Mystery photo(s) of the week

I thought, as I try to fulfill my promise to get back to regular blogging, that I would try something different and choose random photos from my travels.

Maybe I’ll tell a short tale associated with the photo. Maybe I’ll see if anyone recognizes the location. Maybe it’ll just be a pretty picture.

So we’ll begin here, the veranda of an historic hotel in a small town whose fortunes have risen and fallen and risen again along with the copper mine that birthed it. While finding me with a beer in hand is not that unusual, this one came with free wi-fi (courtesy of the hotel) so I could send this picture to my co-workers back home (who were slaving away in the “mines” back home that afternoon).


Even with the shining sun and the relaxing afternoon, listening to the locals express hope in the future and point to the new cars they’ve been able to buy, one can not help but notice the sight on the hilltop to the south: the prominent cemetery.SantaRosaliaCemetery Indeed, it is one of the first things you see when your boat is approaching the town’s docks. I never did get any tales of the cemetery’s inhabitants (miners meeting mishaps?), but the horror writer in me wondered what would happen if a torrential rain storm came along and washed all those bones down the hill and into the sea. (Morbid, I know.)

But I wanted to end on a lighter note and chose this sign, painted on a wall, on the town’s main road leading back to the dock. If you can read Spanish, it’s pretty dang funny. Leyendo

Where am I?  (Yes, it’s Mexico – but where in Mexico?) (Judith, Jay – you can’t answer)



Fellow Travelers (Part I)

ImageTraveling is a joy. Not just for the places you see, but for the people you meet.

On my recent Baja vacation, I greatly enjoyed the company of several other guests on board the National Geographic Sea Lion, many of whom are photography buffs and even fellow bloggers.

I’d like to take this week to introduce you to retired school teachers Grace Pitzer and her husband Paul, with whom I shared several delightful meals and shore excursions.

They’ve traveled to well over 100 countries and can regale you with many more tales than I.

Please visit their website:

and travel blog:

where you can see additional photos from our Baja journey. Image



“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

Image The Baja Peninsula is home to a variety of endemic fauna and flora, perhaps none more strange than the Boojum. Named for a mythical creature in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” the Boojum (or Cirio, as it called in Spanish) is a tree like no other. And we were on the hunt for it.

Docking in the small town of Bahia de Los Angeles, the crew and passengers of the National Geographic Sea Lion piled into a motley assortment of cars and vans to head up into the hills in search of the fabled Boojum Forest. Our 66-year old driver, Mr. Smith (his great-grandfather was from England), was proud to tell us about his three-year-old granddaughter whose white baby shoes swung from the rearview mirror and, of course, how the Seri Indians – the original inhabitants of the Baja Peninsula – believed the trees had special powers and how the experts can not agree on whether or not the Seri deliberately transplanted the Boojums.

Several sources, among them Stewart Aitchison’s “The Desert Islands of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez,” report that the Seri believed the Boojums were once people: “giants who were overtaken by floodwaters.” Other Seri myths warn against harming – or even touching – the Boojums for fear of bringing on wind and rain.

But we did not fear the Boojums, as bizarre as they appeared. With pale green bark and yellow flowers on spindly spikes, the Boojums reached to the sky – their scarce branches twisting around one another as if they were the giants of legend beseeching the gods to save them from the flood, wringing their hands in prayer.

We ran around for more than an hour, searching for the weirdest of the weird, or the Boojum whose twisted arms perfectly framed the pale moon rising in the late afternoon sky. ImageWe ignored the spattering of rain drops and the itchy sand as we lay on our backs trying to get the perfect shot encompassing the Boojum’s height. (They are slow growing plants, possibly just a few inches per year; a fifty foot tree could be more than a century old.)

We even ignored the warnings. Okay – I did. Threading my arm through those spiky spindles, I touched the Boojum. Nothing terrible happened. The bark felt sort of like that of a birch. And it felt strong and sturdy.Image I told the Boojum it was beautiful. (Yes, I talked to the tree…call me weird.) I don’t remember all that I said, but I did ask if it wouldn’t mind sharing its strength and longevity.

Now that I’m back home in the midst of what’s promising to be the worst California drought, I’m thinking maybe I should have asked the Boojum for some rain too.


It was a dark and stormy night….

Oh, wait…. It was a dark and starlit evening on the beach of Isla San José in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

ImageNaturalist Jack Swenson strums his guitar, singing tunes from John Denver, Roger Miller, and Jimmy Buffett. Arrayed around the bonfire are the passengers and crew of the National Geographic Sea Lion. The ship floats just off shore, its deck lights no competition for the embers blowing off the fire or the watchful gaze of Orion from overhead.

