Tag Archives: travel without baby

Malpelo Island

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Malpelo Island.

We were in a strange situation. Malpelo Island is hallowed ground for many divers. A “once in a lifetime” sort of place, a mecca for shark diving. The Columbian government will be closing Malpelo at the end of the year to charters that operate from outside of Columbia, or all the reputable operators to put it another way. We should have been super excited. But the timing of the trip could have been better. The only places left on any charter of the year were on dates that meant we would miss Joey’s 4th Birthday. Unbeknownst to us when we booked, the trip would also happen during the middle of intense job hunting by both of us, trying to solve the two-body problem after we had made the decision to leave Washington D.C.

So, at the risk of sounding impossibly spoiled, we weren’t sure we wanted to go on this trip. We are still not sure if it was the right decision, even though the kids had a great time with their grandparents for a couple of weeks and Malpelo lived up to its reputation for us.

We are still uncertain, but I figured it would be worthwhile to write a post and let you decide whether it was worth leaving the kids and a job situation in flux for a couple of weeks, just to visit a lonely rock 500 km off the coast of Columbia…

Malpelo

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No traffic here…

Malpelo island is an old volcanic core that rises from a solitary undersea volcanic ridge in the eastern tropical Pacific. Surrounded by deep water, this area of the ocean does not offer up many islands. One has to travel a long way from Malpelo to get to land – Columbia is around 500 km away and Panama even further. 600 km to the north west lie the Cocos islands and to the southwest the Galapagos islands, both more well-known and far more frequented. The isolation of Malpelo is part of its appeal for us – difficult to get to, relatively undisturbed and no boat/scuba traffic (the Columbian government severely limits the number of boats that can visit). Malpelo is famous for one thing: sharks. Type in “Malpelo Island” on google image search and you’ll see massive schools of hammerheads circling over some lucky photographer. While you can see hammerhead schools at Cocos and Galapagos, the schools of silky sharks and the reliability of the hammerheads are two more reasons why we made the effort to come out to Malpelo instead of Cocos.

There are few reliable and safe operators that take divers to Malpelo. A recent set of diving fatalities, where divers were swept away by strong currents and died adrift, underscored our desire to charter a reputable operation (the Columbian group responsible for the dead divers didn’t alert authorities until someone else did, then did not have sufficient fuel to search for their missing party…).

After some time searching, we came across the Yemaya – a Panamanian boat with a great reputation. We booked with Ed Stetson out of UCSB and headed down to Panama City. Ed’s group of divers were unusual. All seasoned folks and no yahoos. We were humbled – everybody was unique in some way. A surgeon, a charter boat owner, a financial analyst based out of NYC, a successful real estate developer, the world editor of dive magazine. Everybody turned up with dive alerts (pneumatic whistles), 2 m long inflatable safety buoys, signal mirrors, signal strobes and Nautilus lifelines (AIS-based VHF position transmitters). No corners were being cut in terms of safety – becoming lost would mean being set adrift in the open ocean with no one but the others aboard your boat to rescue you.

After a four-hour bus ride from Panama City we arrived at a dinky old river port in the jungle. The muddy tide was running too low, so we cleared customs, loaded all our bags on to the dive tenders and drove out 45 minutes to the river mouth where the Yemaya was waiting. She was all that we needed, and some more we could have done without. Yemaya had her own water maker, air conditioning, nitrox bank for rapid filling, a substantial oxygen bank, two screws and three generators (5 engines total) and a wonderful crew of Panamanians who loved their jobs. She also had a slight list to port, a very high centre of mass and a vibrant population of giant tropical cockroaches. This was going to be a trip to remember.

From the river, it was a 36 hour transit over open water until we came to Malpelo: a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean. For the next 7 days, we did not see another vessel.

Diving Conditions

There are many similarities between diving Malpelo and other offshore islands, like the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand, the Brothers Islands in the Red Sea or La Perouse rock at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI. Imposing cliffs and no beaches. Nesting seabirds. Deep drop-offs. Raging ocean currents that bring in the big schools but also threaten to remove your mask upon a sideways glance.

However, Malpelo differs in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is truly in the deep ocean. There is no fringing reef, nor does it occasionally receive licks of a coastal current and day fishers certainly don’t make it out here. Consequently, real ocean-going animals can be seen. Wahoos were the first sign. Then came bonito schools and big, fat yellowfin tuna. Ascents and safety stops in bottomless blue water were the norm and rather than being a featureless and boring affair, there was always the anticipation that at some point a large and majestic creature would materialize out of the blue. Sometimes it was a giant oceanic manta. More often it would be sharks.

