Thursday, February 27, 2020

Mexican Ports of Call

In my last post, I mostly covered the cruise ship Astoria, and discussed the trip itself in very general terms. I was thinking this time I'd tell you a little about our ports of call and my interaction with our stops. Besides my previous entry above, I've also found another online article about the trip you can read here. At left is the Astoria at anchor in our second-to-last port of call in Santa Rosalia.

Our itinerary included 7 stops in addition to Puerto Peñasco as the starting/stopping point. From the "top" of the Sea of Cortez, we travelled south a full day and a half to Topolobampo (no, I had never heard of it either!). It is the port city for Los Mochis, a moderate-sized city on the east side of Cortez. Very similar to our last stop in Guaymas, I found both to be gritty working-class cities, and not especially appealing to travelers. After taking the 40 minute (free) shuttle bus to Los Mochis, we walked a few blocks to the Benjamin Johnston Botanical Garden, built by an American businessman who jump started the local economy by building a giant sugar mill 100+ years ago... Interestingly, the area gets only 2" of rain a year, and of course, it started raining on us, so many headed back to the ship - highlight was buying a bag of freshly-made churros (with neither of us speaking the other's language) from a street vendor for a dollar - delish!

Another full day at sea before reaching Mazatlan. This was the stop where we were docked next to the behemoth holding 5500 passengers... Margie refused to leave the ship, so my usual travel companion Susan (shown at left) joined me leaving the Astoria. As soon as we got dropped off at the dock entrance, we met a very nice American working for a tour company who roped us into a 3-hour van tour (cue the theme from "Gilligan's Island"!). It was a GREAT way to hear and see the highlights of Mazatlan, with plenty of time to stop and visit a half dozen spots. I took a number of shots from the moving van, some better than others. An example at right a mosaic representing Mazatlan - meaning "place of deer". Preparations were in full swing for Carnival, which was a couple weeks away. It looks as if it would be quite the party place!


From one of the hills overlooking the harbor, turning towards the city the big cathedral in town stood out. Shown at left it was soon our destination where our driver gave us 45 minutes to walk around and explore, including a couple shopping options. ALL cathedrals in the Baja area are worth a visit. This one was no exception - the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Work on it began in 1856 and finished in 1899, its consecration as a basilica in 1941.  It was a pretty amazing place, every place you looked just held your attention.



I wandered around about half of the 45 minutes, then walked the 2 blocks down to the Mercado - not much that interested me. Before heading back to the van I did stop at a convenience store for some bottled water... The faucets in the ship's rooms looked a little brown, and waiting for meals to drink water left me dehydrated, so got a couple tall bottles. Interestingly, nearly 800 miles south of the US border, the local OXXO stores (pronounced Ox-o) seemed glad to take dollars, but gave change in pesos... After touring through town, the guide took us to a restaurant that specialized in seafood. About the only seafood I seek out is shrimp, and the Sea of Cortez is a "hotbed" of shrimp fishing, so was straightforward enough to decide!  Couldn't beat (in my mind) garlic shrimp and a Mexican beer!  We even had a view of the Sea of Cortez and strolling mariachis!




Another night at sea and we pulled into Cabo San Lucas early the next morning. It was a beauty of a day, and the stark contrast of water and sky against the desert tans was so striking! Caught Susan smiling (at left) as we passed by "Land's End", one of the postcard views of Cabo. The Astoria anchored in the harbor and used its own lifeboats to shuttle whoever wanted to go ashore into the dock area. You can tell the difference between Cabo and our previous stops - THIS was a pure tourist town, a land of time shares, condos and hotels. There was little sign of industry or otherwise "normal" city life. The part we hated once we got ashore is that you couldn't walk 30 feet without being accosted for a whale watching tour, or snorkeling, or fishing... It was a constant barrage of competition for the tourist dollar. We ended up just shopping at some of the shops and grabbing a bite to eat along the docks. We were also amazed at the number of swordfish and sailfish that were trundled by that sport fisherman had caught and were unloading... My fave trinket were the t-shirts hawked at one store, shown at right!


