Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Postcards from Maui: Molokini

So you can't open a travel guide on Maui without being told that you must must take a snorkeling trip to the tiny island of Molokini. Well, all of the guide books and tourism websites can't be wrong, right?

We ended up booking our tour with Trilogy. They're the largest operator for sailing/snorkeling tour operators on the island. They've received mixed reviews in the past, but have apparently gotten much better in recent years. After experiencing their offering I think we made a good choice.

Our vessel was the Trilogy II, a 50-ish foot long sailing catamaran that left Maalaea Harbor at 8AM sharp. Captain Brett (his red hair and beard made him look like a 21st century pirate), First Mate Shane (he belongs on the cover of a surfing magazine), Mike (the new guy) and Dave (the old hand SCUBA/SNUBA instructor) completed the four-man crew.
Captain Bret giving his patented safety lecture
Unlike some other operators who cram upwards of 150 tourists onto their boats, our boat had about ½ as many passengers. It made for a laid back, uncrowded cruise. Bonus points to Trilogy for not packing us in like sardines.

The trip out to Molokini took an hour under power. On the way we were treated to Captain Brett's laconic wit, while Mike and Shane served up breakfast-- freshly baked cinnamon buns (from the owner's mother's original recipe), fresh fruit, coffee and juice. I had misgivings about getting seasick, but a couple of prophylactic ginger capsules made for smooth sailing, gastrically speaking. The highlight of the outward leg was a brief sighting of a giant Manta ray jumping into the air. Unfortunately I was on the starboard side of the boat and, you guessed it, the ray made its appearance to port.

Dawn & Molokini
Molokini is a crescent-shaped sliver of volcanic rock that rises some three hundred feet. It's the remnant of an underwater volcanic crater, which was itself formed by a pressure vent from the same volcano that created Maui and the rest of the Hawai'ian island chain. Best current evidence suggests that Molokini last erupted more than a quarter of a million years ago. No need to worry about that one going all Krakatoa on us, I suppose. It was used for target practice by the US Navy in WWII. More rencently it's been designated as a Marine Life Conservation District. The island is uninhabited, unless you count the hundreds of Petrels, Shearwaters and Frigatebirds. Its waters are filled with coral and teeming with fish that enjoy the reef lifestyle.

After circling the island and mooring at its designated spot, Captain Brett offered a snorkeling lesson for all the newbies.  Throwing caution to the wind, Dawn and I skipped the orientation, donned our equipment and got right into the water.

Clouds came and went throughout the morning, so the lighting wasn't always the best, especially when you're looking at fish and coral thirty feet (10m) down, but we got to see plenty of submarine denizens, including a moray eel:
   

Near the shore the water got pretty rough, and where the island disappeared into the sea there was a spot that Captain Brett lovingly referred to as the Swirling Current of Doom, just in case there was any doubt as to whether we should try our snorkeling skills out there.  We heeded the advice and stayed away.
  

The SNUBA folks (I think they were a family) got together for a group portrait:

I don't see the point, myself.  If you're going to swim with SCUBA gear floating above you, you might as well put the vest and tank on, and enjoy the full experience.  But I wasn't paying for the privilege, so to each his own.  I went back to looking at the incredible diversity of coral on the sea floor:

After about an hour in the water we gathered back aboard the Trilogy II for a short trip to our next destination, "Turtle Town".  Every operator seems to have one of these spots, and each one makes it sound like theirs is unique.  In fact, Green Sea turtles (honu in the parlance of the islanders) are widespread in the waters around Maui, as we discovered at the nearby Black Rock beach, just a short walk from our hotel.  Our Turtle Town was a spot just off the southern shore of Maui where lava fingers from the island's distant past jutted out into the ocean.  Lava is full of gas pockets and fissures that wave action and time eventually convert into caves, tunnels and arches beneath the water.  Turtles, apparently, love these little hidey-holes.

We noshed on chips and pineapple-mango salsa (with Maui onions and tomatoes, of course) on the way over, and warmed ourselves with hot coffee.  When we arrived at the coast we exchanged moorings with the Trilogy V, which was just heading back to harbor with its passengers who'd gotten started an hour before we did:

Captain Brett parked us right over one of the lava fingers and in we went for more snorkeling fun.  As at Molokini, the sea life were abundant and they didn't mind coming close.  The lava fingers were closer too, which made photography a little easier, but also made for more turbulent currents.  Despite that I managed to get some colorful fish in focus:
 

Of course we were there for the turtles.  The guide book we've been using, Maui Revealed, claimed that the chances of seeing a turtle in Turtle Town (any of them) were about 50-50, so I was prepared to be disappointed.  It wasn't too long before I found a little lava cave with a shell and two flippers sticking out of it.  I parked myself overhead and, sure enough after a few minutes the turtle decided to come up for air:

Now I figure this fellow must have been a youngster, because he made a beeline right for me.  Maybe he was being playful, or curious, or both, but as he got closer, he looked right at me and did his best "if-you-don't-get-out-of-my-way-I'm-going-to-run-into-you" impression.  Well, these waters were his home, and I was just a visitor, so I slipped to the right as best I could, shooting pictures as I went.  It was frankly awesome to watch the honu pass by me on his way up, and the pictures speak for themselves:
  


 

We saw not one or two, but three turtles, including a massive male, though he was too far away for me to get any good pictures of him.  It was a thrill regardless.  The reefs along the lava fingers were plenty impressive on their own:
  

  

We were having such a good time looking for turtles and exploring the reefs that Dawn and I were pretty much the last ones back on the boat for lunch.  Trilogy does it up right with teryaki chicken barbeque, rice and a nice healthy green salad.  After seconds (and thirds for some!) we were underway, headed back for the harbor.  The trade winds really started to pick up after noon, so we got into some drier clothes and enjoyed the ride back.  It turned out there was a couple from Irondequoit on the boat with us, so we chatted them up and traded Rochester stories.  As we got closer to shore, Captain Brett decided it was time to do a little sailing, so he sent the crew forward to unfurl the canvas:

  

The engines switched off, we ate ice cream and enjoyed a nice 40-minute sail back to the harbor.

All things considered, a day well spent.  The sights were terrific, the sailing was extraordinary fun and the crew were top notch.  If you ever get a chance to snorkel Molokini Island, I don't think you'll do much better than to take a tour with Trilogy.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Postcards from Maui: Ka'anapali Beach

Twenty-two hours is a long time to spend traveling, but for a visit to paradise it's well spent. Dawn and I are on a 10-day vacation-- well, it actually 6 days vacation for her, plus a four-day Optometric conference. But for me, it's all fun and sun (unless I decide to get a little work done whilst Dawn is toiling away in her Continuing Eduction classes).

As is par for the course when we go on vacation, we got snafu'd by problems with the airlines. I won't belabor the details here, but suffice to say we arrived about eight hours behind schedule. On the plus side, I talked Dawn into a Jeep Wrangler for our rental car, a definite upgrade from the Ford Focus we'd originally booked (Dawn's vote was for a rag-top Mustang, the same car we had on our last visit back in 2006).

Sunday gave us our first opportunity to get into the ocean.  Dawn's a very good swimmer; me, not so much.  We do both enjoy snorkeling though.  It's a habit we picked up on our previous trip to Maui.  So after breakfast and a trip to the local Walgreens for a week's worth of sundries, snacks and a couple of bottles of wine, we struck out for the sand.

For being on the leeward side of the island, there was a fair wind blowing, and the surf was pretty active, with a significant undertow.  I'd bought some new full-sized fins and it took a couple of tries for me to get them on, what with my mask and snorkel dangling from one arm and my camera in its bulky polycarbonate housing swinging on the other.  In a few minutes everything was settled though and we headed out.  Unfortunately the choppy water made for pretty poor visibility, and before long we decided to try our luck elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be Black Rock.  It's just a short walk up the beach from our lodgings at the Westin, and it's one of the premier snorkeling spots on the island.  Of course, being so popular means it's usually pretty crowded, and today was no exception.  No worries though.  We set our beach towels down on the hot sand, waded out past the surf and donned our gear again.

