DELETE DELETE DELETE

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“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.” Ray Bradbury

My friend is standing in front of me, her head stuck looking down. Her thumb has been scrolling endlessly over the glass of her smartphone for several minutes. Sometimes, she stops the motion and looks carefully at the thumbnails, then starts scrolling again. “It is somewhere, I know it is. Wait! Here it is! No! It is not this one” She says. Somewhere buried amongst thousands of other photos, there is one she has been wanting to share with me, a photo that captured a special moment, something beautiful. Feeling the weight of the endless search, she sighs and concludes, defeated: “Anyway, I swear it was so beautiful… I just wished I would have been able to show you.”

Not a week goes by without someone wanting to share with me the photos they love and most of the time, the moment is ruined by their failure in finding the pictures that mirror their memory or the intimidating challenge of suddenly having to choose the right one amongst a series of simile photos, just slightly different from one another, while I wait in front of them, my eyes wandering, looking for distraction as the minute pass.

The world of photography has changed a lot since the days of film. Back then, the craft was expensive and time consuming. Every time you pressed the shutter, you were mindful of the outcome, both financially and in the amount of work needed. Space was also very limited. Film rolls contained at the maximum 36 photos and the amount of rolls one would or could carry was depending on the level of trouble you would want to go through. Once the pictures developed, they would be manually put, one by one, into an album. By doing this, by actively participating into the creative process and development of the narrative, people took ownership of the stories they wanted to tell. There was always a certain pride in opening an album and showing it to a friend or a family member. And for those friends or family, the experience was memorable and personal. These stories were crafted with time and commitment. Each photo placed with care and thoughtfully. The order far from being random, the creator of the album had set each photo with the intent of telling a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Today, the picture is quite different!

Technology has conquered the limitations we once faced. But with this new reality came a world a new problems.

Our capacity to create without any limit has rendered us prisoners of our own creations. We don’t own our photos anymore, they own us.

When I am asked what is the best advice for doing photography, my answer is always the same – learn to DELETE FIRST. As much as we are privileged, living with tools that give us so much freedom to experiment, that freedom quickly disappears if we are not able to delete the junk – and yes junk it is!

Learning to delete is to my opinion the greatest challenge and most necessary skill today’s photographers must develop. And since we are all photographers now (amateurs and professionals) that means that everyone should learn to delete.

Deleting photos is more than making room in your library, it is an empowering skill and a crucial tool in developing your craft. By deleting the ones you don’t like, you start to discover what you like. You start taking ownership of your photos. And with ownership comes pride. And with pride comes value. Instead of being passive, you become an active participant in the art of telling stories. Instead of letting the photos dictate your narrative, you create the narrative.

Recently, well-known photographer and an early Instagram fan, Richard Koci Hernandez, announced he was deleting all of his pictures from the photo-sharing service. Talking to Chris O’Brien at Venture Beat, Richard stated that:

“I’ve always felt that a photograph deserves a life span. Nothing should live forever… my ‘photo stream’ has recently seemed less like a stream and more like a dammed-up river. I know this all sounds very heady, but I’ve been thinking that the Internet doesn’t respect time in the way that I think it should. Especially in relation to photographs. I’ve always thought that the institution of an art gallery was a satisfying way to experience work. And recently my Instagram account has felt like an exhibition of work that is always on display, the doors are always open 24/7, and that dismayed me a bit.

Think about it. If you love someone’s work and a local gallery puts on an exhibition, there is an excitement — you attend the exhibition and potentially you take away a print, a book, or a poster, and there is a sense of having had an experience and finality once the show ends and moves on. I desperately wanted my work on Instagram to have that same quality. Simply put, I’m saying that the current exhibition is over and it’s time to hang a new show. On another note, because of the seemingly permanent nature of an online photo gallery, I didn’t want everything I’ve ever done always on display. Some of the work that I’ve posted isn’t as mature as I’d like it to be, and it deserves to be forgotten.

Deleting these images gives me a sense of freedom, of potentially shedding an old skin and developing a new one. It’s very liberating. I’ve taken this idea to the extreme and many of my close friends and in particular my wife have had to prevent me from permanently deleting the original files themselves.

If I had my way, I’d pore through the work, find my favorites, print them out, and put them in a box, then I’d delete all the originals. In this flood of digital photographs, in an era where nothing seems special or sacred, I love the idea of scarcity. In a funny way, it’s just another version of Snapchat.”

Richard brings forth two very important points: the space to create and the value of a photo.

So the question begs to be asked. What is the value of our photos today? How much do we truly value the moments we try so hard to capture and record? Do we really honor those precious episodes by dumping our photos into a virtual cumulative album that has no narrative, no order, other than the dates they were taken. What is to say about our relationship with our photos when we fail at finding them or lose the expected joy by facing too many of the same?

Barry Schwartz in his TED talk “On the paradox of choice” presented to the audience his belief that today’s abundance infringes us rather than liberating us.

“It produces paralysis rather than liberation… With so many options to choose from people find it very difficult to choose at all… Even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice we end up less satisfy with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from…”

And I believe that the great irony of our time is that our photos have become ephemeral but not because there existence is limited, but because their value disappears, despite of their existence. By taking so many photos and failing to keep only the good ones, we have lost the ownership of the moments we are precisely trying to own.

Learning to delete our photos therefore is necessary to give our power of creativity room to grow and to return the value and respect to our captured moments.

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.” 

― Thich Nhat Hạnh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

 

Feel the Wild

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I will be giving talks at REI stores and at the Commonwealth Club in December and January. See the dates and locations below. Looking forward to seeing you all.

REI

 

Lessons from Photographing the Wilderness

What is it like to be sitting on the grass 10 feet away from a one-ton bison as it slowly passes by you, staring at you. To have a brown bear challenging you 15 feet away. How to embrace the chaotic world of nature and find the magic nature has to offer. How to find inspiration even in the worst of times. Doing photography in the wilderness is more than simply observing a wild world through the lens, but it is chance to connect with the world around, to capture that connection that unites us to all species roaming this planet. This presentation is about becoming a better photographer by learning from nature. It is also about using technology in a constructive way and not getting overwhelmed by it.

REI San Francisco, December 3rd

REI San Jose, December 9th

REI Berkeley, December 10th

REI Corte Madera, January 14th

 

The Commonwealth Club

 

The Power of Nature to Restore the Human Spirit

Storyteller, explorer and photographer Daniel Fox brings you along on his journey into the wild. From grizzly bears in Alaska to crocodile-like caimans in Argentina, the images of his journeys bring the contours of the wilderness into stark relief and make clear the inherent connection between humans and the natural world. Join us as his stories of the depths of wildlife provide an opportunity for all of us to come feel the power of nature through the eyes of Daniel Fox!

San Francisco, January 22th

The Mighty Buffalo

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior

The massive animal was only a few yards away; his height doubled any of the bushes around. If I was to stand beside him, the top of his hump would still be a foot above my head. I was sitting on the ground and my eyes were to the level of his. He carried on one his horns a branch that he had snatched away just a few minutes earlier after scratching his furry head onto the trunk of a sagebrush. This improvised crown gave him a sense of notoriety and aristocracy that perhaps was due for official recognition. This herbivore had indeed once been the king of this land. It was only proper formality for me to bow in front of a surviving royal.

A little less than an hour ago, he had come from over the hill when he had seen me sitting on the grass, right in his path. Over the next sixty minutes he would stare at me for a while, trying to determine the level of threat I was representing; he then pretended eating, walking forward a bit, looking up, staring, and starting the ritual again. As he slowly passed by me, his gaze locked into mine. Obvious by its size, one would only truly realize the scale of its two-ton weight every time he lifted up one of its hooves to reveal a deep ravine print in the sand.

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The Unsung King

As often as it is the case with all my travels, my presence on the island had more to do with fate than anything else. Earlier in the year, while visiting a dear friend in Logan Utah, and looking for a nearby place to hike, she had suggested that we visit Antelope Island State Park — a wonderful 28,800 acres island located just outside Salt Lake City — and home to one of the largest wild herds of buffalos in North America. I remember standing on the top of Sentry Peak looking over Salt Lake and telling myself that I ought to come back soon and spend more time. The place had so much beauty and was filled with culture and history; it felt as if this land was connected to something ancestral, perhaps it was the presence of some of oldest rocks in the United States, or the Fielding Garr Ranch with the oldest (Anglo) building in Utah, still on its original foundation, or the free roaming buffalos, but something was calling me.

After my kayaking expedition in Alaska, I was looking for one last project to end the year with; something that would be close to home and would offer me the possibility of doing what I cherish the most: photograph big wildlife (See Totems). It was at that moment that another friend gifted me with the book “A Buffalo in the House: The True Story of a Man, an Animal, and the American West” by R. D. Rosen. The timing was perfect and it became quite obvious what I needed to do; to go back to Antelope Island.

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Top of Sentry, looking over Salt Lake

It is believed that the first Bison bison came from Asia over the Bering Land Bridge about 500,000 years ago. Before the arrival of the Europeans, in 1492, it is estimated that their numbers were somewhere between 40 and 60 million. Unfortunately, the conquering of the Native Americans and of the West, led to one of the greatest animal slaughters in human history. By 1890, only 750 bison were left — the equivalent of killing roughly 360 buffalos every day for 400 years. 1872, ‘73 and ‘74, are known to be the bloodiest years in the recorded slaughter of the bison. More than 4,500,000 of them were killed during these three years alone, which averages to about 4,110 every day.

The buffalos were one of the most important pillars of the Native American culture.

“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women’s awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake–Sitting Bull.” John Fire Lame Deer

This intricate connection made them a prime target – “Kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians” General Philip H. Sheridan said in 1866 when he took command of U.S. forces in the West, proposing to bring peace to the plains by exterminating the herds of buffalo that support the Indians’ way of life.

Conservation efforts and the slow coming back of the American Bison in the United States of America and Canada might bring hope for the animal’s future but the truth remains, the survival struggle of the bison is far from over. The recent culling at Yellowstone (NY Times 2008NY Times 2011) and the debate around brucellosis demonstrate how for many, the animal is still a culprit that needs to be exterminated. For ranchers, they are simply a pest that eats away precious resources which should be utilized only for their cattle. (See Buffalo War on PBS)

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A visitor

I spent more than three weeks on Antelope Island. On my first evening, four bison came running down the hill and galloped just a few feet away from my tent. I was by the picnic table preparing dinner with my head lamp turned on when I heard a loud noise and looked up — four pairs of eyes glistering in the dark. One dawn at 4am, I heard one passing within reach from my tent. Its humongous shadow casted against the fabric wall, as a result of the full moon that night. I could hear and feel his breath as if he was breathing over my neck. Another day, while I sat in the grass field, a small herd of around 25 cows and calves bison came upon me. As they got closer and closer, I chose not to move and started talking to them. I strongly believe that the voice carries energy that can calm, stress or anger. The herd came around and formed a line behind me. I slowly turned around, always sitting, and always talking. They were, of course, nervous, breathing fast with their eyes wide open and alert, but none were showing aggressive behavior. A few minutes had passed when a late arrival showed up and decided to change the mood. Whether he was showing off or not was not my concern. Its tail was up, his hoof was pounding the ground and his grunt was aimed at me. Keeping my calm, I slowly turned to face him. Raising my finger at him, much like a parent would do to reprimand a child, I changed the tone of my voice and with much fierceness told him: “You! Over there, shut it!” To my relief, he lost his stand, stopped his grunting and joined the others… behind the group.

Interestingly enough, my greatest surprise during my stay was to realize how they were all so different from one another. Before starting to photograph them, I thought they all look quite alike. But spending every day with them and looking at the photos taken, their differences became obvious. There personalities contrasted greatly. There horns differ. Some had triangular heads, others were rectangular. Many carried what appeared to be a puffy “toupee”. Some heads were black and some were brown.

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All quite different!

I went there to meet and discover an old soul, and I did. According to the Natives and in the belief that animals carry messages, the buffalo is about holding your prayers resolute and firm; giving thanks continually that your prayers have already been answered in the most abundant way possible. They say that buffalo medicine has a sacred connection with the Earth (Great Spirit) because they continue to aid, assist and provide God’s children on earth.

I live in a world where I will never be able to experience the abundance of wilderness that existed centuries ago. I can only close my eyes and imagine what it was like when they ruled the plains. Those ones who accepted me there gave me much to ponder on; for a species that almost disappeared, they are still around to tell their story, a story of hope and togetherness. Yes we brought them down, but we also brought them back up, and in the process bringing ourselves up. And that gives me hope for the future, for our future. We might, and are heading towards an existential crisis as a species, but I know we will come out stronger and wiser. That is what the buffalo told me.

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An old soul

 

The Legend of the Great Flood

“I have heard it told on the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana and the Seminole camps in the Florida Everglades, I have heard it from the Eskimos north of the Arctic Circle and the Indians south of the equator. The legend of the flood is the most universal of all legends. It is told in Asia, Africa, and Europe, in North America and the South Pacific.”

Professor Hap Gilliland of Eastern Montana College was the first to record this legend of the great flood. This is one of the fifteen legends of the flood that he himself recorded in various parts of the world.

He was an old Indian. His face was weather beaten, but his eyes were still bright. I never knew what tribe he was from, though I could guess. Yet others from the tribe whom I talked to later had never heard his story. 

We had been talking of the visions of the young men. He sat for a long time, looking out across the Yellowstone Valley through the pouring rain, before he spoke. “They are beginning to come back,” he said. 

“Who is coming back?” I asked.

“The animals,” he said. “It has happened before.” 

“Tell me about it.’

He thought for a long while before he lifted his hands and his eyes. “The Great Spirit smiled on this land when he made it. There were mountains and plains, forests and grasslands. There were animals of many kinds–and men.” 

The old man’s hands moved smoothly, telling the story more clearly than his voice.

The Great Spirit told the people, “These animals are your brothers. Share the land with them. They will give you food and clothing. Live with them and protect them.

“Protect especially the buffalo, for the buffalo will give you food and shelter. The hide of the buffalo will keep you from the cold, from the heat, and from the rain. As long as you have the buffalo, you will never need to suffer.”

For many winters the people lived at peace with the animals and with the land. When they killed a buffalo, they thanked the Great Spirit, and they used every part of the buffalo. It took care of every need. 

Then other people came. They did not think of the animals as brothers. They killed, even when they did not need food. They burned and cut the forests, and the animals died. They shot the buffalo and called it sport. They killed the fish in the streams.

When the Great Spirit looked down, he was sad. He let the smoke of the fires lie in the valleys. The people coughed and choked. But still they burned and they killed.

So the Great Spirit sent rains to put out the fires and to destroy the people.

The rains feil, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded valleys to the higher land.Spotted Bear, the medicine man, gathered together his people. He said to them, “The Great Spirit has told us that as long as we have the buffalo we will be safe from heat and cold and rain. But there are no longer any buffalo. Unless we can find buffalo and live at peace with nature, we will all die.”

Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded plains to the hills.

The young men went out and hunted for the buffalo. As they went they put out the fires. They made friends with the animals once more. They cleaned out the streams.

Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded hills to the mountains.Two young men came to Spotted Bear. “We have found the buffalo,” they said. 

“There was a cow, a calf, and a great white bull. The cow and the calf climbed up to the safety of the mountains. They should be back when the rain stops. But the bank gave way, and the bull was swept away by the floodwaters. We followed and got him to shore, but he had drowned. We have brought you his hide.”

They unfolded a huge white buffalo skin. 

Spotted Bear took the white buffalo hide. “Many people have been drowned,” he said. “Our food has been carried away. But our young people are no longer destroying the world that was created for them. They have found the white buffalo. It will save those who are left.” 

Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded mountains to the highest peaks.

Spotted Bear spread the white buffalo skin on the ground. He and the other medicine men scraped it and stretched it, and scraped it and stretched it. 

Still the rains fell. Like all rawhide, the buffalo skin stretched when it was wet. Spotted Bear stretched it out over the village. All the people who were left crowded under it.

As the rains fell, the medicine men stretched the buffalo skin across the mountains. Each day they stretched it farther. 

Then Spotted Bear tied one corner to the top of the Big Horn Mountains. That side, he fastened to the Pryors. The next corner he tied to the Bear Tooth Mountains. Crossing the Yellowstone Valley, he tied one corner to the Crazy Mountains, and the other to Signal Butte in the Bull Mountains. 

The whole Yellowstone Valley was covered by the white buffalo skin. Though the rains still fell above, it did not fall in the Yellowstone Valley. 

The waters sank away. Animals from the outside moved into the valley, under the white buffalo skin. The people shared the valley with them. 

Still the rains fell above the buffalo skin. The skin stretched and began to sag.

Spotted Bear stood on the Bridger Mountains and raised the west end of the buffalo skin to catch the West Wind. The West Wind rushed in and was caught under the buffalo skin. The wind lifted the skin until it formed a great dome over the valley.

The Great Spirit saw that the people were living at peace with the earth. The rains stopped, and the sun shone. As the sun shone on the white buffalo skin, it gleamed with colours of red and yellow and blue. 

As the sun shone on the rawhide, it began to shrink. The ends of the dome shrank away until all that was left was one great arch across the valley. 

The old man’s voice faded away; but his hands said “Look,” and his arms moved toward the valley.

The rain had stopped and a rainbow arched across the Yellowstone Valley. A buffalo calf and its mother grazed beneath it.

The Crossing

We were anchored in the Bay of Chaguaramas, just on the other side of St-Peters Bay, in Trinidad. Around us, the surface of the water was oily and with a metallic shimmer. The wind wandered around slowly and in all directions, and every time it came our way, it brought with it a diesel smell whose origin I couldn’t pinpoint. Maybe it was the exposed shipyard on the shore, where they were grinding metal all day, letting the iron dust fly and land on decks all around, turning into rust in just a few hours. Maybe it was from one of those beat-up boats that decided to empty its bilge in the water to avoid paying the legal fee and doing it the professional way. Who knows? Looking around the bay, I didn’t have enough fingers to count the possibilities where the leak could come from. Garbage kept floating by, pushed by the strong current, heading somewhere around the bay and out of sight. Trinidad was really not what I expected! During the taxi ride the day before, from the airport of Port of Spain, the island had looked like many other Caribbean places that struggle with too much growth and not enough structure. Everybody was driving a car, alone, and there were shops everywhere where one could buy any piece of plastic imaginable. Sadly, the whole place was looking rickety and dirty. Staring through the back seat window, I had wondered if this was really the promised land of economic growth?

I had flown there to join John, a friend of my girlfriend Jas, who owns a sailboat and with whom we were sailing across the Atlantic, to the Azores. Although we were to pick her up in St-Maarten, along with another guest, I had offered the captain to fly in a little earlier and help him sail from Trinidad. As I sat in the wheel-house and looked around at this dump, I was not sure anymore it had been such a good idea! The reason why we were down there, since the boat had been already in St-Maarten last week, was because of fuel. The captain had a connection, someone at a commercial station who would let him fill up his boat at the discounted price for locals, saving him more than half of the regular price. If you were ready to spend the day going back and forth in a little dinghy, carrying loads of heavy canisters of fuel and becoming all soiled with diesel, then you would be rewarded with savings in the thousands. Fortunately, this chore had been done before I arrived and to be honest, I don’t think I would have participated in something that in Trinidad & Tobago could result in jail time. John had told me that the plan was to spend another day or two here before heading back north to the Dutch Antilles. Looking over to the series of grungy marinas, I couldn’t say that I was thrilled of spending a night there, even less at the prospect of spending a couple of days, so I went down below into my cabin, put my headphones on and started dreaming of the Atlantic.

The first time I crossed the Atlantic was back in 2001 onboard M/Y Talithat-G, the Getty family’s private yacht. We had left London and were heading to St-Maarten when a gale forced us to take refuge in the protective bay of Corunna, in Spain. We sheltered there for a few days, waiting for the storm to pass, and once the forecast showed promising days ahead, we carried on and the rest of our 14-day crossing was smooth and flawless. My second crossing was again on a motor yacht, M/Y Leander, belonging to a friend of the Queen, Sir Donald Gosling. That time though, I headed east from St-Barth’s to Antibes in the Mediterranean. This third crossing was to be my first sailing trip across the Atlantic and it was something I was really looking forward to. The owner of the boat was an old friend of Jas’ with whom she had sailed through Magellan Strait and the Beagle Channel, around the island of Tierra Del Fuego, Patagonia, many years ago. His boat was a 54ft full keel sloop, custom made in Asia. Even though she showed signs of age, her new teak deck managed to shave years off her appearance, and gave her a much needed rejuvenated look. Overall she appeared to be in good shape.

While I lay in my bunk reading the first pages of a book I had chosen for the voyage, called “Seventh Journey” by Earl de Blonville on his expedition to Greenland, a nice aromatic smell of jasmine rice told me that dinner was being prepared. I took the cue and headed to the aft deck to set the table when a small dinghy appeared from the shadows and drove right up to us. Tying his little inflatable to our port side, the driver, without asking permission, hoisted himself onboard, then lit the cigarette that was hanging half wet, off his lips. After a long and almost endless drag, he finally exhaled a huge cloud of smoke that literally made his entire face disappear. The man wore only shorts, which were dirty of engine grease and scattered with holes made from, I could only assume, the burning ash of falling cigarettes. His belly, inappropriately disproportionate to the rest of his body, was the result of many decades of heavy beer drinking. His head was shaven and the light from the salon sparkled on his seemingly polished skull. His nose was not big, but edgy and pointy. Without a beard or mustache, his smoke-colored teeth blended with his dark,tanned skin. Slapping his abdomen with strength and pride, like a keg full of beer, he let out a blaring burp that resonated all the way down to the galley and announced his arrival. The captain peeked his head outside of the entrance and looked at the man who was now again lighting up his wet cigarette. “Hooyyyt!” the man said in a strong coarse Australian accent. John nodded slightly and disappeared to attend more important matters – like making sure that the rice didn’t burn! Taking another long cigarette drag, he looked at me and, his words chasing the smoke away said: “Hoyt! Did’ ya tell him?” “Tell him what?” the captain answered from inside the boat. “ ‘Bout thy Gold!”

