Eye To Eye With A Humpback

One of the benefits of being in the water with humpback whales is that it makes me appear svelte by comparison.  That’s not the primary reason I’m snorkeling with humpbacks in the waters of the Silver Bank off the Dominican Republic, but it’s a bonus I’ll gladly accept after catching a reflection of myself in my form fitting wetsuit.

This is one of the few places in the world where tourists can get in the water with these huge marine mammals.  You don’t really swim with humpbacks, they’re way to fast for even Michael Phelps to keep pace.  What happens is the whales spend a good portion of the day in the Silver Bank just resting.  They’ll hang near the bottom napping, but being mammals they must surface every five to twenty minutes to breathe.  If you spot a whale, or group of whales, or a mother & calf, moving in that sleep-breathe pattern, then you can get in the water and snorkel near them.  If the whales are comfortable with your presence they’ll stay in the area.

I was there with Tom Conlin of Aquatic Adventures who has been running trips in the Silver Bank for more than twenty years.  He knows how to read humpback behavior as well as anyone and is great at getting people in the water for amazing up close encounters.  To me one of the best experiences is being with a mom and a playful calf.  The calf in those circumstances will frequently come close out of curiosity and circle the people almost like it wants to play.

I interviewed Tom about the humpbacks of the Silver Bank this week on my radio show, National Geographic Weekend.  Part of that interview and some of our whale encounters are in this video.

Slicker Than Bat Guano

Have you heard the term, “slicker than bat ….. guano”?  I think I’ve heard it before, but if not, I know for sure I have experienced it.  On two different occasions, assignments for National Geographic have taken me to the bat caves of South Texas and the Devil’s Sinkhole.  I was reminded of those experiences this week when talking to National Geographic photographer Joel Satore on my radio show National Geographic Weekend.

Joel was in a bat cave in Uganda when he looked up just as a bat flying overhead dropped a guano bomb.  It was a direct hit in his eye.  That’s a wet contact, the same as a bite for putting you at risk for a disease the bat might be carrying.  The marburg virus had been detected in the cave so Joel was potentially at risk.  The only thing to do was fly home and wait twenty-one days to see if he had contracted anything.  It was a nerve racking time since death was a real possibility if he had been infected.  Fortunately he was fine and you can see his pictures in the current issue of National Geographic Magazine.

But Joel’s story got me thinking about my own bat cave adventures and I shared some of those at the end of the radio show.  There was the chance for contracting some airborne diseases in one of the caves I was in, but nothing like the marburg virus.  To get into the Devil’s Sinkhole required a long rappel.  But it turned out the real challenge wasn’t the rappel, or rabies, or respatory ailments, it was bat guano.  I survived the bat caves, however my clothes weren’t as lucky.  No matter how many times I washed them, the smell wouldn’t come out and the dog wouldn’t stop chewing them.  I finally had to throw them away.  This video shows some of the highlights of going into the Devil’s Sinkhole and the Eckert James River bat cave.

Elephant Fight

Showing off for the girls, pushing and shoving, picking fights, refusing to listen to their mothers, I could be describing teenage boys, but in this case I’m talking teenage male elephants.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference in their behavior, and the similarities were on display when I was at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve in South Africa.  In the young male groups one minute they would be eating and the next they were butting heads and crossing tusks.

By the way, it seems as if elephants are always eating.  You can’t maintain that figure without consuming some super sized portions.  This week on my radio show, National Geographic Weekend, I talk with Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge guide Brett du Bois about elephant behavior and we also discuss our encounters with rhinos and leopards.  This video shows some of the elephant action we witnessed.

Hunter Thompson Flies the Coupe

I spent a week with Hunter S. Thompson one day in 1988.  If that sounds impossible, let’s just say when Hunter was wired and inspired keeping up with him for 24 hours left you feeling as if you’d lost a week somewhere but you couldn’t remember where.  I was interviewing him for a story on the Today Show as part of my “Flying the Coupe” series.  I started thinking about that day when I saw the trailer for the new Johnny Depp movie, “The Rum Diary” which is based on Thompson’s novel.

Getting him to agree to the interview was made easier by the fact he had a new book, a collection of his columns, coming out.  But I had been warned that getting him to actually sit down and do the interview would be the challenge.  I believed I had a secret weapon, an irrestible lure, to insure his cooperation, my 1963 red Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible.  I was right, Hunter was up for riding in the car and talking about life, writing, politics, and excess.  A slight correction, actually he had no interest in riding in the car, he insisted on driving.

As you will see in this video I gave him the keys and then I got in the passenger seat, which may have been riskier than when I climbed through the Khumbu icefall on Everest.  Hunter, as was his habit, had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol before we started driving and he brought along a couple of loaded weapons to increase the entertainment factor.

Someday I’ll write the full story of everything that happened that day and night, but for now just enjoy the part of the encounter we deemed suitable for morning television in 1988.