It’d been a long day of snorkeling with sea creatures and hiking desert arroyos. One in a stream of days filled with playful gray whale calves cavorting around our zodiacs, breaching humpback whales, bow riding orcas, and hundreds of dolphins. Yet our journey is only halfway done. There was much more to come for all of us: the retired teachers, the “Michigan Mafia” (really just a group of IT workers from the University of Michigan), the Washington State University couple who have brought along their stuffed cougar mascot (for photo ops of course), the older gentleman who plays solitaire every afternoon while his wife watches (quite a hiker he turned out to be!), the father and daughter from Singapore, the ship’s doctor and his wife, the two sisters – one of whom still bears black eyes from a trip and fall in the Cabo airport, the fellow Pepsi lovers, and the veterinarian.

And it had been a trying day, for me anyway. But I refused to let the migraine trying to establish itself behind my right eye prevent me from enjoying the company of my fellow travelers. And enjoyable they were. Sharing photography tips, keeping a watchful eye out for those of us more timid snorkelers, laughing over beers and stories of travels, and suggesting future trips (as if my dream destination list isn’t already long enough!)

For now, our barbecue over, marshmallows being roasted over the fire, and Jack’s smooth voice floating across the sand and water, we relax and settle quietly in each other’s company far from home. Image

A Humpback Whale Swims into a Bar….

Image ….can you believe I couldn’t find a single decent humpback whale joke on the internet?

But who needs jokes when you’ve got the real thing surrounding your ship. Unlike the gray whales on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula a few days before, the humpbacks in the Sea of Cortez had no interest in us. They were too busy feeding, playing, and – perhaps – vying to impress potential mates.

Most of their show was, of course, hidden from us below water, but no one seemed to mind. Every slap of a pectoral fin was greeted by an ooh or an ahh…and plenty of cameras clicking away. Believed to be a courting behavior, “pec slapping” as it’s called, can be quite impressive as the whale brings that 15 foot fin down upon the water for an explosive report and splash. And “lob tailing” (when the whale slaps its flukes against the water) was equally appreciated. But many of us seemed more impressed when the whales simply raised their flukes and, instead of slapping down, slid gracefully below the surface. That makes quite a photo op.

And what can I say about breaching? We all want to see it, right? And not just the side breaching, where they only come up just far enough to fall over on their sides. It still creates quite a splash and there are plenty of us who have pictures…of the splashes. Sound familiar? Try was we might, with our newfound knowledge of how to spot “whale footprints”Image (those momentarily still ovals on the ocean’s surface where the whale has just been), it was difficult to predict where the whales might next appear. I’m the only one who got a shot of this whale doing a side breach and, because I’m only shooting with a 200mm lens, it’s not that fantastic of a photo. Image (Anyone wanna start “Janet’s 400mm lens fund”?) Still, I happened to have my camera pointed in the right direction at the right time, and got a lucky shot.

The best shot, however, no one got. It was our last morning aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion as we headed back toward La Paz for our airplane rides home. I was late getting to the upper deck for morning yoga with Darcy, our wellness coordinator. Just as I was sliding open the door, I heard a “girly scream” (self-described by Jeff, the man it came from) and rushed out to see a humongous splash just off our stern. There was Jeff, standing upright in mid-stretch, staring out at the water, while the other yoga practitioners were all scrambling to their feet to see what they had missed.

It was a humpback, of course, the only humpback during the entire two week trip that did a full breach, pirouetting through the air before falling back into the water. No one had known the whale was there. Only one person happened to be looking in the right direction. Jeff was delighted, naturally. The rest of us, a bit jealous. Next time, however, may be my turn, or one of theirs, to witness that one special moment found in every trip.Image

How I Got Sneezed on by a Whale

ImageGiven humanities’ often violent history with whales, it can be difficult to understand why whales would want anything at all to do with us.

But in Laguna San Ignacio, on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, not only are the whales friendly, they’re trusting and curious. Which is especially impressive considering the lagoon is one of the key nurseries for the Gray Whale, and it is believed that some of the whales who return here every year to spend the winter may be old enough to remember being hunted.

Yet, as we float in our zodiacs, cameras held ready, the whales slowly circle their way around, deciding if they’re going to check us out. Mothers gently nudge their month-old calves toward us; other calves approach us on their own, though mother is never far behind. They spy hop, drop back under the gentle waves, spy hop again. Soon they are within touching distance and cameras are largely forgotten as we reach out to touch them, to pet them. They seem to like it, rubbing against the boat, even pushing the boat around like it was a bathtub toy. They return again and again, circling the boat, diving under it, rolling on their side to turn an eye up to look at us.

Whale eyes are dark, captivating. ImageTheir skin feels like a wet, somewhat overripe eggplant (except where they are covered by barnacles which feel while a really rough stucco wall). And they taste very salty. Yes, I kissed the whale! (Three times) At one point I was leaning so far out of the zodiac, one of the other tourists grabbed hold of my feet to keep me from falling out.