Billy was an old sailing pal of the captain, the kind of friend you keep bumping into around the Caribbean anchorages. He and his family had been living on a 50ft boat for years. His last child, a boy, had been born on his boat, his wife giving birth on the kitchen table. “Me son’s strong wit broad shoulders lik’ mine, and you know why? Cause am th’ one who, sticking me fingers under his teeny arms, pull’d him out!” Although I gave him credit for his achievement, I had difficulties chasing this troubling image out of my head. While he constantly cursed, smoked like a chimney and had the manner of a pirate, his children were “home schooled” because, as he said: “thy system’s shite mate!” Not only didn’t he trust the system but he also disapproved of the values inculcated in school. Their sailboat was fitted with several flatscreen tv’s on which the children keep watching movies and playing video games. The several generators onboard kept breaking and were a constant source of endless stories on how the new repairs would boost superpowers which would make them so “cool”! Like a child who had just finished his first lego project and was full of pride, he told us that the freezer he had been working on lately would be able to go as low as minus 17 degree Celsius! I was not too sure why such freezing cold temperature was that important, but for Billy, it sure seemed to be. Deep down though, Billy has a big heart and will do anything for any stranded soul in need of assistance.

As he sat at the table, puffing one cigarette after another, flicking the butts overboard, Billy went on to tell me that I needed to convince the captain of going gold hunting off the coast of Guiana. Apparently he knew of a secret spot, that he had learned of from a drunk man in a bar, and kept the treasure location and coordinates locked in his boat. It sits at 60 meters, and is where a Spanish ship sunk hundreds of years ago, taking along with it several dozen bars of gold. When I told him that the story sounded a bit too much like an old fairy tale told amongst pirates, he rose up to his feet, slapped his big round belly and pointed the finger at me. While staring me straight in the eyes, he told me: “I knew tha’ old man. When he took hy knif’ out in thy bar and point it in me face telling me ain’t nothing more sacred than thy sailor’s word, I knew in me heart he was no shit’in me!” Realizing this conversation was going nowhere, I told Billy that unfortunately, we had guests waiting for us in St-Maarten and a work assignment in the Azores, and sadly, although we would have loved to buy a $10,000 sonar and comb through miles and miles of ocean for weeks, we would have to take a rain check and perhaps partake in the next gold rush. Since I was not going to help him in his sacred quest, he got up and took his pack of cigarettes out. When he found none, and realized it was empty, he scratched his head then said: “Argh! Bunch of wussies! Don’t come crawling to meself when I have all me gold!” And with those last words, he jumped into his dinghy and disappeared in the dark.

Sunset over the Caribbean

The next day we were ready to leave. The forecast showed good weather all the way to the Dutch Antilles and after motoring past Scotland Bay, we left behind Billy and the Bay of Chaguaramas (the two went really well together!) – hoisted the main sail and got our bearing north. Our next stop was St-Maarten!

For the crossing, besides the captain, Jas and myself, our fourth crew member was Liz – a girl from the UK in her early thirties, who several years ago worked as a stewardess with the captain while chartering the boat. She now owned a little vintage boutique in the Portobello district of London. All of us were seaworthy, at different levels. John had over thirty years of sailing experience around the world, from Antarctica to the South China seas. Along with my two crossings, I was what you can call an amateur sailor – someone who knows his way around without knowing much! I tremendously enjoyed sailing and didn’t have trouble with sea sickness. Jas had sailed the Raging Forties and Furious Fifties around infamous Cape Horn and LeMaire Strait, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet and the conditions are some of the worst in the world. But that was over a decade ago and she hadn’t set foot on a sailboat since. Liz’s experience was more with holiday sailing in the Caribbean, but having worked with the captain, she knew her way around the boat.

The morning before our grand departure, we all went grocery shopping. The captain was to buy the basics and most of the food, and we would only have to buy particular things we would want to snack on during the trip. Simple enough you would think! Crossing the Atlantic in a sailing boat takes anywhere between 14 and 30 days, depending on the wind and if you chose to motor or not. As a basic rule, you always want to have more than enough food, fuel, and water. So if you are planing for 17 days, you need to have adequate supplies for at least 21 days. Without asking the others if anyone had any dietary requirements or preferences, John took off and came back much later with his own interpretation of “adequate supplies”: enough rice, pasta and flour for at least 2 months, 6 liters of water (!!!), just enough veggies for a week (no frozen vegetables), a couple of loaves of bread and a pretty big bunch of things we were not allowed to touch. The “Caribes” beer was to be given away in the Azores, not really a problem since the crossing was dry. The cheese was for himself, as was the chocolate, the couple of french baguettes, the cereals, and the yogurts. The sausages were not for us but for a friend. We did have a freezer full of fresh fish: tuna, wahoo, and dorado, caught the week before, but to imagine that we would only eat white bread and fish with rice or pasta for two weeks was not really our idea of a pleasant trip. As we soon found out, this was only the beginning of a long and disagreeable voyage.

As captain and host, there were two things we were expecting from John: to keep us safe and make our trip enjoyable. Everybody onboard believed that these requests were far from being too demanding. Of course this was no luxurious cruise, like the previous two I had been on, but neither was it a boot camp! We were only four people on a 54ft boat and there was no reason why we should not be like a small family, sharing everything – chores included, dining together, laughing, and playing games. God were we wrong!

By mid-afternoon, it was obvious there were two sides, theirs and ours. I was not sure if it was because the captain had had a crush on Jas 15 years ago or something else, but he was really getting annoying and plainly rude. He was in his mid 60’s and from the United Kingdom. Both Liz and Jas remembered him being a gentlemen, a wonderful person to travel with, a man of class and a great host. But over the limited amount of conversation he and I had had between Trinidad and St Maarten, I had come to understand that life had not really turned out the way he had wished. The chartering business hadn’t been too good these past couple of years. As boats constantly demand maintenance and are very expensive to keep, his savings had over time disappeared. Now he was caught in a vicious circle of having to scrape together what he could from chartering just to keep himself afloat. His idea of retiring and enjoying sailing had unfortunately disappeared along with his good humor and manners. This season, he had originally wanted to dry dock the boat in Trinidad and make some repairs, but didn’t have the funds to do so. So he was left with no choice but to cross to the Azores and stay in Horta where rates were much cheaper, saving himself a return airfare and the cost of hauling the boat out during hurricane season.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Liz, Jas and I had all made special arrangements to accompany the captain on his trip to the Portuguese islands. Of course this was something we all wanted to do, but it was rather the idea of spending time amongst friends and doing something exceptional together, that convinced us of taking part in this adventure. We knew John could do the crossing on his own, but were sure that he would appreciate having a little company! Now in hindsight, I think we would have been better off staying home watching Chevy Chase’s “National Lampoon Vacation”. At least we would have laughed!

After doing our own proper groceries and buying toilet paper, since there was certainly not enough for both women onboard, (it is really incredible the amount of toilet paper women use compared to men!) we expected the captain to convene the group and go over the safety protocol, to refresh our memory on seamanship and lay out the ground rules. It was in the end his boat, and it would have been normal procedure for him to tell us where everything was, what we could and couldn’t do, and how we should handle an emergency at sea. Instead, as he made himself a sandwich, he simply said: “Watches will be 2 hours. You guys eat whenever you want. I eat whenever I want! If you are not happy, then get off my boat!” We all stood there in shock as he went up to the wheel-house. We hadn’t even left the port and already we were threatened to leave! Zen my man! I don’t care what personal issues you have and to be honest, I am not interested in finding out the bugs you have twitching up your rear, but you can’t simply treat people who have flown in from three continents and travelled over a day to be with you like this! Even more so when you are the captain and host!

Without a safety brief, without being shown where the life vests were, without being told what bearing to take, without being told what to do if someone fell overboard – his answer to this question was: “You only have five percent survival anyway, so what’s the point?” – without pretty much anything other than his bad manners and ill temper, we set sail for the Azores. We could have indeed left the boat on the spot, but it would have meant a lot of trouble and to be honest, we all wanted to believe that his bad mood was only temporary. Most likely, this was the case of a really bad night’s sleep and, in a couple of days, this would all be over and turn into a happy and pleasurable cruise.

Alas, our hopes and wishes were never to be granted. Not long after leaving the island behind, the wind started to increase. Within an hour or two, the ride became really bumpy and the girls were soon lying down by the wheel-house and seasick. Being sick on board is always to be expected when you spend most of your life on land. For the majority of people, after a couple of days, their bodies become accustomed and the nausea goes away. Aware that both Liz and Jas had known worse conditions than this, their state was not really of concern, but I was mindful that perhaps John and I would have to split the watches until the girls got better. When I suggested to John that, for the first night or two, and for the safety of everyone, we should let the girls recover and share their watch, he waved his hand at me and bawled that my “princess” had to work like everybody else! Looking at Liz who was throwing up over the rail, I felt bad for her knowing that her night watch was coming up soon. As to my “princess”, I told her to take a pill and go to sleep, I would cover her sailing duties.

As expected, by the next day the women were back in shape and everyone had their routine down. But the captain hadn’t mellowed at all and the atmosphere onboard was now officially toxic. Everything was calculated, every word was measured and it was clear that our every move was being watched and judged. Jas and I ate together, while Liz – who hadn’t bought her own food – was forced to eat what John was willing to share. Everyone kept to themselves and secretive conversations amongst the divided group became focused on the drama at play.

Dead Calm

I have always found the ocean vast yet teeming with life. There is always something happening. Terns, gulls and shearwaters keep you company, dolphins ride the bow-wake, whales spout and then disappear, startled flying fish glide unbelievable distances away from you. Civilization is never far away with tankers the size of football fields rushing to their delivery and plastic “works of art” floating past endlessly on their destination to nowhere. This time though, the ocean felt like a giant desert and was irritably silent. Days into our crossing, we had yet to see a dolphin, or a turtle. We hadn’t seen a bird for days and our fishing lines had been idle from the beginning. Was this silence a reflection of what was happening onboard, a mirror to our own tiny, egotistical and secluded world? Everything was so surreal that I couldn’t stop imagining we were acting in a scene of Kevin Costner’s apocalyptic fiasco “Waterworld”. Much effort was being made in trying to change the mood, but we all had to come to terms with the unwanted truth, that this crossing was going to be long and painful. Loneliness was going to be the theme of the voyage! Come to think of it, getting off the boat in St-Maarten would not have been such a bad idea after all!

For many, to think of sailing is to think of adventure, with the wind in your hair, the sun high above, or in the company of friends racing in the Hampton’s or at Cowes. Perhaps for you it is pure relaxation, to be anchored in the crystal clear waters of a secluded bay with white sandy beaches and palm trees sipping a Mai-Thai. Or the exhilarating thrills of exploring the unknown. But in reality, and above all else, sailing is about mastering the passing of time. Whether with wind or without, whether in the most beautiful place on earth, or the worst, one must learn how to be comfortable with – well – doing nothing! Unless you are ready to motor whenever there is no wind, you will spend a great deal of time waiting. Waiting for the wind to come or waiting for the gale to go. Sometimes you will wait for days, even weeks until the right forecast finally comes. Sometimes the ocean will rage with fury, and with no end in sight, you will pray to the gods for calmer days. Sometimes the ocean will be still like a mummy. Days will pass, blending into another seamlessly and the total calm will drive you to such insanity that you would kill for a little breeze. Just think of what the mariner’s of yesteryear must have suffered in the “doldrums”! These long moments might be easier to handle when you hop from one island to another, but while crossing from one continent to another, they become tremendous exercises of meditation. And if, for some unfortunate reason, you are caught on a boat where the crew doesn’t get along, then be prepared to delve into your most powerful mantras.

Plankton bloom from the boat

It was two in the morning one night when I climbed the stairs to the wheel-house to relieve Jas from her watch. Usually, she was ready to go to sleep by the time I arrived. But that night, she was still, sitting on deck looking out over the water, seemingly mesmerized. When she saw me she smiled and gestured that I come quickly. The plankton was in full bloom, and the wake of the boat was creating a wonderful luminous spectacle over the black ocean surface. The incredible light display reminded me of the day when during my youth in Quebec I first saw the Northern Lights dancing in the sky during a silent winter night. As the hull cut through the dark liquid, the water displaced and ruffled, activating these bioluminescent wonders that wove together light blue trails that slowly rippled away – ephemeral manifestations of the invisible world. Like a comet that travels the infinite space, burning itself to its ultimate death while leaving behind a fleeting trail of its existence, so were we.

As if trying to avoid our platitude, the group found a common interest and focused on coming up with theories that would explain the lack of ocean activity. We all knew the seas were overfished and that many species were disappearing rapidly, but there was something else to the mystery. It is only when looking at the log and entries from previous crossings did the explanation come to reveal itself. Seven days into our voyage and a thousands of miles away from the Caribbean, right in the middle of the Gulf Stream, the ocean was still warmer than a city swimming-pool. Three degrees more than the average of years before (according to the captain’s log), meant that the tuna, dolphins and others had most likely traveled north in search of more productive, colder waters, bringing along with them the birds. By the tenth day, we started to see a gently but significant dip in the water temperature. As if to confirm our global warming explanation, late in the afternoon, a small pod of spotted dolphins came and greeted us as the sun went down over a colder Atlantic.

Small pod of spotted solphins

Now that the mystery had been solved, the team spirit rapidly dissolved again and the crew fell right back into its divided and individualistic mode. Our only source of joy now were these little daily visits from the dolphins, sometime in the morning but always around sunset.

One day, shortly after lunch, about five hundred miles from our final destination, the tell-tale spout of a sperm whale appeared on our starboard side. This was something we had all been waiting for. These magnificent toothed whales are year-round residents of the Azores and known to hunt for giant squid along the volcanic ridges that surround these islands. As we were slowly closing the distance to the islands, we were anxiously calculating the days when we would have our first whale sighting. The whale was floating immobile not far away, and judging from its size it appeared to be a single, lonely calf, which was quite unusual. Calves and juveniles are cared for by the females for more than a decade, and when the adults go hunting into the deep abyss the nursery pod is left behind as a group. An abandoned calf would be the perfect meal for a passing pod of Orcas, Pilot Whales or False Killer Whales. So either the rest of the group was nearby, or something bad had happened.

Swimming in the middle of the ocean

The ocean was flat calm, with barely a ripple. The sun was high and the wind almost non-existent. The conditions were perfect to go for a swim and investigate. The problem was that I had never been a big fan of swimming in the middle of nowhere. I grew up watching “Jaws” on the big screen, and am part of that generation that suffered from the “Jaws Syndrome”. I could be swimming in a lake and still would feel afraid of what lurks beneath the surface. Scuba-diving is different, because seeing below the surface automatically eliminates my fears. But for now, the idea of snorkeling my way towards an animal of several tons, that I had never encountered before, with thousands of miles of ocean in all directions demanded a giant leap of faith. Grabbing my snorkel and GoPro, I looked at Jas and told her to keep an eye on me. She had absolutely no idea how frantic panic was spreading through my body! Nevertheless, I summoned all my courage, sat on the diving platform, took a deep breath and jumped!

As I swam in the direction where I thought the whale was, I tried with all my might to stay calm and breathe. The combination of seeing endless blue everywhere, with the borrowed snorkel that was leaking badly and made me sniff salt water, certainly didn’t help me relax. I tried to stay focused, but it was really hard. I didn’t know where to look. Below, to check again that no pre-historical sea creature might suddenly appear from the depths and engulf me. Above and ahead, to see where I was going, but while doing so, I would abandoned my watch of the “under”. Or towards the boat, which seemed to get smaller and smaller. What an ordeal! Alas, the whale finally came into sight. But every time my head was under, salt water went up my nostrils. This was pathetic, I was pathetic! How many people have the chance to swim with whales in the wild, and here I was hardly able to keep my senses together! So much for an explorer! What a lamentable performance!

the dot on the right is me!

In the end, I did manage to control my breathing, and filmed a little, before the calf twisted sideways to look me over and finally swam away. But when I found myself alone again, my delusional feeling of being powerless “live bait” returned, and I swam for life, turning my fins into a small engine! As I returned, I saw Jas on the deck making big signs, like one of those airport ground controllers who direct the planes. What was I to make of her primitive attempts of communication? Was I being followed by a shark? Was there something else coming? Did the captain suddenly decide to leave me behind? All this was not making me feel any better! Grabbing the ladder, I quickly pulled myself up, only to have the exhaust bluster into my face! How pleasant! Jas came to greet me and decoded what she had been waving about. The rest of the whale-nursery was right off the bow! I was not really ready for another round of torture, but those were four more calves. So I exchanged snorkels and quickly jumped back in. This time however, as if on purpose, the captain drove the bow of the boat right into the middle of the pod of calves. Great! Of course, by the time I had swum within sight of the whales the boat had scared them off.

On the two orcas passing by

Later that afternoon, a couple of orcas, in their black and white “tuxedos” dove right underneath the boat. They passed so close, and the ocean was so clear that we felt like looking through the glass of a big aquarium. These were the predators the calves we left behind would have to fear and I was glad they were not alone. Sadly, the orcas had no further interest in us, and quickly dove away.

There are advantages to having days with no wind; albeit not for sailing. For one, you can perfectly see whatever is swimming or floating at the surface. For sailing though, it is horrible. No wind equals no speed and no speed equals motoring. But today with a flat ocean, it wast the perfect day for reconnaissance. The water seemed to be filled with jellyfish and standing at the bow, looking down, I could see in all directions and to great depths, countless of brown jelly fish of medium size, with yellowish, fluffy tentacles gently puffing their way around. Turtles feed on them and so it was no surprise of seeing them in large numbers. I looked up to see if there would be any turtle big enough to justify going back into the open ocean. Since the sperm whale episode, I had had several swims in the ocean and was now way more relaxed. In fact, I was desperately waiting for any opportunity that would request my presence off board! Suddenly, I noticed a strange big fin flapping about just ahead, one that resembled way too much to the fin of a shark. Our bearing was directly towards whatever it was, and unless one of us was to move, we were going to hit it. So I shouted: “Sharks, sharks, stop the boat!”

As we drifted towards the fin, the mystery was revealed – it was a Mola! Molas are pelagic fish that can reach up to 13ft in length and weigh as much as 3,300lbs. The English call it Sunfish while the French have named it the “Poisson Lune” (moonfish). They drift sideways close to the surface, pecked at by a regiment of small cleaning fish, and feed on jellyfish, explaining its appearance here today. A Mola was precisely what I had waited for. This time I was ready; and quickly and inconspicuously slipped into the water. The bizarre looking fish first dove to about 30ft before coming back up and allowing me to stay with him for a while. Looking at the bulgy eyes and roundness of the body, I could definitely see why the French had opted for the moon. Which left wandering, how on earth the English could find any resemblance to the sun in this weird looking flat oval shaped sea creature? My bet was that they had named it this way just to annoy their European neighbors in the usual anglo-french competition!

The mystery is revealed – a Mola!

For 15 minutes, the “Sun/Moonfish” and I eyed each other with mutual curiosity, and then it probably decided it was time to carry on with the task that had brought him here: to gorge itself on stingy, juicy jellyfish. Reluctantly I paddled back to yet another rice and fish meal aboard the “loveboat”.

On the seventeenth day, the Azores appeared. Our ordeal was about to end. Pico island’s black volcanic peak rose into the sky, piercing the clouds like a giant beacon, guiding the desperate seafarers seeking land. Although we could have tacked our way in, slowly and gently, no one onboard was in the mood of stretching our lamentable and suffocating team assignment even by an hour or two. All Jas, Liz, and myself wanted to do, was to get there and head straight to Pete’s bar for a cold and refreshing pint so that we could finally, and in unison, let the steam out. But this was not the end of it: The captain had yet another surprise in store for us.

Back in St-Maarten we had agreed to share the expenses such as the cost of fuel. John had done the crossing many times before and had a good idea of how much it would cost. Obviously, he had been quick to remind us that depending on how much we would motor, the price would go up or down, which made sense to all of us. But at no time during the trip did he let us know how much we were racking up. Instead, he watched the hours on the engine accumulate, without saying a word. Docked at the fuel station in Horta, the pump finally clicked, indicating that the tank was full, and John came to us, gloating, with the arrogant look of a taxman who had finally cornered his quarry. With a big smile on his face and no apologies, as if this was the most normal thing to ask, he told us that the bill was now twice his pre-departure estimate.

Paying our dues, the three of us got off the boat and walked away wondering in silence what had happened to this man to become so bitter. As if on cue, and as if life didn’t want us to ponder on the insignificant, just then, out from his kiosk came the legendary Norberto Serpa. This little man with his iconic red bandana, long auburn hair and beard bleached by the sun and salt is the famous whale watching guide “ocean guru” who takes out National Geographic, the BBC and all of the world’s most famous underwater photographers. And, lucky for as he was also an old friend of Jas! With a huge grin he hugged Jas and greeted us like his own family. “Jasssssssmiiine! It has been so long! Come quick, all of you, come for lunch at my house on Pico, right now, you will adore!” What he had forgotten was to tell us that we were going whale-watching first with a group of tourists, then to his home and that lunch would be more like dinner. So within 10 minutes off the boat after 17 days we were on a boat again. But without our cameras and dressed for land – not for the sea! Liz had put on her best “going out dress” a vintage crochet thing that barely covered the necessary above her skimpy little bikini and she soon found herself shivering like crazy. But that afternoon, and to the privilege of our eyes only, we saw sperm-whales breaching again and again, while dolphins kept us company, riding on each side of our boat, all the way up to Norberto’s “Adega” a little stone house made of volcanic rock on the flank of the Pico volcano overlooking the ocean. That evening, we left behind all our bad memories and feasted on local delicacies and fresh tuna grilled to perfection by the most warm-hearted, smiling, and generous host.

