Westward Ho (ly Cow)!

Prologue

In June of 2022, we found ourselves in a bit of a predicament. We had a confirmed reservation at an Air BNB outside of Gardiner, MT for a month-long visit to Yellowstone National Park in September. As wildlife photographers, visiting the park was high on both our bucket lists:  TG had never been and I was too young to remember much of my family’s visit in the early 1960s.

I’m wearing the sweatshirt but I don’t remember the trip!

But unprecedented flooding caused the park to close, with not a lot of hope that the north (Gardiner) entrance would be open any time this season.

Facebook photo: June, 2022

To salvage the Yellowstone portion of our trip we had a lot of boxes to check:  the dates had to work as we were due at our next stop the third week of October. It had to be within an hour’s drive of one of the park’s entrances, it had to be dog friendly, and the price needed to be within our budget.

As luck would have it, we found a condominium in Big Sky, MT that fit the bill. It was located about 50 miles from the west entrance and was dog friendly.

we found a condo in Big Sky, MT

Something about the host’s Air BNB profile rang a bell. Could it be the same Domenick that owned and operated the Quito Inn & Suites in Tababela?!?

Is this the same Domenick?!?

Sure enough, it was! After the new international airport opened outside of Quito in 2013, it was the only place to stay those first few years and we met him on several of our trips to Ecuador.

Quito Inn & Suites, Tababela Ecuador (2013)

After catching up on old times, Domenick offered us the Big Sky condo at a considerable discount. Yellowstone, followed by eight nights in Grand Teton, was back on track.

Our original plan was to head to New Mexico the first week of November for the sandhill crane migration at the Bosque del Apache before heading home in early December. But we thought as long as we’re this far, why not just keep going??  So we added … and added … and added …

our epic road trip!

After the Bosque we drive north to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to spend the holidays photographing the aurora borealis, then back south to Fargo, North Dakota for a chance to spy saw-whet owls, and finish with another month in the Sax-Zim Bog with the great gray owls.

a brand new set of Michelin Crossclimate 2 tires for the road!

By the time we’re back home in Okeechobee, Oscar and Maddie will have added six more states to their already impressive count (23 total), plus 3 Canadian provinces.

our little road buddies!

Blogging a trip this long must be broken up into several parts (“Episodes”) which I will post as we go. Travel along with us – or wait until we’re back home and binge-read them all at once. Either way, it should be quite the ride! So fasten your seatbelts and hang on as we hit the road – again.

So fasten your seatbelts and hang on as we hit the road – again!

Coming next: Westward Ho Episode 1 “Walk on the Wild Side”

Almost Nothing Stays the Same

Every summer humpback whales make their way up the coast off South America from Antarctica to breed and give birth. We have traveled to the small fishing village of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador multiple times to photograph this migration and after a three-year hiatus due to Covid, we were finally able to return in August 2022.

Fort Lauderdale airport

International air travel has changed since the last time we flew:  there are new health forms to fill out, the airports are crowded and disorganized, and the planes are packed.

Guayaquil airport

But our flights were relatively on time and our luggage arrived with us, so our travel was easy compared to some of the horror stories we’ve heard!

our flights were relatively on time and no lost luggage!

Puerto Lopez is a three hour drive north of Guayaquil airport and our pre-arranged taxi was there to meet us at midnight.  Years ago, on our first visit to Puerto Lopez, we discovered Hosteria Itapoa, a delightful bed & breakfast, and have stayed there ever since.

Hosteria Itapoa

It was like coming home to find our bed in cabana 16 ready for our 3 am arrival!

coming home to cabana 16!

The gardens at Itapoa grow more beautiful each year and every morning at breakfast we tried to capture a few of the birds that flitted around us.

a few of the beautiful birds in Itapoa’s gardens

The dogs are still there, including “Pelican”, who we first met as a little puppy!

Pelican!

The town of Puerto Lopez has changed a lot since our last visit.  Many restaurants and shops did not survive the pandemic but we were happy to find a few of our favorites still in business.

our favorite restaurant, Patacon Pisa’o, is still in business and as delicious as ever!
Aloha Cafe is still there (and now you can get a tattoo while you wait)

We also discovered some new gems.

The Blue Boobie is a new restaurant with very good vegetarian options!

Where there were once just a few ramshackle beach bars spaced quite far apart, there is now a continuous strip of competing, brightly decorated full-service restaurant/bars, each blaring loud music and lit up at night like the Las Vegas strip.

the beach bars at night

The fisherman still come in at the southern end of the beach in the early mornings — the same cacophony of colors, sounds, and smells.

Puerto Lopez fish market

Years ago we found Palo Santo Travel, one of the many whale-watching tour companies in town.

Palo Santo office

We were impressed with the respect with which both the captains and guides treated the whales and found out later that the owner, Cristina Castro, is affiliated with the Pacific Whale Foundation. 

Palo Santo II
Cristina, Captain Paul, and guide Silvano

The Pacific Whale Foundation partners with various research programs and Palo Santo allows guests to accompany them on scientific outings. 

riding along on a research outing

This year’s project is part of the Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Sentinel Program, out of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.  Tissue samples are being collected to study organic pollutants as well as determine the size of the fat cells in the whale’s blubber — an indication of their food supply.

getting ready to collect a tissue sample

PWF’s Juliana fearlessly stood on the bow of the boat collecting samples from the massive, 40-ton animals, looking for all the world like Xena, the Warrior Princess.