Since we spent so little time ashore, I set up my little scope at the fantail and took some close-up views of the mountains, structures and beaches. The ship is NOT a dull place to spend the day if you don't go ashore - besides the mealtimes, there was a small library, movie theater screening Oscar-nominated movies, and a constant roll of activities - 3 trivia contests a day, table tennis contests, and night time musical extravaganzas... The ship got underway again right about sunset and I caught some very nice views of the Land's End rocks with the sunset glows... At left the "arch" can be spotted on the left side, and on the right, I included another passenger enjoying the sunset with me...

Well, I figure I'm about halfway thru the coverage of the ports of call, and rather than make a marathon post, will close it out and work on part 2 in a couple days... Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Cruising Down Mexico Way!

It was a year ago that my buddy Margie brought to my attention that a cruise was starting up plying the Sea of Cortez - 11 days with stops in 8 coastal towns. It sounded like a great trip, so were among the first to get our deposits in. We found out months ago that the cruise ship was the Astoria - a ship with some history! Ancient by cruise ship standards, it was built in 1948 and is the oldest cruse ship still operating! It's greatest brush with fame was in 1956 while named the Stockholm - it collided in fog off Nantucket with the Andrea Doria, which sank! The Stockholm limped into port and survived for another day. Interestingly, a day or two before we launched, there was an article in the Washington Post about the Astoria - a great read! This blog post, first of a few, will concentrate on the ship itself...

The Sea of Cortez cruise ended up making 3 loops of Cortez, and we signed up for the last, leaving 31 January. Since the cruise left from Puerto Peñasco, I went down a day early to stay with Margie, who has a house there. At left at sunset on the 30th, the Astoria could be seen arriving from the previous loop. At right, the next morning (low tide), the Astoria sparkled in the morning light.

Being I'm all new to this cruising thing, I was looking forward to being aboard. Especially when eyeing the sleek lines from the "golden age" of cruise ships. Unfortunately, the harbor at Puerto Peñasco, while supporting a huge shrimp fleet, is too shallow for the Astoria to come to any dock. It might also have something to do with the 6-meter tides that occur there. In any case, they used local companies to "tender" us out to the ship, so got a good view of it as we approached via a sizeable catamaran. It sure looked huge as we approached! We pulled up to a door just above the water line and after they tied up we climbed up a short ramp to enter. Our luggage was in piles at the dock and took quite a while to catch up to us. Later I spied the same catamaran full of luggage and a crew humping them on board. It was nice to not be restricted to a single bag under 50 pounds like the arlines. And how DO you pack for an 11-day trip? I ended up over-packing, with 2 suitcases, and also a small telescope and tripod, hoping to do a little viewing from the deck...

Once onboard, we checked in and got our ID card and room key - both to be carried at all times on a lanyard. I went exploring and quickly got a feel for the ship. Nowadays, this is considered pretty small, and I never got disoriented. There were only about 4 floors where most of the action took place, from our rooms on 3rd floor to the promenade deck and movie theater on 5.  The only confusing part was there were two 4th floors - one for rooms and another for the buffet dining, stores and show lounge... Margie and I quickly found our rooms - was actually a little bigger than the cramped quarters I expected. Originally signing up for the least-expensive "inner cabin" without a view, we had been upgraded to "ocean view" with a pair of 16" portholes to see what it was like outside. It looks as though at some point in the past the portholes were open-able, but they were firmly fastened now. The only bad thing was that of the two elevators on board, the one near our rooms was out of commission, so I never used the one that did work, and climbed LOTS of stairs over the coarse of the 11 days!

The first order of business after getting settled into our rooms mid-afternoon - find out where the food was! The buffet-style dining room was 2 floors above our room, and we wandered up there - and they were serving! Usually they are open for 2 hours around breakfast lunch and dinner, so definitely not 24-hour food service like I hear about on the big ships... There was a good variety of food, a few entrees and sides, then usually appetizers, a small salad and cheese section, then a bread table and a variety of desserts. Also waiters wandered to get you what you wanted to drink, from water, soda, beer or wine - all included during dining hours. There were seating areas on both sides of the serving area, so you had good picture-window quality views while eating there, shown at left.