On the way to Noberto’s house on Pico

Common Dolphins coming along!

Pages and pages could be written on the things that were done and said during the crossing, how appalling John’s behavior evolved and how his neglect of safety would be worthy of a lawsuit. But, in the end, thankfully, the crossing passed without any major incidents. I prefer not to think what could have or would have happened, had a major storm hit the boat, or any other predictable event that can happen during such a long voyage at sea. In retrospect, this trip was a great occasion for my partner Jas and I to test our capacity, as a couple and as a team to deal with situations like being stuck on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, with a madman as a captain. Although we would certainly not repeat this trip, we are glad that we did it. Life can be lived resenting these mishaps and misfortunes, and wishing we had the power to foresee and avoid them. But I prefer to focus on the positive and the opportunities for growth that such unwanted events bring along. As Shakespeare wrote:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”

Our itinerary

Atlantic Crossing 2012 from Daniel Fox on Vimeo.

Patagonia 2011

This land has been many things to many people. For Magellan and Drake, it was the land of giants. For FitzRoy, it was the beginning of the end. For Darwin, it was a trip that would change his life. ForJeremy Button, it was his home, then his curse. For St-Exupery, Patagonia was his muse. And forChatwin and Theroux, it became their salvation. For me, this vast land, this million kilometer square of mountains, rivers, canyons, steppes, ocean coasts, and unbelievable skies, Patagonia is where my story began.

For more than 10 years, I tried to follow a path that was unfortunately, doomed from the beginning. You see, back in my childhood days, I would either spend my days on the shore of the St-Lawrence River, meticulously examining each and every tide pool or roaming the forest in search of small and bizarre critters. I was always down on my knees, my head in the water, or digging under a tree or a rock. On my 16th birthday, I received two of my most cherished childhood gifts, two photos, framed, from the famous photographer Talbot – “Flight”, the iconic photo of two dolphins jumping in front of a cargo ship, and “Megaptera”, the amazing tail of  a humpback whale. Back then, if you would have asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up, my answer was, and had been the same for a very long time: “I want to sail around the world and study whales”! In fact, the first time I applied for university was in Marine Biology at the University of British Columbia. On a funny note, I used to watch “Miami Vice” in the late 80’s and envy Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) because he lived in a marina, on his Endeavor sailboat.

Then, like so many young dreamers, I was told to “Wise Up” and get serious with my life. Listening to the senior council, I put aside those “infantile” ideas of traveling the world’s oceans looking for swimming mammals and enrolled in business and marketing! I still regard that day as the day that I sold my soul. I spent the next 15 years pushing my way into a world that never seemed quite right for me. Every time I felt the weight of the system bringing me down, I would leave everything behind and escape for months on end, disappearing somewhere, closer to nature. Closer to what deep down I was longing for. One time, I spent a summer at Isla Guadalupe in Mexican waters, diving with white sharks.

The last and final straw happened in New York in 2008. After a disastrous short-lived marriage, I finally did what I should have done a long time ago. I was 34 years old and had wasted enough of my precious life. It was time to set the clock back, rewind the tape and press play again. I sold everything, geared up with camping equipment and picked a destination – a far one, far far away! Although initially I wanted to land in the Falklands, with my budget, Patagonia was more of a realistic choice. So on January 2009, I arrived at the Valdes Peninsula, in the Chubut Province, located in northern Patagonia. There, for the first time in over 20 years, I felt alive. And then the most bizarre thing happened. I remember standing on the beach, facing out, it was a particular windy day and no one could be seen anywhere. I started to feel chocked and out of air. So I took a real deep breath, like none I had ever taken before. I felt the air travelling down to my lungs as if it was the first time I was breathing. I felt my lungs opening up, as if it was for the first time. And this sudden feeling of awareness, as if I was unexpectedly waking up after decades of hibernation.

Since then, I have been back every year to this “lugar salvaje”. And as it turns out, precisely every 14 months!! Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, it is only a coincidence…. I think so!  Anyhow, this year, I went back with my partner, photographer Jasmine Rossi. Her own story with Patagonia is also quite something. Working in the financial world of London, she developed a chronic tendinitis and reluctantly took a year off. Fluent in spanish, she decided to visit South America. As she says: “I wanted to get as far away as possible from the intrusions of what we call “civilization”, so I canoed through jungle rivers and rode along Andean trails from Venezuela to Chile…”  Two years later, Jasmine published the first ever in-depth book on the wildlife of the Valdes Peninsula, “The Wild Shores of Patagonia”.

Jasmine needed to photograph certain winter landscapes for the re-edition of her book “The Spirit of Patagonia”. So after persuading Volkswagen to lend us their new Amarok, we drove south for another 6 weeks of adventure. Overall the trip was a success. We got the shots we were after. But the disappointing part was, and it is always the case on most of my trips, to see Man’s impact on Nature.  Read “Land of Savages” and “Polyethylene Sculpture

Land of Savages

Disclaimer – GRAPHIC and DISTURBING images

 

“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.” Henry David Thoreau

It seems that lately, I have been writing more about the tragedies I am witnessing than the beauties of exploring this incredible planet. Unless you find yourself secluded in the middle of nowhere – but again, our pollution and destruction has no limits – you are bound to witness and feel the “savage” nature humans possess. “Shot for a fish”  the story of a seal killed by a fisherman was written when I went to Uruguay. “Refuge”, the story of a jaguar left with no teeth, was written when I went to Misiones. “W.H. Hudson”, the story on how disconnected farm people have become, was written earlier on this trip. And now, I am left with no choice but to conclude Patagonia 2011 with another tragic story.

According to Wikipedia, the word “savage” or “barbarian is: “a term used to refer to a person who is perceived to be uncivilized. The word is a general reference to a member of a nation or ethnos, typically a tribal society as seen by an urban civilization viewed as inferior. In idiomatic or figurative usage, a “savage” may also be an individual reference to a brutal, cruel, warlike, insensitive person.

I actually believe we have gotten it totally wrong. The definition should rather be the following: “savage” or “barbarian” is known to be associated with an industrialized and modern society, also called civilized, where its inhabitants suffer from existential egoism. The unsustainable behavior is characterized by a deep lack of respect and care for the environment and a desire to radically exterminate anything that seems to be a threat to its existence. These threats are, in general, unfounded and come from a lack of inner security. The inhabitants are usually insecure with the idea of other species sharing what they believe to be their land. Extreme greed is often referred to as a form of savage nature.”

The quest to explicitly exterminate animals is a modern invention. What we – us, humans – did to the buffalo, to the wolf, and so to many others, and keep doing, like to the shark is nothing less than savage. Killing is nothing new, but the scale and purpose of eradication is. Even worse is the sense of righteousness that the perpetrators are taking.

In Argentina, and more precisely in Patagonia, sheep farming is big business. It is not what it used to be, the golden days are long gone, but it is still the biggest industry in  the area. Since 1889, almost every square meter of steppe has been turned into pasture for sheep and therefore, fenced. And worse, every single animal that is not a sheep is seen as a nuisance and consequently needs to be exterminated. Guanacos, the wild ancestor of the llama, used to roam South America in huge numbers – estimated at around 50 million in the 1500’s. But with the arrival of the Europeans and the beginning of sheep farming, their numbers were reduced to near extinction until they were put on the CITESlist. Today, although their population is bouncing back – 1 million more or less, it is a far cry from what it used to be. Still, since they eat twice as much grass than the sheep, for the estancias, Guanacos are simply “stealing” the food from their land. Even if hunting them is now prohibited, with little or no enforcement, they still kill them every week or so. And here is where the atrocity begins. Because their hunt is illegal, the dead animals are left in the field to rot. Nothing is done with their precious fur, nothing is done with their skin, nothing is done with their cholesterol free delicious meat. The only utility a shot guanaco has, is to spread death. Estancias use their carcasses to kill the others, especially the pumas and foxes. By cutting their guts open and pouring powerful poison over them, they create nothing else than a “Fountain of Death”. It is common to find around a dead guanaco: skunks, foxes, armadillos, and birds of prey,  and most likely pumas dead in their lair. Anything that eats meat or scavenges is at risk. And they themselves continue to contaminate the chain. Since the poison doesn’t disappear, it is passed over from one carcass to another. For each dead animal, dozens of others have had to die.

Pumas and foxes are the axis of evil of sheep farming. By taking out the guanacos, the farmers gave these predators no choice but to go after the woolly easy-to-catch mammal. Even though their predation is insignificant  in numbers – it is the same for the wolf and the shark, the retribution applied was and is still of catastrophic proportion. During a previous trip, I learned of one estancia that killed 140 pumas in 7 years. Today, even though it is prohibited by law since 1996, the fox and the puma continue to be hunted and trapped. The consensus is simple, no predators will be allowed to live on a sheep farm. None, whatsoever. So every time they see tracks or a kill made by one of them, they send the dogs after them and eradicate the menace.

So who is savage? The Cherokee who feared that the unjust killing of a wolf would bring about the vengeance of its pack mates, and that the weapon used for the deed would be useless in the future unless exorcized by a medicine man? The Kwakiutl, who when killing a wolf, would lay out the animal on a blanket and have portions of its flesh eaten by the perpetrators, and who would express regret at the act before burying it? The Ahtna who would take the dead wolf to a hut, where it would be propped in a sitting position with a banquet made by a shaman set before it? The Eskimos who, when killing a wolf, would walk around their houses four times, expressing repent and abstaining from sexual relations with their wives for four days. (Of Wolves and Men)

Or Us, the pinnacle of evolution, God’s creature, the center of the universe, the planet’s savior?

“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” Albert Einstein

Polyethylene sculptures

In 2008, the province of Buenos Aires banned the used of plastic bags. In 2004, the province of Mendoza prohibited the use of non-biodegradable bags. In 2005, the province of Chubut, in Patagonia, prohibited the use of polyethylene bags. The same happened in the Patagonian tourist towns of El Bolson in Chubut, (2006) and El Calafate in Santa Cruz (2007) Yet, as of today, only the town of Calafate is known to have enforced the law. Grocery stores in Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Chubut and all over Argentina still use plastic bags in monumental numbers. But there is no other place where “breaking the law” is more evident than in “pristine” Patagonia. In an area known as “the land of the wind” the prevailing westerlies blow across the Andean peaks, over the vast empty steppes. The winds carry plastic bags from open garbage fields, from every pueblo, and every town, to the Atlantic ocean. From these palaces of our consumption, and for kilometers around, plastic reigns. Trees and bushes transformed into polyethylene sculptures, product of an oil era. And for the ocean and its inhabitants, god knowns how many of these eternal deadly ghosts have soiled its beaches and waters.

You can see the panorama photo up close if you click this link

W.H. Hudson


“I had become incapable of reflection; my mind had suddenly transformed itself from  a thinking machine  into a machine for some unknown purpose. To think was like setting in motion a noisy engine in my brain; and there was something there which bade me still, and I was forced to obey. My state was one of suspense and watchfulness: yet I had no expectation of meeting with an adventure, and felt as free from apprehension as I feel now when sitting in a room in London… I was powerless to wonder at or speculate about it; the state seemed familiar rather than strange, and although accompanied by a strong feeling of elation, I did not know it – did not know that something had come between me and my intellect – until I lost it and returned to my former self – to thinking, and the old insipid existence.”  W.H. Hudson, famous naturalist

I have always loved the life on a ranch. I have always felt connected to Life, and its cycle. You wake up in the morning and from the moment you open you eyes, you follow Nature’s rhythm, until you retire at night, having participated once again in a ritual several thousands of years old. You learn to understand the value of what the Earth gives you. The relationship between you, the animals, the plants, the insects, and the land could not be stronger – everyone and everything is interconnected, intertwined in a deep network of independencies. You need the land and the land needs you. You need the animals and the animals need you. It is a symphony orchestrated by nature, and I, am only one of the participants. Everything I need is given to me through a complex yet simple and delicate ecosystem. The bees, the cattle, the horses, the pigs, the chickens, the flies, the trees, the sheep, the wind, the sun, the frost, the pond, the fish, the river, the frogs, the birds, the rabbits, the wolves, the ducks, and me, we all play a role and our survival is tied to one another. It is a ritual that I have always felt honored and proud of taking part in.

Unfortunately, in our industrialized society, ranching and farming have become anything but“connected to the Land”. Independently if you are a gaucho (cowboy), a rancher, or an owner, the fact that one spends his or her days working the land has no indication whatsoever of his or her relationship to Nature. A fact that even surprised me when meeting several wildlife photographers, filmmakers, scientists, and biologists – it is not because one works in or with nature that necessarily he or she is close or connected to it. The last week has only reinforced this reality.

What we used to see as a privilege – believing it was a gift from the universe to allow us to harvest the earth, we now see as a given and a due. The land is a resource to be exploited and so are the animals.  And if one species is an obstacle, or a burden to our means, then we eliminate it. The more you can yield out of an acre, the better. No matter the consequences, we bully ourselves through life, thinking that it is our destiny to plow the Earth as if it was our personal galley.

Not only have we transformed our fertile lands into monoculture deserts, but we also have turned our society into a monoculture landscape. We live in a world where individuals are asked to grow up specializing in one particular thing and forget about general knowledge. As early as thirteen years old, a teen is asked what he or she wants to focus on, undermining the idea to acquire a broad foundation before deciding what to become. Every time I think of this issue, I think back of Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps one of the finest politicians in the world, in the last 200 years. A naturalist, a hunter, a rancher, a military man, a scientist, a writer, an explorer and a politician, he was solid in geography and well-read in history, strong in biology, French, and German, but interestingly enough, deficient in mathematics, Latin and Greek. What can be said of today’s political or business elite, bred to excel in one thing only.

I have never been afraid of death or killing. I have always understood the dynamics of life and the ramifications of its complexity. The idea that death is bad is only a modern invention. Nature not only does not value one over the other, but each is a necessity to the universal equilibrium. The death or destruction of one, is the birth and proliferation of another. When working on a farm, or a ranch, death is just part of life.  In fact, the farmed animals have evolved into trading the assurance of their survival for the price of their death. For me, to respect and honor the food on my plate, I need to understand and fully participate in what it takes to get there. I completely understand when hunters and fishermen claim to be more in touch with nature that the city dwellers. I have had on my hands the blood of fish, game and farm animals, and each time I have felt more connected to Earth than going to the supermarket. Every time I have honored the moment, the animal and thanked the universe for its grace. It was obviously with great enthusiasm that I agreed to tag along to lasso a cow that had a broken leg and needed to be put down. It was my understanding that I was going to participate in a dignified ritual. Here I was, in an estancia (ranch) surrounded by mountains and lakes, where cattle still roam free and horses are the main means of transportation. I wanted to respect what the cow had lived for. I wanted to be there and honor her death and the legacy she would leave behind. Instead, what I witnessed, was a brutal and perverted act of barbary. From the kill to the skinning, everything was done with disdain. I found myself sad, not for her death, but for us, humans and how, even in the most remote places imaginable, where one would expect the deepest communion with nature, we have become disconnected.

And then I was reminded of the passage on W.H.Hudson in Chris Moss’s “Patagonia: A Cultural History”, when he went to London, leaving Patagonia behind, “He was outraged at the way industry and its processes had usurped nature in his ancestral homeland, and would later describe his adopted England a glorified poultry farm … Somehow, while swatting away troublesome thoughts, the idler had reached a firm conclusion, that the biblically sanctioned notion of a natural world created for man to conquer and dispose of at will was simply unsustainable. To Hudson, the natural world, the environment, was sacred and not there solely be exploited. He contrasted nature’s richness with the artificial pleasures that most men valued – newspapers, finances, current affairs, city life – and which he despised. He viewed nature as a way  out of the tiresome, very English town-and-country dichotomy, and as a means to finding health as well as moral well-being.”

The Sun Will Keep Rising


“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.“  Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States of America

Call me an eternal optimist. I have always looked at life with a glass half full mentality. I have always believed that the world is what you make out of it. Even in the worst of times, we see what we want to see. I abide by those three little words: “Everything is Relative”.

But being an optimist nowadays is no small feat! Not one day goes by without having the gloom of the world plastered in front of our eyes, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Sometimes, it seems that the only way to escape this behemoth of negatively charged matter is to disappear, disconnect from the grid. Something not so easy according to recent studies. For many, especially for the young generation, to do so is as hard as kicking a drug or smoke addiction!

An intrusive network of satellite TVs, combined with limitless access to the internet and an economy that knows no boundaries, have reduced what was once a vast planet of great distances into a small village where everything is only a click away. Whether you are on the train, in a cab, waiting for the bus, on the plane, walking down the street, or even on a beach in the Caribbean, at school, at work, in a meeting, or in bed. Fast Food information (information that is devoid of any meaning, fat on drama, sweet on bias opinions, saturated with voyeurism and presented in large portions without any context) is constantly pushed down our subconscious. Independently if one wants it or not, it is getting harder and harder not to be “connected”.

Is there a correlation with food? There was a time when it was limited to the kitchen and restaurants. Now, Fast Food (devoid of any real benefits, full of processed fat, sweet on corn derivatives, saturated with attractive colors and presented in unnecessarily large portions) is found anywhere from the gas station to the pharmacy. Consequently, and obviously combined with other factors, our health has degraded tremendously. Is our intelligence awaiting the same fate?

We live in an era where every second, we are reminded that Armageddon is upon us. Today it is Climate Change. Yesterday it was Gas Stocks. Tomorrow will be the Economy, and next month it will be time for Fish Stocks. Next year is 2012 – The End of the World. An Asteroid is coming soon, within the next 2,500 years and the Rise of Sea Levels will drown most of the big cities in the world, sometime within the next 100 years. TV thrives with shows that fantasize on computer simulations that illustrate what will happen when the End is at our door. Hollywood has an orgy every time a Doomsday prediction comes out.

We must ask ourselves, are we actually wired to process all this information? Is it making our lives better? Is it necessary and trivial to know everything that happens everywhere? Or is all this information instead making us more anxious, depressed and giving us a false interpretation of the world? Is the world really worse now than before?  And if it is, relative to what?

I am not saying that the world is beautiful and that we should’t worry. Not at all! Believe me, I am going through my share of craziness down here in Argentina, a country where making sense has been extinct for a very long time. (Don’t get me started!) I do believe that indeed the world is coming to an end, the end of a “cycle”!

This morning, while running, I witnessed a beautiful sunrise and it made me think. Independently of all our tragedies, our wars, our losses, and our threats, the planet keeps going and the sun keeps rising. And the beauty of the sunrise will have nothing to do with the state of the world. Isn’t it refreshing! Isn’t it amazing to realize that at the end, all of our daily worries, all of our anxiety, our stress, our doubts, our complaints, have no place in the scheme of the Universe. The world could come to an end tomorrow, yet, the sun will rise again, reminding us that life goes one, as it has since billions of years and will do for billion of years to come.

Shot for a fish

“If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, or enemies, for the same reasons. “ C.S. Lewis

It was hard not to remember those words as I kneeled next to the dead female sea lion, beached only minutes before. The evidence was flagrant. There were no signs of trauma, no decomposition, no bloating. Blood was still trickling from her snout. Besides the missing eye, probably taken by a seagull, there were no other plucking wounds. This animal must have been alive only a few hours ago. On her back was the explanation for such an unexpected turn of events – a clear round opening, with soft curled red edges. A theory became quite obvious but I still had to do one more test before confirming my suspicion. I walked towards the sand dunes, picked a small branch and with it came back to the victim. Sliding the stick into the wound, it went in as expected and determined what was now a fact. The sea lion had been shot, and hit probably just before diving, explaining the low angle of the bullet’s trajectory inside the animal.

Looking over the horizon and trying to figure out how this poor creature had ended here, I noticed another floating object not too far off. As it got closer, I was able to clearly identify it. Sadly, it was another dead sea lion, but this time, it was a pup. As it rose up with the rolling waves, just before being rumbled back down, the animal would find itself in a transparent crest, illuminated from behind, crystalized and motionless, as if it had been delicately displayed in a glass of formalin. This one never made it to the beach. Trapped in the tumble of the rollers, it slowly kept drifting down the coast. I didn’t get the chance to examine the body but my conclusion seemed quite solid. With a fishing village at about 4 kilometers up the coast, coincidentally the direction from which the sea lions had drifted, and the reputation these animals have for “stealing” the fisherman’s catch, it was fair to assume that the mother and her baby had crossed the path of a person who believed that the world was too small for them to feed on the same “commodity” that he was making a living of.

Filled with a sudden lack of hope, I found myself questioning humans’ ability to make peace with Nature. Just the day before, I had finished reading Sylvia Earle’s book: The World is Blue: How our Fate and the Ocean’s are oneand had started reading A Passion for the Earth, a book of essays, inspired by David Suzuki. Sylvia’s last words were: “Throughout the history of our species, the mostly blue planet has kept us alive. It’s time for us to return the favor.” Closing in on 8 billion of a hungry world population, how many wild animals, how many jungles, how many oceans, will be killed, cut, and polluted so that we may carry on the uncontrolled and unaccounted destruction of our host?

