Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Whale's Tale & Dolphin Joy

Greetings All,
It's hard to believe our 2-month journey is coming to an end.  We had a grand finale in Kaikoura over the past few days.  We did our first Whale Watch ever.   There is a deep 4000-foot canyon off the coast where cold water from Antarctica and warm water from the Pacific mix causing an upwelling.  This brings food up from the depths and attracts the whales.  We were looking for Sperm Whales, the largest of the toothed whales and the world's largest predator.  Mature males can weigh up to 63 tons and grow as long as 67 feet!  They can live up to 60-70 years.  So, where did the name Sperm Whale come from?  The early whalers found a semi-liquid, waxy substance coming out
of the head of male sperm whales.  They made the assumption that it was sperm and that the whale's reproductive organs must be in it's massive head.  However when they found the same substance in a female they knew they had been mistaken.  The name had already caught on so Sperm Whale it is. The substance is actually spermaceti and it is believed to aid in echolocation and buoyancy.  The captain used a hydrophone to pick up clicks from the whales then would move to the general location.  At last, a sperm whale on the surface! 

You can see very little of the whale except for the dorsal fin and the blowhole through which carbon dioxide is expelled in a spray of water. If you could see the whole whale he would look like this (not our picture):

The gray skin of the whale was wrinkled like an elephant's hide.  They don't stay on the surface for more than ten minutes.  Once their oxygen is replenished they will dive again displaying their massive tails.

Sperm whales can dive to 9700 feet making it the deepest diving mammal and stay submerged for 90 minutes!  Their favorite prey is colossal and giant squid.  It's clicking vocalization, a form of echolocation and communication, can be as loud as 230 decibels, making it the loudest sound produced by an animal.  The male we saw in the photos above is a migrant whale.  The captain did locate a second whale which is a resident whale named Aoraki.  The waters here are too cold for female sperm whales.  The males actually have more fat than the females.  All too soon it was time to return to shore.

Later in the day we went to visit a New Zealand Fur Seal colony.  We sat on rocks above the group and watched the pups play "king of the rock", tug of war with a piece of kelp, frolic in the water and push each other around like Sumo wrestlers.

The adults napped on the rocks, keeping one eye open on the pups.  One handsome fellow posed nicely for Marc.

We had the rare privilege of swimming with Dusky Dolphins.  I wasn't sure if I'd get up the nerve to enter the water but once I saw the dolphins and with a flotation device, I slipped carefully into the water. 

The initial shock of the 64 degree water made it hard to breath.  I soon relaxed as I saw my first Dusky Dolphins glide below me.  What beautiful graceful creatures they are!  I made noises through my snorkel  to attract them.  I'm not sure if it worked but more dolphins did swim past and below me. After swimming with the dolphins we had a photo shoot.  The captain brought us along a huge pod of dolphins, maybe 200-300!   The dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus)  is commonly found along the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand.  They can grow up to six and a half feet in length and weigh as much as 200 pounds.  Dusky dolphins can live up to 20 to 25 years.  The dolphins were really putting on a show with their spectacular leaps, jumps, side slaps, back flips and somersaults.  Marc was able to catch some of their amazing acrobatics.

Lastly we went on an Albatross tour.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect but was somewhat surprised when our guide threw a basket of chum off the back of the boat to attract the birds.  It didn't
take long for the Wandering Albatross, Northern Giant Petrels and Cape Petrels to show up.

I must admit it was a great way to get a close look at the birds.  We noticed a pink color on the necks of some of the Wandering Albatrosses that we had not seen before. 

Gibson's Wandering Albatross
Our guide told us that it was believed to be breeding plumage or bacteria growing on salt deposits that the Albatross excretes from it's nostrils.  We also got a good look at a Salvin and Northern Royal Albatross, two new species for us. 

Salvin's Albatross

Northern Royal Albatross

When flying, all albatrosses looked similar to me.  When viewed up close you can really see the difference in size, bill coloration and plumage.  Near the end of the tour, Tracy, our guide dumped the remainder of the chum into the water creating quite a feeding frenzy.

We're in the San Francisco Airport waiting for our flight to Chicago.  We will arrive on Thursday morning after spending the night in Chicago.  We look forward to catching up with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Saturday, March 09, 2013

"A Journey of Contrasts"

Greetings All,
We have just finished a five-day trek on the Heaphy Track.  The Heaphy Track runs through Kahurangi National Park in the northwest corner of the South Island of New Zealand.  The track route was first used by Maori jade collectors who traveled from Golden Bay on the north coast to the jade rivers on the west coast.  At 51 miles, the Heaphy is New Zealand's longest "Great Walk".    The Track is not a circuit and its two ends are 288 miles apart by road making logistics a bit tricky.  We arranged transport through a local company called Trek Express.  They picked us up from our motel in Nelson Monday morning and drove us 3 hours to the start of the track at Brown Hut.