The Sharks of Malpelo

The magic of Malpelo is made by the truly impressive number of sharks that migrate to and from, and live around the island. Hammerheads, Galapagos and Silky sharks are the main species seen here but there are also occasional sightings of ocean-going blacktip sharks and “el monstruo” or a rare species of sand tiger, which is usually only seen during the winter. Contrary to what you may think, sharks are a good sign. The first part of an ecosystem that is removed when humans encroach is the top of the food chain – it’s easy to catch sharks and their fins are valuable to unscrupulous Chinese. Next to go are the big fishes – the tunas, wahoos and big snappers. The cascade that results from their removal fundamentally changes the entire ecosystem and reduces it to an alternate stable state: the prey population explodes, meaning their food sources (coral, algae) are depleted, leading to barren reefs that can’t protect juveniles so no recovery can take place. That is a story that has played out all over the world, but has not yet destroyed Malpelo.

In fact, the ecosystem remains so intact at Malpelo that you can witness inter-species teamwork on a grand scale. Anecdotal evidence suggests this kind of behaviour used to be common everywhere, but the depletion of predators has all but eliminated observations of this kind: Picture a reef filled with many small fishes swimming about and grazing on plankton. All of a sudden: pandemonium. A large school of leather bass (groupers) hundreds strong, blue fin trevally and moray eels arrive quickly and purposefully on the scene. Small fish dart everywhere, trying to escape by finding small holes in the reef. The morays are able to squeeze in to these tight spots and eat/flush the fish out – straight into the mouths of the leather bass, waiting just outside. If some make it past the bass, they succumb to the blue-lined jacks waiting right behind. We witnessed these ‘gangs’ attacking reef fishes on a daily basis and we could get very close – the predators were so focused on getting a meal they seemed oblivious to us taking photographs from just centimetres away!

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An incredible cloud made of thousands of enormous mullet snapper, Lutjanus aratus, at Malpelo. The ball is perhaps 60 m across.

Another thing that can be seen here and perhaps nowhere else are the numbers of mullet snapper. These predatory fish are large – about 1.5 m in length and 40 kg or more. They can be solitary but sometimes assemble in schools. At Malpelo, ‘schools’ doesn’t really describe the size of these aggregations. ‘Cumulonimbus cloud’ was the first thing that came to mind when we saw them. Untold thousands. Each an impressive creature, but together an almost prehistoric scene. The school wasn’t a spawning aggregation or some special event – the snapper frequent a particular reef next to the island every day.

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Galapagos and Silky sharks could be seen on the reef and in open water. They were very curious and non-threatening. We spent many hours diving and snorkelling with these inquisitive creatures.

One more good sign is that the sharks are naturally curious – they aren’t wary of people. With the exception of hammerheads, which are a notoriously flighty species, sharks at Malpelo will approach you with a genuinely inquisitive demeanour that is so obviously unthreatening you’re embarrassed you ever considered them dangerous. The feeling is exactly the same as when you are approached by a strange yet friendly dog in the street. Relaxed and languid movements, a preoccupation with the surrounding fishes, casually sniffing out potential morsels under rocks on the reef, all within arm’s reach. The feeling remains the same even when surrounded by a school of silky sharks in open water, miles from the island.

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Snorkelling with a large school of silky sharks miles from the island in open water was one of the highlights of the trip.

Hammerheads

One thing that stood out to us almost immediately was that while we were at Malpelo, the hammerheads were going to remain very shy. The dive guides tell us that five years ago, schools of hundreds could be approached almost by accident. You know they’re there because you’ll occasionally see them at the edge of visibility – their wing-shaped head and large dorsal fin are unmistakable. But they never willingly came close. Our time at Malpelo quickly became an effort to get as close to and see as many of these elusive creatures together as possible. We were eventually able to get fairly close to hammerheads coming in to a cleaning station to be groomed. Divers would settle on a rocky ledge and remain still and low, breathing smoothly and making as little noise as possible. Eventually, they would come up from the depths, replete with little butterflyfish picking parasites off their skin. One mistimed strobe flash or careless move would send the nervous animal bolting back to the depths. Patience and timing paid off: Lauren (who uses much less air than I do) was eventually able to get some great photos of these very special animals.

