Monthly Archives: October 2016

Whale Watching in Vancouver

The west coast of British Columbia is home to thousands of marine and terrestrial wildlife, and spans almost 1000 kilometers of fertile coastline and temperate rain forest from Victoria on Vancouver Island to the border of Alaska. But for many people, even those who live their entire lives in this beautiful stretch of wilderness, few things compare to witnessing whales and orca in their natural habitat.

Wild Whales, owned and operated by Roger Obayashi, and staffed by a number of knowledgeable biologists and naturalists, is the only dedicated whaling tour operating in Vancouver. Conveniently located on Granville Island, they have several different tours that leave daily, including open-air and covered jet boats. The open-air is definitely the way to go if one’s feeling adventurous – not only is it thrilling to be exposed to the elements, but it gives a much more “organic” feel to the experience as the boat skips across the waves of the Georgia Strait and navigates through the many labyrinthine archipelagos and islands that make up geography of the Gulf Islands (from Pender Island all the way down to the San Juan islands, there’s almost 400 different islands ranging in size and shape).

However, although they equip travelers with very comfortable and water-proof anti-exposure suits, it’s a good idea to bring several warm under-layers if the weather looks iffy, and if it’s sunny don’t forget the sun-screen. Also keep in mind that the closer travelers are the front of the boat, the more they’ll feel the thump of the waves, and the more likely they are to get a face full of ocean spray (although, if you’re like me, that’s half the fun).

As much as it’s advertised as “whale watching,” there’s a lot more to the experience – the naturalist who acts as the guide is also a wealth of information regarding the history and landscape of the area, other sea life in the area, and offers their own personal anecdotes about living and studying marine life. For instance, the difference between transient and resident orca pods, and the fact that whales stay with their pods for life, often times hunting other smaller prey in packs like wolves.

When the boat does finally come across one of the three resident orca pods in the region – popularly known as “killer whales” – it will be well worth the wait, and enough to elicit “ooohs” and “aaahs” from everyone on board. Because they’re mammals they require air, and will breach the surface with their slick black dorsal fins, sometimes slapping their flukes on the water or popping their heads up to take a look around. They’re graceful undulating forms belong to a species that have, like wolves, endured a fallacious reputation as ‘murderous killers’ – they are hunters, but many people are surprised by their generally docile behavior, and Wild Whales takes its role as facilitators to educate guests on all aspects of orca behavior.

This includes the fact that, unlike baleen species (like humpback and blue whales who have plates they used to strain krill), orca have actual teeth. Sightings of them differ from day to day because they can travel great distances – their maximum speed can be in excess of 50 kilometers per hour. However, Wild Whales is a devoted partner of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) that enforces a strong philosophy and practice of respecting orcas in their natural habitat, limiting contact to an hour at a time and always staying at least 100 meters back.

It is one thing to see these creatures in an aquarium, which offers its own advantages in terms of being able to learn from and study them – however it is quite another thing to observe them in their natural habitat where they can roam freely. It is no wonder that they have inspired the First Nations people of Canada and the United States for millennia in their arts and mythology, and through the efforts of conservation organization and other programs designed to increase public awareness, hopefully they will continue to inspire future generations.

10 Best Places to See Wildlife in Asia

It’s true that illegal logging, poachers and globalization are all taking their unfortunate toll on lush Asian terrain and the wildlife it houses. However, many sanctuaries and national parks are doing their part to rehabilitate endangered species and reintroduce them into the wild, as well as to establish eco-tourism adventures. And with so many refuges across Asia, travelers can choose by country, animal or type of adventure for a customized visit to the animal kingdom. To make that choice easier, however, we have collected the ten best places in all of Asia for wildlife watching.

1. Ranthambore National Park, India

The former hunting grounds of the maharajas of Jaipur, Ranthambore National Park is now one of the largest national parks in northern India. Its main draw is seeing tigers in their natural habitat; however, the park has much more to offer. The 10th-century, 700-foot tall Ranthambore fortress lies within the sanctuary, and visitors can also spot hyenas, wild boar, leopards and a huge variety of local flora and fauna.

2. Woraksan National Park, South Korea

Woraksan sees visitors all year around, yet it’s still a great escape as it never gets too crowded. Steep hikes may be a reason why it’s never teeming with visitors, but making the trip results in spectacular views above the clouds and the chance to climb around the ruins of a 13th-century fortress. The park features thousands of plant, amphibian, mammal, reptile and insect species, 16 of which are endangered. Lucky trekkers will spot the rare antelope that are monitored with radio transmitters.