The first day of the trek was the most difficult but not too bad.  We had to climb 2600 feet over 10.5 miles.  The track, once graded for a road, climbed gradually through beech forest before reaching Flanagans Corner, the highest point on the track at 3000 feet.

We reached Perry Saddle Hut, our objective for the night, at around 4:30.  The Hut had been rebuilt last year so it was very nice.  There was a large kitchen and dining area and three bunk rooms.  We picked two bunks and boiled water for a delicious freeze-dried dinner of honey soy chicken.

We opted to do the trek in five days so the second day was a short one, about half a day.  We had to walk 8 miles to Saxon Hut.  Today's route took us across the red tussock grasslands of Gouland Downs.

A Weka popped out of the grass and crossed the trail in front of us.

Tiny red Sundews grew in the drainage ditch along the trail.

We passed a pole to which trampers have tied old hiking boots over the years, although there were a purple pair of high heels!

As we neared Saxon Hut I could hear a motor.  What on earth is a vehicle doing up here?  As we rounded the corner a DOC employee was doing trail maintenance with a mini backhoe, the ultimate tool for creating water bars!

We chatted a bit and I asked him where the best place was to see the rare Blue Duck.  He told us we could see some at Saxon River or Blue Duck Creek, both not far from Saxon Hut.  We continued on to the Hut and settled in.  After lunch we went in search of the elusive Blue Duck.  We crossed a bridge over the Saxon River - no ducks.  We crossed a bridge over Blue Duck Creek - no ducks.  We continued on and I found an open spot on the creek.  I told Marc it would be a good place to sit and wait for the ducks.  After about 20 minutes Marc started getting antsy.  I asked him the time and he replied "4:55."  I told him "just give it five more minutes."  He responded "What do you think, they are just going to swim by?"  Two minutes later a beautiful pair of blue ducks did just that!

The blue duck (or whio; Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) is a unique threatened species of waterfowl endemic to New Zealand. It is the only member of its genus and has no close relative anywhere in the world.  The male whistled and the female growled back as they swam up river.  We followed them to another open area and watched as they preened, fed, flapped their wings and chased one another.

It was a perfect sighting of an extraordinary bird!  When we returned to the Hut, the ranger had been there.  Today is census day in New Zealand.  He left forms for us to fill out even though we're not Kiwis (nickname for New Zealanders).  They wanted to count everyone in New Zealand - even visitors.  I hope this doesn't mean we have to start paying New Zealand taxes!

We had another short day, about 9 miles to hike to MacKay Hut.  We left the grassland behind and entered the forest.  Some had heard Kiwis (the bird) calling last night.  This is the only Kiwi we saw along the track.

The forest was filled with unusual mosses, lichen, fungus.  A carnivorous land snail,  Powelliphanta, also lives here.

At MacKay Hut you get your first view of the Heaphy River emptying into the Tasman Sea far below, about 2200 feet down and a day's walk away.

We settled into our cramped quarters but managed to secure the only two bunks not connected to others.

I finally discovered the secret to sleeping in crowded huts where snoring is almost a certainty - noise canceling earbuds!  I picked up a pair in Nelson and they did the trick.  Marc photographed a beautiful sunset over the Tasman Sea.

Our fourth day of hiking was our longest.  We had to cover 13 miles to reach the Heaphy Hut near the mouth of the river we could see from Mackay Hut.  We were on the trail by 7:30 and entered a forest filled with interesting birds.  The Robins fought over Marc when he sat in the trail.  They pecked at his boots and trek poles to get his attention, "photograph me, photograph me"! they chirped.

Look closely, there is a robin pecking Marc's left boot

Little Fantails swooped down and perched close by displaying their white and gray tail feathers. 

As we got closer to the coast, the forest became more lush.  Tree ferns, Nikau Palms and giant Rata trees grew along the track. 

We arrived at the Heaphy Hut around 1:00 and selected our bunks.  Like the Percy Saddle Hut, the Heaphy Hut had been rebuilt last year.  A large kitchen/dining area overlooks Heaphy Beach and the bunks are in four separate rooms, each accommodating up to 8 trampers.  After lunch we went for a walk along the Heaphy River to it's mouth where the river surges out through a narrow gap into the sea. 

On the beach I spotted two penguins!  As we got closer I could see they were only Shags, pretty birds nonetheless.

A Tui, another one of New Zealand's endemic birds, was feeding in the cabbage trees near the Hut.  They are striking birds with a white tuff under their throats which contrasts with their glossy black color.

It was time to prepare dinner back at the Hut.  One group was on a gourmet tramping tour and had a real beef stir fry.   The rest of us had our freeze-dried dinners.

Marc prepared roast chicken complete with mashed potatoes (in plastic bag).

The fifth and final day of the Track took us 10 miles along the West Coast past beaches littered with drift wood and strewn with boulders.