Mate Expedition

There is a toasty aroma in the air. A strong yet delicate fragrance with a hint of fresh grass, tinged with roasted nuts. This smell, unknown to my olfactory receptors for most of my life, was now a familiar one. The wind is carrying it from the giant rolling ovens that are drying the fresh yerba leaves, brought in from the fields only minutes ago. The process, rudimentary, is still the same one as 50 years, ago. The only difference is the science of time. Branches with the leaves still attached, are carried on a moving mat and dropped in a rolling  cylinder where the open mouth of a scorching furnace tumbles them across to safety. The secret lies in the timing. Years of minute observations, trials and errors, has led to the perfect equation, genius of physics and math, a precise number of seconds, spent under a precise temperature, to give the perfect roast. The result is a partially dried leave, full of flavors and healthy benefits, ready to be crushed and packed.

I was back at Las Marias, wrapping up a 3-month assignment. Sitting on the front porch of La Majoria (main house) I was doing a ritual that had now become daily routine: pour loose yerba into a gourd, cover the top with my hand, turn the gourd upside down and shake it several times. The goal is to bring to the surface the “Polvo” (powder). Then pour water on one side, not too much, just enough to soak the leaves and keep the other side dry. As an old man said to me once: “You are not simply pouring water, you are feeding the yerba so that it can breathe”. After a couple of minutes, sip the water through the Bombilla (straw). Refill and sip. Repeat.

Mate is more than a drink. Comparing it to tea or coffee would be more than an understatement, it would be an insult. It is more like wine. It is a lifestyle statement. One that says that time and relationships matter. One that says that speed and singularity are not a priority. It is a ritual that invites for sharing and trust. A reminder from the Native Indians passing the pipe around, as a sign of welcome and humility. It is a ceremony that invites strangers and solidifies friendships.  In Argentina, it is almost a religion and when offered to you, it is impossible to refuse.

Together with renown photographer Jasmine Rossi, based in Buenos Aires, our assignment was to travel to the birthplace of Mate, where it is grown, more precisely to the northern provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, and find out more about this cultural phenomenon. We decided to call our trip, the Mate Expedition!

The result is now available online20 interviews, 4 diaries and hundreds of photos. Sit back, relax and let the people from Argentina tell you a story, their story. In our ever faster society, Mate is an antidote. It is a reminder that life is more than running after our next achievement. It is an effortless social meditation that emphasizes on our need for interaction. It is a pause, a long one, that forces you to absorb the beauty that surrounds you. One that forces you to listen and to watch. Mate is not only a celebration of time and friendship, but it is a tribute to Life. Enjoy!

Wildlife of Argentina in New York


The Consulate General of Argentina

requests the pleasure of your company for the opening of

Wildlife of Argentina” by Daniel Fox

Opening Reception October 7th at 6pm
RSVP@cnyor.com (really important)
12 West 56th street, New York

Presented by Taragui, Planet Explore, Wend Magazine, Plywerk, Kokatat, TesacomAlpineAire Foods & Periscope Creative

A Story to Tell

“One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.” Joseph Campbell

Ever since I was a young boy, I found my inspiration and comfort in nature. It thought me about life, and death, about change and evolution, about challenges and perseverance. It thought me about perspective and balance.  Most importantly, it thought me about being humble and spiritual.

I started the Wild Image Project so that I could tell a story. A story about our relationship with nature, about our journey in this universe, a story about being human. Humans love to see the world within a limited frame, within a world that they can explain, control and manipulate. We forget that who we are today is the result of a process that has lasted several millions of years. We are also, just a chapter in the story of evolution. It is fair to say that if we had the ability to look into the future, most likely, we would discover that our appearance has evolved, changed, just like we have changed physically and mentally since the time we came down from the trees.

As our world is changing, so are we. Change is always hard. Change is by nature an unwelcome force. But change is the reason why we know so much and why we are so good at surviving – it forces us to adapt and thrive. Our unsustainable lifestyle has led us to re-question our values, the way we consume and the way we live. It is not just the last 50 years that have been damaging our planet, but the last 3,000, ever since we started to put Man as the perfect creation and saw nature as an imperfect reality: cruel, inhuman, obsolete…Since then, we have consumed our planet earth and manipulated her with no respect, believing that this land was only for our benefit. Just like a teen, who decides to egotistically deny his heritage and sees himself as the source of truth, we have strayed away from our roots bragging about our superiority.

In this period of change, it is important to remember that as we consume and destroy our planet, the people we hurt the most are ourselves. The planet will take a couple of thousands of years to recuperate, but we won’t. In fact, it has been proven, that the moment Man disappears, nature will flourish again. If we want the world to participate in this journey of growth, we have to change our line of thought. We have to stop seeing ourselves as saviors of the planet. The only thing we will save is us, our survival. This change of lifestyle must be embraced, not because it will save the planet, but because it will assure our survival and will provide a promising future for our children.

The story I want to tell is a story of hope and of unity. We are part of Nature, and it is part of Us. As someone said about my work: “Going beyond the rubric of “wildlife photography”, Daniel Fox’s images invite the viewer to act as celebrants/participants in a visual communion with Nature. Portrayed with a fresh directness that captures the immediacy of their natural environment, the subjects are offered not as “specimens” but as noble protagonists. Fox captures nature at its rawest and most challenging of states. He conveys its beauty and imbues it with exquisite poetry. Through this unique perspective, the natural world in its resplendence is both honored and transformed.”

It is my way to foster the flowering of our humanity, it is my own way of making the world a better place.

Refuge

I love the wilderness. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless towards it. I have lived in cities and I have enjoyed them. I love how convenient they are. I love their dynamics, their powerful energy. They are simply pure miracles of ingenuity. But at night, when the sun sets, when I close my eyes and seek my dreams, I long for the sound of the wind sneaking through the cracks, the rain tumbling on the roof, or the waves pounding on the beach. I close my eyes and retreat in my world where the Wild conducts her own symphony – the frogs croaking, the birds tweeting, the crickets chirping. I have often felt like a tamed wild animal, always looking out, over the horizon and wondering where I belonged. Many days I have felt caged, prisoner, torn between the comfort of a modern world, and the rawness and purity of the Wild. Yet, I have always had the freedom to choose, to move from one world to another. In all honesty, I consider my personal contradictions a privileged dilemma.  But the animal in front of me, with his mouth wide open fletching his razor sharp 2 inch long canines, a fur coat with patterns and hues beyond beauty, deep blue eyes with a piercing black iris fixed on me, this creature, this wild animal, has never asked for the conveniency of daily deliveries and a roof over its head. This jaguar, this magnificent predator of the jungle, is behind bars because it has been found at the frontline of an over expanding human world, with no room for the wild. This cage unfortunately, has become it last refuge, literally.  This wild cat was fortunate enough to find a land owner who preferred to capture it and call the authorities, rather than killing it – the usual solution. For him and for all the other animals in this center, their fate took a drastic turn when Man showed up. It was either being killed or living in close confinement.  With hunger for progress and gain, our modern world keeps growing, infringing its reach, taking without asking.  And the last refuge for the wild has been parks around the world, created to protect nature’s treasures.

I am in Misiones, a province in the northeastern part of Argentina. It is a little narrow strip of land, squeezed between Brazil and Paraguay. While the neighboring countries have been leveling down the forest and replacing it with agriculture and cattle, Misiones has been more or less successful at understanding the economic value of the almost extinct Atlantic Jungle* and its inhabitants and the province has done what it can to preserve it. From the air, the area almost looks like a small peninsula of trees, threatened by a raging sea of deforestation. Its dark green color much in contrast to the surrounding plain landscape. In the 1990’s, Argentina put a lot in effort into establishing parks and natural reserves. In fact, the momentum for conservation was so strong that a total of 800,000 hectares, about ⅓ of the province, ended up protected, off-limit to logging companies and agricultural plantations. But at the turn of the century, things changed drastically. For the past 15 years, economic realities and a change in government, have shifted the efforts in conservation and now the forest is being cut down from the inside out. Logging companies are given more to cut, protected areas are being opened up to build new highways. To make matters worse, illegal immigrants from Brazil are squatting in the forest, slashing and burning the last remaining remnants of pristine wilderness, while local politicians are granting them asylum as long as they vote for them. In other words, the forest is the new currency for votes and the exchange for corrupted hands. Every year, countless new patches of jungle are being turned into tobacco and yerba mate fields or as silent barren land surrounding the immigrant’s makeshift shacks amongst piles of garbage. Even when so-called sustainable “Selective Logging” is performed, the damage inflicted to retrieve the trees is enormous. Parks and Reserves are still officially there when looking at a map, but on the ground the reality is far from what it should be.

For the past 3 weeks, I have been traveling through the area. I am here to photograph the country’s wildlife for a show that the government is giving me at the Consulate in New York. But honestly, I have been barely able to snap one single image. After staying at the Marcio Ayres Research Center located in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Yaboti, at the ranger station of the Provincial Reserve Urugua-i and at the science research center of National Park of Iguazu, I am drained of any inspiration. Ever since my arrival, my days have been filled with horror stories. I feel more like a therapist, listening and taking in each person’s account of how the jungle is being cut, how the animals are being killed, how the local authorities are corrupted and how powerless they feel.

There are so many stories to tell. A report done by the rangers, on road kills on the new international road that cuts right thought the Uruagua-i reserve, counts 3 to 5 casualties a day, every day of the year, including jaguars and tapirs. When they presented their result to the government, they were told to do nothing and most importantly not to contact the media, if they wanted to keep their job.

A new super highway is being built right through the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Yaboti to accelerate the logging traffic between Brazil and Paraguay.

Rangers that are so underpaid they have to pay for their own uniforms, hats, radios, and even for the badge that says “ranger” on their shirt. Rangers with no support whatsoever. Their job is to patrol the jungle, but they aren’t given enough diesel to do it. They have to chase down illegal hunters that are armed to the teeth, but don’t have the right to carry a firearm. An amazing research station, with brand new accommodations, a satellite, a computer station, running water and solar panels, sponsored by European organizations, left to decay with no one to care of it. Local conservationists who tell me how their work of over 30 years is now being trashed as if no laws existed and as if past agreements stood for nothing.

The list goes on and on. But the one I want to tell you is the one about a particular jaguar, the other one in the cage, lying next to the animal that I am photographing. It is the story of a male jaguar, in his prime years, one that should be roaming the dense forests like a stealth warrior, tracking peccaries, but instead is confined behind those bars. It is the story of how this mighty predator of South America got to loose all his teeth. Jaguars have the most powerful bite of the “big cats”. Their huge canines are used to crush skulls, break necks or pierce through the tapir’s one inch thick skin. So a jaguar with no teeth would be like a cheetah with no legs!

Even if protected, locals see them as a threat. When an animal is seen in a populated area, or near a farm, procedures are taken to capture it. At the same time, unfortunately but most likely, a team of illegal poachers is hired to hunt it down. Even if the traffic of jaguar’s pelt is not what it used to be, 18,000 a year back in the 1970’s, it is still extremely valuable on the black market.

When one was spotted near a school some years ago, authorities were called to secure the area. With children around, it didn’t take long before a trap was set up. Jaguars are by nature curious creatures, and often, to their misfortune, their curiosity spells disaster. In this case, a simple steel cage, with bait inside, was enough to lure the animal in and capture it. The problem was that the event happened on a friday, when the director, in charge of supervising the transport and logistic, was having dinner. When he learned of the capture, instead of excusing himself to attend the more urgent business, he decided that the big cat would be fine, in the cage, until the weekend was over! The rangers inI love the wild. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless towards it. I have lived in cities and I have enjoyed them. I love how convenient they are. I love their dynamics, their powerful energy. They are simply pure miracles of ingenuity. But at night, when the sun sets, when I close my eyes and seek my dreams, I long for the sound of the wind sneaking through the cracks, the rain tumbling on the roof, or the waves pounding on the beach. I close my eyes and retreat in my world where the Wild conducts her own symphony – the frogs croaking, the birds tweeting, the crickets chirping. I have often felt like a tamed wild animal, always looking out, over the horizon and wondering where I belonged. Many days I have felt caged, prisoner, torn between the comfort of a modern world, and the rawness and purity of the Wild. Yet, I have always had the freedom to choose, to move from one world to another. In all honesty, I consider my personal contradictions a privileged dilemma.  But the animal in front of me, with his mouth wide open fletching his razor sharp 2 inch long canines, a fur coat with patterns and hues beyond beauty, deep blue eyes with a piercing black iris fixed on me, this creature, this wild animal, has never asked for the conveniency of daily deliveries and a roof over its head. This jaguar, this magnificent predator of the jungle, is behind bars because it has been found at the frontline of an over expanding human world, with no room for the wild. This cage unfortunately, has become it last refuge, literally.  This wild cat was fortunate enough to find a land owner whom preferred to capture it and call the authorities, rather than killing it – a solution most of the time taken. For him and for all the other animals in this center, their faith took a drastic turn when Man showed up. It was either being killed or living in close confinement.

With hunger for progress and gain, the modern world keeps growing, infringing its reach, taking without asking.  And the last refuge for the wild has been parks around the world, created to protect nature’s treasures. The province of Misiones in Argentina is by far a pioneer in preserving its fauna and flora capital. It has one of the highest ratio of parks in the world. Its 79 parks total 800,000 hectares, almost a ⅓ of the province. It is also the only province in Argentina with a Minister of Ecology and their amount of rangers is one of the highest in the world.

“Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it. It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions. The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures. The fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot. I am not interested to know whether it is profitable to the human race or not. The pain it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis and sufficient justification of my enmity towards it without looking further. In studying the traits and dispositions of the so-called lower animals, and contrasting them with man’s, I find the result humiliating to me.” Mark Twain

Listen to the Land

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” — Masanobu Fukuoka, One-Straw Revolution

The day is coming to an end. The sun is slowly disappearing on the horizon, over the tall Eucalyptus trees. Soon, another cycle will start when the moon awakens and takes her place in the sky. I am sitting on the fence at the Las Marias ranch, in my hand, a gourd filled with Mate. I feel connected. I hear the Land talking to me. I hear the birds in the trees. I hear the bulls bellowing. I hear the horses, the geese. I hear the grunting of the pigs. I hear laughter. I hear kids playing. I even hear the monkeys howling in the forest not far away. Nothing could be more different than standing at the edge of a monoculture farm we have grown so accustomed to in the “Civilized World”. How many times have I stood in endless fields of wheat and heard nothing more than the sound of the wind frisking the golden grass. Our modern farms are lands of desolation and loneliness. But here, right in front of me, Life reigns. Everybody is free to roam. And everyone does. Even the cattle whom so many believe can’t run, are galloping. And the soil, this red dirt that everybody wears with pride. Their boots are covered by it, their trucks are encrusted with it. It is their way to honor what the Land has given them. They owe everything to it. This red dirt is more than soil, it is the heart, the foundation of their culture. No wonder why they drink Mate with such loyalty and honor, a tree that only grows here and from which Yerba is harvested.

Las Marias is a company that has made its mission to be in harmony with nature and its people.  Everything and everyone is connected. From the very beginning, Victor Navajas never saw himself as a simple farmer, but believed in enriching human lives. As his company grew, so did his desire to spread happiness. Today, Las Marias is more than just a Mate producer. Here, quality is king. Beside being vertically integrated, employees are offered a broad range of benefits. Free school is provided to the children. Housing is available on the plantation or in the “pueblo” nearby. Gauchos rule the ranch in the same way their fathers and grandfathers did. Fields are rotated to allow the natural cycle. Tall grass is left alone until it is cut and becomes fertilizer. Lady bugs and rheas are used for pest control. There is no irrigation – the fields are managed to maximize rainfall. At the ranch, horses have no shoes, trusting the hoof of an animal that has survived for millions of years. Birds of prey glide over the land. Even the dangerous viper, mortal if bitten by, is kept alive to control pests. Everywhere you look, harmony exists between nature and the necessities of production.

Sipping the bombilla, I close my eyes and there, in my mouth, I taste it. I taste the land, the soil, the nature, I taste it in its purest form. Much like the French and their wine, Mate is the deepest and most honest gesture of hospitality when receiving someone, it means – “I welcome you my friend and I want to share my land with you.”  Now let me tell you about the beauty of  my country!

Patagonia 2010 part 2

After two weeks in Esquel, working the details of the coming expedition, I was ready to head back to Buenos Aires. The plan was to drive through the Los Alerces National Park by the Ruta 71. Then get on the Ruta 258 until Bariloche and spend two nights at Estancia Arroyo Verde. From there head north to Copahue then east through the Wine Road of Neuquen, the Rio Negro Valley and La Pampa. I needed to be back in B.A. no later than Monday, as I was meeting the director of Fundacion Vida Silvestre and the director of Parques Nacionales on Tuesday. With the kayak strapped tight on the roof, provisions in the cooler and a full tank of gas, the buildings of Esquel gradually shrank in my rear-view mirror while the mountains in front of me, caped with fresh snow, became a bit more giant every minute.

The park was beautiful with a lush green forest of Alerces. Those trees, often called the Redwoods of the South, are one of the longest living trees in the world. From the Cupressaceae family, some trees are even 3,000 years old. A network of green emerald crystal clear rivers bordered by Arrayan trees connects several lakes. The sight was pure beauty, and passing by all this water, I couldn’t stop wishing I had more time to kayak it all. But with a deadline hanging over my shoulder, I watched the rivers come and go.

By lunchtime I was in El Bolson, just outside of Chubut Province, now in the province of Rio Negro. It is known for its fruits, as the place is a pure contrast to the industrialized fruit farms of the valley of Rio Negro. The inhabitants, mostly from a series of European immigrations, still practice a simple and sustainable lifestyle. Aside from finding exquisite jam, the town is a jewel of craftsmanship and food delicacy. Smoked trout, home-brewed beer, chocolate and ice cream are only a sample of the local specialties.

The day was coming to an end as I drove through the Enchanted Valley past Bariloche. Volcanic rock carved by millions of years of Patagonian rain and wind have transformed the slopes into architectural marvels. Unfortunately, with the sun going down, I watched them disappear rapidly–first becoming silhouettes and then totally vanishing in their surrounding shadows. Engulfed between giant black walls, I watched the sky above illuminated with a carousel of blues and oranges. The dark blanket from the valley soon extended its reach and before I could finish absorbing the beauty of it all, the night was now reigning. Shortly after, I was arriving at Estancia Arroyo Verde.

Nestled between the Andes and the famous Traful river in  Nahuel Huapi National Park,Estancia Arroyo Verde is pure wild fly-fishing and horseback riding country. I am here because the world is really small (in Argentina) and once you know a person or two, you start to be invited everywhere. The land has been owned by the Lariviere family for more than 70 years. Although the place was originally a summer retreat (which over the years saw the likes of President Eisenhower, King Leopold of Belgium, the Infanta Cristina of Spain), in 1987, Meme Lariviere opened it to the public, making it the first official destination Estancia in Patagonia, and only the third in all of Argentina. Today, the lodge is known worldwide for its top-notch fly fishing.  With over 10 miles of fresh water river, rainbow and brown trouts coexist with the legendary wild Land-Locked salmon. The place is such prime real estate that the owner across the river is no other than CNN tycoon and fly-fishing fanatic, Ted Turner.

The morning after my arrival, with the sun still hiding behind the mountains, I took a stroll to the pond. While the water was perfectly still, mirroring every tiny detail to such a degree that it was easy to forget which way was up, a kingfisher perched on a branch, looked with a fierce eye for any slight movement, a minuscule ripple or a small moving shadow. Winter was showing signs of arrival, the golden grass in the field was covered in crystallized dew. The minutes passed. And passed.

The sun was now warming up the entire valley when I suddenly heard a giant rumble. It didn’t take me long to know what it was. I sprang up and started to run toward the source and there they were, coming in full force… horses. The gauchos had gone to get them in the morning from roaming the land so they would be ready for tomorrow’s big event–rounding up all the cattle for winter. Since I was leaving on that day, the best I could do was ride them in the afternoon. That evening, I sat in the living room and wandered through family photos, fishing trophies and shelves filled with history. I had been blessed by Meme’s hospitality and it was such a privilege to be welcomed in her house. The next morning, sitting at the breakfast table, enjoying the Larivieres for one last time before I departed, they handed me the big day log and told me to write my name in it. I was only a guest of a friend, yet they were asking me to be part of a long legacy that featured some of the most influential people on the planet. I profoundly thanked them, took the pen and on the fifth page after Ted Turner’s visit on April Fourth, I wrote my goodbyes. On the way out, Meme took my arm and told me that on May fourth, she was having her birthday in Buenos Aires. If I could come, she would introduce me to the Senator of the province of Corrientes–where the Ibera Esteros are located, and she knew it would be beneficial for me. I told her it would be an honor.

The Nahuel Huapi National Park is another amazing park with a mixture of razor-edged mountains, evergreen rain forest and vast land of deciduous trees, which at this time of the year turned the park into an endless sea of red, yellow and orange patches. It was with no hesitation that I decided to take the road less frequented, the one that would take me through the prettiest part of the park. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Sinuously wending through the park on the dirt road, leaving behind a cloud of red dust, abrupt walls leading to a series of high peaks on my left and daggered rock formations to my right. Taking sharp turns, driving up the hill over another, then down again, huge pebbles spat out from underneath the tires, I have to admit I didn’t really feel confident in my small Ford EcoSport, with an 18-foot loaded kayak on my head. My mind sat on the edge of anxiousness, torn between the magical scenery and the potential hazards of back country driving with a rental car. I crossed all my fingers that I would make it without a scratch, a flat tire, a broken strap or a cracked windshield. Being able to count all the cars seen in one day on one hand, this was not the place for emergency stops. It was such a relief when the wheels hit the paved road at San Martin de los Andes!

