Our Nation's Treasures

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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Auckland, New Zealand

While we wait for our luggage, we watch a beagle, which I assume to be a drug-sniffer, walk amongst the bags of fellow travelers. The dog is small, even for a beagle, and wears the official vest of the Auckland Airport.

After sniffing one bag, the beagle sits, and his handler asks the woman to whom the bag belongs if she has brought any fruit into the country.


She shakes her head. Still, the handler asks permission to go through her bag. He pulls out an apple, and the woman is obviously embarrassed. Mark tells me he saw the sniffer find two oranges while I was in the ladies’ room.

With our luggage, we make our way through customs toward the exit. I’m gathering my things from the x-ray conveyor when Mark, just behind me, gets stopped. A fellow asks him, “Deed ya uhnderstand the deeclaration form ya feelled out on the plane before y’ landed?” Mark says he did, and the man tells him matter-of-factly that the x-ray of his luggage shows that “ya packed boots, bu’ ya deen’ dehclare theem.” Mark picks up on my “I told you so” through my sigh and eye roll; I declared mine.

Mark’s bag is pulled from the conveyor, the boots are removed, and the soles are caked in dried mud. The man tells Mark he could fine him NZ$200, which is a bit less than $200 American. But thankfully he doesn’t. What he does do is take the boots for a complete cleaning/decontamination while we wait: about 10 minutes.

It’s morning in Auckland, New Zealand, a complete 18 hours ahead of EST, so we’re ready for bed, but we vow to stay up until 8 p.m., the trick to avoiding jet lag.

After dropping our luggage at our hostel and showering, the first attraction we investigate in Auckland, one of the largest cities in New Zealand, is the Sky Tower. It’s the tallest building in the southern hemisphere at more than two tenths of a mile tall (that’s nearly 1070 feet). Instead we take the elevator to the observation deck and can see the city, the Tasman Sea and three grass-covered volcanic calderas. Supposedly, there are 48 volcanoes in the area. While we’re observing the landscape, we see two folks bungee jump from the top, higher than the observation deck, but at NZ$195 per plunge, it’s too steep for us.

From Sky City we ride the free shuttle to Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World, where we read about the adventures of Scott, Amundsen and Shackelton, the three main explorers of Antarctica in the early 20th century. A train takes us through the icy area where penguins dive and waddle. A 10-gallon aquarium is thick with pastel-colored seahorses, buoying above and hiding within the faux kelp. Eels, shark and a stingray swim in the larger pool. One ray is as big as the circle at the top of the key of a basketball court. I never knew they could grow so large.

We’re shuttled back to town and stop for pizza on our walk back to the hostel, then ice cream. Mark gets the national flavor, Hokey Pokey: vanilla with tiny toffee bits.

Tucked in by 6:30 p.m. listening to the radio and reading, we put out the lights at 7 p.m., relieved that we didn’t conk out earlier.

Sunday morning we’re up early for a bus to the zoo. We see the nocturnal, flightless kiwi, like a furry coconut with chicken feet and a hairy bird head. Its long beak has nostrils on the end since it hunts for food by smell. More birds we see are peacocks with their showy plumage on display and the kookaburra, about the size of an eagle but quite less grand. Its feathers look like unkempt, dirty hair, like he just got out of bed after a fitful sleep. The zoo is home to kangaroos, elephants, and apes, but surprisingly no crockadile.

By mid afternoon we’re at the Auckland Museum, which is huge. One could spend five hours here learning about the Maori, the native peoples of New Zealand, and then ascend to the second floor for natural history and on to the third for New Zealand’s war history. We learn that the Maori are skilled carvers, young people go through a right-of-passage ceremony, the chiefs of the villages live in the house with the most intricately carved façade, and town meetings are held at the chief’s residence. That’s all we have time to learn; we’re tired.

These two days in Auckland have allowed us to get acclimated to the time. In the morning we begin our 19-day tour to see what both the north and south islands have to offer. We’re ready.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park was originally composed of 11 small keys 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. Hurricanes over the years have decimated four of those, but this February our explorations are limited to the main island, Garden Key, because terns are mating on the surrounding keys, and we don’t want to interrupt.

Ponce de Leon named the keys Las Tortugas because of the number of turtles there. “Dry” became part of the name when it was discovered that none of the keys offered any water.

We and about 50 others arrive by commercial boat through rough seas. Mark and I managed well enough, but many, many of our mates did not fair so well. But we are secured to the dock now and disembark to an immediate tour of Fort Jefferson, which basically encircles almost the whole of Garden Key.

Fort Jefferson was built in the mid 19th century to protect the shipping channels of the Gulf of Mexico, however, construction was halted in the later 1800s because of advancements in weaponry; a brick wall, no matter how fortified, will not withstand repeated batterings from high-power cannons.

The fort looks pretty complete, and it did serve as a prison. Dr. Samuel Mudd is the most notorious prisoner to serve time there. Mudd set the leg of President Lincoln’s assassin, broken when he jumped from the balcony to flee the theatre after issuing the single gun shot. Dr. Mudd denied complicity, but nevertheless was convicted.