3. Shaanxi Province, China

Just seeing photos of pandas is enough for an involuntary “aww!” so it may be hard to control yourself when visiting the Foping Nature Reserve, which had a population of 64 giant pandas at last count. Nestled in the bio-diverse Qinling Mountains, the reserve is surrounded by other sanctuaries, like the Zhouzhi Nature Reserve, which is in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains and specializes in rescuing injured animals and protecting endangered species, including giant pandas and golden monkeys.

4. Xe Pian National Protected Area, Laos

Tucked near the Cambodian border, Xe Pian is renowned for its gibbon population and diversity of species, several of which have not been found in any other park in Laos. In addition to the gibbon, visitors can spot Asian elephants, tigers and the so-cute-it-hurts Asian black bear. Dolphins reside in the three rivers that run through the evergreen and deciduous forests and vast flatlands.

5. Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Yala National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s oldest and most well-known national parks. It’s most famous for its large numbers of elephants and leopards, which can be seen when on safari. The park covers several ecosystems, including moist and dry monsoon forests and wetlands. Historical and religious sites and ruins add to the must-see list. The park is divided into five blocks, making it easier to plan a trip.

6. Similan Islands, Thailand

This archipelago of nine islands is known as one of the top diving destinations in the world. Whether diving or snorkeling, it’s possible to see spectacular coral reefs, schools of tropical fish, manta rays and sea turtles during the short November-April open season. Mu Ko Similan National Park allows visitors the pleasure of seeing air, land and sea-based wildlife, from birds and sixteen species of bats, to vipers, pythons and lizards, to much friendlier bottlenose dolphins.

7. Calauit Wildlife Sanctuary, The Philippines

Going on an African safari can, in fact, be done on a friendlier budget and possibly closer to home at the Calauit Wildlife Sanctuary, an island off the coast of Busuanga in the Philippines. Established in 1976, the sanctuary took in 104 animals, including zebras, gazelles, giraffes and impalas that were at risk of drought and being affected by war in their native Kenya. The animal population has grown nearly five-fold since its inception. The sanctuary has also been beneficial for local wildlife. Calamian deer, once on the edge of extinction, are now flourishing, and the protected coral reefs have mostly recovered from damaging fishing practices.

8. Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, Malaysia

Spread over nearly 440 square kilometers in lowland rainforest, Danum Valley was unoccupied by humans when it opened. Once in the valley, visitors can take guided walks and drives and nighttime safaris to try and spot the Borneo pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino, Malay sun bear and more. During durian season, the chances of seeing orangutans increase. The real treat here, however, is the birdwatching, as it’s the only place where the spectacled flowerpecker has been spotted.

9. Bonin Islands, Japan

The Bonin Islands (known as the Ogasawara Islands in Japan) have the distinction of being the most isolated destination on this list, as the only way to get there is by a 25-hour ferry from Tokyo. It’s totally worth it, though, as visitors have an astounding 90% chance of seeing humpback whales from February-April. Visitors can also see sperm whales in the summer and fall, and dolphins all year around. The islands are also unusual in that they were never connected to the Japanese mainland or any other continent, and therefore are home to crabs, insects and birds not found anywhere else in the world.

10. Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia

This national park is home to over 500 species of animals, including nearly 200 types of mammals. Sumatran tigers and flying lemurs, along with clouded leopards, flying frogs and sambar deer are just a sampling of one of the most diverse animal populations in Indonesia. Gunung Leuser also includes a rehabilitation house for orangutans. Situated in the near-pristine Bukit Barisan Mountains, the park’s altitude shoots from zero to 3,381 meters, with the Alas River cutting the park in half.

10 Places to See Wildlife in the United States

With such diverse and delicate ecosystems, it’s no surprise that the United States has several top-notch parks, refuges and slightly off-the-beaten-track areas to spot the nation’s breathtaking wildlife and nature. These coral reefs, glaciers, woods and swamplands highlight the vast array of the country’s wildlife, including many endangered species. Visitors can see the world how Mother Nature intended and get a very practical education at these unique sites.

1. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

The world’s longest cave system, Mammoth Cave has rightly earned its name with over 400 miles of underground twists and turns that have been explored. Mammoth can also describe its abundance of 130 species, 70 of which are endangered. Much of the wildlife is is small in size but accurately reflect the otherworldly vibe. Opossums, Kentucky Cave Shrimp and white-tailed deer occupy the caves and surrounding Green River Valley. The most famous draw of all though are the several species of bat the populate the caves. There is a heavy emphasis on preservation to increase their numbers, but even in their small groups, they remain a fascinating and creepy sight. Outside the caves, the focus on preservation continues, as the river otter was recently reintroduced to the Green River.

