Tag Archives: whale

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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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.

2016_May-Jun_Jubi

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

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Manta mania in the Maldives

We were in a pristine white speedboat that had halted a short distance from the protected Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll, Maldives. Baa Atoll is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, an area teeming with marine life including manta ray aggregations and migratory whale sharks.

Indian Ocean, Maldives

We were getting ready to jump into the vast, unknown ocean.

For all practical purposes, I think of myself as a poor swimmer. Even with a life vest, the fear was paralyzing. But I couldn’t imagine coming all the way to the Maldives and not swimming with the magnificent mantas.

With the assurance of the resort swim guide, I took a deep breath and jumped in. I adjusted my snorkelling gear and looked into the ocean below me. My eyes took a few seconds to get used to the depth. I began to see the dark shape of a cleaning station on the seabed. (A cleaning station is usually a coral patch where mantas aggregate to be cleaned by smaller fish.)

THEN, from the corner of my eye, I spotted a graceful, winged motion. For a brief second, it took me back to the many nights I had spent watching manta rays in a Nat Geo documentary.

Soon, they were all around us!

Manta ray - Hanifaru Bay, Baa Atoll, Maldives

Spotting the first manta!

Carpet-sized mantas glided effortlessly, in what can only be described as magical, underwater ballet. Deafening silence underwater yet they seemed like they were moving in sync with a beautiful, classical music piece. Very other-worldly!

A friendly manta that passed from below me

A friendly manta that swam from right below me

Making eye contact with a passing manta

Making eye contact with a passing manta

My fear had completely vanished as I watched the elegant mantas do their feeding dance.

Chain feeding pattern of the mantas

Chain feeding pattern of the mantas

Mantas are filter feeders. They consume huge amounts of water to get to the planktons they need for their nourishment. Simply put, they are harmless to humans. In fact, they are known for their friendly and curious personalities. Individual mantas are identified by their underbelly markings and spots.

Underbelly markings are used to identify mantas

Underbelly markings are used to identify mantas

The marine biologists have assigned cute names to the mantas they see on a regular basis like Bubbles or Squirt or Dipstick 🙂

Manta rays have one of the highest brain to body mass ratios of all underwater creatures. And their intelligence was quite apparent. They would swim right at me and then deflect just in time to swim by or under me.

A feeding manta headed straight in my direction

A feeding manta headed straight in my direction

Goodbye my manta friend!

Goodbye my manta friend!

When I got back to the boat, I was in a trance. The interaction with these gentle giants was mesmerizing and my appreciation for them had grown exponentially.

On this blog, I rarely mention all the beautiful hotels and resorts we stay at, unless there is something really, REALLY special about the place. But our trip to the Maldives happened only because of the Four Seasons at Landaa Giraavaru, supporter of one of the largest manta ray programs in the world. It also offers its guests one-of-a-kind activities like ‘Manta scientist for a day’. And that for us, was the deciding factor.

Kudos to the Maldivian government for actively protecting Hanifaru Bay, by limiting the number of boats visiting at any given time. It has also banned diving in the bay. Only snorkelling is allowed.

A big thank you to the Recreation Centre staff and marine biologists at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Guy Stevens (manta scientist and conservationist extraordinaire), the Manta Trust and the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, for all the amazing work you do with the mantas and to protect the ocean.  Thank you for the most spectacular experience of our life! Nothing will ever match up to the pure, unadulterated, almost child-like joy of swimming with the playful mantas in their natural habitat. Unless, the next time, we get to swim with a whale shark 😉

Till then, dhanee my dear friends. We’ll surely be back for more quality time with the Maldivian mantas.

Want to know more about the rich flora and fauna of the Maldives? Presenting The Real Stars of Maldives 😉

The spectacular seaplane ride from Male to the island of Landaa Giraavaru, needs a special mention. Check out my post Magic in the water!

Curious about Maldivian cuisine? Here are 100 fabulous ways to eat tuna in the Maldives 😉

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Magic in the water!

Hubby and I are both island people. Any chance we get, we find ourselves rushing to the most isolated island we can find. What is not to like about sun, sand, surf and minimal clothing! 😉

So this August, we decided to check Maldives off our list. Little did we know that it was going to turn out to be the trip of a lifetime!

Maldives consists of nearly 1,200 coral islands grouped into 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean. Did you know that the word atoll is the only English word derived from Dhivehi, the official language of Maldives? It comes from the Dhivehi word atholhu, meaning a ring-shaped reef or coral island.

Just over 200 of Maldives’ islands are inhabited and nearly 100 are exclusive resort islands.

We landed in Malé (the capital) around noon. What most people don’t realize about Maldives is that it is the lowest country on the planet. An average height of 1.5 m/5ft above sea level means there are no hills or mountains here. So climbing enthusiasts, you’ll need to find something else to do. Rest assured, there’s plenty to choose from.

Aerial view of Male

Aerial view of Malé

To get to most resort islands in the Maldives, there is usually a short seaplane transfer involved (30 – 45mins flight). Trans Maldivian Airways operates a seaplane fleet of 44 Twin Otter aircrafts that takes tourists from Malé to their island destination.

Our seaplane (a Twin Otter)

The TMA seaplane (a Twin Otter)

Getting an aerial view of the outrageously beautiful atolls, islands, lagoons and bays is a highly recommended experience for any Maldives visitor.