The next stop was Caviahue, near the Copahue volcano. Another friend of a friend was waiting for my visit, the last one before my return to the big city. The landscape around the Andes is so drastic that by going just 10 miles east, you’ll go from rainforest to steppes. This was direction in which I was driving. Miles and miles of flat land, cut with stratified hills and deep canyons. Over the horizon, to my left, the Lanin volcano, with its 12,300 feet, stood tall and alone, its peak poking at the blue sky. The schedule for the next two days was to have a look at the natural hot springs, photograph the Salto del Agrio and scout for locations for a potential winter photoshoot, when everything would be covered in snow except for the Monkey Puzzle trees. The area has been visited by the natives as a therapeutic destination for centuries. The name Copahue means sulfur in Mapuche. In 1865, an argentinean doctor reached an agreement with the local chief and started bringing his patients. He brought international recognition to the springs and himself after curing a patient with tuberculosis. According to local information, the springs are one of just three hydrothermal centers in the world.

The Agrio river finds its origin in the volcano and flows across the Province of Neuquen before it merges into the Rio Negro. With its milky water, due to high concentration of sulfuric acid, the river cuts through a steamy snowy plateau before cascading down through a series of seven falls (Cascada del Rio Agrio) and into the lake. From there, it journeys down onto an intense red bedrock and between the prehistoric Araucarias–living fossil trees with scale-like leaves. Falling 200 feet down at the Salto del Agrio, the river continues to flow in an impressive valley 1,000 feet wide and at a least 3,000 feet high. But after a mud bath in the wild, and an algae wrap at the village, it was time to hit the road once again.

With not much time left, I decided to drive straight to Buenos Aires. In all honesty, there were two things I wanted to avoid; driving through the Pampa during the day, and arriving in the city during traffic hours (the place is mad!). Driving non-stop would take me to B.A. around 4 a.m. The perfect time! The only problem was that I was empty on gas and learned that there were no gas stations in the village. The closest one was Loncopue, 40 miles away. I barely had enough. Thank God the road was going down all the way! Arriving at Loncopue, I pulled in the station, relieved. A young man standing by the pump started to wave his finger in the air as if to insinuate that I had no right to be there. Beside another man who was standing next to him and a school bus in the other lane, I didn’t know what he meant. I pulled my window down and asked him what the problem was. “No gas,” he answered!!

WHAT??? How could this be? I mean, this was a fairly big village, with a modern gas station, how could there be no gas? The main tank was empty and the next re-fueling truck would not show up before Tuesday! Great! And apparently this happens every single week! I started to explain my situation but nothing I would do would change this seemingly unrealistic fact. After explaining over and over again that I needed to find gas (modern world dependency!), the gentlemen who was standing by, and who happened to be the village school bus driver, offered to sell me 10 liters, which he told me would be enough to get Las Lajas, where gas would be available. I followed him to his house. There, he opened his parked car trunk and pulled out a long hose. With one end in the car tank, he drained two big jars, which he poured back in my car. After thanking and paying him, I drove away hoping that the next village would finally have gas. Another 40 miles later, I wiped the sweat off my forehead as I stepped out of the car, took the pump handle and filled the tank with super!

I drove the next 1300 kilometers non-stop and was happy to arrive in Buenos Aires at precisely 4:30 a.m. The city was quiet, with no one in the streets. I could have not asked for more. Unloading everything and managing to put the kayak in the hall, nose down, I headed straight to bed. After a quick nap, I stepped out to do some errands. The car was parked right in front of the building and I had enough coins in the meters to last the afternoon… so I thought. When I came back, the car was gone. No way! Asking around, I found out that it had been towed because the meter ran out during the last 30 minutes. Beautiful! Here, since no one pays their tickets, there is no warning, no ticket at all. The minute the meter expires and you are not there, towing trucks are waiting, counting the seconds, and as soon the red marker appears, your wheels are gone. I will spare you the details of the adventure, only to say that the week was one I wish could be erased. Aside from the car being towed, I eventually returned it with not a single scratch. Except that while driving on the dirt roads, a rock shot through the rear bumper (if we can call that a bumper… Nowadays, they are just big pieces of plastic that break from anything) and made a hole. The rental company had no choice but to change the entire thing:damage $700US!

Patagonia 2010 Part 1

Once again, almost a year to the day, I am back in Argentina. This time, under the special invitation of the Consulate General of Argentina in New York. The plan is to kayak the Ibera Marshes (the equivalent of the Florida Everglades) and hike the jungle of Pinialito and Iguazu (known for the famous huge falls) in the hopes of photographing Argentina’s endangered and threatened wildlife. But before all of that, I needed to travel south, back to the Valdes Peninsula, where I had left my equipment in storage. Although it would have been quicker to simply drive down, load the car and head straight back up, the temptation of exploring was a bit too much and I decided to take a month and wander my way around Patagonia, taking the long way back.

Estancia San Miguel

Nestled between Bahia Camarones and Bahia Bustamante, San Miguel is your typical Patagonian Estancia (ranch). Bordered by 35 kilometers of ocean front, thousands of hectares of pure steppe house a little bit over 3,500 sheep. Ricardo is the gaucho (cowboy) who takes care of everything. On the day of my arrival, shortly after settling down, he invited me to join him and some guests for an asado (Argentinean barbecue). With a huge smile, I gladly accepted. Little did I know that a big surprise was in store for me. In the Quincho (barbecue shed), fresh made pasta was hanging in the corner on a broom stick, and the fireplace was warmed to perfection. Thick bricks of charcoal had been lit hours ago and were now producing a nice bed of hot ashes, slowly cooking the lamb. The world is incredibly small, and as it turns out, the other guests were in fact friends of mine from Puerto Piramides. Gerardo, Vicky and Santiago, owners of the ACA (where I had stayed last year) were also friends with the owner of the Estancia. They had taken a week off and were on their way back when they decided to stop by for the night. As if this was not enough, also sitting at the table was renowned photographer Jasmine Rossi. Rossi and I had been communicating for some time but our schedules had always been impossible to coordinate. Rossi also knew the owner of the Estancia and was on her way to Valdez to photograph the Commerson Dolphins. Unfortunately, the dolphins were no where to be seen, so she decided to swing by for a couple of nights. My ACA friends knew Rossi by reputation from her time at the Peninsula, but as we found out during dinner, they were all from two blocks away in Buenos Aires. Small world indeed!!

The next day, Ricardo set our horses and off we went. During last night’s dinner, Ricardo had mentioned two whale carcasses on the beach and we wanted to find out more. At just about one kilometer from each other, a small minke whale and an old male orca laid on the rocks, their skin leathered by the sun. Ricardo told us that they appeared last September. It is quite common to find stranded whales, but the orca was something else. This was a huge and powerful male orca, at over 25 feet in length. There was no evident sign of trauma or wounds, and we figured the orca must have died of old age. We later learned that close to 50 pilot whales had been found, also in September, stranded in the nearby bay at Bahia Bustamante. After talking to locals, we realized that those three events coincidentally happened at the same time Pan American Oil was conducting seismic surveys in the area. If this was the case, it would not be the first time oil companies’ activities would be responsible for massive whale strandings. This could also be the cause for the massive stranding of 400 whales in the same area back in 1991.

Cordero

The next day, we were invited over to Estancia La Ernesta where the owner, Gonzalo, was in the process of inseminating a 1,000 sheep. Sheep farming in Argentina is big business and Gonzalo took the time to explain every detail of it. Argentina is one of the best producers of merino wool in the world, the top one being Australia. And Australia makes huge money by selling the sperm of its champions. So every year, Australian frozen sheep sperm is sent all around the world! Now female sheep are inseminated as to assure they only give birth to the best offspring. Gonzalo uses both the sperm from his own champions (one came second in “Best Wool” and the other has been a number one in genetics for several years!) and sperm from Australia for insemination. When ready, estrogen is given to the female so that they are all ready at the same time. Vasectomized rams are brought in with little harnesses. The vasectomy is really important here. You don’t want to castrate the male. You want those hormones still alive, you simply don’t want them to reproduce. Those males have a specific and important mission, to identified which female is ready to be inseminated. The harness on the rams is fitted with a red chalk so that when they mount the females, they leave a big red patch on the female’s back. All females with red on their buttocks are then lined up and inseminated. It is not only in the “reproductive” realm that science is applied to sheep farming. The correct exact amount of sheep a size of land is capable to handle is also a matter of mathematics. Australia has one of the best ratios, with eight sheep per hectare. (Now please DON’T quote me on this, the information might be wrong and there are many other realities that may affect the numbers!) Argentina has anywhere between 0.1 to 3 sheep per hectare. Meaning that in Patagonia, if you have dry land, you might need as much as 1,000 hectares for 100 sheep. This data is carefully tracked and managed by the farmer. They rotate their sheep according to the weather and amount of food available. Gonzalo has definitely been doing good work because his wool is one of the best in the world and is sold to Ermenegildo Zegna.

Bahia Bustamante

My next stop was Bahia Bustamante, where I had briefly stopped by a year ago, while kayaking my way down to Comodoro Rivadavia. The place is an amazing little piece of paradise surrounded by 25,000 acres of pure Patagonian nature. With one of the greatest biodiversity of seabirds in Patagonia, Bustamante is home to sea lions, 60,000 penguins and orcas. In December 2008, the area, consisting of 100 kilometers of coast and totaling 600 kilometers square, was declared Marine Park.

The Bay became prime real estate in 1953, when Don Lorenzo Soriano was searching the coast to harvest seaweed. The plant was used in the production of hair grooming products. The place was known then as the Bahia Podrida (Rotten Bay). On the pebble beach, tons of seaweed would accumulate after each tide and rot under the sun. This was the perfect place to collect the marine plant using only horses and wagons. Back then, up to 500 people populated the little village. Times have changed a lot since the good days of seaweed. Nowadays, the industry has been greatly reduced and the rest industrialized, leaving Matias, Lorenzo’s great-grandson, to turn the village into an eco tourism destination.

On my first morning, I witnessed the sunrise turning the sky and clouds into a hot burning furnace. It was as if the sun had decided to explode and Armageddon was upon us. Deep hues of orange and yellow with dark purple edges, the ocean looked like a big piece of hot charcoal. Gradually, the intensity went away, and the sky filled itself with watercolor strokes. By 9 a.m., all clouds had disappeared and the blue sky reigned once again. Matias then suggested that we visit the petrified forest nearby. Dating from the Paleocene era, 60 millions years ago, those mineralized trunks are a visual reminder of a period when Patagonia was ruled by dinosaurs and was surrounded with active volcanoes. (If you’re interested in reading more about the Bahia Bustamante, click here.)

To Esquel

With little time left and much work to do, I needed to find a place where I could work — meaning have access to internet. I had several invitations to go spend some time in various Estancias, but none of them had cell phone coverage or internet. Fortunately, a connection came through from a friend, and Esquel would be my next stop. There, was a house waiting for me.

Welsh people have played an important part in Patagonia’s colonization. In 1862, coming aboard the ship named Mimosa, 1,500 of them founded the town Puerto Madryn. In 1865, Rawson was officially founded. The settlement was named after Dr.Guillermo Rawson, an Argentine Minister who supported the Welsh establishment. In 1885, a group known as Los Rifleros ventured west, following the Rio Chubut and establishing a new colony called “Colonia 16 de Octubre,” which later became the town of Trelevin and Esquel. Every year, their 700 kilometer horseback riding journey, from Rawson to the Andes, is reenacted with dozens of original descendants. Their itinerary was also going to be my way to Esquel.

The Rio Chubut is followed by Ruta 25 up to Paso de Indios. There, it turns north where Ruta 12 sidelines her all the way up past Piedra Parada. On one side of the dirt road, the river banks host green lush flora, while on the other side, steep cliffs and tall canyons block any attempts of escaping. The weather was perfect all day with just a tiny bit of clouds. As I got closer to the mountains a stormy system started to invade the sky. Wind began to blow from all directions. Around 6 p.m., I reached Piedra Parada (Standing Stone). This huge monolith stands tall and imposing. At 100 meters wide and 240 meters high, the piece of rock was at the center of a volcano extinct for thousands of years. It has since become a landmark and inspired thousands of photographs and paintings. That evening, this giant looked ever more impressive under a canopy of never-seen before, black and blue clouds. The sky looked like a giant battlefield where unknown forces fought for their dominion.

Whale Encounter

There is not much to compare the whale shark to on land. I don’t believe there is much to compare it to in the water either. This creature stands on alone. Thor Heyerdahl from his epic trip across the pacific on a raft, described it in his book Kon -Tiki, as the most hideous “thing” he had ever encountered.  As I float in the water, barely a foot away from a whale shark, my mind is still trying to figure out what to make out of this 25-foot long fish. I have been in water with great white sharks, dolphins, sea lions and whales, and every time I looked into their eyes I saw something, I felt a presence.  This whale shark feels like a cartoon character. His size, needless to say, is impressive. His shape, the one of shark, however, is threatening. His army of pilot fish is definitely a testimonial of his status in the world of oceans. Yet, with his mouth opening wide, gulping planktons by the gallons and his eyes at least 4 feet away from each other, this is by far the most bizarre encounter I have ever had. His eye is glassy and lacks any depth. It barely moves, even when there is a human swimming right next to him.

Besides the voice, which vocalizes thoughts and desires, the eyes are the most communicative part of our body. And we humans constantly communicate with them. Our subconscious gathers more information by looking into the eyes of another person than from any other part of the body. It is by no accident that we say eyes are windows to the soul.  When there are no eyes to look into, we switch our focus and look at the shape, or other parts from which we can gather information and interpret what we are seeing. The eyes of the whale shark next to me are each about 5 inches wide. This species has roughly the same eye size to length ratio as humans do. Yet, I can’t connect. I can’t seem to feel it. My mind is perplexed by the failure to connect the dots. As if there were simply no dots to connect. This shark could be a giant jellyfish and there would be no difference.

Once I have accepted this new fact of life, I am no more this analytic species, but rather a big kid swimming with a giant fish. I dive below him and pretend to be a new member to his float of escorts. I tuck by his pectoral fin and pretend to be one of the remoras. I suddenly feel like a kid playing in the sand with a giant Tonka truck. I count the white dots on his back. I swim next to his head and open my mouth wide, imitating him. I dive again and again looking up, mesmerized at the huge silhouette, defined by a high sparkling noon sun. After a while, I feel it is time to give this apologetic creature his quietness back and watch as his tail, about my size, pushes forward and slowly disappears in the blue.

Punta Chivato

Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get!” That scene from Forrest Gump plays in my head as I sit at the point, watching the sunrise over the Sea of Cortez, spouts of blue whales out in the open leaving me with a small feeling of jealousy, wishing I had a way to reach them. Still, I could not ask for more. During a stay at Angel Azul B&B in La Paz, during the kayaking trip with AMG (Alaska Mountain Guides), I met one of the owners of a development in Punta Chivato, a point just north of Bahia Concepcion in the Sea of Cortez. After looking at my book, the gentlemen asked if I would be interested to visit the location and photograph it. They were opening a small hotel and were in need of a bank of images. I was just about to leave sailing with Hayden and had not bought my flight for Argentina. I told the man that I could do it upon my return from the sea. That evening, we shook hands and agreed on the terms. My friend Hayden was about to grace me with his hospitality for the next ten days, I didn’t hesitate one second and invited him to tag along.

The east coast of Baja California is majestic and dramatic. Squeezed between the Sierra de los Gigantes and the Sea, the land is a mix of desert and oasis. The sea brings moisture and the red mountains act like a giant heating system. There is more green in this landscape than you would expect; a forest of thousands of cactuses. Dried riverbeds lined with palm trees, orange trees and mango trees. Somehow, the flora has evolved and succeeded in surviving this extreme environment. It is almost deceptive and for a moment you forget how harsh this arid place can become when the wind dies and the sun toasts the soil like a giant oven.

The hotel faces south, looking into the mouth of the Concepcion bay. About two miles offshore, three small islands hold refuge to a broad range of life forms. One hosts a colony of sea lions, another hosts a colony of terns, and the last one, the biggest of the three, is the domain to an osprey. To the west is a point, made of black twisted striated rock and has an almost lunar aspect. Around the point are a series of beaches offering amazing snorkeling. All around are hordes of brown pelicans and Heermann’s gulls. Several ospreys patrol the waters. On land, finches and orioles fill the air with their melodies. The bushes are homes to lizards and black-tailed jackrabbits with their tall big ears. Elephant trees, Cordon cactuses and numerous others complete the scenery.

The first days were spent driving around to neighboring towns. The wind was blowing strong from the north and the sea was too agitated to go kayaking. We drove to Santa Rosalia, an old French mining town, with the original 100 year-old refinery open as a museum. The hill populated with plantation-like houses, much like the ones found in New Orleans, was a reminder of the origin of the early settlers. Mountains of slag, byproduct of melting copper, still dominate the view. Later in the afternoon, we drove all the way up a mountain on a tiny cobblestone paved road. Both Hayden and I were perplexed by how such labor had been invested for such an unfrequented road. We got the answer much later when we were told that these kinds of roads needed the least maintenance, the water during the hurricane season simply rolling down and leaving the road fairly intact. It was during that drive that we saw a couple of roadrunners. Although I looked for him, the coyote was nowhere to be found!!

The next day we drove to Loreto, down south, and headed for the mountains, our destination was the Mission of San Javier. This mission is one of the most important in Baja and is still visited by thousands of people during the pilgrimages. The backcountry had amazingly several dried up rivers with hundreds of ponds filled with still water. Little forests of palm trees were scattered around, contrasting the red cliffs. Small creeks seemed to flow from nowhere, producing lush greenery along their banks.  Paintings from early natives decorated the walls, their meanings left to our own interpretation, were proof that this place had been a hub of life for centuries.

The rest of our stay was spent kayaking around, snorkeling or exploring the land. We would wake up at sunrise and watch the dolphins play in the bay. Some mornings, they would simply pass by without making much wake. On others, they would be more playful and jump around. Every time we felt so privileged, able to watch this big ball of fire rise above the sea, while the dolphins graced us with their acrobatics.

Pelicans were another subject of our fascination. Masters of gliding, these birds are simply amazing. Barely inches above the water, their wings fully extended, they float on that thin layer of warm air. They form squadrons, sometimes with up to 50 individuals, all lined up. No one will start flapping its wings before the leader does. And when he does, it creates this chain reaction, a mini wave of perfect aerodynamic engineering.

There was a Great Blue Heron stationed in front of the hotel. There was an osprey couple nesting at the top of a navigating tower, up the beach. There was another one down by the boat ramp, their nest up an electricity pole. More than once, on our way to breakfast, one of them would be perched on a big wooden structure, holding a big fish, obviously proving the mastery of his realm. It was stunning to see him one day flying with a yellowtail, about his length in size, tightly gripped between those huge black claws. For this bird to catch such a fast and big fish was just another confirmation of his apex predator status. From time to time, exploring the cliffs, either from above or below, a kingfisher would be quick to fly away, always eluding our sight… and my camera. A group of four ravens, one afternoon, gave us an amazing show. Whether they were courting in the air, or simply playing, they would fly after each other, turn upside down, plunge a hundred feet at full speed and come right back up just a couple of feet off the ground. They would glide their way back up and proceed to do it again, and again. Their prowess leaving us in awe. We would spend hours with our heads down studying the tide-pools, scanning for critters. Those miniature ponds, sheltered from the sea, dug in the rock, hold a surprising wide range of life: tiny transparent shrimps, anemones, soft corals, countless hermit crabs, long zebra worms, tube worms, sea slugs of stunning colors and many kinds of tiny fish animated those mini waterholes.

On our last morning, we witnessed another incredible phenomenon. The day had started like it had the day before; quiet waters and pink sky. But out in the open, a wall of clouds was stretching for miles and was coming toward us fast. It didn’t look like a typical storm. In fact, that line of clouds was perhaps only a hundred yards high, and above it, the sky seemed undisturbed. It was only when our faces were almost in it that we realized what it was. A huge fog system rapidly trapped everything in its way. The world became white and the visibility plummeted down to barely 20 feet. It is fascinating how a world of long distances can be reduced to the size of closet, with no point of references, all within minutes.

Our stay was coming to an end and we felt we had only scratched the surface of all the secrets Punta Chivato has. But like anything in life, the best never reveals itself at once. So it was with happy hearts and smiling faces that Hayden and I drove south, by the sea, through the mountains and back to La Paz where the next day we were flying away.

My time in Baja California has been absolutely incredible. I came down here originally for ten days and now, after a little over a month, I leave with dozens of new friends, amazing photographs and unforgettable new encounters. This part of the world is filled with so much wildlife and stunning geography. No wonder why Cousteau loved it so much and compared the Sea of Cortez to the World’s aquarium. As for me, now sitting in the plane, looking through the window, the land that I have been kayaking, sailing, hiking and driving, now looking more like a map, I smirk and think at life, and how, when you let it guide you, it will take you to places filled with treasures and loving people. Don’t force it, be like the water and go with the flow.

Sailing Matilda

Sailing earth’s waters has always captivated and fascinated man. The vikings sailed to America way before the Europeans. Peruvians explored and helped colonized the Polynesian islands. Darwin discovered the Galapagos and the Falkands onboard the Beagle. There is something about setting out on this vast blue liquid and only navigate with what nature has to offer – wind. My friend Hayden had sailed down from Los Angeles and I was to meet up with him in LaPaz. His sailing boat is a 1967 29ft Columbia MK II named Matilda. And she certainly bears her name correctly. “Matilda” has its origin in Old German and means “mighty in battle”. She was indeed mighty. Built like a tank, she may have been short, but she was heavy and steady. The plan for the next 10 days was to sail to Isla San Jose and spend time at Isla Espiritu Santo. I was certainly not sad thinking of spending time going back to the “Sacred Island”.

I love being in a marina. To be honest, I love living on a sailboat. It is my dream. There is a sense of freedom that reigns. There is sense of connectivity with nature’s biggest element: water. There is a sense of efficiency where everything, every little square inch, is maximized. There is a sense of community where no matter what your boat’s size is, almost everyone around you is here for the same reasons. Finally, sailing is humbling. It is not up to you. The weather and the winds are your master and you must be flexible. You must be like water and go with the flow. As much as the mountains speak to some people, for me, it is the water, and to live on it, there is simply nothing better.

The winds were pounding on our departure date so we decided to postpone it until the weather was more permitting. Coincidentally, one of Hayden’s sailing friends had fallen in the water while coming back from the island and was lost at sea. The Sea of Cortez is actually known to be one of the toughest. It is often unpredictable and the frequency of the swell can be so short that even a 30-foot boat will have her stern cresting one wave while her bow is smashing another one. That was the case that day. Waves of 20 feet and huge winds called for all marinas in La Paz to close and not allow any boats to leave. It was not long that the community gathered and organized the rescue. It was with great relief that five hours later, at 5pm, the channel 16 on the vhf announced that the man had been picked up by the Mexican Navy. He was safe and was on his way back to La Paz. That night, I was onboard the man’s boat, cheering his rescue.

The days were filled with encounters with dolphins, jumping rays, dinners of fresh fish, amazing sunsets, snorkeling, and music. It was also filled with some memorable bumpy nights, jellyfish stings, and windless days.

It is not until I came here that I learned about flying rays. During my first kayaking trip, what I thought were dolphins jumping, turned out to be modula rays. Sometimes reaching 20 feet in height, it is not rare to see them back flip several times in the air before landing back in the water with a big splash. No one knows for sure why they do it, but hardly any day goes by without the sight of one or several rays winking their big white bellies.

One afternoon, while snorkeling, Hayden was deep below, around 20 feet, when I was busy catching my breath on the surface. He came rushing up and spitting the snorkel out like a mad man, told me that the whales were singing. Blowing up my lungs, I tipped forward and kicked my fins. At about 15 feet, I took hold of a rock and held steady. And there it was. This time, it was much different. It was not the long melody, but rather a complex mix of rolls, high squeaks, loud bumps, and even sometime what sounded like scary scream. Needless to say, we spent a while going back and forth, up and down, listening as much as we could before we got too cold.

Towards the end of our trip, while sailing back from Isla San Jose, we noticed a large group of black fins ahead of us. Those were definitely not dolphins. As we got closer, the mystery just kept growing. We could actually recognize some dolphins swimming amongst them, but we had no idea who the others were. Their fins were bigger and rounder. Our questions were answered when one sky-hopped. A round shiny head rose from the surface and sent us a series of clicks, echo-locating us outside the water like I had never seen before. They were a group of pilot whales. I told Hayden that I was jumping in the water. As soon as I was in, I started to regret my decision. The visibility was barely 5 feet and the water was full of tiny, stinging jellyfish. I hadn’t taken the time to put my top on, so here I was, bare chested, in shorts, getting stung mercilessly. Hayden was not sure what to make of me waiving at him telling him I was coming back on board just when the whales were all around! Since the visibility was so bad, I couldn’t see anything! Back at the boat, Hayden told me to hang in the water a bit more because the whales were coming. He threw me a line to tow me. The wake from the boat acted like a shield and protected me from the jellyfish. Still I couldn’t see anything. I suddenly received a tap on my head and looking up, Hayden told me that one was right behind me.  I turned around frantically and for a mere three seconds this long massive black silhouette was barely 5 feet away from me. To be honest, it was a bit spooky! I could not see the eye or anything else, but only the shape, enveloped in a dark green liquid. And then it disappeared. Breathing heavily, I was looking everywhere. I was filled with excitement, curiosity, joy …. and fear. The whole lack of visibility was getting to me! I decided to get back up in the boat and photograph and film them from the dry. We spent the next 30 minutes with them. They would come by and swim really close to the boat. One male in particular was huge, at least 17 feet. Many of them slapped the water with the tails, over and over. At one point, both dolphins and whales together were sky-hopping and slapping the water.

Dinners were either spent on the Matilda, or on another boat, invited by new or old sailing friends. It is quite common among the boating community that misfortune creates new friendships – a floating sleeping bag or a lost dinghy will turn unknown neighbors into the best drinking buddies. Our meals consisted of fresh fish caught during the afternoon. One night, onboard NordicV, we dined with the crew of Misty Moonlight on snapper and lobster, saturated in butter and garlic. Delicioso!! As if food was not enough to bring happiness, most of the time, after dinner, one would bring the guitar out and there began hours of singing and laughing!

All was not always paradise. Winds turn on a dime and transform a perfect sailing day into a stand still. A perfect sunny afternoon anchored in the most beautiful bay will turn into the bumpiest night where you sleep your toes stuck in cracks, hands on the wall, bracing yourself every minute. Not a day goes by without a bump on the head or on your toes. Spills are daily and bathroom times are no place to ponder. Sitting on the toilet is as comfortable as sitting on tin can in a two square foot closet. Lastly but surely: seasickness. Although I have no trouble on the water, it was not the case for a fellow canine we had onboard. On a particularly afternoon, after a sleepless roller coasting night, the furry four-legged creature threw up twice, a substance that goes way beyond what is permissible to write. Ironically, those moments became the funniest stories!!

On the last stretch back from Espiritu to La Paz, a group of bottlenose dolphins escorted us for a good twenty minutes. Sitting at the bow with those majestic animals two feet, sometime only a foot away, it is hard not to be moved. It is hard not to feel connected. Here you are, looking into the eye of another mammal, living in a different world. The other mammal is also looking into your own eyes. There is no doubt. You scream of joy but they don’t understand. They click at you but you don’t understand them. Yet, in this infinite world, you both share the same place, the same moment, you are connected.

Bahia Magdalena

It is said that their migration is the longest one amongst all mammals. Each year gray whales leave the cold nutritious waters of the Chukchi Sea, above Alaska, and head south to Mexico for breeding. Once called the Devil Fish, because of their resistance when harpooned, the gray whale is a 36 ton baleen mammal, recognizable by a unique set of white scars left by parasites and also by a series of knuckles on their midline, instead of a dorsal fin. One of their favorite destinations is Magdalena Bay, located on the Pacific Coast of Baja California Sur. It was also our rendezvous point with them.

After an amazing time around Isla Espiritu Santo, we loaded the van with our kayaks and gear and drove across the peninsula to Puerto Santo Carlos, one of the major fishing villages on the Bay. After unloading our equipment from the van and loading it again onto the panga, we crossed the channel and set up our first camp on a spectacular sand bar. The bar is part of Isla Magdalena and is what protects the bay from the Pacific. We pitched our tents, walked across the dunes and went for a swim.

The next day, we pushed our kayaks on the mirror like waters of the bay and proceeded towards our first point of interest, the mangroves. Once again, these tress offer amazing protection to a broad range of critters. Several species of herons and egrets were perched on the branches amongst the pelicans, while godwits and whimbrels combed the receding waters for food. We saw dolphins passing by in the channel and on a couple of occasions, whales would spout and disappear, teasing our constantly growing curiosity. In the water, stingrays were a common sight. We set up our second camp site past a Mexican fishing camp and that night, as the sun went down, we sat on the beach with our binoculars and watched dozens of whales spouting and breaching out in the main channel.

The morning held an even more amazing surprise. As the sun rose, a group of at least forty whales were still spouting and breaching. The light was magnificent, reflecting through all these water droplets pushed up in the air through the whales’ blowholes. From our location, it almost looked like the fountain show at the Bellagio in Vegas. The day was certainly going to be a great one!

It didn’t take long to reach our next campsite, tucked in the little rocky bay, just before the Pacific. We were now at the main entrance of the bay, where whales hang out. After setting up our tents and eating lunch, we paddled out around the point and ventured along the high cliffs battered by the Pacific and played in the rock gardens. The force of the Pacific waters was so impressive. On the rocks, the water line would rise up and drop 20 feet, exposing seaweed of amazing colors. The swell would hit the daggered wall and rolled onto itself with great big white breakers. After getting our share of excitement, we decided to paddle back and head towards the middle of the channel and see if we could meet the whales. This short trip would have been impossible if the weather was only slightly bumpy, but for now, it was perfect. Midway through, I looked down in the water and was amazed at what I saw. Thousands and thousands of pelagic red crabs were drifting in the current. Those little shrimp like creatures, are known to be a food source of the blue whale. They congregate in such vast swarms, thick enough that they color the ocean surface red. They also wash ashore and litter the beach by the thousands. Besides tunas, dolphins, rays and pinnipeds feeding on them, birds have been observed to gorge themselves so much that they can’t fly.

Shortly after, a couple of whales were coming on port side. Their blows announcing their presence, they swam towards us and right before our bow, dove and disappeared. They started to play Hide & Seek with us. Showing up in one place long enough for us to try to reach them only to once again disappear. After zigzagging for 20 minutes, we were satisfied and started our way back to camp. The change of tide was coming and we didn’t want to be in the channel when the weather turned.

On the way back, we stopped by a fishing panga and asked if we could buy some fresh calamari. They declined our offer to pay them and handed over a 15-pound piece. Another panga nearby saw the transaction and came over to see if we were interested in buying two fresh yellowtail. Their request for exchange was a pack of oreo cookies! We gladly accepted and kayaked back to camp, gave them the cookies and proceeded to prepare the fish sushi and ceviche style. With only lime juice and cilantro, the ceviche was pure gastronomy.

The next day, we were picked up by panga and spent a couple of hours with the whales. As it turns out, the whales here are less afraid of boats then kayaks. I guess kayaks are too quiet and the whales are not sure what to make of them. Or maybe kayaks are simply not big enough for them to care. Anyhow, it didn’t take long before we were surrounded by at least four whales. Gently bringing their noses within arm’s reach, they floated up like quiet submarines and spouted in our faces. They bumped the boat, waved hello with their flukes and swung their tales on the surface with great force. At some point, the entire boat starting to laugh, looking at me, although I was not sure why. They all pointed their fingers behind me and as I turned around, a giant head slowly sunk back in the water. The whale had sky-hopped right behind me, close enough that if I had turned around, my nose would have touched her, they say! Apparently, her eye was at the same level as mine. It became quite evident that they were having as much fun as we were.

Isla Espiritu Santo

The Mexicans call it the Holy Spirit. Sitting on the beach, my eyes fixed a few miles offshore on a group of humpbacks jumping, their tails and flukes slapping the water, much like a baby would do in a bath, I start to understand the sacred spirit of this location. Cliffs made of thick layers of black lava and volcanic ash surround a series of protected bays with crystal blue water and sandy beaches. Its waters are rich with nutrients and host year round pelagic species – gray whales, humpbacks, whale sharks, dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and many more.

I am here with Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG), an adventure guide service that provides kayaking trips around the world. Our group has just been dropped on Coralito Bay. The plan for the next 5 days is to paddle north, on the east coast of the island, go up and around Isla Partida and back. We will then spend a night in LaPaz, drive across to the Pacific, to Bahia Magdalena and paddle for 2 days to the mouth of the bay, where gray whales are found by the dozen at this time of the year.

As soon as we are settled into our camp, we get our snorkeling gear on and swim to a nearby little coral reef. I am amazed! For someone who scuba dives, I am used to see damaged snorkeling spots, either fished out, or trashed, big fish and big mollusks gone, an unhealthy and unbalanced ecosystem left behind. But this one has a strong coral growth, lots of nudibranchs, big snappers, clams, oysters, many little fish and millions of juveniles. That afternoon, I see three eels and two scorpion fish. Every where I look, I see life thriving, in all shapes and forms. So refreshing! But the most amazing moment of that afternoon was still to come. And it was not something that I saw, but something that I heard. As I took a deep breath and swam down, I heard a long whining sound. A sort of music. It is the humpbacks, singing, miles away in the channel. The sound was exactly what I had seen on Planet Earth when the whales are floating motionless fifty feet deep, their heads down, and producing this long whine. I picture them, perfectly still in the water, as I hold onto a rock to listen to their song. Simply magical!

Back on the beach, changing clothes, we put our hiking boots on and go for an afternoon hike. The place is spectacular. Red volcanic rock all around us, which millions of years ago trapped countless of air bubbles, now exposed by time make the landscape look like the inside of an Aero chocolate bar. A little bit of rain two weeks ago was enough to transform this arid terrain into a green miracle. A few drops of water suffice to bring the plants and trees out of their hibernating mode and sprout bright new leaves. Reaching the top, we are welcomed with another surprise. Down below, in the bay next to ours, a full bird feeding freezing is happening.  Hundreds of birds are going crazy on a shoal of bait fish. Although the scene is happening a few miles from us, the sight is still incredible; countless black silhouettes flying and diving in the water, turning the surface into boiling water. Watching the sunset at the top of a high cliff was nothing short of everything else that day. Sitting just a few feet from cliff, two hundred feet above the sea, we watched a big orange sun disappear behind the mountains. If this day was any indicator for the coming 10 days, we were in for one amazing trip!

Our first destination the following day is the hidden lagoon in the bay south of us. Only accessible at high tide, the place is a little piece of bird paradise. A sense of stillness reigns. Brown pelicans, frigates, black crown heron, great egrets, little blue herons, all are holding refuge in the mangroves – the perfect spot!

As we exit through the shallow narrow passage and start paddling north, a small pod of bottlenose dolphins crosses our path and heads out. Later that day, we come to our second camping site, a secluded alcove, guarded by a group of brown pelicans, keeping a tight watch on the water, looking for their next target. After a nice lunch and putting our tents up, we get back in our kayaks and head across to Isla Ballenas for a quick paddle. Blue foot boobies are flying around, topped way above by a group of magnificent frigates, gliding the warm air.

That evening, after another incredible hike, which revealed, out on the water, a group of rays jumping so high it was hard to believe, I sat on the beach and photographed the brown pelicans in action. The light blue sky behind them was the perfect background. As they flew in circle before twisting and falling like an arrow in the water, their bodies created the most amazing abstract shapes. It was as if a calligraphy master had just decided to write in the sky. Later, during dinner, a ring tailed cat is seen sneaking around our camp, looking for any opportunity.

I wake up at dawn and notice a group of bats still flying around catching the last remnants of nocturnal insects. After breakfast, we pack our gear and paddle out once more. A single male sea lion passes as an eagle ray leaps out of the water, ten feet high before landing with a big splash. During lunch, on a beach, I see something purple floating nearby. I walk in the water, up to my knees and inspect it closely. It is a Portuguese Man O War with two weird little fish swimming in its tentacles, immune to its venom. I approach carefully, keeping an eye on those long blue strings, famous for their painful sting. What I didn’t see was another colorless jelly fish, that manages to hit me right on the knee. I let out a big scream and rushe to the shore. Damn this is painful! Within minutes, my skin turns red and swells. Isis, one of the guide, gives me some white vinegar and tells me to apply it on the wound. The vinegar destroys the proteins from the venom. Needless, to say, even after an hour, the pain is still sharp. As I write these lines, 8 days later, the sting is still visible, a red mark across my knee.

The stingingly jellyfish print on my skin was no concern by the next morning, as we set out for the sea lion colony.  This was surely going to be one of the biggest highlights! Just barely out of the kayak and into the water, I had three pups pulling my fins and playing with me. Two females swam around, passing extremely fast, opening their mouths and releasing a big stream of bubbles while never letting me out of sight, those big giant inquiring black eyes following my every move. It felt like I was playing in the grass with a bunch of dogs. From time to time, a huge male would come by and insure that everything was under control. His massive and intimidating presence was a reminder to all, us and the sea lions pups, that we still needed to behave. It was so amazing! At some point, one leaped and landed on my back, grabbing my shoulder. I turned around, holding his flippers and the two of us proceeded in a series of rolls and twists. I was just a happy kid playing in the water with them. And like any kid, I was called back to reality when after twenty minutes, it was time to climb back into the kayaks and continue our paddle.

I navigated for the rest of the day with a big grin on my face. We went around to the west side of Isla Partida and through the channel. After having lunch in the pass, we paddled a little bit more to our last camping site, just a few hundred yards away from our pick up location for our ride back to LaPaz the next day. That afternoon, we did one last big hike, up through a fantastic Arroyo filled with big boulders. The sight must be absolutely incredible when the entire valley flash floods in this creek. On a rock, bathing under the sun was an eastern collared lizard and flying high, screeching, a red-tail hawk patrolled his domain. As I scroll down back to the camp, I could only marvel at the last 5 days. This place was really sacred and the trip was only halfway done. Tomorrow was the beginning of our second half, this time, on the Pacific side, with the gray whales.

Holiday Snowshoeing

It is said that they earliest record of snowshoes goes back to several thousands years ago. For me, growing up in Quebec, they were simply part of the winter package. The snowshoes I had back then were not the fancy, technical ones found today, but instead the classic Native American model, made of wood and rawhide. My grandparents had a cabin that was easily accessible by car during the summer, but during the snowy season, we had no choice but to leave the vehicle behind and snowshoe our way in. One of my most memorable moments from those years was a night when we arrived way past sunset and found ourselves carrying our luggage, ankle deep in white powder with the Northern Lights filling up the sky. Liquid blues, greens, and reds were dancing in a magical way.

The winter holidays were just around the corner, and with no snow coming, or on the ground, I was getting the jitters and felt it was perhaps time to organize a trip to the mountains. If the snow wasn’t coming, might as well go seek it out!! A couple calls and a couple days of preparations and we were on our way to Mt. Rainier, Washington. More precisely to Ashford, were we would hike the snowshoe/cross country ski trails maintained by the Mount Tahoma Trails Association.

The MTTA is a great initiative. Roads and trails used by the Forest Service in the summer are open to the general public for exploration in the winter. It is a win-win situation. The Forest Service makes use of its land year-round, and the outdoor community has access to places that would otherwise be too complicated to get to. Over the years, with the amazing collaboration of countless individuals, an extended and incredibly well maintained network of huts and trails came to be.

Our itinerary for our 4-day trip was to hike to the furthest hut, the Yurt, spend a couple nights there, then hike back by way of a different trail, to the High Hut for one night. With some luck we would see Mt.Rainier. After taking the train from Portland, we drove from Tacoma to Ashford. The weather was not particularly promising. Even though it was raining on the coast, which it always does, by the time we arrived to the village, at the foot of the mountain, unfortunately, it was still raining. With the cloud ceiling hiding the peaks, we were not able to see if it was snowing higher up. We had to believe the clerk at the gear store who tried to reassure us that there was indeed snow up there. After getting the map and information on how to get to the snow park, we watched the rain falling on the windshield hoping for the best.

Due to the rain, the road had cleared up and allowed us to drive up to Sno-Park A, @3,400ft. The scene was not the one we wanted. It was pouring down. Needless to say, we were not here to turn back. So we geared up and started our hike. Good thing there was at least 5 feet of snow at the top. Even with the rain, we should be able to get the white scenery. But for now, there was no need for snowshoes. About a mile up, we came across a couple who was coming back from the High Hut. Bad news – it was even raining there!!! Well, not much to do, but cover up and continue. Shortly after, the snow became too deep to continue by foot, so we put our snowshoes on. Wet and heavy, we trudged along, our next three hours quite dreary. Our sight aiming down, the landscape became a messy mix of snow, mud, pine needles and branches. Even though we were dressed for the weather, rain managed to find its way in. It wasn’t long before we were all soaked. It took us four hours to reach the Yurt. I can’t imagine pulling out a small tent after such conditions. The hut looked like paradise. Nestled in a small valley, surrounded by pines, and shadowed by Mt.Griffin, we rushed the last few hundred yards.

To call this camping is a major understatement. The hut was pure back-country luxury: propane fireplace, propane oven, lanterns, mattresses, and a kitchen ready for the biggest of feasts! Not that it wasn’t welcomed, but we could not put away the thought that it was way more than we had anticipated. We dropped our gear, got out of our wet clothes and got the fireplace running. With the rain still drilling the Yurt’s canopy, we warmed ourselves with dry clothes and hot tea.

It rained all night. In the morning, it was still raining. By noon, the temperature dropped slightly and the rain turned into slush. With some luck, the temperature would continue dropping and we would have real fresh snow by the end of the day. We attempted to venture our way up Mt.Griffin, but the conditions were simply not pleasant. So we stayed inside. We found a cranking radio that we had to power up every 15 minutes. I have to say, shame aside, that it was really funny being in the middle of the wood, and listening to NPR. Snow really started by the end of the afternoon. That night, we went to sleep dreaming of a white morning.

And so it was! The timing was perfect. On the ground was 5 inches of fresh snow. Our hike to High Hut was going to be magical! And it was! There is something incredible about being the first one to lay tracks on fresh snow, whether it be skiing down, cross country skiing, or snowshoeing. But the most amazing thing is to realize that you are not alone. What seemed like a quiet forest with only a few souls is transformed into a frenzy of tracks. Rabbits, mice, deer, birds, and many more, each leaving hundreds of prints. You realize that all this time, this place, that at times seems almost too quiet place, is filled with life. One of the biggest surprises of the day came from a particular set of tracks. For almost an hour and half, we followed a set of prints left behind by a couple of bobcats. Active at dawn and at dusk, bobcats will cover many miles every day, investigating their territory. This couple, which had recently paired up, would be mating in spring and later, would each go their separate ways. The female, would give birth sometime in April and raise her cubs alone. Mostly following the groomed trail, their tracks cut in the forest only to reemerge higher up. More than once, we came across urine marks and one time the bobcats had left their feces. It was like a glimpse into the life of a rarely encountered wild creature. You could see where they played, where they laid, where they rested. Most of the time they would follow each other almost too perfectly. Other times, one would wander out slightly and come back while the other kept a perfect line.

The landscape was beautiful. This was finally what we had come for. The sky cleared up and the contrast between the blue from above and green and white from below suddenly erased the last 30 more or less miserable hours. We stopped once for a quick lunch – hot chocolate, salami, brie cheese and apples. We certainly needed the energy since then we would go up 600ft in one mile.

