Sunday, July 31, 2011

Swimming with Whales

“Look, a whale!” my mother said.

I rushed to the cockpit and looked to where she had pointed. We were under sail going into a bay in Lifou, New Caledonia. Sure enough, there was a whale relaxing not far from us. She was floating on her belly, with her small dorsal fin poking out of the water.

Tim suggested jumping in the water with her, so a few minutes later he and I had our wetsuits on, masks on face and fins on feet. I jumped into the water and my dad followed. We let go of the ladder and swam towards the giant mammal.

I had seen whales before, but never gotten very close. I had only been in the water with one once. That was in Panama, and by the time we got in the male humpback had dove under the dinghy and I only saw his flipper and tail, the rest blended in. Other than that, I had only seen whales from the surface. From that point of view you can almost never see the whole body. Now, as we neared this animal, I could begin to make the shape out.

My first impression was that she was small. I suppose 25 – 30 feet isn’t little, but she was chubby too. I concluded she must be pregnant. Her stomach was bulging and there was no other explanation.

I suppose I’m painting an ugly picture, but the fact is she looked totally natural. She was an exotic animal, calm and elegant. She swam slowly towards the bottom of the sea. She then leveled out and glided horizontally through the water. We may have scared her slightly, because she swam away from us. But slowly, as though we weren’t a threat. It seemed to me that the whale merely wanted a little privacy, and that was why she left.

Whales are fantastic creatures and Tim and I were very lucky to have seen one so close.

By Maya

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Saturday, July 30, 2011


Monday, July 26.

The novelty of the baguettes, brie and fine French wine is wearing off quickly. Although we’ve been in Lifou for less than 48 hours, I’m in culture shock. Life here is dramatically different from what we saw in Tanna, Vanuatu.

On our walk today into the village called “We”, we were approached by a group of local drunk men with bottles of beer in hand, cigarettes in their mouths. “How do you like our island?” one drunk man asks Kai, who doesn’t really know how to respond. Though harmless, I think that drinking Kava, like the men do in Vanuatu would be better. At least there wouldn’t be the empty bottles and cans that are negligently left on the street.

I remember laughing with Tim, when in Vanuatu, one man passed us on the beach walking barefoot and said proudly, “I’m walking to the village to drink some Kava.” It sounded so innocent and intimate, like he was a 10 year old announcing that he was going to go play with his friends. Kava might numb his body, but alcohol somehow seems worse. My critical Western eye and UC Berkeley liberal education is seething forth. I’m not trying to be Alexis de Tocqueville, but just wanted to share some impressions and I admit we only saw one small area in Vanuatu and we’ve only been in one small area in New Caledonia.

Talking about garbage – here, there seems to be a lack of pride of place that we saw in Vanuatu. There’s garbage and plastic all over the place, even sharp broken glass bottles at the exquisite white sand beach shown below.

On our walk, we passed five gendarmes – that’s French for police – and their white skin contrasted with the local islanders of Melanesian descent. I wonder about the affects of being a French colony. Does it make you a dependent child, unable to dress yourself and prepare your own meals? Does it take away your power and turn you into a spoiled brat?

Laurens, a French teacher living here, told us that most of the locals don’t work as there’s no work for them and they get money from their relatives as well as the French government. In contrast, in Vanuatu, it seemed like most of the Ni-Vans (that’s what they call themselves) were busy working in their fields, harvesting cassava, bananas and taro.

Stopping to savor sweet coconut.

And back at home, weaving mats and baskets.

Or shooting bow and arrows.

Another huge contrast is that everyone walks in Tanna or paddles his outrigger canoe.

We only saw three cars when we were there; here in Lifou, most people drive their Isuzu Troupers and Range Rovers back and forth from the grocery store, filled with expensive imported food. The roads are paved and there are fancy sidewalks compared to the bumpy dirt roads in Tanna. There are even street lights equipped to dim and brighten depending on when a car passes.

“When France has taken all the nickel it needs, then they will leave,” predicts Michel, our French neighbor in the marina. Mind you, this marina is the cleanest we’ve ever been in. It’s so clean that we ran our watermaker here. Can you see the clear water here in the photo? There's a school of Sergeant Majors nibbling under Kamaya and supposedly one of the guards roams the docks busting any boats for flushing their heads (that's what we call toilets).

Michelle warns us against going to the island of Ouvea where in 1988 there was a massacre between the local Kanak islanders and the French police. “They’re very rascist there.” Michelle surmises that if the people get independence, then they would have their big cars and no money to pay for fuel.

Maybe he is right. Indeed the relationship between France and New Caledonia is complicated. Vanuatu (you might know it as New Hebrides) achieved independence from both France and Britain in 1980 – both countries governed at the same time. Though considerably poorer, the Ni-Vans seem so much more content than the people we met today on our walk. In fact, in 2006, the Ni-Vans were voted the happiest people on earth. I wonder, whether it has anything to do with their independence and simpler lives, one without the material desires of cars, delicious cheese and fresh baguettes.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

There She Blows

Our magna carta for our adventure to Mt. Yasur, known as the world’s most accessible active volcano: 1. Never turn your back on the volcano; 2. Don’t go too close to the edge; 3. If the flying neon orange lava looks like it’s coming our way – RUN.