One of our fellow trampers has spotted a native New Zealand Wood Pigeon perched in a tree above the track.

Our final climb was up Kohaihai Saddle.  From the top there was a great viewpoint from which we could see Scott's Beach and as far back as Heaphy Beach.

We climbed back down and crossed a suspension bridge over the Kohaihai River before reaching the Kohaihai car park at the end of the trek.  It was about 12:15 and we had until 1:30 for the Trek Express bus to pick us up.  Most of us that hiked from the Heaphy Hut were waiting for the same bus.  It arrived in time and we piled in for the long drive back to Nelson.

We arrived in Nelson around 8:00 a bit weary but satisfied with our trek. The Heaphy Track is truly a journey of contrasts with lush rainforest, sub-alpine tussock grasslands, high rugged mountains, lowland forest and palm fringed beaches.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Better the Second Time Around

Greetings All,
We've spent the last three and a half days hiking around Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.  Aoraki is the Maori name for Mount Cook which at 12,316 feet is the highest mountain in New Zealand. During our first afternoon in the park we hiked up the Hooker Valley towards Mount Cook. The track crosses the Hooker River twice on swing-bridges before reaching its source, the Hooker Glacier terminal lake.

A friendly Kea, a mountain parrot, came to check us out.  It's difficult to photograph birds when they are so elusive!

The weather the next day was glorious, perfect for our longest and toughest hike up to Mueller Hut. Our first objective was Sealy Tarns.  We hiked to them up a steep and eroded trail 26 years ago!  Now there are wooden steps, supposedly 1810, leading to the tarns or small mountain lakes. 

The views of Mt. Sefton and Mt. Cook were spectacular.


We continued the climb up to Mueller Hut on a steep, rocky track.  A saddle at the top of the ridge afforded more incredible views.  

A tiny Rock Wren flitted in the boulders around us.

We rounded a bend and the Mueller Hut came into view.

The present Mueller Hut was opened in 2003 by Sir Edmund Hillary.  The first to summit Everest, Hillary got his start in mountaineering in these mountains.  We had lunch on the front deck savoring the sunny weather and incredible views. 

We headed back down, grateful for the wooden steps, all 1810 of them!

The next morning we decided to take a break from hiking and take a boat trip on the Tasman Glacier terminal lake.  This allowed us to get up close to icebergs that had just calved off the glacier during the early hours of Saturday morning, February, 23. The calving caused the entire 2133 foot-wide front face of the Tasman Glacier to break away into the lake. The ice broke into around 20 huge icebergs, including one described as the largest ever seen on the Tasman Glacier terminal lake. The walls of this iceberg are 130 to 165 feet above the water and 650 to 820 feet below the surface of the lake.  Since the iceberg isn't moving, it must be stuck on the bottom of the lake.  

In the afternoon we hiked up to the Red Tarns.  We sat on a bench for awhile taking in the view of Mt. Cook with the Red Tarns in the foreground.  They owe their coloring to a red pond weed that grows in the water.

Incredibly the great weather held for a fourth day and we were able to get in another hike, this one to Ball Hut.  The route followed an old road built back in 1930 along the moraine of the Tasman Glacier to the hut.   The moraine is a massive pile of dirt and rock that has been gouged out by the glacier as it moves down the valley.  A cairn marked a route up the moraine and we followed it to the top.  We thought the trail would stay on top of the moraine but it was only a viewpoint.  The moraine was too narrow and unstable to walk along.  We were 300 feet above the glacier.  At this point it was covered in gravel so didn't look like a glacier at all.  We could see back to the terminal lake and the giant iceberg we saw up close yesterday.

Global warming is taking its toll on New Zealand glaciers.  The Tasman Glacier,  New Zealand largest, is retreating rapidly.  Now approximately 17 miles long and 1970 feet deep the Tasman Glacier is melting and calving at an exponentially increasing rate resulting in a terminal lake that is rapidly growing in size.  In the early 1970s, there were several small meltwater ponds on the Tasman Glacier.   By 1990, these ponds had merged into Tasman Lake - which means that the lake had not yet formed when we were here 26 years ago!   It is estimated that the entire Tasman Glacier will disappear in 10-19 years!  We went back to the road which led to the top of the moraine with more great views over the glacier and the mountains beyond.

We had to make a large detour around the back of a more recent landslide, cross a boulder field and eventually back to the road.  Orange wands marked the new route.  The road didn't last long before eroding away into the glacier.  We reached the hut, a tiny red structure that sleeps only three.  We had lunch on the edge of the moraine then followed the road a bit further to get a look at the Ball Glacier from the left coming down to join the Tasman Glacier from the right.

We couldn't have asked for better weather.  It was great seeing Mt. Cook and the other mountains and glaciers of the Southern Alps after so many years.  The area is changing fast.  If we want to see the Tasman glacier again, we can't wait another 26 years!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc