Friday, April 1, 2011

Explore the White Continent Above and Below Surface with Miss Scuba at the Southern End of the World: Scuba Dive, Kayak, Mountaineer, Camp, Snow Shoe and Photograph the Southern most part of our World

If someone had told me when I was a child that one day I will travel to a place as remote as Antarctica, I would have not believed them, despite the fact that I always was known for dreaming big.  Than again, when I was a kid, Oceanwide Expeditions did not exist yet.  But now everything has changed.

The once in a lifetime opportunity to document the maiden voyage of the “Plancius Basecamp Expedition” came out of the blue and as such, it was impossible not to accept the invitation.  The company has an incredible concept: they offer outdoorsy adventurers the option to pick and choose from numerous activities while cruising the Weddell Sea.  Mountaineering, scuba diving, camping, photo workshops, kayaking and snowshoeing are just a few of the many choices.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

I pride myself to be a lightweight traveler who can pack all essentials for a month long journey in just a few hours before take off.  Both my camera operator, Hilaire Brosio, and I realized it was an opportunity of a lifetime, so we brought every piece of camera gear we own to document our journey.  I have never embarked on a vacation/expedition of such scale.  We ended up with six pieces of checked in luggage and four massive carry-ons.  Six bags contained underwater camera housings, lenses and lights, while the other four bags held dive gear and extra warm clothing.

Our first stop was in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.  Buenos Aires resembles an old European city with its charming buildings and picturesque avenues.  Indoor and outdoor cafes are aplenty from where we enjoyed watching the fashionably dressed and polite locals.  We were incredibly fortunate to spend a late summer evening having dinner at a restaurant by the city’s river walk and drinking fabulous Argentinean Malbec.  Later as we took a stroll on the cobblestone streets, we came across a spontaneous tango dancer couple surrounded by our fellow pedestrians.   It was like something out of a romantic movie.

The next morning we hopped on a three hour long domestic flight to Ushuaia. Ushuaia is a beautiful city by the sea with snow capped mountains in the backdrop.  It is often referred as “Fin del Mundo”, The End of the World, as it is the southernmost city in the world.
Young adventurous people, families and elderly couples filled streets which are crowded with mountaineering stores, wine shops and resort hotels.  It appears that Ushuaia is a popular vacation destination amongst South Americans.  We only encountered a handful of North Americans and Europeans, however change is on the horizon.  I believe we have found the next “it” place for ambitious travelers who seek adrenalin pumping adventure.

We purchased some prosciutto, cheese, pickles, fresh bread plus a bottle of wine at the local market and headed to the beach for an afternoon picnic before boarding our ship, the Plancius.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

The Plancius was originally built in the mid seventies, and then was modified in 2009 into a state of the art cruising vessel.  It provides a plush observation lounge and an extensive library with a variety of books on the wildlife and history of Antarctica in multiple languages.  The rooms are spacious with plenty of storage and equipped with flat screen televisions.  The bar in the observation lounge provides a great setting for stories to be swapped.  The espresso machine quickly became my best friend as I was intent of participating in every activity that was offered.  How often does an opportunity like this enter into our life?

The two-day crossing through the Drake Passage and Beagle Chanel provided a great opportunity to listen educational presentations about Antarctica and its habitat.  The guides on the ship are not only experts in their respective fields, but most also are well versed historians, marine biologists or geologists.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

Once we finally laid our eyes on land again, the mysterious Antarctic scene was filled with beautiful blinding white mountains as far as we could see.  The drifting blue icebergs contributed a dramatic look to the surreal landscapes.  