We left Port Resolution around four o’clock with a truck load of five Kiwis (not the birds but the people), and an Englishman also eager to see the volcano. There were twelve of us total, including the driver and his friend, who I think was supposed to be our guide, but didn’t say much.

We packed into the 4- wheel drive Toyota pick-up. Maya, Kai, Tim and I sat in the back of the truck, holding on at every bump in the road and ducking to escape various thick branches. We passed huge Banyon trees and a number of villages, with their homes made mostly from bamboo, woven palm fronds and other organic material.

Every once in a while we stopped to let a cow pass or another rare car and we slowed down and honked at the little piglets squealing as their short legs ambled the dirt road. I could only imagine how tough the route would be during the torrential rainy season.

After about 45 minutes, we reached the park entrance.

Admission wasn’t cheap, about $100 US dollars or $10,500 vats (Vanuatu’s currency) for four of us to experience the furious volcano. Apparently, the park fees go to the local village that has to relocate every year when Mt. Yasur’s eruptions destroy their home.

From the entrance, we continued for about 15 minutes up the steep volcano, so steep in parts that I feared we’d topple over. We could hear the loud roar of the volcano shaking the ground and the air thickened. We parked in the black dirt on the edge of the volcano and walked the last bit up to the crater.

“Stay to the right,” advised our local guide, Jimmy. There were people already on the edge watching Mother Nature hoot and holler.

We turned our backs just for a photo op.

Of course, there’s no fence to keep spectators from falling into the crater. “Not too close,” I yell to Maya, who in her tween stage rolls her eyes at me. “Oh come on Mom, it’ll be ok.”

It wasn’t ok for two tourists and their guide who, according to the Moon Guide, were fatally struck by a projectile that hurled them 20 feet into the air. “Just keep your eye on the lava and don’t turn your back to the volcano,” I warned.

When the sun set, and the sky became dark black, the show was even more spectacular. We marveled at how high the lava pitched into the air. One part of the crater billowed forth thick ash clouds into the air and moments later the other side would throw glowing red and orange rocks hundreds of feet into the air. Fortunately, the wind was blowing from the southeast, away from where we were standing. Wow! Look at that explosion!!

The boisterous sound of the eruptions made me shutter, often grabbing Maya or Kai just to make sure the earth didn’t split open and gobble us up. Apparently, activity is a positive sign and when the volcano is silent, the neighbors are concerned that the volcano is bottling up its fury and will explode dramatically. Tonight, was deemed a Level Two, moderate to high activity, but not too dangerous. It was a fantastic show, one which made me more appreciative of cold solid ground.

A few days later, the wind direction changed and we weren’t so fortunate. On Thursday night, the wind blew from the west and in our anchorage in Port Resolution, thick black ash rained all over our boat. The west wind was predicted to continue for a few more days, so we had a choice of enduring the black ash or sailing upwind to New Caledonia. We decided to raise our anchor and sail away from the magical island of Tanna. I wish we could have stayed longer.

One last photo of the Almighty One

Monday, July 11, 2011

So Long Fiji - Vinaka!

There comes a time when we need to haul up our anchor and sail west. Well our time has come and my heart sighs, but I smile loudly, thinking about the incredible times we've had in Fiji and the incredible people we've met along the way.

We swam amongst colorful coral and photogenic fish. Every time I don my mask and look at the life under our keel, I'm constantly amazed and intrigued. The patterns of the fish are so intricate and artistic, like this juvenile Semicircle Angelfish.

Take a look at this exquisite Striped Surgeonfish. His blue and gold stripes fit in perfectly with the Cal Bears cheerleaders.

But when I see the nasty Crown-of-Thorns starfish that's killing the coral, I want to cry. They're not so pretty. Look at how evil they look with their spikes. Our friend Frank took this photo one day when we were snorkelling - I hope the starfish doesn't ruin the home of the little clownfish that's precariously close.

The Crown-of-Thorns used to not be as prolific because the Giant Triton Snail and other natural predators kept them under control. However, man has messed with the fragile ecosystem by collecting the Giant Snail to sell in souvenir shops, thus allowing the Crown-of-Thorns to demolish reefs. Some people we’ve met have decided to flip the large starfish over so they can be food for the fish. We've talked about forming a flip the starfish club - not a bad idea and could help protect the coral reef.

Another really interesting creature under the water is the Giant clam that we saw in Mokongi. The island used to be a Leper Colony, but fortunately it's transformed into a happier place where they raise giant clams and protect green turtles. The baby turtles had already hatched by the time we visited to the island, but we did see the clams in operation. Here’s a picture of one massive bi-valve that 6-foot tall Tim swam next to. What colorful lips! Did you know these clams are also hermaphrodites?

Another treat during our journey in Fiji has been the kindness of the people, who have been eager to help, show us their island, share some fruit or just say, “Bula.”