The classic image from Malpelo is of giant hammerhead schools circling overhead, reminiscent of those old photos of enormous bison herds or clouds of passenger pigeons, now long extinct. This kind of hammerhead photo is very hard to take, especially on open circuit scuba, because of 1) the noise you make and b) rising bubbles in the frame. We learned that in order to witness these majestic schools, and to photograph them, many cards had to fall in our favour. In fact, we were only able to witness truly schooling hammerheads on the morning of our last day. The factors in our favour then were: 1. Early morning before other divers. 2. A strong current that bought the schools to a reef and swept our bubbles away behind us. 3. Rough weather meaning our bubble noise was obscured by wave noise. 4. A deep reef with nothing overhead. 5. A shallow thermocline that compressed the available warm water overhead.

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In stormy open water, we descended without a line to a barnacle covered rock at 31 m, where the temperature dropped from 27 C to 15 C and the current was roaring. We became part of the reef. Slowly they appeared overhead, first in small numbers but then in their hundreds. They could be seen cavorting and displaying to each other, languidly cruising in mid water. They seemed oblivious to the freezing, breathless divers below, desperately trying to focus their cameras on the silhouettes above. I didn’t need to try to be quiet – at some point I realised I had been holding my breath for a minute or so (not recommended on scuba). It was worth the pounding headache. We hope our kids can see this one day.

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Schools of giant, shy creatures silhouetted against the morning sun.
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What we came to see.

The Annual Honeymoon

We’ve written about our vacation deal before – we promised one another before we were parents that every year we had dependent children, we would go on at least one vacation without them. So far we’ve managed to pull it off, and one of our friends started to use the term “annual honeymoon.” It is a perfect description of why we do this.

The point isn’t to get away from our kids – we adore them both, and we love spending time with them. The point is to spend time focused on ourselves and each other. You know – what we used to do all of the time before we were Joey’s Mom and Blake’s Dad. We had full lives with hobbies and activities. We’ve been fortunate enough to find ways to carry on most of those hobbies with our little explorers, but in some cases it just can’t be done. Scuba diving comes to mind (and will be featured in the 2017 honeymoon…!).

That’s why we have the annual honeymoon. Special bonding time for me and Simon, to keep our relationship happy and healthy so that we can best serve our family. Special bonding time for the older and younger generation, where the grandparents are given full control and the grandchildren receive exotic treats like juice for breakfast, pet fish, and all the educational toys they can get their little hands on. It is always hard to leave, but wonderful to come home well rested and energized to hear of their adventures at the Grammy & Papa resort.

We have been long due for a honeymoon, as our last was a dive trip to Raja Ampat, Indonesia in December 2014/January 2015 (it was a big enough trip that we counted it for both years). Blake arrived in December 2015 – making it tricky to plan a trip in 2016. Fortunately, a good friend planned a New Year’s Eve wedding in San Diego and gave us the perfect excuse to fly as a duo at the end of the year, just after Blake had cleared his first birthday.

In our four day trip, we visited old friends, favorite restaurants, and re-lived many of our graduate school dates. (Most of them involve take-out burritos and a hike on cliffs overlooking the sea). We had hours of time to talk to one another without interruption. We didn’t worry about nap time or bedtime, and slept late in the morning. The wedding was beautiful. It was time and money well spent. There is truly nothing better to come home to than my sweet boys’ smiles and hugs.

Oh, and Dory the pet fish lives at Grammy and Papa’s house now 😉

 

On Traveling Without Baby

We used to travel as a couple all the time - that's when we made the vacation deal in the first place.
We used to travel as a couple all the time – that’s when we made the vacation deal in the first place.

We told you about our ‘vacation deal‘ that we had made before Joey was born, and we recently tested it out. The deal was that every year when we had dependent kids, we would go on a vacation as a couple and on another with the kids. These had to be ‘real’ vacations, a bit of a vague term, but we both agreed that an overnight trip locally did not count.

When I say we tested it out, I don’t mean we went to stay at a B&B a couple of hours away for a few days. Simon & I left Joey in the excellent care of his grandparents for nearly two weeks while we traveled to the exact opposite side of the world to go scuba diving for a week. It took us four days to reach our destination (Raja Ampat, Indonesia) and three to get back.

Now we usually travel like this, which we also love.
Now we usually travel like this, which we also love.