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

Finally, on the third afternoon it was time for our first scuba dive. I have been dreaming about diving in polar waters for a long time, but I never thought that day would come.  Diving in Antarctica is more gear intensive than most other places I visited.  Each diver needed to be equipped with two environmentally sealed regulator sets to avoid problems with freezing water.  We all wore dry suits with several layers of undergarments and most divers opted for dry gloves and a thick hood.  Keeping the head and the hands warm is critical to maintain the body’s core temperature in a 0 Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) wet environment.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

Even though looking at giant whale bones was impressive underwater, my favorite type of dives during our journey, were the ones around floating icebergs.  The ten stories tall shiny white sculptures were intimidating at first, but once I calmed my breath, I enjoyed them in a state of awe while descending along the constantly changing wall.  I imagined the ice to be smooth underwater, but its texture was covered with dimples.  Our dive guide, Kelvin Murray, explained that the even-sized interesting domes were created by the reflection of the sunlight through the ocean’s surface.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

One night after dinner we headed to shore and spent the night camping on ice.  After watching the star filled sky for a while we eventually entered our tents and drifted into deep slumber.  The wind was blowing outside our igloo tent with a fierce might, but we were cozy in the subzero sleeping bags that Oceanwide Expeditions provided us with.  We woke up to the sound of penguins chatting away at  4 a.m. and walked out into the fresh snow for an hour and took some amazing photos of the seascape before heading back to our ship for breakfast.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

The next day the weather gods smiled upon us and we were treated to a blue sky and sunshine, so decided on a kayaking excursion along the coast.  We paddled for hours navigating between slabs of floating ice.  The extraordinary view from the kayak was grand.  It gave me a chance to reflect on Antarctica and life in general.  When you are away from the chaos of civilization both your thoughts and senses are uncluttered and feel more finely tuned than I have ever experienced.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time to witness one moderate size iceberg turn upside down and change its color from vanilla to vivid light blue.  This 180 degree change created a loud cracking noise.  It was incredible to both hear and see Mother Nature’s power in this pristine setting.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

After a brief scenic zodiac cruise in the afternoon, we opted for hiking in the snowy mountains.  At the bay we strapped on our snowshoes, put on sunglasses and off we went to explore.  We climbed several peaks and on one of the slopes we slid down on our bellies, just like the penguins!  Hiking in fresh snow powder on top of layers of ice that is thousands of years old was incredible.  I felt as if we were walking in between the folds of the earth’s history.  On average Antarctica is the driest, coldest and windiest continent in the world, and has the highest elevation.  Snow doesn’t really melt here, it just keeps on piling up layer upon layer.  As we approached the top of one crest, the sun suddenly pierced through the clouds.  The marine fog quickly cleared and the valley below filled with ant size people came into focus.  It was a spectacular site to behold.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

Once we arrived back at our basecamp we spent several hours documenting the Gentoo penguins.  It was awe-inspiring to experience them from such short distance.  Penguins are very curious and not scared of humans in the slightest.  They have no reason.  People do not harass or feed wild animals in Antarctica.  All wildlife here is protected and our guides made sure that no one distressed the birds.  Our visit was in March, which is the end of summer here.  By this point this spring’s chicks had grown tall and were in the middle of trading in their furry down feathers for the more solid winter attire that allows them to swim.  Some looked extremely funny, while others were just simply adorable.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

We were fortunate enough to also dive with penguins one afternoon. It was very difficult to take pictures of them as they are incredibly fast underwater.  Unlike on land, where they are trotting around awkwardly, in the water penguins fly effortlessly with the speed of a bullet. We encountered numerous bypasses by them during our dive as they were checking us out curiously. After we surfaced our group spent another hour snorkeling amongst them.  They seemed to love the zodiac boat as well as the interaction with the divers.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

On several dives we were accompanied by seals.  Fur seals were the most daring and curious, but occasionally a crab eater seal would investigate our presence.  On one dive we were lucky enough to dive with a leopard seal.  A few of our divers were treated to a very rear encounter with this creature.  They witnessed the leopard seal catching a penguin and spending the next 20 minutes eating it.  It was an intense experience.  Particularly because this seal was considerably bigger than our dive buddies.  While it was tough to see the seal peel the penguin like a banana and have it for lunch, you have to bear in mind that they has to eat, just like us.

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

Our 11 day journey through the peninsula was an ever changing affair with nature.  The weather often changed by the minute.  One moment the sky was clear blue, the next it was snowing and another hour later the wind blew the clouds away and it was sunny again.  As our expedition leader Rinie van Meurs advised us, “You do not take a trip to Antarctica, Antarctica takes you on a trip.”

My wildest expectations were exceeded when on our journey home we were approached by two humpback whales.  They stayed next to our ship for hours, curiously looking at us, and making sounds through their blowholes.  These gentle giants looked and sounded like the composers of the ocean as they emerged from the sea waving to us with their fins.  I wish I could have been in the water with them.
Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

A number of the passengers on our trip were returning visitors to Antarctica.  I was especially impressed by the vast age diversity of my fellow travelers.  The youngest were 6 and 7 year old brothers, while the eldest person was 84.  It was great to see the elderly enjoy the outside activities just as much as the kids, of course on a different scale than the younger adventure hungry travelers. But nonetheless, they were just as satisfied and fulfilled at the end of each day’s activities.

There were 114 passengers from 17 countries on board the Plancius with us.  I enjoyed sitting with different people at every meal and hearing their stories of the day and about their diverse backgrounds.  Most of my new acquaintances had one future destination in common: The Arctic.  A few had already visited, while many others are planning on going there next.  Who knows, I might get to take another adventure of a lifetime to the Northern most point of the world and photograph polar bears.  One can only hope…

For more information regarding this trip please refer to: and

Antarctica Basecamp Plancius

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ten Years Worth of Changes in Thailand's Andaman Sea

The hot and humid weather of Thailand instantly cured my horrible cough I acquired in Vietnam. I loved the climate. We started our journey in Thailand at the North, in Chiang Mai, heading down to Phuket through Bangkok, where we were to meet our friends and board a liveaboard to the Similans.

Unfortunately Chiang Mai proved even more touristy than I expected, but it was still amazing to visit Buddhist temples in the jungle. We rode elephants and visited a tiger farm where they keep the last few still alive to protect them. I wanted to visit the big cats, but once we were in the cage with them I got scared and hid behind the camera, letting Hilaire pet them as I was taking pictures.

One of the craziest and most surreal thing I tried: Fish Spa. You sit on a cushioned pad and hang your feet in warm water and enjoy Dr. Fish work on your calluses. The authentic Garra Rufa fish are known for their healing. The fish gently nibble the skin to stimulate, rejuvenate and improve the overall health of your skin through natural exfoliation. I could not sit still as I am super ticklish, but most everybody in our group loved it.

In Bangkok we met our travel companions and jumped right into sight seeing. It wasn't easy to secure taxi drivers who did not want to rip us off. As in many other places, the best practice is either to agree on a price or have the taxi driver turn on the meter prior to getting into the vehicle. We were dropped off at the ferry station instead of the destination we agreed, the Palace, because apparently the yellow shirt group was demonstrating and was enormous traffic.

Once we arrived to the Grand Palace a guard informed us that the palace was closed for the next three hours and arranged us tuk tuks to visit three Buddha sculptures in the meanwhile. Of course we believed him and took off on another spontaneous adventure. After the standing Buddha we were headed to the sitting Buddha, but on the way the driver stopped at a jewelry store, a tailor and another jewelry store. In the last tailor shop he said we have to stay in for 10 minutes and look through the catalogs, because they give him money for gas. After the forth shop we refused to visit more and made sure that our next stop was the famous 150 yard long reclining Buddha at the Wat Po.

We lunched nearby the ferry dock. Everybody proved open minded to eat “street food” and luckily nobody got sick. We indulged in chicken pad thai, crab dumplings, beef stews and sipped cold Singha beer while watched people hassle in the heat.

One night we met up with a friend of mine who lives in Bangkok now with his Thai wife. We used to teach scuba in England together many moons ago. Gwynn gave us the lowdown on how in Thailand people copy everything you can think of. The fact that you can buy Cartier watch and Chanel bags did not surprise me, but that he bought a brake for his car that was a copy (and did not work while trying to stop on a hill down) did.

I booked a gourmet Thai cooking class at the Blue Elephant for our group. Our funny and charming chef demonstrated and explained step by step the Thai dishes we prepared. Each student had their own space and wok to prepare the five course meal we ate afterwards in the restaurant. We experienced the culinary techniques of Thai cuisine and cooked spring rolls, spicey massaman, put a papaya and crab salad together and completed our menu with a custard. I was full after the spring rolls.

Next stop: Phuket. Even ten years ago I did not care for the place. Now I grew to despise it. Patong is dirty and full of 60 year old guys with barely 20 year old Thai girls or katoys (lady boys). Each bar have go-go dancers standing on the tables next to a pole, but I would rather call them go-go standers as there was not much dancing involved. Hilaire described the place as “Hell on Earth” and I had to agree with him. We only stayed there because our boat to the Similan Islands was departing from the South of Thailand.

Finally, after three weeks of travel we arrived to the highly anticipated dive portion.

I used to live in Thailand teaching scuba for two years just after the Millennium. I loved diving the Andaman Sea. The warm water was filled with schools of colorful reef fish. Leopard sharks, turtles and octopus were almost guaranteed to swim by on every dive. The place I heard was even more spectacular is the far away Similan Islands National Park. I always wanted to scuba there but during my two years in Thailand did not get a chance, so my anticipation was understandable.

The dives were somewhat disappointing. I was not expecting the lack of sea life even despite of the Tsunami and the recent coral bleach. During our 14 dives I did not see any sharks, cuttle fish, whaleshark or octopus. We only encountered a turtle once as we were swimming back to our boat after a dive. I always thought that this national park is so much prettier than the waters around Phi Phi, but it was not. We even heard a dynamite bomb exploding in nearby Burma during one submersion.

On one dive we witnessed a group of divers relocating 100 sea horses that they purchased at a market in Bangkok where one can buy any living sea creature they desire. Fishing provides 40% of Thailand’s GDP, while diving “only” contributes to less than 1%, so I do not see a dramatic change in the near future when it comes to protecting and preserving the underwater life in most Asian countries.

The purple, pink and red hydro corals were still breath-takingly beautiful and most dive sites are covered with them. We saw a few manta rays in Koh Bon on one dive, but had to share it with another 200 divers in the water. Even though our dive guide made us wake up every morning at 6am to avoid the crowds it was impossible not to bump into divers from the other boats. Especially at Richelieu Rock.

Diving in Thailand started to remind me diving in Malta’s Mediterranean Sea where if you want to see a fish, you better go to the weekend market!

Our dive boat the Pawara was a really comfortable and by Thailand standards even a luxurious vessel. All an all, I had a relaxing journey. Finally had time to catch up on books and stargazed with friends at nights from the top deck or watched movies and drunk Sang Som.

Will I return to Thailand again? I used to Call Thailand home. Now, it is not “same same” anymore. I want to keep the Thailand image I once loved in my mind.

Miss Scuba Experiences Chinese New Year in Vietnam

One feature that makes Hong Kong Airport my favorite hub is the fact that one can check in her luggage in Downtown and take the sky train to the airport without slapping dive gear and camera stuff behind.

Spending five days in Hong Kong as the first stop during our one month journey might have been a bit long, but it provided a nice chance to slow down from LA” go go go… lifestyle.

During the two hours flight I wanted to kill someone, namely the person who had an alarm clock in her bag that went off and was beeping for the whole flight. Just as we landed, Hilaire realized that the noisy thing was the alarm control for the flight attendant. ;)

When visiting Vietnam, travelers changing $100 become instant millionaires with the exchange rate. 1USD = 15.000 Vietnamese Dong (BTW: it is illegal to take their money out of the country)

We prearranged a pick up through our hotel. To my greatest surprise, an unexpectedly nice car took us to Hanoi ($25). The one hour trip provided a superb opportunity to watch the ways locals get ready for the Chinese New Year. An array of motorcycles passed by with 5-6 feet (2m) mini orange trees wrapped on the back of almost every other bike. Men were getting hair cuts at street corners. Women carried enormous size flower bouquets and gift baskets. The city was sizzling with anticipation and happiness.

The traffic was an insane chaos yet we only saw one small accident in a week. Cars, motorcycles and pedestrians were crossing the street junctions all at the same time from every directions. Most crossroads are not equipped with traffic lights. Those that actually had a light to control the flow of traffic were totally ignored. Red or green… people were crossing all at the same time, avoiding each other by inches.

The food and drinks are incredibly affordable. At a reasonably trendy restaurant with great view of the happenings freshly prepared local meals are $2-3, while most drinks are $3.

Hilaire and I were watching the traffic one night over dinner and discussed how amazing that we have not seen a crash yet when a tuk tuk bumped frontally into a nice red car. The dirty clothed delivery driver was just about to take off when a well dressed man jumped out of the red car and stopped the tuk tuk. The driver reached for a metal stick and got out. Hell broke loose. The tuk tuk driver hit the car several times ruining the perfect paint job while the man in a suit were trying to get a good hit land on the head of the other guy. The crowed surrounded the fight. The flow of traffic in this major cross road was disabled. The police showed up, separated them and left. Of course they were going to continue the fight, but the crowed separated them and made sure that they went in their separate ways.

There are an enormous number of markets. Whole streets are dedicated to different goods. One street is the “jeans market”, another is the “sun glasses market” while the street parallel running sells mainly kitchen accessories. I had to buy a jacket as I was not prepared for the cold. I expected hot and humid weather in Asia, but Vietnam was freezing. I scored a “designer” coat for $20.

One of the most touching thing during our stay was the visit to the Women’s Museum. Incredible and unbelievable the courage these often only 8-10 year old girls displayed during the French and American invasions. They were harvesting rice and corn, searched for explosives and fought in enemy front lines. Often they were tortured, imprisoned, killed or became highly decorated before age 14 and well before women fought for equal rights in other foreign countries. Man and woman are treated absolutely equally in Vietnam.

Vietnam reminds me more of Cambodia than Thailand. The country is tremendously poor, yet the natives are incredibly friendly to all visitors. I was somewhat surprised to experience this much hospitality despite the history of this country. It was hard to experience and witness poverty in such proximity.

I was stuck in our room for a few days due to the unhealthy condition of air in Hanoi. The pollution was so intolerable that my otherwise healthy lungs were burning as soon as I set foot outside. As soon as we reached Thailand I felt like a million bucks.

Next on the way to our final destination, getting on a liveaboard with friends to the Similan Islands in Thailand, camera operator Hilaire Brosio and Miss Scuba will stop inNorthern Thailand to ride elephants and pet tigers in Chiang Mai.

Monday, January 24, 2011

10 most remarkable thing about Hong Kong

  1.  I have not seen any women drivers in five days. Wonder why?
  2. Escalators go through the city with steps next. In the morning they are going down (and people walking up) and the afternoon the escalator takes people up while others walk down. Very efficient!
  3. Octopus card: use one card to travel the metro system and as a debit card to pay at shops. Bonus: get extra points for walking!
  4. Tailored suits are ready in a day! Pick out the fabric, style. Get measured and a have a custom suit ready the next day at a reasonable price. 
  5. Dim Sum. Wherever you eat in Hong Kong, you can not go wrong. 
  6. No napkins are provided in restaurants and most public bathrooms. Wonder why?
  7. There is absolutely no graffiti, cigarette butts or stickers can be found anywhere. I was tempted to mark the city with stickers, but Hilaire made sure I did not have the Hong Kong policy hunt me down. 
  8. People love fashion and shoes. Wearing polished leather shoes are essential stylish street wear.
  9. Find authentic Prada bags for thousands in the stores or pick a copy for 20 bucks a few blocks away at the Ladies Market.
  10. Polite people. Everybody in Hong Kong was helpful and nobody cut lines. First time in my life, I felt compelled to stay in line to wait for my turn as well.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Exploring Street Markets and Happy Hours in Hong Kong with Miss Scuba

One of the things that I am most shocked about is the fact that a few blocks apart from one another you can buy the authentic Gucci, Chanel, Tory Burch, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Coach... pretty much anything you desire and a few blocks away you find the exact copy of these trademarked goodies for the fraction of the price department store labels advertise. Every year the trend is slightly shifted compare to the previous season. This year the biggest sellers are the Tory Burch and Marc Jacobs purses on the "Ladies Market".