The short flight to our resort in the Baa Atoll meant that we didn’t need to do a separate charter flight later. Sometimes if you are lucky, you can spot whales, dolphins or even manta rays from the air. No such luck for us but the seascapes below were a sight for our city slicker eyes! I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

Islands and bays galore

A large, azzure bay

Another spectacular bay!

Baa Atoll is a protected UNESCO biosphere. The hard and soft coral reefs in the atoll harbor an abundance of marine life – a large variety of colorful fish, reef sharks, sea turtles, sting rays among others.

 Approaching our resort island

The landing platform, Landaa Giraavaru, Maldives

The landing platform at the resort

Welcome to Baa Atoll!

Finally, at our destination!

Hanifaru Bay in the Baa Atoll is one of the best places in the world to see whale sharks and big groups of manta rays, thanks to the high plankton density in the waters there. The main agenda of our trip was to get up-close with the manta rays and if we were really lucky, a whale shark.

Jumping into the middle of the ocean was going to take every ounce of courage but the magic of the under-water spectacle would make it all worth it!

For more on my experience of swimming with the Maldivian mantas, check out my post Underwater Ballet in the Maldives.

Want to know more about Maldivian cuisine? Here are 100 fabulous ways to eat tuna in the Maldives 😉

Maldives’ rich flora and fauna needs a special mention. Check out my post The Real Stars of Maldives.

 

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Meet Moby Dick in Kaikoura, NZ

We were in Kaikoura, New Zealand – the best place in the world to see sperm whales all year round.

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In the Pacific Ocean off Kaikoura, a 3km deep underwater canyon runs right up against the coast. Warm and cold currents mix in the canyon and sustain a nutrient rich ecosystem, attracting whales, dolphins and other cetacean species all through the year.

We boarded the Whale Watch Kaikoura catamaran and sailed off into the choppy sea. A crew member lowered a hydrophone into the water to detect the presence of any whales. Soon enough, the Captain alerted us to a whale surfacing close to our vessel. Oh the anticipation!

Despite the roughness of the sea that morning and the intense nausea it caused, the sight of the sperm whale emerging gracefully from the water was such an exhilarating moment! An adult male sperm whale grows to an average length of  approx 16m (52ft) and weighs approx 41,000 kgs. A ‘behemoth’ in the true sense of the word!

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The highly trained crew of Whale Watch Kaikoura is able to expertly identify the whales. If it is a semi-resident whale, it will even have an assigned name.

This particular sperm whale was called Tona. As he dived into the ocean, it looked like a shot straight out of a Nat Geo documentary. Only this time, the scene was unfolding right in front of our eyes. A real life Moby Dick (the magnificent sperm whale brought to life by Herman Melville in his novel of the same name).

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The sperm whale feeds at the bottom of the ocean and resurfaces every 45-50 mins to breathe. We too, waited with bated breath for Tona to make an appearance again.

In the meantime, a pod of very social Dusky Dolphins kept us entertained with their antics. Some distance away,  a lone Wandering Albatross settled on the water to enjoy the  sun.

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Wandering Albatross - Kaikoura, NZ

New Zealand is a stunningly scenic country with something for everyone. But Kaikoura will always hold a special place in our hearts. All thanks to Tona, the majestic sperm whale!

Haere ra! Farewell!

For a quick overview of our month-long trip to New Zealand, read In the land of the long, white cloud

For more on our traditional hāngi experience, read Hangi’ing out in Rotorua, NZ

 

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Land of the long, white cloud – New Zealand

Kia Ora! (that’s “hello” in Maori)

We were in New Zealand or as the Maori people call it, Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud). Hubby and I had already spent a couple of weeks driving across North Island. We had enjoyed the relaxed city vibe of Auckland, the geysers of Rotorua, the glowworm caves of Waitomo and of course, the extremely scenic drive through North Island.

From Wellington, we took the Interslander ferry that morning to Picton, South Island and were on our way to Christchurch. En route, we drove into an idyllic, romantic town called Kaikoura.

State Highway 1, NZ

As we approached Kaikoura on State Highway 1, to our left was the expansive Pacific Ocean with its myriad shades of blue. On our right, the imposing snow-capped Kaikoura mountains. We pulled over to enjoy the spectacular natural beauty for a few minutes.

State Highway 1, NZ

The name Kaikoura, I’m told, is said to have originated from the Maori words ‘kai’ meaning food and ‘koura’ meaning crayfish. Implying a place where you eat crayfish. So we did exactly that!

Our first night in Kaikoura, we dined at a cozy seafood restaurant, along the main street. Hubby, quite the foodie, ordered the legendary crayfish and relished his first experience of the local delicacy.

Crayfish - Kaikoura, NZ

Kaikoura has a long history as a whaling town, until commercial whaling ended in New Zealand in the mid-60s. Whale watching began in Kaikoura in 1987 and today, it is one of the best places in the world to watch the sperm whale and other marine mammals in their natural habitat.

The next morning, we booked ourselves on the Whale Watch Kaikoura tour and waited with eager anticipation for the tour to begin. The sea was particularly rough that morning and we were advised to reschedule if we were prone to seasickness. But nothing could deter me from catching a glimpse of the magnificent sperm whale.

More on our thrilling whale watch experience in my post, Meet Moby Dick in Kaikoura, NZ.

Read Hangi’ing out in Rotorua, NZ for more on our culinary journey across New Zealand.

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