The view here was much improved, and I started looking for things to photograph.  Near the top of my list was the Hawai'ian Triggerfish.  That's its short name.  Its real one is humuhumunukunukuapua'a, which looks (and sounds) like a mouthful, but if you take one syllable at a time it's pretty straightforward.  Anyway I didn't have to wait too long to spot one a colorful specimen:


 Pretty, no?  There were plenty of other fish in the sea too:   
      

We ended up swimming out maybe fifty yards past Black Rock, where we were basically alone. At least I thought we were alone, until Dawn pointed out something in the water even farther out, just on the edge of our vision.  I stared hard, but it didn't take long to figure out what it was-- some species of shark!  It looked medium sized, and I think I saw black tips on its fins.  My best guess was a Reef Shark, but we didn't stick around to investigate.  We kicked back toward shore avoiding the throngs of vacationers jumping into the water from the lava spit.  Below the water we found a treasure, swimming placidly along with us:

The Green Sea Turtle is known locally as honu, and it's treasured in Hawai'i, not to mention endangered.  Here's Dawn showing her excitement after it swam right underneath her:

The turtle didn't go unnoticed and soon there were a dozen or more snorkelers following her every move.  I kept a discrete distance, letting the 10x zoom on my Panasonic Lumix TZ3 get in close:
 

The honu didn't appear perturbed by our attention, she just went about her lazy way, surfacing every now and then to replenish her air supply, then settling to the bottom for a bit of rest.  She even swam close by Dawn again on one of her trips topside:


  

Here's a short (10 second) video clip as she's heading for the surface:

Needless to say, we were delighted to have had a close encounter with this beautiful, placid creature on our first day here.  We left her to her own devices and returned to the beach after over an hour of swimming, then walked back to the hotel.

We lounged for a while poolside, sipping Mai tais and reviewing the day's adventure.  A kind fellow traveler snapped a photo for us:

After a couple of drinks we were ready for dinner.  We had thought to eat at one of the restaurants in nearby Whaler's Village, but the wait there was over an hour, so we turned around and checked out our own hotel's seaside dining at the Tropica.  We were seated sans delay at a table overlooking the beach, just as people began to gather for the approaching sunset:
 

You can see how windy it was from the palms above Black Rock in the second picture.  In fact, it was so windy that we were occasionally sprinkled by rain falling on the opposite side of the island.  Still, the setting was fantastic, and the view of the sunset was worth the errant spray:

Dinner was excellent.  I had the four-course tasting menu, Dawn had the beef tenderloin.  I tasted what might have been the best Zin I've ever had.  It was aptly named 'Incredible', from Peachy Canyon Winery in California's Santa Lucia mountains.  Definitely ordering a case when I get back home.  We stayed out well past dark before heading in for the evening.  The rest of the week is shaping up for mostly good weather, and right now the world's our oyster.  More to come, I'm sure, so stick around.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

As Spring Approaches, It's Falcon Time

With the Vernal Equinox only a temporal stone's throw away, the dense skies we've had in Rochester for most of the week gave way to sun and mild, if windy weather. I took the opportunity to wander downtown on my lunch hour with my camera and bins, hoping to grab a few shots of Beauty and Archer.
The city Parking Authority lightened my debit card by $1.25 for the privilege of parking on the Broad Street bridge for an hour, but such is the price we pay for feeding the falcon-watching habit. Archer was in his customary hunting spot on the Times Square building at the base of the south-east wing:

He was definitely on the lookout, and I didn't have to wait too long for him to spring into action.  I thought he was chasing a pigeon, but his opponent turned out to be more challenging-- a crow!

Following the pursuit Archer took a tour, diving and wheeling, seeming to delight in the windy day:


He disappeared behind the Thompson-Reuters building, heading roughly north, and I spent some time wandering around.  The Genesee, engorged with runoff and snow melt, churned in muddy chaos:

I didn't realize it but Beauty must have been in the nest box, because I caught her as she flew overhead on her way up Broad Street.

She headed out over the river, then picked up the pace substantially as she passed behind the Chase tower.  Archer came a few seconds behind, and as I reacquired Beauty in my binoculars far off to the east, I could see that she was chasing another falcon!

She and Archer were gone quite a while.  I watched the eastern sky for their return, but as is their wont, they sneaked back to Times Square despite my best efforts.  My next sight of Beauty was when she took off from the nest box (how she got in there I'll never know) and made a brief circuit over Exchange Street before returning to the nest platform:

Following a brief stay she took off toward the Public Safety building, and I saw no more of her.  It was only a 40-minute outing, but I got a chance to exercise my photography muscles (a little atrophied from their winter hiatus) and to grab some fresh air.  Watching crow and falcon chases wasn't a bad way to pass the noon hour.  With Archer and Beauty back in town, and winter on the way out, I'm looking forward to spending more time with the falcons.