Our pangero, the fisherman who guided the expedition, said our visitor had not been named yet, so we decided to call her “Berta” (could be “Bert” of course – who can tell?) Berta spent quite some time with us, entertaining us, seeming to revel in the touch of human hands. Could she hear our laughter and delighted squeals? I think so. And I think she was having fun too. All of the calves were – one of the other zodiacs had two calves pushing each other out of the way to get to the people. I imagine Berta was laughing herself when she rose one last time and with a “spouf” of breath, sneezed all over me from her blowhole.

Two weeks later, it’s almost like my trip was a dream, but I will never forget Berta’s eyes. And I hope that Berta will never forget the human ambassadors who came to visit her birthplace and that, in time, Berta will be nudging her own calf toward a hopeful boat full of people who dream of simply touching a whale. Or getting sneezed on by one.

The Deep Blue

“It’s okay senorita, it’s all right.”

I’m not sure how long I stood on the platform of the dive boat, weighted down by the 30+ pounds of scuba gear, but long enough for the crew to offer me multiple encouragements and probably start placing bets with each other on how long it would take me to actually get off the boat and into the water.

“Big step, senorita, take big step.”


It was only my second time with a scuba tank on my back (not counting the first lesson in the four-foot deep pool). The prospect of stepping off into the air, where only the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico awaited me, was terrifying. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s afraid of the water, but there probably aren’t too many of us aquaphobes who deliberately seek out water activities. (And pay good money to do it!)

So here I was, standing on a dive boat off the Mexican island of Cozumel, while Carla – my instructor from Dive Palancar – beckoned from below and the crew reassured me that everything would be okay. I had a tight grip on the railing even as I had one foot lifted in the air, ready to step off.

Why was I here? Why did the thought of submerging my head under water scare me so? (I don’t know about you, but the sensation of water coming up over my chin freaks me out.) The only bad experience I’d had in the water came during childhood when I was 6 or 7. We were fairly new to the neighborhood when the red-headed girl who lived in the green house at the end of the street invited me over. (I want to say her name was Amy, but Amy may have been the blonde girl who lived on the street behind us instead.) I was thrilled to get an invitation from a popular girl with a swimming pool in her backyard. It was one of the those huge above-ground pools – maybe eight or ten feet deep – surrounded by an even taller fence to keep out trespassers…or keep others in.

Not long after we had jumped into the pool, the red-headed little devil began playing rough. She grabbed me, pushing me down, holding my head under water. Somehow I got away from her and climbed back up the ladder. I don’t remember all I said, but it definitely included “I don’t like you” and “I don’t want to play with you any more” and “I’m going home.”

Well, that caused a tantrum to erupt. She started yelling and screaming at me “You said you would play with me!! That means you have to stay and play with me!!” and on and on. I headed for the gate. Her brother, a couple years older, promptly headed me off, and blocked my exit. (Where were the little bastards’ parents? I have no idea.)

As they both yelled at me, I began to cry and – finally – started screaming. Fortunately, my older siblings had made friends with the kids a couple doors up the street and were outside playing. They thought the scream sounded familiar and came to investigate. They rescued me. Thanks Laurie and Doug!!

I had been taking swimming lessons at the local junior high before that incident. I had been the darling of the class, diving down to grab the rings the teacher threw into the pool. Afterwards, I would cower under the bench and refuse to come out. The teacher gave up on me. I’m not sure how long it was before I stopped going at all.

“It’s okay, mademoiselle, take big step.” (Apparently one of the dive crew was French.)

This was not childhood. I could let go. Finally I took the “big step” (like you see in some movies: the diver lifts one foot up and essentially walks off the boat, not the falling off backwards like you see in others.) As promised, my BCD vest – filled with air – brought me back up to the surface to meet Carla, and allow her to guide me down to our target depth of forty feet. Yes, I panicked a bit. I wasn’t equalizing the pressure in my ears correctly and that’s quite painful! After a brief return to the surface where Carla patiently calmed me down, we descended again. And stayed down.

I had difficulty maintaining my depth and proper buoyancy, so Carla did spend a lot of time holding on to me and guiding me along the reef, but that was fine with me. (She’d asked my permission, while still on the boat, if she could grab me if needed.)

It was an amazing experience. The corals are beautiful and the fish are amazing. We saw a small nurse shark, enough lobsters to feed my family, huge crabs, barracudas, a moray eel, and several sea turtles – including one who was eating coral while we watched. We were fairly close to it, but after a brief glance at us it went back to eating. That was really cool!


Am I glad I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. In fact, I did it again the very next day. And, yes, I did hesitate once again while standing on the dive platform. But it didn’t take me as long to get in the water…because, this time, the boat crew pushed me in.