The other first order of business was the lifeboat drill! We needed to go to our muster station with life jackets properly worn. Shown at right, attendance was mandatory! More stair climbing, we were in lifeboat 8 (there were 8 in total). Margie is at right against the wall.

It was such a nice ship! I like walking around and taking in the views, so multiple times a day I would be out on the promenade deck, where you could walk around the entirety of the ship (6 laps per mile!), enjoying the view, watching the crew as we docked and undocked, and just watch the stars at night. I always liked to say that I wanted to "make sure we were going in the right direction" before going to bed at night, and it was true! Also, it was fun to see the stars shift as we moved south. From Mazatlan, our southernmost point of the trip, Canopus, normally a few degrees above the horizon from Tucson, was a good 9 degrees higher! And of course, Polaris was that much lower... At left is a panorama of the promenade deck just before we left from Puerto Penasco - note the small swimming pool, and the lounge around it that was open late for drinks and conversation. At right is that first sunset just before taking off, with the sun hidden behind a light fixture...

I had my little telescope set up near the pool, showing the first quarter moon to gratifying ooohs and aaahs! It was right then we took off and at left is the gradual turn south as we leave the skyline of Rocky Point behind...

Like I said, I never got lost - it was pretty easy to get around. There were maps like shown at right scattered around, and it was pretty easy to find your way. Most of the places you wanted to go to was on floor 4a, most of the others had rooms on them. The exceptions were the movie theater on 5th floor stern, and the sit-down formal dining room on the 3rd floor, literally 20 yards from our room (I ate there twice - took too long to get waited on for a 5 course meal!).


Like I said, the Astoria is considered a small ship by modern standards, and sure enough, we saw the proof in Mazatlan! We happened to be parked adjacent to the Carnival Panorama, put into service just 2 months before. Shown at left, you can barely see the Astoria over the warehouses on the docks compared to the Panorama. See it there, looking more like a bathtub toy compared to the behemoth! At twice the length and 10 times the tonnage, it holds 5,500 passengers, over 10X our little boat! I think it would be great for people with short attention spans, as in conversations with some of the passengers, they have everything you can think of to keep you busy for those overnight runs to the next stop!

I liked our little Astoria. Finally on our second-to-last night at sea, was able to get a night time photo of us underway.  We were traversing the Sea of Cortez from Santa Rosalia on the west side to Guaymas on the eastern coast. About a 1 second exposure under a nearly-full moon, it was always a beautiful view, if not a little windy and cold...

Finally it was over and it was time to leave our home-away-from-home... After 11 days we were tendered back to the docks of Puerto Penasco. Interestingly, our little catamaran tender was FAST, and we nearly caught up to the one that left before us! You can spot the harbor master in the boat shadowing us at the right... I was in about the last group of passengers to unload - my luggage was the last to be claimed on the dock...

Margie's gardener met us in her truck to haul our luggage back. It had poured rain the day before and the town was a mass of water and mud! In about the hour it took to collect ourselves and get to her place, I climbed to her observation deck and what did I spot - the Astoria heading south at full speed!  They were supposed to be in England in 3 weeks to start a series of cruises between London and Norway - the "Northern Lights Cruise"!

The Washington Post article up above indicates that the Astoria is to be mothballed at the end of the Europe Summer tour season. It will be a sad day in my opinion.  As far as cruises in the Sea of Cortez go, it seems to be a perfect size! While it supposedly holds 550 passengers, it held about 400 on our trip.  Why bring in something much larger if it can't be filled... Anyway, I found a website that shows the current position of the Astoria! As of right now, 7 + days after it kicked us off, it is off the coast of Costa Rica, headed to the Panama Canal to transition to the Atlantic... Will be fun to watch it cross and ply the waters of the North Sea, wondering if our friends Aida and Elizabeth are still belting out the songs in the lounge, and if they have different trivia contests on that side of "the pond" than they do here! More posts and pictures to come...

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Whitewater Draw Weekend

With Winter firmly ahold of us (temps in the 60s!), it was time to plan a birding trip to Whitewater draw. I've posted about our many trips there a couple times a year for nearly a decade since we discovered it. In recent years, Arizona Game and Fish have installed a webcam to keep an eye (and ear!) on the action there. This year showed a LOT more water than in the last few years. I'm not sure it is from more rainfall or if the irrigation system is working again after failing a few years back. It sort of put a crimp on the cranes the last few years, so was looking forward to seeing the place again.

I ended up going out both Saturday AND Sunday! There were lots of cranes, but interestingly, they were all avoiding the water! Years past they all gathered in the shallow water to avoid predators (coyotes) through the night, but now they gathered on the banks. But this behavior brought them closer to the walking path, so was able to get some good close-ups.

The main activity besides resting (feeding is generally done in fields away from the wetlands), as well as male posing, presumably looking for females, or exerting dominance. The pair of males shown here were trying to out-do each other. I was in the perfect spot for the photo at left where they were standing tall with wings outstretched - mirroring each other. The left image is a full-resolution blowup to show the steely gaze of the crane looking my way.


It so happened that I was set up next to 2 other photographers - all of us shooting with the same setup - Canon cameras with the 500mm and 1.4X extender! I was the only local one. Anyway, the two cranes continued their antics shown here. At right, one went low the other high, and finally at right it appears the confrontation was over. I wasn't sure which one won the contest, but I'm sure that THEY did!

The group of cranes adjacent to the walking path was closest to us, but was small in numbers compared to the main group which seemed to the west side of the wetlands, about a quarter mile or so away. They were raising quite a racket out there, and in binoculars, seemed again to be avoiding the water. Some snow geese were, as usual, scattered among the sand hill cranes.

I love their rattling calls. If you tune in to the webcam above, you can hear them. On occasion when something causes them to take to the air, the show starts when you hear the wing beats of thousands of cranes taking to the air, then the ruckus starts with the calls also filling the air. I can sit and watch/listen for hours, which I generally do - occasionally taking a photo or two!

At left, the view is towards the west - the large groups of cranes can be seen at bottom, with many taken to the air, seen in silhouette against the Mule Mountains. The lowlands contain fields where the cranes often congregate.  At right is a view to the northwest, again seen against the mountains illuminated by a very low sun.

As has happened a few times in the past, as sunset neared, there appeared a "tornado" of blackbirds, rushing in huge groups to congregate in the reeds and rushes around open water. Upon closer examination, they were, in fact, yellow-headed blackbirds. At left they are seen as they gather, with cranes in the background. They are evidently close cousins of the more common redwing blackbirds, but Whitewater is the only place I've seen the yellow-headed version.

There were many other species of birds feeding. Here at right are seen a group of American coots taking one last feeding trip across the wetlands before it got dark. Only seen in silhouette here, they sport nearly white beaks and dark red eyes, making them more striking in full sunlight...


I had spotted a great blue heron as we entered from the parking lot, and right on cue at sunset, it flew right in front of me to roost in a clump of vegetation not 50 yards away. In the deepening twilight, the exposure was long enough that the wing flaps were blurred, but in scanning to follow it, at least the pupil of the eye is still sharp!

The usual routine was for the cranes to return to the protection of the water as nightfall came. Many took to the air and flew nearby, and it is always a challenge to capture them against the twilight sky. At right is about my best effort as they were gliding without flapping their wings. Even as it got dark they were sharply captured.


I'll have to say, that Saturday's twilight was likely the most spectacular I've ever seen! Of course, there are a lot of those in AZ, but this one was very long-lasting, actually 45 minutes of color from looking at the time stamp on my images. I've got 2 to show here, at left a single image showing some of the birders here distracted by the sunset colors. And at left is a 3-image "HDR" (High Dynamic Range) photo that combines different exposures to extend the visibility of highlights and shadows...