One of the benefits of voyaging by boat is it allows us the opportunity to reciprocate hospitality. In Namata Bay, Oso Blanco invited the Fijian children living on the small island to their boat to celebrate their son, Bear's, birthday. Most of the Fijian kids had never been on board a boat before and were so eager to come and play. It was a fantastic day with lots of games. They tossed water balloons,

played on the kayaks and jumped off the second floor of Oso. I love this picture that Annie took of the two girls jumping from the boat. It's a scary leap!

The tradition of sevusevu taught us about consideration and respect. Every time we anchored in a village, we sought out the chief, introduced ourselves, gave him a bundle of kava (the coveted narcotic made from pepper root) and asked permission to be on the island. Some debate the benefit of giving kava, but asking for permission to use an anchorage now seems like the right thing to do. I wish we had done it in many of the other countries that we have called home.

Fiji also gave us the opportunity to visit India without having to travel there. Maya and I loved looking at the exquisite Indian clothes and we even purchased a Sari for her to wear back in Oregon.

Along with the colorful clothes comes flavorful curries and rotis. Thanks to Mara, my sister-in-law, who visited us last week, I’ve learned how to cook with mustard seed and masala. This morning I bought more exquisite spices at the market. Look at this beautiful red chili, tumeric and curry. I wish it were possible to photograph their powerful smells.

So long Fiji …. Vinaka (that means, “Thank You”)! We’ve had a wonderful time!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Berko-week

Hi! This is Ziva and Maya, the Berkowitz- Kimmels are back again on Kamaya for a breath-taking adventure once more. We don’t believe we have to start at the very beginning, even though Maria says so (Sound of Music). We hope you enjoy our post!

One of the funnest things we did this week was build sand castles and hermit crab habitats. Ziva and I made this ultra cool country out of sand and coral. There were coral forests and farms made of sand, small villages and market places made of clam shells or rocks. There were huge mountains and great rivers. We also built a gigantic wall around the whole place with a moat (or sandmine as we call it) outside.

My turn, sorry about that LONG paragraph. That was Maya, as most of you can tell. Anyway, another cool thing that we did was sail with dolphins. We are still in the long process of knowing what type they are. They were HUGE! But, in their lovely dolphin like way, they moved so gracefully and jumped so high, you hardly noticed. I loved that part, especially when I was at the bow and one jumped right next to me. Let me rewind a bit. Dolphins like to ride the waves that the bow creates. The faster you go, the more waves you make, the more they enjoy it.

Gosh Ziva! You call mine long? (How crazy is that?) Now let me continue and explain about the hermit crab habitats that SOMEONE rudely interrupted. It all started on this one island when Ziva and I were building another country, a bit like the one before but without walls. So anyhow, the boys built a castle with steep passageways and lots of castles/mountains. Then they put hermit crabs in it and we saw that the crabs couldn’t get out. We liked the idea, but their habitat was too shallow and the crabs were crawling out. So we made our own but it was too deep and kept caving in. I positively hate to admit it, but theirs was better. So we helped them, and made lots of other hermit crab homes along the way.

Another hermit crab habitat.

You just keep goin’ on ‘n’ on. One thing you did forget to mention what the hermit crabs look like. That is kind of important . I will tell them. Hermit crabs are like little lobsters-ish, in snail shells of all shapes and colors. So, another thing that I found interesting was the snorkeling. I’ll admit, Maya was a great guide, explaining lots of coral and tons of fish. She also taught me how to dive, and in turn, I taught my mom. When I say dive I don’t mean scuba diving. I mean snorkel diving. You curl your body and shoot down, sticking your feet straight up. Every few feet you go down, plug your nose and blow out. Then when you rise to breathe, you blow out of the snorkel (mouth piece). We saw parrot fish pooping sand, needle fish sewing and damselfish flirting with each other. How wrong is that???

These paragraphs keep getting bigger! (Thanks to Ziva.) I still don’t think I should have to write about the rugby game, after all, you watched it with the boring parents. {Then let me write!} That’s okay, I will. But the parents made us write about it so, oh well. Anyway, the adults at fault forced us to come ashore to watch a rugby game that they claimed would be a “cultural” experience. Yeah right. But I could see that there was no point in arguing, they would make us do it anyhow. So we went ashore and I could quickly see it would be dull. So could Noah. Can you believe we have anything in common? So we went to the seaside and Noah swam, but I just hung out. Soon we met some local kids and Noah and I played soccer with them. The whole thing turned out not to be as bad as I thought, but I’m glad I didn’t have to watch the game. Also my uncle Ethan (Berkowitz as we call him) went halyard swinging and the buckle was too small for his belly. (If you don't know much about halyard swinging then just research earlier posts.)

I have the honor of closing this lovely entry, but first, I have one last word. I disagree with Maya. It was not dull. The villagers were kind to allow us to visit them, and watch their rugby game. Lets close this up!
Can’t wait to hear some comments!

Some parting shots from our week ...

Here's Noah snorkelling. He liked looking at the fish, but he liked jumping off Kamaya with Kai even better.

Here's our Fourth of July cake that we decorated to look like the American flag. Too bad you weren't with us to eat it!

Looking Back

It took me more than seven years to turn our blog into a hard covered bound book. At first, I was leery of wrapping up our adventure because...