Juliana

While Luna watched from above, taking photos and meticulous notes on which whales were biopsied, the GPS coordinates, and the weather conditions.

Luna and Captain Paul
meticulous note-keeping

It was exciting and interesting to watch and learn – plus it gave me a new appreciation for the courage of scientists in the field!

the boat got very close to the whales!

Each day the two Palo Santo boats traveled to Isla de la Plata, an island located approximately 25 miles from Puerto Lopez.  We looked for whales on our way to and from.

on our way to Isla de la Plata (Palo Santo I)

Once on the island, we had the opportunity to enjoy the many green sea turtles swimming in the bay,

there are always green sea turtles swimming in the bay at Isla
wet landing off the boat

And then hike up to the top of the hill

800 meters a little flat and then 156 steps up

to enjoy the blue-footed boobies,

blue-footed booby pair
hiking on Isla de la Plata

Nazca boobies,

nazca booby with egg

Magnificent frigatebirds,

magnificent frigatebird with chick

And the many other birds that call this “Poor Man’s Galapagos” home,

collared warbling finch
Baird’s flycatcher
long-tailed mockingbird

Along with gorgeous views from high up on the cliffs.

the view from the top

There is always time to snorkel in the bay and I have loved diving down to listen to the whale songs or photograph the fish and turtles. 

always time for snorkeling (photo by Silvano)

But this year the water was too cold for this wimpy South Floridian, so I passed my underwater camera to Silvano who had fun snapping pics of what he spied.

underwater photos by Silvano

In past years we have been treated to amazing breaching activity – part of the whale’s mating ritual. 

mother’s tail and calf’s head

And although we saw an occasional breach and plenty of mothers with calves, we had yet to find a good “jumper” on this trip. We were starting to feel a little frustrated with our photos thus far.

one quick jump and he was done

We are early risers and were ready for coffee long before Itapoa’s 8 o’clock breakfast so each morning we walked down the beach to a spot open at 7 am:  Jouser. 

Jouser’s beachfront restaurant opened at 7 am
morning coffee at Jouser

It was at Jouser that we met a tour operator named Winston Churchil. (Yes, Churchil with one “L”)

me, Winston, and TG

Winston arranged for us to go out on a small panga with Miguel, a local fisherman. 

Miguel and his panga

There are five things needed for perfect whale photos: 

(1) Good light at your back – which is tough in Puerto Lopez as it’s almost always overcast in July and August. 

perfect light — rare in Puerto Lopez in July and August!

(2) The boat must go slow and steady as possible. 

(3) Patience – a lot of it! 

(4) A good captain who knows whales and knows the waters.

And,

(5) Luck – although a good captain can make his own luck.

Miguel was an excellent captain!

We hit the jackpot with Miguel.  The sea was calm and the light was beautiful.  For once the sun was shining and the sky was blue.  Miguel puttered along at a rate so slow we were barely moving.

slow and steady driving

It took some patience but in the end we were rewarded with a beautiful baby humpback breaching over and over and over.  It was magical.

a baby whale breaching in perfect light against the backdrop of Puerto Lopez

Another change this year was that our favorite captain, Jaime, was no longer with Palo Santo.  He was the best captain we’ve ever had and we sorely missed his expertise on the boat.

Captain Jaime, 2013

One morning Jouser was closed so we backtracked to Spuma del Mar, an open-air restaurant on the Malecon.  This turned out to be incredibly fortuitous.  

morning coffee at Spuma del Mar

While sitting at a sidewalk table at Spuma, a passing car suddenly slammed on the breaks and the driver hopped out.  It was Captain Jaime and what a joyful reunion we shared! He now runs his own boat and agreed to take us out for a private tour on Monday morning, our last full day. 

Captain Jaime!!

As expected, it was off the charts.  Captain Jaime delivered not one but two jumpers.  We had a whale breach right next to the boat 43 times – 43 ½ if you count a spy hop. 

Captain Jaime, me, and the jumper
43 1/2 breaches in a row!

And as one was jumping right in front of us, we had another whale in the distance that also breached — 11 times!

another whale breaching in the distance

Captain Jaime and I kept count, whooping and shouting out the numbers until I finally said I need to switch to English as it’s too hard for me to keep track of both jumpers and also remember how to count in Spanish!

grinning like the Cheshire cat!

When it appeared that the whales were finally at rest, I asked if we could look for the “lobos marinos” (sea lions) on Salango Island. 

It was a bit of a detour but Capt Jaime readily agreed and beelined us to the island where we found six big, beautiful sea lions sunbathing on the rocks.

sea lions on Salango Island

It was everything we could have hoped for and we could not have scripted a better end to our week in Puerto Lopez. 

TG and Captain Jaime at Salango Island

We’re already dreaming about going back!

Hasta Pronto Puerto Lopez, see you soon!

You can view our complete Flickr albums by arrowing through the below images.

TG:

salango Pano 1-SharpenAI-Focus-DeNoiseAI-standard

JET:

Machalilla National Park, Puerto Lopez Ecuador