We returned home safely and on schedule, well after Joey’s bedtime. The next morning we were eager to get up with him and spend as much time with him as possible. He was only mildly impressed that we had returned, showing more interest in his toys and the dog (possibly the best feature of the grandparents’ resort). After getting re-acquainted over the weekend, he was willing to return to Alexandria with us and get back into the groove of everyday life. Our previous nanny actually left for a full time teaching job (we got this information in Jakarta on the way home), so we got extra time with Joey last week working a split schedule. (We all like his new nanny very much!)

Now that you have the background, this is our executive summary:

The vacation deal is awesome. 

Going on an adventure as a two-some allowed Simon & I to enjoy our favorite activity together – scuba diving. This simply would not have been possible with a one-year old along. It felt very luxurious to transit through airports and go about air travel without a small child. We could talk at leisure, sleep when we wanted, eat at the same time, go to the bathroom when we wanted… More importantly, the vacation did exactly what it is supposed to – we both came home relaxed, happy, and strongly reminded of what is important to us (our family, the ocean, & exploring). The first few days were the hardest, partly because we were just sitting on airplanes. Once we realized that Joey was very happy with his grandparents, we were more relaxed about enjoying ourselves. It was a very special bonding time for the three of them too, and the grandparents’ were hesitant to relinquish him when it was time to go home.

What worked well:

  1. We had several days at the grandparents’ home with Joey before and after the trip to help him adjust. I think this helped everyone.
  2. Traveling over a holiday (New Year’s) meant that my dad had time off of work to help more with Joey and that we didn’t miss as much work.
  3. Lots of updates – my mom was amazing about sending us photos and updates every day.
  4. Do something you couldn’t do with a baby. Had we been lounging on a beach and swimming or hiking and camping I would have felt terrible, since these are activities that Joey really enjoys and participates in.

What I would have changed:

  1. Travel to a closer location. I realized as we were on day three of four getting to Raja Ampat that if Joey were in an emergency situation it would take us days to get to him. Next year we’ll go somewhere a wee bit closer to home

There you have it. As always, you have to do what is right for your family. But if a setup like this sounds fun, exciting, and relaxing to you – it probably will be. It is worth jumping over the initial hurdle to make it happen. All three members of our family are much happier as a result.

Papua Paradise Resort – 2 days in

(Mostly by Simon. Lauren doesn’t tend to write about toilets.)

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Papua paradise resort is everything you would expect, looking at their website online. Tropical beach with palms. Idyllic bungalows over the water with little sharks swimming between the pilings. Smiling faces. Diving.

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What makes Papua paradise different, for Simon anyway, was a US one cent coin placed on the desk in our bungalow. We assumed a previous guest had left it. About an hour later, as we were assembling our cameras and underwater housings, Simon needed a small coin to use on the camera mounting screws. It then became apparent just how thoughtful and accommodating the staff here are for divers. There is even a room with A/C and all of the tools and gadgets needed to clean, service, and charge underwater cameras, which we have made good use of already!

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We were having (delicious!) lunch when some kids exclaimed that they saw something in the water. “What’s that over there?” “I think it’s a manta ray”, Lauren said. After watching this thing (or things) move around for a few minutes, we could clearly see the rise and fall of pairs of wings, followed by a small, curved fin. Mantas. 100 meters away. Lunch was abandoned as we ran over and grabbed our fins and the camera.

 

Swimming out to sea, we found that the shallow reef flat in front of the resort abruptly ends and deep water begins. Beams of sunlight sparkled down into the depths. The rays seemed so tantalizingly close. We pressed on. We were almost there when the rays disappeared from the surface, presumably because we were making such a commotion. Turning around, we noticed that we were quite far from shore now… Suddenly, a black shape materialized into view. A single, large, and completely black manta swooped past us and disappeared into the deep. Fantastic.

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We returned to the pier, where the kids had convinced one of the staff to ready a boat to find the mantas. We hopped on and joined the effort. It became apparent that the mantas don’t like boats and would quickly disappear when approached. After failing to get near them twice, we watched them from about 30 meters away, happily grazing on the surface. Lauren & Simon quietly entered the water and slowly swam towards them, the family following close. We were finally rewarded. The rays were feeding on dense numbers of little blue amphipods on the surface of the ocean. They would pass us, skimming the surface with their giant vacuum cleaner mouths, before flapping their wings and gliding away.

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Overall, yesterday was a near perfect day. In addition to the manta encounter and constant delight over the perfection and thoughtfulness of Papua Paradise resort, we had three amazing dives near the house reef. The sheer number of fish, cryptic animals, and cool invertebrates was astounding. By dinner, we were writing to the grandparents’ “resort” requesting that Joey be sent over with diapers and sunscreen because we were never coming home.