From the top of the fort we see the smaller Long Key and Bush Key. The surrounding aqua water, through which we see coral colonies, takes our breath away, it’s so pretty. While we linger over the view, our history lesson continues.

At the height of its population, when the fort served as a prison, Garden Key was home to more than 1000, mostly men, most set up in tents. The military officers had more permanent abodes of stone, some of which still stand on the grounds. At this time scurvy, which is caused by lack of vitamin C, became a problem, and within a relatively short time, the epidemic claimed 80 lives.

To overcome monotony on the key, some men sang and danced, played instruments or acted out plays. During the time of the scurvy outbreak, one of the commanding officers asked these men to perform for pay as a means to end the epidemic. The paying audience consisted of military men mostly. However, even passing ships would stop for a show. The key became the Las Vegas of the Gulf of Mexico, and the performers earned enough money to purchase significant quantities of Key limes from Key West to provide the lifesaving vitamin C the island occupants so needed. Among the 80 lives claimed were those of every one of the island’s nurses. Therefore, an appeal was made to Dr. Mudd, who helped bring the epidemic to its end and thus earned himself a pardon after serving two years.

We really enjoy learning some seemingly obscure American history, and after a lunch of sandwiches, potato salad, chips and cookies on the boat, we walk to the small beach for snorkeling (me) and reading (Mark).

Winds are high, and high winds are not conducive to snorkeling. However, I stay out about an hour, swimming along the fort wall, which, we’re told, offers better opportunities to see sea life. The waters here are crowded—not with fish but with other snorkelers. Orange and burgundy sea plants undulate with the waves, and a couple interesting fish swim among them, but I’ve experienced better snorkeling.

Away from the fort, 30 feet or so off shore, sea grass and dull coral offer hiding spots for dull-colored fish. I follow them, swimming back and forth, because I’m sure not to bump into anybody as I’m the only swimmer out here.

On the beach Mark hands me a towel, and I give him my score of the site for snorkeling: 5 on a scale from 1 to 10. A woman next to us asks if I saw the sting ray. If I had, the score would bump up a point, but, alas, I didn’t.

We leave Garden Key at 2:30 p.m., and the seas are still rough. I don’t know how everyone fares because I curl up and nap the two and a half hours back to Key West, ultimately glad that we had a chance to visit another of our nation’s treasured National Parks.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Vieques Island, Puerto Rico

Just after 5 p.m. we got into our room in Esperanza on Vieques, an island of the eastern coast of Puerto Rico that until 2003 had been occupied by the U.S. Navy so it’s relatively undeveloped. That evening we maneuvered kayaks into Mosquito Bay for a bioluminescent tour.

Bioluminescence is the phenomenon that makes fireflies glow. In the bay the bioluminescence is produduced by organisms called dinoflagellates. Any time they are disturbed, they light up.

We paddled out about a quarter mile in the bay in darkness broken only by the faint light of the moon, secured our boats to the guide’s and jumped out to swim. Well, Mark didn’t. He doesn’t swim. He was pretty scared for his first kayak paddle despite the fact that the water was only about 5 feet deep and if he stood flat-footed on the ocean floor, the moonlight would have glanced off his shoulders.

Streaks of light slid down my arms and fingers as I kept them moving in the water. The bioluminescence is obvious but the organisms producing the light are invisible. Like the lightning bug’s light, the dinoflagellite’s glow extinguishes in two or three seconds.

Mark, with a view from above in his kayak, said it seemed I had a neon green aura when I kicked my legs wide as I swam. He said I look like a ghost. According to NationalGeographic.com, each gallon of water in Mosquito Bay holds about 750,000 dinoflagellates. So when I swam, Mark was seeing millions and millions of dinoflagellates lighting my way.

Dinoflagellates even lit up in the water in Mark’s kayak, he said.

After a surreal half an hour, we rowed in, each paddle stroke illuminated. Fish zipped along near the surface, leaving a neon green jet stream.

The tour operator told us that the dinoflagellates use bioluminescence as a defense mechanism: They light up fish that are looking to dine on them so that predators of these fish can see them to eat before the dinoflagellates themselves are eaten. It sounds reasonable, but research returned nothing to back up this claim.

I don’t care why they do it, I’m just glad we had a chance to see a bioluminescent colony before the dinoflagellates go extinct.

There are two dinoflagellate colonies accessible from Puerto Rico. The best, most populated is the one we visited because no motorized boats tour the bay. Tour companies offer glass-bottom boat rides to a colony off the southwest coast of the main island, but pollution from boat motors is destroying the dinoflagellates; the tour companies are putting themselves out of business.

Swimming with dinoflagellates, even seeing them in the bottom of your kayak as Mark did, makes for a more memorable, first-hand—and fingers and legs— experience, I think. And no guilt.

If you go, go natural.