2. Orcas Island, Washington

True to its name, Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands, is a prime location to see orca whales, but this island has much more to offer. While on a boat tour or just kayaking around, visitors are likely to see whales, seals and a cacophonous array of seabirds. Elephant seals, sea lions and dolphins make seasonal appearances. To brush off sea legs, get on a bike or horse in Moran State Park and look up to appreciate all manner of birds, from hummingbirds to owls.

3. Acadia National Park, Maine

New England’s only national park, Acadia sits along Maine’s rocky eastern coast. The meeting of sea and land, besides breathtaking views, means seeing double the wildlife. Acadia is a natural draw for birdwatchers, who can see the peregrine falcon that’s recently come back from the brink of extinction. Songbirds, herons, seabirds and harlequin ducks abound in the 53,000-acre park.Starfish, crabs and more make an appearance along the shoreline when the tide goes out, and much harder to miss are the whales, dolphins and seals splashing about off the coast of Mt. Desert Island.

4. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Situated along the Texas-Mexico border, Big Bend National Park retains a wild, rambling feel. While the 3,600 varieties of insects may only appeal to a sliver of the population, they are dwarfed literally and figuratively by regular bear and mountain lion sightings, or the chance to see a roadrunner, javelina or coyote. Bats are one of the main draws, as there are more than 20 different species, including the Mexican Long-Nosed Bat, which has only been observed in this part of the United States.

5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Over 1,500 black bears populate this national park, making them the unofficial symbol of this region of the Smoky Mountains. Really, though, they’re just the tip of the animal kingdom, as the park is home to over 200 varieties of birds and an impressive amount of mammals, fish and reptiles. Elk were recently reintroduced to the park in 2001, although it’s more common to spot white-tailed deer, groundhogs and some species of bat. Unexpectedly, the park is also home to 30 species of salamander, making it one of the only places on earth to have such a vast array of these critters.

6. Virgin Islands National Park, St. John

Combining a chance to jet to the Caribbean and the opportunity to swim alongside schools of fish, Virgin Islands National Park seems like a no-brainer choice for a destination. The park covers nearly 65% of the island, and of course the crystalline waters also provide snorkelers a trail along which they can see the hundreds of species of fish in action. Visitors can check out fish as they dart in and out of coral reefs or seagrass meadows and possibly see how the seascape and marine traffic shift if they visit at different times during the day. Back on land, the park is home to six native species of bat, wild donkeys and lizards and frogs of all sizes.

7. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii

Waves crashing onto the ragged cliffs provide a stunning backdrop to Kilauea Point refuge, which deftly combines Hawaii’s world-famous beauty and the need to preserve it and its animal kingdom. Located on the island of Kaua’i, the refuge works to preserve and protect migratory seabirds and the native nene, or Hawaiian goose, which is also the state bird. There’s an established colony of nene, and albatross, boobies and various shorebirds often stop by for a visit. Offshore, visitors can spot monk seals in the water or catching some rays on the beaches, and endangered humpback whales and spinner dolphins will occasionally breach nearby.

8. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Alaska is full of natural treasures, not least of which is the nation’s highest mountain Mt. McKinley, in Denali National Park. But to the south of Denali lies Kenai Fjords National Park, the majority of which is only accessible by boat and contains one of the largest ice fields in the United States. Harding Icefield covers much of the inland territory, and just over half of the fjords are covered in ice. But there’s still a seemingly endless amount of wildlife in the area. In the water, sea otters, sea lions, seals, orcas and humpback whales play and hunt, while black bears, Alaskan brown bears, moose and mountain goats call the park home. The park is next to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where visitors can camp and those with permits can fish for salmon and trout or hunt moose and caribou.

9. Everglades National Park, Florida

It’s hard to believe that downtown Miami sits barely 45 minutes by car from the Everglades, which have achieved a near-mythical and mysterious status in popular culture, thanks to the allure of danger. Leaving the urban jungle leads straight into another one, or rather the largest subtropical wilderness in the country. Egrets, wood storks and spoonbills will please bird enthusiasts and provide a soothing counterpart to the main reason everyone comes here: it’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side. See these creatures while walking or biking through the park paths. Visitors can take tram or boat rides, or rent an airboat for a more up close and personal experience.

10. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Overflowing into three states, Yellowstone is one of best things the United States has on offer. The 2.2 million acres are simply majestic, with the Old Faithful geyser, its own version of the Grand Canyon and the endless persistence to continually overcome devastating forest fires. Added to the fact that the park sits on an apocalyptic-sounding “super volcano” and the whole experience becomes transformative. And that’s not even including the 67 different mammals that call the park home. Elk, bison, grizzly and black bears, coyotes, wolverines, mountain lions and the bald eagle snap visitors to attention, realizing that the heavenly park is definitively ruled by the animal kingdom. Most controversially, gray wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995 after a nearly 70-year absence, and it remains a point of contention among locals.