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(Just kidding – please don’t give our jobs away!)

 

There was a storm this morning. About 4:30 AM the wind and swell suddenly picked up. The bungalow, which is made from palm leaves and wood sourced from the local jungle, doesn’t exactly remind you of a sturdy fortress. The wind and rain were driving into the side of the building with scary force and causing the building to sway. Sitting on the toilet, you could feel the seat move as the pipes under the building were hit by swells!

 

Incredibly, however, not a single drop of rain came through the roof. After the sun came up, an inspection of the bungalow revealed no damage. While the place looked a little fragile, the quality of its construction became apparent to us when we saw that it had emerged from the squall unscathed.

 

We are enjoying the views and schooling baby black-tip reef sharks under the bungalows while we wait for the all-clear to get in the water again. Word is that the dive boats should be running again after lunch.

 

Jakarta Layover

Car-free day in Jakarta, seen from our room at the Hyatt. Vendor carts with red roofs are on the lower right.
Car-free day in Jakarta, seen from our room at the Hyatt. Vendor carts with red roofs are on the lower right.

After about 36 hours of travel, we made it to Jakarta with all of our things! Simon had a free night at the Hyatt (any Hyatt…!) so we decided to take advantage of that here. What a great choice. This is by far the nicest hotel either of us have ever stayed in, and the staff are amazing. Before we could even ask (upon checking in at 2am), the concierge insisted on setting up a late checkout at no charge – for 6pm the next day! We were able to get access to the ‘club,’ which included a delicious and diverse breakfast buffet including fish soup, congee porridge, eggs made to order, croissants, and european cheese. Our room came with towels wrapped as kissing swans on the bed, gourmet cookies in a box, and an amazing bouquet of fresh flowers. I’m a little surprised we left at all 🙂

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Us in front of the Indonesia National Monument (MONAS)

After a well deserved shower/bath and sleep, we enjoyed our fancy breakfast and decided to explore the city. Today (Sunday) is car-free day in the city, where a large section of street starting at our hotel and ending at the Indonesia National Monument is closed to cars.

Simon's pick of the day - a brace of bunnies being carried to market
Simon’s pick of the day – a brace of bunnies being carried to market

Street vendors abound, as do locals on bikes and on foot. This enjoyable break from total traffic jam occurs every Sunday morning. We had a pleasant walk up to the National Monument, which has a nice park around it, also filled with little street vendor carts, children flying kites,

Taxi fare from the airport to our hotel. 1 US dollar = 1243 Indonesian Rupiah
Taxi (‘taksi’) fare from the airport to our hotel. 1 US dollar = 1243 Indonesian Rupiah

and an impressive array of characters (adults in costume) including sponge-bob, winnie-the-pooh, nemo, and quite a few more that we didn’t recognize. We enjoyed walking around the city, and have been pleasantly surprised at how nice it is here. There is relatively little crime, lots of beautiful lush vegetation, friendly people, and fairly few tourists. We were notably the only white people around, but received relatively little touting. We were surprised when children in the park wanted their photo taken with us!

Simon doubles up in front of MONAS
Simon doubles up in front of MONAS

Well-fed and well-rested, we are ready to take on our last flight before we finally arrive at Papua Paradise in Raja Ampat tomorrow. We depart Jakarta at 10pm, and after a couple of stops arrive in Sorong at 6:30am. From there we will be collected by boat, and in the water as soon as possible.

IMG_0871Regarding travels without baby: At this point, we both are feeling like the trip was a good idea. We do miss Joey, but can’t deny the luxury of being on a plane without him. He has been a champion about air travel so far, but I can’t imagine him enjoying the slew of flights we went through over the last two days. As a couple only, we were able to do things like both eat our in-flight meal at the same time, sleep as long as we wanted, and watch our choice of program on the little televisions. Of course we talk about him endlessly and are delighted to be receiving cute photos of him having fun at the grandparents’ resort. We notice every child under the age of 6 and smile at them. Fortunately, that sentiment has been received as kind and not creepy here. It is really pleasant to have down-time as a couple, too! I don’t think either of us realized how busy we have been over the last few months, but it is wonderful to have a break.

*We were not involved in the missing AirAsia flight. Our local flight is on Srijawa Air, which is not affiliated with AirAsia. Thank you to those who have expressed concern.*