Around the 4,500ft mark, the snow changed. Even the trees looked different. The snow was more … frosty. When we arrived at the High Hut, the scene was definitely not the same it had been at the Yurt. This was a cabin at the top of the mountain, exposed to the wind. Although much colder and buried in a whiteout, the rewards would come to be well worth it. Once again, the hut was pure luxury. Solar power supplied a battery, which generated the power necessary for LED bulbs inside. Propane oven and fireplace as we had found them at the Yurt. The face of the hut was made of 3 huge windows, which, on a bright day, would give full panoramic view of Mt.Rainier. We settled ourselves, made some tea and proceeded reading some left behind magazines from January 2009 and 2006. The sun went down without giving hope of unveiling Mt.Rainier. But late at night, magically, its peak pierced through and under a blanket of stars I was only allowed enough time to take one quick photo.

The next morning, we woke up to a total whiteout but within minutes, everything cleared up and out of nowhere, the most amazing sunrise rose. As if on cue, the fog lifted, and Mt.Rainier emerged triumphant. The sky filled itself with hues of pinks, oranges and blues. Rainier took an almost romantic pause, looking suddenly less threatening. For no more than five minutes, the world opened up and shined heaven. On the sixth minute, the fog took over and everything became nothing more than a vast white curtain. We looked at ourselves, feeling blessed, allowed to see the unseen.

As the morning proceeded, the fog came and went. Creating some really interesting play of light. Close trees were lit from one light, while the ones below received another kind of light. Looking at the photos now, it almost seems as if the two were manipulated through photoshop, but I can assure you they were not.

After breakfast, we geared up once again and headed down the mountain for our last hike. On the way down, we came across a couple in their 60’s, on their way for a quick snack at the High Hut. Three more ladies, this time in their 70’s, were also on their way up to spend the night at the hut. (You have to admire when people keep fit!!) Down at the snow park, the car was covered in snow, proof we had been gone for some time. We carefully drove down to Ashford and stopped at the Copper Creek Inn for a well-deserved juicy hamburger. Soooo good!

Wait

I have been lying on the sand for 30 minutes, my eyes glued to the camera. My bones ache. My skin itches. My fingers are numb. I am starting to get cold. I am waiting. I am waiting for my subject to move. I am waiting for my shot. Most of the time, the shot never happens and those 30 minutes are added to the previous hours of waiting. The subject will not move  in the way I want to. Not with the right background, or right light. I will wait for 30 minutes without a pause, and the second I break my stare, it is when it happens. And then I wait some more.

In our modern era, a person through the course of their lifetime, will spend approximately 3 to 5 years waiting – 35000 hours motionless, expecting for a desired outcome. We wait for the perfect moment. For the right woman, for the right man. We wait for the right conditions.  We wait for the rain to stop, for the sun to come out. We wait for the bus, for the train, for the subway. We wait in traffic, at the bank, at the grocery store. We wait on the phone. We wait for a phone call. We wait for people. People wait for us. We wait for salvation, for forgiveness. We wait for the show to begin, for the commercials to end. We wait for dinner to be ready. We wait for a package to be delivered. We wait for inspiration to come. We wait behind the camera for the perfect shot.

Francois Rabelais said: “ Everything comes in time to those who can wait.” While Abraham Lincoln believed that “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustles.” Lenny Kravtiz has always waited for inspiration to write his music. Sean Lennon instead writes everyday convinced that inspiration comes with practice. Alexandre Dumas wrote that “All human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope.”  At the opposite, W.M. Lewis said that “The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.”

Nothing would ever be accomplished if we just waited for things to happen. But again, nothing would ever be accomplished if we were not able to wait until completion. Some don’t wait to start, but have trouble finishing. Others can’t seem to find the will to start, but once they do, they will finish what they have started even if they have to wait a lifetime to see the results. You can’t wait for the right conditions. You can’t wait for things comes to you. But you must be able to wait for the unique to manifest. And when it does, all those minutes, all those hours, all those years waiting, suddenly are worth the wait.

Nomades del Mar

To explore, to investigate, to wander – from the latin explorare, which means “search out”. The subject has been captivating science for decades, with researchers trying to seek its motivations. Why do we explore? Why do we surmount our fears and wander beyond the boundaries of safety? Do we explore by curiosity? By necessity? Is it driven by boredom?  What motivates all of us Explorers to seek adventure in chartered and unchartered territories?  It was discovered that mice with damaged cerebellums exhibit low levels of interest in exploring their surrounding, suggesting that the brain plays an important part in our motivation to explore. Is it then biological? Since 1990, we have come to agree that it is part of our inherent ability to survive. Exploration is now viewed in evolutionary terms, as a combination of motivations, leading to a strategy of survival – locating food, avoiding predators and stimulating learning.

Ever since I was a young boy, I have always been drawn to the unknown. I have always looked at the fence in the backyard as an invitation to seek new experiences. When I was 17, I left home and hitchhiked across Canada. I threw my compass away, and never looked back. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: ”A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” After 17 years of traveling, I still live by his words and my desire for exploration is stronger than ever.  As Humans, as Individuals, as Explorers, are we defined by the places we have been, or by the places we are going?

We had been driving for almost 3 hours when we left Ruta 3, the National Road, and took the Provincial Road 30, direction east. Driving south from Puerto Madryn, the landscape was borderline hypnotic. Endless flat plains, or as Darwin described it in 1833: “…the view is generally bounded by the escarpment of another plain, rather higher, but equally level and desolate; and in every direction the horizon is indistinct from the trembling mirage which seems to rise from the heated surface.” The change of scenery was much welcomed, and for the next 70 km, the road sinuously took us closer to our departure point. From the pebble beach in Camarones and for the next 12 days, we were to kayak to Comodoro, a 300 km journey.

Camarones is a village by the ocean rich in history. In 1545, Don Simon de Alcazaba y Sotomayor, a Portuguese sailor under the command of Charles I of Spain, was the first to anchor in the bay. Following the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain had sent Alcazaba to access the new territory. Camarones, which is a word for shrimp in Spanish, was declared part of Provincia de Nueva León. During the heyday of the wool industry, the village was known for the quality of its wool and soon became an important port. Don Mario Tomás Perón, who owned two nearby estancias (ranch), Porvenir and Maciega, would also bring the small location international visibility. His son, Juan, became President of Argentina in 1946. His second wife was Eva, also known as Evita. The estancia Maciega is now restored and is a museum.

Along with Pablo and Sofia from Patagonia Explorers, Sandro and Eloise were joining the expedition. Together, the four of them form the group called Nomades del Mar. Since 2004, they have been paddling with the objective to explore the entire coast of the Chubut Province. This trip will complete their first mission and will set the stage for their next goal – continue to Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. Nomades del Mar is more than a simple name. It stands for a set of values that all four members carry in their paddling and lives. Nomades are known in human history to have the most sustainable lifestyle: following the seasons and being in harmony with Nature. Kayak is for the group, the best way to learn and respect the environment, wildlife and history and to share them with friends. As Pablo said to me: “Nomades del  Mar perfectly sums up our feelings and emotions about Nature and describes best our way of living.”

By 2h45pm, we had finished loading our kayaks with food and equipment. Each of us were carrying 20 liters of water. I had all the dinners onboard my kayak, Pablo and Sandro would carry the lunches plus cooking gear, and Sofia and Eloise had the breakfasts and lunches. We would only need to replenish our water supply once in Bahia Bustamante. The weather forecast was generally good for the next 4 days. After that, we would use the satellite phone to call and get updates. After a quick lunch and a final check, we pushed ourselves on the water and headed to Isla Blanca, our first point of interest. The sky was clear, not one cloud, a light breeze, this was a great way to start our adventure.

In 1880, a steamship called Villarino was commissioned by the Government of Argentina. Her inaugural trip was to bring the remains of General San Martin, liberator of Argentina, whom had taken residence in France, back to be interred in Buenos Aires. After her delivery, she began a career in transporting goods along the coast of Patagonia. On March 16 th 1899, after 19 years of service and 101 trips to the south, Villarino sunk on the reefs of Isla Blanca during a stormy night, it was her 202 nd visit to Camarones. While her wreck lies at the bottom, (though her prop is on display by the beach in Puerto Madryn) the rocky island thrives with life. As we got closer to the reef, Antarctic Skuas began to fly over our heads. Skuas are known for being pretty territorial, flying extremely close to anyone venturing on their turf. With one just a couple of feet over my shoulder, I suddenly remembered the images of Sir David Attenborough, reporting on penguins, Skuas harassing him – although those ones were just investigating. Isla Blanca is populated with various marine bird colonies and Sea Lion colonies. On the rocks, groups of Dolphin Gulls, Rock and Imperial Cormorants, and Oyster-catchers:  Magellanic, Common and Blackish, each owning its little piece of rocky real estate.  In the water, inquisitive eyes with long whiskers popping up and disappearing keeping tab on our whereabouts. After rounding the island, we paddled away, heading to our first night stop. We settled in a little bay, not too far south from Camarones. After dinner, although some of us wanted to sleep outside, we had to forfeit our wish and raise the tents. With 92% humidity and 13 degree celsius, it was going to be a wet night.

I woke up as the light started to fill the sky. Out of my sleeping bag and into my warm jacket, I got out of the tent and marveled at the beauty of how this day was starting. On the horizon, a thick pink line was stretching from north to south. In the bay, on the water, a large group of Crested Ducks looked like japanese Kage-e (shadow pictures from the Edo period) floating on a dark blue metallic liquid. In the sky, the absence of clouds created a giant blue gradient, starting with a hint of red and ending with a deep black. While the others woke up, Pablo put the kettle on the stove, it was time for breakfast with mate.

Mate is for Argentina, what coffee is for France or Italy and tea for England – beside being the national beverage, it is a sacred ritual. You drink it in the morning and in the afternoon. The leaves of Yerba, a species of holly, native to South America, are poured loose in a calabash gourd. Once the leaves have steeped in warm water (it is important that the water is not boiling), the tea is drank with a Bombilla, a metallic straw. According to the Guarani legend, when the Goddesses of the Moon and of Clouds came to Earth, an old man saved them from the attack of a Yaguarete (jaguar). To reward the brave soul, the Goddesses gave the man a new plant from which could be prepared a drink of friendship. Mate was born.

Our second night stop – a little pebble beach nestled between small cliffs, protected from the wind, finally allowed us to enjoy the warmth of the sun and within minutes, everything felt like a hot summer day. We braved the cold water of the Atlantic and all went for a swim. While some could only manage a quick dip, others, myself included, stayed in and took the occasion to gather mussels and lapas. Fresh from the sea, with garlic and butter, followed by Argentinean beef grilled over fire, dinner was exquisite. That night, I stayed late and sat by the fire and watched the flames dance against the rock. For a moment, it all felt like a scene from a John Wayne western. With some imagination, I could hear the coyotes over the hills and the harmonica playing “”Rio Bravo”.

Isla Leones (Lions) was our next destination. Originally named Isla Barela, after its discovery by Don Diego Barela sometime between 1745 and 1746, the island was renamed Leones. Captain Tafor, from the ship “San Sebastian” decided that the name was better suited due to the constant barking from the high number of sea lions found on the island. After the sinking of “Villarino”, it was decided to build lighthouses along the coast to ensure safe navigation. In 1916, the crew of the ARA Mackinlay began construction of the lighthouse. Its light lit for the first time one year later. In 1968, the “faro” was shut down and replaced by the San Gregorio Lighthouse. Located on the main land, consequently much easier to maintain, its light still guides navigators today.

As our kayaks landed on the beach of Caleta (inlet) John Woddal, on the north side of Leones, an armadillo was seen walking through the remains of old machinery used when the island was occupied. On the water, a curious event was taking place. A large group of cormorants was swimming in a tight circle while another large group of Kelp Gulls, surrounding them, was squeaking. It seems that the birds were in a territorial dispute – one wanting to intimidate the other. It almost looked like a choreographed ballet. In fact, I started to laugh at the resemblance to Michael Jackson’s video “Beat It”.

After visiting the “faro”, we got back in our kayaks and paddled around the point, to Bay of the French, located on the south side of the island. The place was simply an eden filled with marine birds and sea lions. In front of me, a giant petrel was preening herself, spreading her huge wings wide open and looking at me with a mean look.  A crested duck closely swam by and puffed his feathers, sending an arch of water droplets over him. In the water two male sea lions in my wake, playing hide and seek. On the shore, snowy sheath-bills, egrets, and gulls and oyster-catchers cracking mussels open.  A colony of penguins going up the beach, their little bodies, in tuxedo costumes, lumbering side to side in unison. Every thirty meters, a steamer duck couple swimming, their heads low, giving them a stealthy look. Chubut Steamer ducks, native to the area and are known for their unique and entertaining way of escaping. This flightless species of waterfowl uses its wings like propellers, producing a lot of noise and making them look like old steamboats. That evening, shortly after going out for a swim, a group of Peal’s dolphins passed in front of our campsite chasing bait fish, trailing a flock of birds hoping to get any leftovers.

Our next stop, and campsite for the day was Isla Valdez. The small island is famous for its rabbits, brought by early European settlers. With the absence of predators, the rabbits now rule the land. The terrain is fairly similar to the one found in Provence, France, home to the culinary delicacy “Lapin de Garrigue”, a rabbit with a particular strong herby taste. We didn’t have anything to go hunting with, but we decided to try our luck anyhow.  Hunter-gatherer was a way of living for millions of years, prior to the practice of agriculture. There is actually a deeper level of connection, understanding, and respect of Nature when you harvest from the wild. You take part in an act that has been practiced daily, by all living creatures on Earth since the dawn of Life.  You understand the value of food. You understand what it takes to get it – lots of patience and great skills. It is not done for sport or fun, but to feed yourself. Rabbits are no easy catch. When facing danger, they will react in two ways. They will run as soon as they see you, in which case a little furry ball with long ears and a white fluffy tail will be seen darting behind rocks. Or they will stay still and hope to be missed. Their fur blends incredibly well with the landscape, and on more than one occasion, I almost stepped on one, before it sprinted with a giant leap inches from my feet and scaring the heck out of me. Our hunt was a big failure. Not only did we not come back with any rabbit, but we did not even got close. Our lack of technique was by far outmatched by their capacity to escape.

Isla Valdez was fascinating in another way. Beside the rabbits, it was the Land of the Small Creatures. At all the other locations we had been, the usual bird of prey was the Caracara, but here, it was the much smaller American Kestrel. Close to our base camp was an ant nest of a size I had never seen in my life. The anthill was at least 50 cm high. While walking the hills, I stumbled on the legendary Tarantula Hawk (black wasp with red wings, up to 5 cm long) carrying a small numbed tarantula into its burrow.  I had seen them on several occasions on the Peninsula Valdez, but witnessing one after successfully catching a spider was a first.  Finally, the next morning, I discovered that a small scorpion had taken refuge under my tent. It was another first for me. I had never seen a live scorpion in the wild.

On the morning of day 8 th, we arrived at Bahia Bustamante. In 1953, Don Lorenzo Soriano was searching the coast to harvest seaweed. The plant was used in the production of hair grooming products. The place was known then as the Bahia Podrida (Rotten Bay). On the pebble beach, tons of seaweed would accumulate after each tide and rot under the sun. This was the perfect place to collect the marine plant using only horses and wagons. Times have changed a lot since the good days of seaweed. Nowadays, the industry has been greatly reduced and the rest industrialized, leaving Matias, Lorenzo’s great-son, to turn the village into an eco tourism destination. The place has an amazing bio-diversity and is surrounded by 25 000 acres of pure Patagonian nature.  You can visit the Petrified Forest, where old tree trunks have transformed into glowing opal rock. Or horseback ride to the nearest estancia and become a rancher for one day, where you will tend to the famous Patagonia Cordero (lamb), known for its great wool, lean meat and unforgettable taste. If you are an avid bird watcher, then the Peninsula Gravina is your destination where you will find 21 breeding colonies of several marine and coastal birds. If you are lucky, you might enjoy the dolphins and orcas that often swim the bay.

The landscape, up until Peninsula Gravignia, was a combination of cliffs, beaches, hills and rocky islands. But passing Cabo Aristizabal, into Bahia Solano in Golfo San Jorge, was like stepping into a new world. It felt different. It looked different. It sounded different. We were now paddling in a big swell, uninterrupted, from the Atlantic, bringing along cold air from the Antarctic. On the shore, endless steep beaches, the waves rolling on the pebbles with loud roars. It felt strange. It felt like another planet. Even the sheep were different. They were black. With a large colony of sea gulls every 200 meters, it was like the same piece of scenery was repeated over and over, for miles and miles. We went from spending our time exploring, to paddling as long as we could to cover as much distance as we could. Constant 20 knots headwind forced me to raised the hood of my Kokatat jacket and put my Tropo mitts on. Stopping for break or lunch, became an adventure in its own. The shore had a 45 degree angle, and to get on, one had to combine speed, timing, and agility. You had to ride the highest wave to land as high as possible, then get out as quick possible and pull your kayak up to safe ground before the crush of the following wave. A situation that would flood the cockpit and send you rolling. To add to the difficulty, the pebbles acted like rollers, and every time a step was made, your feet would slide down one pace before stopping. Getting back in the water was a total different experience. This time, it was play time. You simply sat in your kayak and slid down onto the water. The trick here again, was timing. You had to make sure to land just before the wave retreated. If not, then the nose of your kayak would enter at the bottom of the crest and you would get the full weight of the wave on your torso. And a mouthful of salt water!

Places to stop were few and far in between. For the first time since the beginning of our trip, that evening everyone was tired – physically and mentally. Our campsite was exposed and the wind kept blowing strong from the land, bringing with it shovels of sand. Everything was crunchy, our food, our drinks. Sand was getting everywhere. That night, I buried myself in my sleeping bag, only a tiny hole over my mouth to breathe. The tent was being hammered by the wind. The sand blasting the fabric. I felt like George Clooney on the set of the Perfect Storm. A huge fan set to maximum, a prop guy next to it with a shovel, pouring sand at the Director’s cue – “More sand! More sand!” In the morning, we woke up covered in sand. Each of our tents had failed to stop the invasion of those tiny particles. We looked like dust covered mummies just awoken from an ancient sleep.

The forecast for the day was not good. It would be long and tiring, with not much ground covered, but is was manageable. We had 30 km left to do before arriving at our final destination. Considering the weather, it would take us 2 days. With wind still blowing strong from the land, I pushed my kayak and dug my Lendal paddle in the water. I took the lead, Sofia and Eloise where in the middle, and Pablo and Sandro closed the convoy.  My Kokatat hood up and jacket zipped all the way, only my sunglasses exposed, I was deep in my paddling. After 20 minutes, I looked over my shoulder and saw that Sofia and Eloise had landed their kayak on the beach. I looked ahead and accessed my position. The shore was made of cliffs with small canyons every 200 meters. In each canyon, the wind coming from the mountains was being funneled and unleashed over the water with great force. I had already begun crossing the mouth of one canyon and decided to finish it. I would stop after and wait for the others. I paddled another 15 minutes, and realized that the conditions were worsening quickly and escalating to a dangerous level. I had only covered 500 meters and the wind had pushed me offshore another 300. I would not be able to cross the mouth and decided to head to the beach right away. Gusts of wind were fierce and now I was far enough from the coast that the waves were getting bigger. I tried for about 15 minutes to turn the nose of my kayak into the wind. Every time I got close, a massive gust would bring me back to square one. And every second, every minute, the wind was taking me further away from the shore. I had to act quickly. I had to act before it would be too late. The thought of capsizing was far at the back of my mind. I could not allow myself such an event. Capsizing would mean my failure in handling the conditions and would seriously diminish my chances of coming out of this in one piece. I turned my Tiderace leeward and proceeded to turn. I crunched down, my full body leaning forward and to the left, putting my entire weight against the incoming waves and the constant push of the wind. I kept a firm grip on my paddle as the wind continuously tried to blow it away. Once the turn completed, I dug each stroke deep in the water and battled my way back. I could barely see where I was going. My glasses were crusted in salt. The thing I knew for sure was that I had to keep paddling, at any cost. I could not stop, not even for one second. Now turned, the wind would bring me back to shore. It would take a long time and I would certainly be far from the others, but I would make it. The night before we had passed some fisherman and I knew that if needed, I could ask them to bring me back. I landed 300 meters before where we had started that morning. Pablo was on the beach, jumping, his hands in the air. He was beyond happy. I, honestly, felt a sense of pride. I knew I had come close to something extremely dangerous, but I had mastered it. I had kept my senses and handled my way out safely. Pablo told me that they had called the Coast Guard. That is how bad it was. That afternoon, I walked up the hill and clocked the wind speed with my Brunton, at 95 km/h. I watched the ocean in fury. Gusts were flying over the water with such wrath, they look like white ghosts going to war. The only ones who were enjoying this moment, were the gulls, terns and petrels, who contrary to us, flew the air with such ease – it was amazing watching them.