It was clear enough on Sunday to take a few
star photos.  The big news in astronomy now is that in the constellation of Orion, the upper left star, Betelgeuse has been growing fainter than it has ever been seen!  Instead of the brightest star in the prominent constellation, it is now third-brightest, effectively tied with Bellatrix, the upper right star.  At left I took a photo purposely out of focus to show the colors of the striking constellation.  The orange color of Betelgeuse reveals it to be a red giant star - very cool (thus orange-colored) compared to the bluish other stars of the constellation.  At right is another not quite as far out of focus to show much fainter star colors.  While most are still blue, many fainter ones have reddish colors as well.

I've only started to harvest images from these 2 trips, so look for more soon, as well as likely more trips while the cranes are here!


Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Return Trip

Jeez, my return to AZ was nearly 2 weeks ago - probably overdue to post about it! It started with what is getting to be a tradition - meeting my sister Linda and her husband Lauren to hunt for eagles along the Mississippi! Clinton, IA (where I was born) has a bald eagle festival the first weekend of January. On most years, the Mississippi is iced over and eagles gather below lock and dam #13 where the open water allows fishing. When that occurs, you can see hundreds of bald eagles in the trees along the river, occasionally taking flight and hunting fish. Both last year and this, there was no ice (temps in the 60s, which we enjoyed on Christmas will do that!), so we had to go hunting for what used to be a rare sighting of eagles. Back 50 years ago growing up in the area, we never saw eagles, but they are quite common now.

But we did have a couple brisk nights with temps in the low 20s, and some strong winds, and as we went exploring along the eastern shore of "Lake Clinton" above the dam, we saw some cool sightings of the shore, plants and rocks with a translucent coating of ice, melting in the late-afternoon sun. These were taken at "Thompson Slough" where there was a nice-looking campground that my sister's family had stayed a number of times.

It was quite striking, both the ice coating around the water line, as well as the water itself - there was enough wave action that random "puzzle pieces" in the water moved up and down relative to each other with an edge of slushy ice along the border, as shown at left. With the moderate temperatures, the ice likely didn't hang around long...



So the search for eagles continued.  Last year we had success up near Sabula - another 10 miles upstream on the Iowa side. One of my favorite aunts lived in the area until a few years ago, and there was little excuse to visit the area any more! Anyway, there is a little city park on the south side of "Sabula Lake", and as we headed there, sure enough, there were a couple eagles standing atop some thin ice on the still water... As shown at left, these were the only eagles we spotted on New Year's Day. With the river open, it was NOT fishing as normal with them hanging out in the trees along the river. These photos were taken in the very-late afternoon (about 30 minutes before sunset) with a big, 500mm telephoto lens. We were not very close to this pair (perhaps 100 yards or more), but the following close-ups are shown at full-resolution. The closer of the eagles took off just as I was setting up on it, so got a quick sequence of it jumping into the air...


After the first hop upwards above, the first wing flap appears to have bounced off the ice, as shown at left. By the next stroke at right he was truly airborne and on his way. I should have cranked up the gain (ISO) on the camera in the growing gloom, but the longish exposures had subsequent images blur unacceptably...

We scurried back down to Fulton (across the Mississippi from Clinton), and met some family for dinner at Manny's - a pizza and sandwich place of some renown. All the siblings save baby sister Sheri, now in Alabama, were there, as was my Uncle John and his family, including his son who was visiting from the Boston area - a real family reunion!

Already to the Mississippi, I headed towards AZ from there. I made it to Des Moines that night, then drove all day down across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas into New Mexico staying at Tucumcari the second night. Didn't take any photos for much of the trip, but a striking sight from even 100 miles away was the San Francisco Peaks welcoming me back to AZ - the remnant of an ancient volcano and at 14,000+ feet the highest point in the state. Here I was still 30 miles east of Flagstaff (and the mountain), but even from that distance it was an impressive view! So the trip was uneventful, short at 12 days away, but still very glad I did it!