallower waters. But we did spot many fish right by the shore! 🙂

Dreading the walk back to Danzil in the hot sun, we took the easy way out. There’s a taxi boat that ferries people from Anse Major to Beau Vallon at regular intervals (200 Seychellois Rupees per person) and we were delighted to return in the comfort of a speed boat.

I wasn’t able to find much about the history of Anse Major but according to Seychellois historian Julien Durup, the road from Danzil to Anse Major was built by a French Capuchin brother in the early 1900s. This Capuchin brother is also credited with developing the land along this trail into a thriving agricultural establishment, cultivating vanilla and other crops. Walking along the Anse Major trail today, one would never be able to guess that this area was once a hive of human activity.

I leave you with this brochure of the Anse Major trail I found online.

Happy hiking! Au revoir!

 

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For more about hiking the Trois Frères Trail, click here.

Read about my birdwatching experience in the Seychelles.

Click here to learn about the legendary Coco de Mer palm.

For a flavour of Seychellois cuisine, read my post about Bazar Labarin.

More here about the islands of Praslin, Curieuse & Cousin.

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A sperm whale in Singapore

About a decade ago, hubby and I watched in childlike amazement as Tona, the majestic sperm whale surfaced and dived back into the cold blue waters, off Kaikoura (New Zealand). From that day on, began my fascination with whales, and cetaceans in general. In addition to whales, the sub-order Cetacea includes aquatic mammals like dolphins and porpoises.

Today, these magnificent creatures face decimation from ship strikes, plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, getting caught as by-catch in commercial fishing nets as well as the rapidly growing, captive cetaceans industry.

My article for the May-Jun’16 issue of PASSAGE (the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore) centres around the recently unveiled sperm whale skeleton at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Singapore. The skeleton has been affectionately named ‘Jubi’ by the museum staff. While the circumstances of Jubi’s death are unfortunate, the skeleton display has presented an opportunity to discuss the issues surrounding the conservation and protection of these behemoths.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species classifies sperm whales as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction.

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(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

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In the land of Barbecue & Rum – Puerto Rico

The drinking world is divided into those that absolutely love piña colada and those that absolutely dislike it! It’s a bit too sweet for my taste but its popularity is undeniable. This delectable mix of white rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice; is after all, the national cocktail of Puerto Rico.

Did you know that nearly 70% of the rum sold in America comes from Puerto Rico? The island prides itself as the ‘rum capital of the world’, with Bacardi being one of the largest rum producers on the island. No surprises then, that Bacardi’s distillery in the town of Cataño is known as the ‘Cathedral of Rum’. Nearby is Casa Bacardi, a museum unlike any other museum you know! It offers exciting tours of the distillery, a heady rum tasting session as well as a mixology class, among other fun activities. http://www.visitcasabacardi.com

At the entrance of the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

At the entrance of the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

Nothing like starting the day with a spicy rum punch! At the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

Nothing like starting the day with a spicy rum punch! At the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

During Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World in 1493, he reached the shores of the island we know today as Puerto Rico and named it San Juan Bautista, after St John the Baptist. The capital of the island, founded in 1521, was called Ciudad de Puerto Rico, which translated into English means the ‘rich port city’, alluding to all the gold that was found in its rivers. In a strange twist of history, the capital city came to be later known as San Juan while the entire island was referred to as Puerto Rico.

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish) in Plaza de Colon in Old San Juan

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) at the Plaza de Colón in Old San Juan

The indigenous people of Puerto Rico (and the larger Caribbean region) are the Taino Indians. They were the first people that Christopher Columbus encountered when he arrived in the New World in 1492.

You’d be interested to know that the word ‘barbeque’ comes to us from the Taino people. While this cooking technique has been around since prehistoric times, the Taino used the word barbicu to refer to a wooden rack built above the ground for smoking food. Spanish conquistadors took the word back to Spain and by the 18th century, English speakers were using the word ‘barbecue’ to refer to a late afternoon social gathering where the highlight was the grilling of meat.

In fact, several commonly used English words come to us from the Taino people. Hammock, potato, hurricane, canoe, potato, cassava and maize are just a few examples.

Spain surrendered Puerto Rico to the US in 1898. While it is officially known today as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it is an unincorporated US territory.

There is so much to experience in Puerto Rico – it’s luscious coffee, the El Yunque National Forest, the Arecibo Observatory (the world’s largest single aperture telescope, featured in the James Bond movie Golden Eye), its stunning beaches (it’s an island after all!), its many underwater treasures. For now, I leave you with these snapshots of Puerto Rico….

Mofongo (a traditional Puerto Rican dish of fried and mashed green plantains) with shrimp

Mofongo (a traditional Puerto Rican dish of fried and mashed green plantains) with shrimp at Raices, a local restaurant

Red snapper ceviche with tostones (fried plantain) at Marmalade, Puerto Rico

Red snapper ceviche with tostones (fried plantain) at Marmalade, a fine dining restaurant in San Juan

Ending the meal with a divine chocolate mousse topped with raspberry ice cream at Marmalade, San Juan

Ending the meal with a divine chocolate mousse topped with raspberry ice cream at Marmalade, San Juan

The Paseo del Morro trail along the 16th century citadel that guarded Old San Juan

The Paseo del Morro trail along the 16th century citadel that guarded Old San Juan

Another view of the Paseo del Morro trail

Another view of the Paseo del Morro trail

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan - the oldest church in the US (original building dates back to 1540)

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan – the oldest church in the US (original building dates back to 1540)

The narrow streets of Old San Juan

The narrow streets of Old San Juan

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Postcard from Panama

Everyone’s favourite Panama souvenir? A Panama hat, of course!

Well, if you thought Panama hats came from Panama, it’s time to do some research. In reality, Panama hats have been made in Ecuador since the mid-1600s. In the 19th century, they began to be shipped from Ecuador to the rest of the world, via Panama, thus creating the myth that they were made in Panama. Well, now you know!

The label on the inside of my Panama Hat - still made in Ecuador!

The label on the inside of my Panama hat – still made in Ecuador!

Made from the leaf fibers of the Paja Toquilla (a palm-like plant), a Panama hat at its finest, is said to be able to pass through a wedding ring! And yes, you can buy them in Panama.

Panama City, the capital of Panama, was originally founded in 1519 by the Spanish. After it was attacked and looted by a British buccaneer by the name of Captain Henry Morgan in 1671, a new city was established 2 years later not too far from the original location. This historic town is known today as Casco Viejo (which means ‘old quarter’ in Spanish) and was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The quaint streets of Casco Viejo (old quarter)

The quaint streets of Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter)

On a separate note, if you thought the name Captain Henry Morgan sounded familiar, that’s because the world famous Captain Morgan Rum is named after him 🙂

No trip to Panama is complete without a visit to the pride of Panama, the Panama Canal. It is after all, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

A ship approaching the Miraflores locks, Panama Canal

A ship approaching the Miraflores locks, Panama Canal

After much political manoeuvring surrounding the creation and control of the canal (that’s a post for another day!), the Panama Canal opened on 15th Aug 1914. It took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nearly 10 years to build (1904-1914) and more than 75,000 workers were involved.

This feat of engineering connects the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, saving ships sailing from New York to San Francisco (and vice versa) nearly 13,000km (8,000 miles) as compared to going all around Cape Horn in Chile, South America. Panama assumed full control of the canal in 1999.

30-40 ships cross the canal every day and a ship takes roughly 8-10 hours to cross the 80km canal. Interestingly, the ship captain isn’t allowed to navigate the canal on his own. A specially trained pilot steers the ship through the canal. The system of ‘locks’ used by the canal is an impressive phenomenon to watch and an engineer’s delight!

A ship getting lifted at the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

A ship getting lifted at the Miraflores Locks to enable it to transit the Panama Canal

2010 was a landmark year in the history of the canal as the millionth vessel transited through the waterway.  Ships that use the canal pay a toll based on their size and cargo volume, with large ships paying as much as half a million dollars. Richard Halliburton, the American adventurer holds the record for the smallest toll ever paid when he swam the canal in 1928 – 36cents. There are many jokes about where he could have possibly kept his change 😉

The canal generates nearly $2 billion in annual toll and along with allied industries, is a significant contributor to the Panamanian economy. You can either watch the ships navigate the canal (http://visitcanaldepanama.com/en/) or book an actual boat trip along the canal.

All the buzz around the canal completely overshadows the fact that Panama is home to dense rainforests (the forest cover is almost 50%), which in turn house nearly 1,000 species of birds, more bird species than the US and Canada combined. With 2,500kms of coastline and nearly 1,500 islands, Panama also has a rich and thriving marine life. That calls for another trip to this fascinating country – the only country in the world where the sun rises in the Pacific and sets in the Atlantic.

I leave you with some fun snapshots of Panama….

A food platter with ceviche, carimanola, empanadas and much more @ Diablicos, Panama City

A sampling platter with ceviche, carimanola, empanadas and much more @ Diablicos, Panama City

Local beer, Cerveza 507 @ Diablicos, Panama City

Local beer, Cerveza 507 @ Diablicos, Panama City

A local painting purchased from Casco Viejo, Panama

A local painting purchased from Casco Viejo, Panama

La Catedral Metropolitana (completed in 1796) in Casco Viejo is one of the largest cathedrals in Central America

La Catedral Metropolitana (completed in 1796) in Casco Viejo is one of the largest cathedrals in Central America

The church-school complex of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús (completed in 1741) , Casco Viejo

The church-school complex of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús (completed in 1741) , Casco Viejo

Miraflores Locks Control Tower at the Panama Canal

The Miraflores Locks Control Tower at the Panama Canal

 

Hasta la vista amigos! 🙂

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