We didn’t get to reach Comodoro. The weather forecast for the next 2 days was going to be the same and there was no point in risking our safety. And that is fine. Exploring is not only about reaching a destination, but also about experiencing a journey. Some destinations are not meant to be reached on the first time. They command respect by not giving themselves easily. Limits are meant to be pushed. Barriers exist to be broken and new worlds are waiting to be discovered. But an Explorer must know when to stop and humble himself in front of Nature. Exploring challenges our own human nature – it reminds us that nothing is static and nothing is finite. The world is in constant movement. Life is an endless source of exploration.  In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldin flew to the moon carrying the Explorers Club Flag. As they landed on the lunar soil, Armstrong was able to sum up in one small sentence the essence of exploration – “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Dreams

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”For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Vincent Van Gogh

It is dark. Absence of colors. Black and white tones. Various shades of grey.  Daylight illuminates the world around us, but the night transforms everything into a monotone landscape. For a moment, I wonder, if actually this seemingly boring reality has a purpose. My eyes pan from left to right trying to find a destination. With no where to go, they are left with one choice – go up. And right there, I understand. We spend our days looking in front of us. Always trying to see what is coming. But the night belongs to dreams and there is only place you can find them – in the Stars. I am curious if this is why in Asia they write from top to bottom, as if to insinuate that everything in life starts with a Dream. My eyes are fixed on this black tapestry made of an incalculable amount of white pinholes. My pupils dilate trying to capture the gargantuesque size of the Universe.  Millions of specks of light, so distant from our planet than their location is measured by the number of years light takes to travel from them to us. Their sight reminds me of the infinite amount of possibilities our world holds. That we still know so little about Life. My thoughts of boredom are long gone now as I lay down on the sand, gazing at a world that is only reachable through my imagination, through my dreams.

Man has been looking at the stars for thousands of years. It has been a source of inspiration, a source of mystery, a source of faith, and a tool for orientation. It also has been a way for us to understand our relationship with Nature, and with Life. Ever since the dawn of humanity, the night sky and Nature have walked hand in hand. Through the ages, from all cultures, every time we raised our eyes to the night sky, we saw animals and mythical creatures. The Zodiac, invented more than 10 000 years ago, depicts our symbiosis with the Universe through images of animals. For centuries, constellations were named after Nature.  It is only in the 1700’s, at the early age of the Industrial Revolution, that we changed our relationship with the Stars. Frenchman Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, famous astronomer, broke all the rules and named all of his discoveries with man-made objects.

In a world where more than half of the population lives in cities, we tend to forget there is even a night sky. Our eyes barely rise above the horizon. Our sense of vertical is developed mainly around tall buildings. And if we do one day find our way to look passed the top of those skyscrapers, we find an almost white canvas with a few sparse bright dots. 

A night sky is a limitless source of creativity and fascination. Like painting by numbers, you trace imaginary lines from star to star, giving life to worlds that know no boundaries. Shooting stars and northern lights, props for magical stories. As much as we learn about the Universe in museum or on television, there is nothing like experiencing the sight of a night sky saturated with stars, the Milky Way casting shadows on the ground – it is overwhelming, it is humbly.

We need never to forget to look up. We need never to forget to dream.

A day with the dolphins

We were all sitting at the table, sharing food and stories. Fried anchovies, calamari and clams, all fresh from the morning. Each of us telling his Nature stories. Glasses of cold beer, sunset over the gulf, our joy and laughs spreading over other tables. I was having dinner with a production team filming for the next Life series on BBC. Tomorrow, we would spend the day on the water, filming the dusky dolphins. The team had been here for almost 3 weeks now and was leaving soon. One of their crew had left a couple of days ago. One man short, they were looking for an extra pair of eyes. When I offered mine, they gladly accepted.

It was 7am when they engines started and propelled us away from the beach. Under a magnificent sky, the morning air tighten up our faces, our collars zipped up, we drank our coffee and shared a bag of croissants. Although it might sound glamourous, documentaries like this one take years of patience and filming. Certain sequences captured after months and months of waiting, chasing, and hoping. Some, simply never happen when the cameras are rolling. Jonathan Smith and Tom Fritz had been filming the duskies for weeks now, hoping to catch the scene they had come to capture. They had filmed them feeding on small bait ball, filmed them with sea lions, filmed them jumping around, but they had not filmed them feeding on a big ball of anchovies. One day, they found a huge ball, twice the size of the boat, but no dolphins around, no dolphins feeding.

Each day is the same, no matter the weather. By sunrise, you are on the water, and you are not coming back before darkness. One member of the team in on land or in the air, on the look out. You spend so much time looking through binoculars, you start to see things. You spend so much time putting your wet suit on and off, it starts to look more like a fashion rehearsal. As days go by, you invent more and more lucky charms. Perhaps we need to do the dolphin dance tomorrow, with Hawaiian skirts this time! Jokingly, my arrival is seen as a possible sign of good luck, giving me now the responsibility of turning faith around, before I become a sign of bad luck!  The day is superb. The conditions are perfect. If only, just for one moment, this could be “The Day”.

The water had been zipping by for an hour when we spotted a group of dolphins. We were not the only one who had. Flocks of storm-petrels and seagulls were rushing toward them.  Like bees on honey, birds will find dolphins feeding, and in minutes, any flying creatures within miles will be seen flying in the same direction, hoping to take advantage of a free easy meal. I admit it is quite a scene. On each side of the boat, hordes of birds, flying at the same speed as we do. Their squeaking echoing all around. The adrenaline kicks in. The engines are roaring. Thoughts of this being the big one crosses all our mind. Cameras are prepared. Wet suits are put on. Every one is on the stand by. Already, hundreds of birds are at the scene. The frenzy is everywhere. Just as we arrive, as if on cue, the anchovies have all been eaten, and the whole bonanza starts all over again at another location. We put the cameras away, take off the wet suits, and follow the birds to the next spot. This dance goes on all day long, over and over, until the sun sets, 12 hours after our departure.

At one point, I ask if the event has actually been seen or captured on film. I start to have doubts, that perhaps we are chasing something that will never happen. Jonathan laughs. He tells me that it has once for an Imax movie – it took 52 days to finally get it. He also tells me that when it happens, when the big bait ball happens and the dolphins are feeding on it, it lasts for an hour.

I ask Jonathan and Tom some questions. I am curious to know about their background and their motivation. Why they do what they do. Why they spend 3 weeks, 12 hours a day, on the water, waiting for something and still find the energy to laugh and smile as if this was the first day on the job. Are they making a good living? Or working for Nature documentaries means living on bread and butter. Some of their answers surprise me, others don’t.

“You feel that you are part of something bigger. It is a rush. The unexpected, the surprise, the discovery. When the magic happens, there is nothing in the world that matches it, except perhaps the birth of your child.  This is life in its pure form. There is a sense of connection that is hard to explain. As if for one moment, before your eyes, all life, all Universes were connected to this one point in time and space. Including you.” Tom talks about the time he filmed the Bowhead Whales in the Arctic, to be in the presence of such giants, perhaps older than 100 years. He can’t find the words to express what it was like. His eyes are locked somewhere on the horizon. His memories stay secret, unable to find a worthy way to convey them. Jonathan tells me the story  when he filmed the leopard seals in Antarctica. Those apex predators, perfect hunting creatures, would bring penguins to them, like children wanting to share their toys. They would open their mouth, 160 degrees wide at the camera, showing their teeth one inch long.

Although their motivation is beyond financial, surprisingly enough, the nature documentary industry pays well today. A lot more than in the past and a lot more than other similar industries. Success like the Blue Planet series have proved their value. Planet Earth became the most watched show on Discovery channel.

We talked about today’s documentaries versus the early days of Cousteau and Attenborough. About Institutions like BBC that has succeeded over the years to commission and publish educational material of great quality. Jonathan mentions how important the mission statement is. Per instance, BBC’s mission is to “Inform, Educate and Entertain. It aims at sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning and stimulating creativity and cultural excellence”. Notice that entertain is last, not first. Which is actually the opposite of most others in the industry.

As with everybody I meet who works with Nature, family plays an important role. They support financially or simply nurture the passion seen in their child, telling him or her, that what is important, is to do something they love, whatever it is – music, painting, art, traveling or working with animal . Children don’t have the wisdom, the foresight to see the bigger picture and it is to the parents to recognize what that passion is and guide it, support it.

One day, Tom rented a boat and took his family out for a little expedition on the waters of Florida. At some point, his son pulled his father’s shirt and innocently asked him if they were in the Wild. Amused by the question, Tom looked around, then look at his child and said yes. His answer could have been that little green creatures did live on Mars, the result was the same. The little boy had just stepped into a fantasy world. The mangroves, the water, the birds, the fish, all suddenly became subjects of fascination. In his head, the little boy was seeing for the first time what his father saw every time he went to work. Tom was mesmerized at the joy on his son’s face, simply by being in the Wild. Beside connecting with Nature, moments like these are priceless. There are no bigger rewards than to see your child’s happiness from sharing what you do for living.

We didn’t capture the golden sequence that day. As we ride back, I don’t feel any frustration, or disappointment from anyone on the boat. Of course Jonathan and Tom anxiously dream about it, but at the end of the day, to be in the water with the dolphins, to have them swim around, to have them look at you and squeak, it is hard not to be content.

That evening, as we are all sitting at the table, sharing an exquisite asado, glasses of cold beer, fresh timber burning in the fireplace, our joy and laughs spreading over other tables, no one would trade this moment. Jonathan announces that he will be going to Tobago after, to film flying fish spawning, something he has been waiting for 2 years. We can’t help but feel a bit jealous, but we still raise our glass to him and for a moment, as we look at each other, we feel bonded, united by our love for Nature.

The Almighty

I have always loved thunderstorms. I remember spending many hours, sitting on the front porch, my eyes staring at those giants passing by, unleashing armies of droplets, like millions of tiny soldiers. Canons firing lightnings, opening safe passage for the cavalry. Winds knocking down any who dared to resist. The sound of the thunder spreading over miles and miles. I would always count the seconds the moment I would see a flash, strategically, in my mind, following the progress of the battalion. One, two, three, four, five, bang! The storm is one mile away to the north! Send the troops! Nature has always been a companion in my imaginary world, never failing to deliver countless days of play.

The day had been calm and sunny. But the evening was to be another story. The blue sky was being invaded by a front of dark grey clouds. They looked like fire spreading over a ceiling. Magically engulfing every blue particle until there was no more. Visible curtains of rain, forming high, almost impenetrable walls, advancing over land. Their lighter shade of grey in contrast with the thick black sky. Lightnings splitting the air, cracking the earth, the loud noise tumbling across all over.  Flashes from beyond, illuminating every edges of this monster. No General could ever match the power and effectiveness of the invasion.  People running from the beach, taking cover. Doors and windows shut. Dogs barking. Within minutes, the entire town was taken prisoner and was showed no mercy. Power was cut.  Streets were flooded. We retreated waiving the white flag in hope of salvation from our defiance.

Slowly, the gloom passed, leaving behind trails of destruction. We were safe.

I smiled. From behind my lens, I was having too much fun, my script was perfect.

Choked

I was reading Jon Bowermaster’s entry from his blog “Notes from Antarctica” writing about garbage resolution and witnessing the sad impact our lifestyle has at some of the most remote places in the world. While out shooting at Punta Norte the other day, I noticed this female sea lion that had a wire around her neck. She must have swam through a while ago. The wire already cutting deep her throat. How much did she have left to live? What would happen to her cub, just born a few weeks ago? Did this male knew her faith as he watched over her?

Now looking at the picture, I can’t help but notice the drama of the image. Her devotion to him, even as her fate is sealed.

It is in those moments that you really understand how our lives really intertwine with theirs. I was not just a few miles from a busy port, where chances of running into garbage is frequent. I was in a National Park, a Unesco World Heritage. A place supposedly protected.

Connection

It happens every time. I am not sure how and why but I always know when it does. As I am sitting on the beach, just a couple of feet away from the seals, I sense that my presence is no longer a threat and from there, a connection, a communication is established. They observe me. I observe them. They make a move and wait. I make a move and wait. There is no longer them and me, but Us. We are all part of the same world, we share this beach, this ocean, the air. Our existence is bound to each other, to this Planet. Our goal is the same, to survive, to live.

I start to notice little behaviors, details that had so far escaped my attention. I start to recognize distinct dynamics between each of them. Somehow their body language seems no longer alien to me. They stare at me with their big black eyes. For a moment, I feel like I am having a conversation with them.

Later that day, after walking to another location, I was about to leave when a fox came out of the bush. After walking by a couple of times, he laid down not far from me and waited. I knelt down and slowly moved closer. He yawned. I took the hint that he wanted me to get closer. So I did. I inched myself forward, every time taking new photos, not knowing when he would get up and leave. I was about six feet from him. He would look everywhere then blink at me. After a couple of minutes, he got up and walked away. Just before disappearing, he turned and looked at me once more. I stayed down on the ground for a while, baffled of what had just happened. No need to wonder who was the observer, that Fox had come to me, pose and left.

Nature always surprises me. This encounter with the Fox reminded me of a dive at the Channel Islands in California. I was swimming in the kelp forest and I knew there was a seal somewhere. He kept showing his little face from time to time. As if he was playing hide and seek with me. Always remembering my walk in the forest 25 years ago, I stopped and kneeled on the bottom and waited. No more than 5 minutes had passed when I felt my fins pulled behind me. The little seal was there trying to get my attention. For 30 minutes we played. He would disappear. I would try to find him. I would stop, he would come back.

I never know when those magical moments will happen. In fact, it can be months, sometime years, but they are the reason why I do what I do.

Beyond the Sunset

The unexpected. The surprise. Time and space coming together to create a moment of bliss.

I had spent the entire day working in front of the computer – editing, uploading, writing. The night before our plans to go watch the sunset on the water had been spoiled by the wind, and by the end of the afternoon, the thought of a late outing seemed dim. I walked back to the office, and there, Pablo announced that a couple wanted to go kayaking and asked if I wanted to come. I was tired and hungry, but the idea of being on the water, to feel the rocking of the waves, to let Nature rejuvenate my depleted energy, my eyes lit up and my head nodded up and down.

I slipped in my kayak and pushed myself off the beach. The sun would set soon and the sky was already turning into a deep shade of blue. The water had this mystic look, a black shiny liquid. Thousands of shadows and reflections on the surface creating a metallic mosaic. A thick orange line on the horizon, separating two worlds – a contrast of realities.  We paddled out, almost with a feeling of never coming back. Each stroke pulling us closer to the unknown. The world around us was alive, changing every second. Cliffs and rocks ahead of us black by the absence of reflective light. Cliffs and rocks behind us burning from the Sun. Deep dark shades enhancing every edges. From the distance, I saw several pointy noses popping out, flippers splashing the water – a group of sea lions. Unable to see under the surface, there whereabouts remained secret. Only revealed to us every time their shiny fur came out, or their heads magically bursting up, like a periscope from a submarine. As we got closer to the colony, their number grew. On the shore, legions of little cubs, intrigued by us, not old enough yet to venture to waters, their curiosity evident with their whiskers up in the air, sniffing at us.

We stayed there. Cradled by the waves. I tried to film underwater, blindly, not knowing whether there was enough light, or even if I was filming anything. We were surrounded and we surrendered. Basking in this magical eden, not a word was said. Almost with regrets, we decided to go back. Looking behind us every few minutes, wondering if that door would ever close. I was in my head, contemplative. My arms moving the paddle without me being aware of it. Nothing could ever be more perfect than this moment. How fortunate was I. How grateful I was. The sea lions stayed with us, swimming along side my kayak for what seemed like eternity. Companions sharing this moment, escorting me out, after being their guest, privileged by their hospitality.

After passing the last bay, I turned once more. I was not prepared for such beauty. Up at the top of the cliff, behind the lighthouse, incandescent clouds, vibrant shades of colors, perfectly cutting the contour of the old building. I tell the others. We turn our kayaks around and face this unbelievable sight. None of us find the will to interrupt this moment.

Against the Wind

We were suppose to leave that evening. The plan was to kayak a couple of hours, pass Puerto Pardelas, and camp before Punta Alt. There, a small cave, up in the mountain, would provide us with a good campsite, and a beautiful scenery. From there, we would paddle for 3 days, hopefully cross the entrance of Golfo Nuevo and make it to Punta Cracker. Perhaps see some dolphins on the way. Although it was a good plan, Lady Nature had something else in her mind.

I am always a bit worried whenever I set out. Will I have something to write about.  Will the pictures be good? Will the videos be ok for editing? Will I have interesting material, or will I come back with nothing? Will I find my theme for the day? For the trip? As it turns out, with some faith and patience, Nature always delivers. It may not be what was expected. It might be something totally different. But there is always a story line, you just have to let it come to you.

Along with Pablo, Diego and myself, Sandro was joining us on this trip. He is Pablo’s long time kayak partner. Together, they have been paddling the waters of the Peninsula for years. Sandro, as I discovered, is the type of paddler that makes kayaking look effortless. Steady, with great technique and years of experience, he cuts through the wind and through the waves like a steamship, never hinting any signs of fatigue or forcing a stroke. One rhythm, tic tac, tic tac, like a metronome. Whether the wind is blowing at 30 miles an hour, or the surface is like a mirror, you won’t notice any difference. Pablo was telling me that he had once paddled for 11 hours straight, never stopping even once for the normal human needs.

The kayaks were packed and ready. We all stood on the beach staring at the sky, then staring at the weather forecast Pablo was holding. The wind was blowing from the north pretty hard and it would do all night long. Out in the middle of the gulf, huge cumulus clouds rose up like a gigantic towers. Although the wind would push us in the right direction, our campsite would be exposed to the fury of what was looking inevitable – a stormy night. The rest of the forecast didn’t look promising either. The wind would change direction the day after, heading south, increasing in the afternoon, reaching 25 miles per hour. This meant that we would paddle pretty much the 3 days with head wind. The chances of crossing to the other side now were close to nothing.  We decided to hold off our departure and leave the next morning. That night, we dined listening to the wind howling and blowing sand from the dunes, hitting the windows like a swarm of bees from a Hitchcock movie. Out on the open, flashes from the lightnings illuminating the clouds giving us a glimpse of what hell could look like.

The morning showed no signs at all of what had taken place the night before. The sky was cloudless and the water smooth like leather. As the tide was rising, we carried our kayaks to the water, pushed ourselves off the beach and paddled out. We knew those conditions were just temporary, but we couldn’t stop ourselves believing perhaps that the forecast was wrong and that the next 3 days would be an easy ride.

When the tide changed, along with it came a new set of rules. The promised wind was delivered. Like adding coal to a train, it gained speed. Soon enough, we were battling 8 foot waves and gusts of 30 knots. Our sunglasses became crusted with salt – all those droplets blown in our face every time our bow hit a wave. Right after Punta Alt, we pulled on the beach and reassessed. We decided to head back. We would camp at that cave and spend the rest of the day hiking. For the next hour, we paddled, gusts of wind pushing us like a stampede. Sometimes, I felt like I was being rushed out by a group of mad security.  With our kayaks secured, and our gear at the cave, we all stared at a sea of white caps and headed for a hike.

Trails of Guanacos, hares and foxes crossing our own, we walked through canyons where walls were made of fossilized shells. Our eyes scanning for historical treasures – a fossil of petrified wood, chipped stones reminiscent of when the natives lived those lands. I felt like walking the corridors of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Behind a dune, hidden by a tall sand bush, the wind had blown away the sand covering the remains of a dead Tehuelche, perhaps 300 or 400 years old. The place was filled with history. Back at our cave, we contemplated the valley in front of us as the sun set and a dimmed rainbow briefly came to life. With our imagination fresh from our discoveries, we were soon looking back in time and saw a tribe a natives crossing the land.

There was no relief the next day. The wind was still blowing strong. Not as hard though. We armed ourselves with patience and paddled our way.

The beach after Punta Alt is long and is a place where many juvenile whale carcasses are found. Bones taken by people, the skin is what is left, even after 6 months. Of all the baby whales born in the golf, ten percent don’t make it. Most of time, they end up here, on this beach, blown by the winds and currents. In the water, a couple of penguins, schools of fish surfing the water and from time to time, a curious wandering sea lion poking his head out would remind us that life still exist.  After a couple of hours, we found this place with some good little surf. There is always time for surf and for sure we took it. For a moment, there was no more wind, no more current, there were just nice little waves to ride.

We stopped at Punta Cormorans. Although we could go for more, there was no good camping site within reaching distance. We settled once more to stop early and go for a hike. But before, with the tide going down, the same fish that we had seen surfing earlier, get often caught trapped in little ponds. Stories go that some people are even able to catch them with their bare hands. With little strategy, we posted ourselves between the open sea – freedom, and the pond – the cage. We looked like bears, sitting atop a fall, waiting for the salmons to jump right into their mouths. Except, in this case, it was more a bunch of tired kayakers with barely any patience left. After unsuccessfully chasing 10 of them and seeing them sprint their way to freedom, we gave up.

The hike this time, had a total different feeling. On the beach, amongst the usual suspects – crab shells, bones of dead birds, fish left overs – hundreds and hundreds of garbage – fish bins used by boats, nets, sandals, plastic bottles, glass bottles, tubes, hats, and the number one garbage found in Nature, the eternal white plastic bag. For a moment, I felt like we were the only survivors on a desolate planet. Those … things, on the beach were what was left from a once flourishing population. Our hike became a search for the most unusual artifact – a boomerang, a plastic red toy truck, glue sticks. On our way back to the camp, we headed for the cliffs, leaving the desolation behind. Away from the reach of water, a sense of wilderness came back, tracks of animals, fresh and old. We found an old Tehuelche settlement, chipped stones, a piece from an old plate used to grind herbs and cereals. Not far, the polished rock used as a crusher.

That evening, as the sun set in an intense gold curtain, a fox passed on the beach, stopping once to look at us. Meeting of strangers in a strange land. At night, tucked in my sleeping back, the sky was impressively beautiful. There were more stars than usual.  It seems like they were everywhere. The Milky Way was bright, a clear white streak crossing a sea of millions and millions of white shining dots. How amazing, that in the course of one day, some many opposites come in conflict with each other – life and death, ugly and beauty, easy and difficult.

Magically, the next morning, the wind changed direction once more. This time, it was blowing from the north, coincidentally the same direction as our way back home. We took a deep breath and went for it.

As if Lady Nature was playing with us, two hours before our arrival, the wind dropped and the surface became smooth again. Exactly the same conditions we had on our departure 3 days earlier. It was hard not to laugh about it as we glided back to shore.