Unlike most street markets around the world where I always feel the need of covering my pockets and hiding my valuables, in Hong Kong not once did I see or experienced pick pocketers or any sort of molestation of travelers.

Hong Kong puts out more street markets than any other part of Asia. It offers bird market, flower market, night market, ladies market and a huge electronic market just to name a few.

I found most exhilarating the bargaining. As a general rule, if they offer the good I want for 400, I will say 100. Then the seller will shake her head and I walk away. Than she she say: OK, give you discount, 380.
I say 120, she say 350, I say 150. She say: Can not.
I walk away. She say: OK, 320. Last price. I say 160.
In the end I can probably buy it for 200. So, whatever they ask for, you can pretty much get if for half of that.

We ended up buying four purses "made by" Marc Jacobs and Tory Burch for my girlfriends, some Bruce Lee t-shirts for Hilliar's guy friends, a cute pair of leather shoes for me for less than US$100. I have to say I easily could have spent another $200, but restrained myself knowing that we are still going to Vietnam and Thailand where I most likely will find even better deals.

After bargain hunting we took the metro back to Hong Kong and bar hopped during happy hour (4-8pm). My favorite was a corner bar where everyone was sitting outside on the steps while drinking (in my opinion still pretty pricey) cocktails and beers while people watching. This spot is right where in rush hour well dressed locals and tons of tourist go up and down the escalator/steps. I loved checking out the thousands of  by passer woman walking uphill in well polished  high heal leather shoes and the man all wearing tailored slacks and jackets. Hong Kong reminds me more of London than Asia.

This week the Tandori Chicken Pizza was special of the week, which fast became my new favorite flavor.
Pizza Special: HKG$98 (US$12)
Beer Special HKG$48 (US$7) 

Next on the way to our final destination, getting on a liveaboard  with friends to the Similan Islands in Thailand, camera operator Hilaire Brosio and Miss Scuba will stop in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Adventures with Miss Scuba through Asia: Arriving to Hong Kong

One month journey through Asia with destination Similan Islands. Start our trip in Hong Kong, where East meet West to ease into our Vietnam and Thailand trecking and diving trip spiced up with local markets, cooking classes, temple visits and massages.

Traveling through Asia is my favorite thing to do as I love the people, the culture and the food, not to mention the Thai massages. I also realized over the years that getting used to Asia can take some time for those less traveled, so decided to ease Hilaire into this one month long journey through Asia with Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong to me doesn't really feel like Asia just yet. It is not hot and humid and the city center is swamped with designer stores. I would not know that I left Europe or the US if it was not for the faces looking back at me.

I love Hong Kong. Getting around the city via the metro system is easy for even those who visiting for the first time. The signs are clear and at every corner someone points you to the right direction. We purchased an Octopus card that gave us three day unlimited travel and airport transfers (also via metro). Once the three days are up, we can put more money in the card and use it for further travel as well as in stores to pay with just a touch to a magnetic board. A cool thing about this card is that as you stroll through the city, you find stations that give you 2 HKG$ credit for walking!

Once on the streets however navigating was a bit trickier. I followed the map while Hilaire navigated with the compass (Only guys will think of bringing a compass, but it came handy) and it still took us a few rounds to locate places we were aiming for.

Travel books recommended not to miss dim sum in downtown Kowloon, so we made sure to follow the advice. The restaurant was on the second floor of a fancy hotel (can't remember the Name) behind the Peninsula Hotel. No signs outside.  It felt like attending a secret event. We started our meal with jasmin tea and tofu snacks. Being vegetarian (well, most of the time) I was afraid to stay hungry after our luncheon, but the menu listed several meals with vegies only. Hilaire indulged in the duck, pig and beef dumplings while I enjoyed spinach, corn and carrot rolls.

The nice thing about dim sum is that after eating it I still have energy and will to explore the neighborhood.
Next, we visited the local markets...