Lindblad Expeditions / National Geographic
EXPLORATIONS – A Lindblad Expeditions Blog

In the Asmat, 1981

By Audrey McCollum

For two tense hours in November of 1981 Bob and I stared across the shallows where the swamps of Irian Jaya merged into the Sea of Arafura in this western sector of the island of New Guinea, which was a province of Indonesia. With our fellow passengers we lined the railings of the M.S. Lindblad Explorer, squinting into the blaze.

At midday, our scouting party had set off in a Zodiac, one of the inflatable rubber launches with outboard motors that the Explorer carried to make landings at virtually inaccessible places. The team set off for the Asmat village of Biwar Laut to explain our coming, present gifts, and set the mood for a peaceful reception. Mike McDowell, an exuberant Australian adventurer, led the way with Sutan Wiesmar, our dignified Indonesian escort, close behind. And there was an eager tag-along, sixteen year-old Mark Heighes, nephew of Valerie Taylor. Val and her husband, Ron, talented Australian underwater film makers and marine naturalists, led our scuba and snorkeling explorations when the waters were clear.

Mike’s walkie-talkie was his fragile connection to the ship, anchored several miles from shore. By sundown we received no message from Mike. Evening closed in and the darkness beyond our cocoon of light and safely was absolute. Still no word.

There were uneasy murmurs among our sixty shipmates. We reminded each other that Irian Jaya was still largely unexplored. We recalled that the Asmats were the tribespeople among whom Michael Rockefeller, the young explorer-photographer, mysteriously disappeared in 1961. Some believed he was cannibalized.

The day before we had steamed past the town of Agats to seek people who were living as they’d lived since the dawn of time. These were jungle people who believed that their mythic ancestors were carved from wood and then imbued with life. They were despised by many Indonesians who called them less than human. Allowing our deepest dreads to rise into our awareness, we muttered to each other that the raids of an Asmat tribal war were swift and deadly. The victors carried home the heads of their victims and, with elaborate ceremony, consumed the brains so that they might incorporate their power.

By midnight, Valerie looked distraught. She cherished Mark like a son. But in reluctant recognition that we couldn’t help Mark, Mike or Wiesmar by staying awake, most of us crept away to our berths expecting (or now just hoping) that our own excursion would begin at dawn. And the wanderers did return. They slipped back aboard at two in the morning after feasting and drinking at Biwar Laut as the villagers celebrated Wiesmar’s reappearance.

Wiesmar was an adopted son of this tribe. On an earlier visit, he had explained, he had accepted their adoption ritual, a pantomime of birth. While a line of women stood with their legs spread wide apart, Wiesmar squirmed through this symbolic birth canal. When he emerged, dripping with sweat as a newborn might drip with amniotic fluid, his three new “mothers”–the chief’s three wives–stooped over and dangled their breasts so he could suckle. He feigned it, brushing his lips across their milkless nipples. Then the corpulent “baby” was lifted by a half dozen men, carried among the villagers, and was finally given his Asmat name.

Wiesmar was our passport.

At daybreak we began droning through the muddy waters. Our eyes smarted from scanning the distant, unbroken wall of lowland jungle, and straining for our first glimpse of the tribesmen. The walkie-talkies in our Zodiacs were the only means of communication with the ship and we would soon be beyond their range. My excitement was tinged with dread. Several months earlier, Mike told us, a party of German adventurers from a sailing vessel attempted to visit the village we were seeking today. They were driven away by a hail of deadly arrows.

Then a wave of nostalgia washed over me. I reached for Bob, my husband, and clutched his hand –a warm, strong hand, broad, with sturdy fingers and raggedy nails. It was two days before Thanksgiving, time to join with our daughter and son in our Connecticut home ––the home we’d soon be leaving to resettle in New Hampshire. What were we doing across the earth in this hot, damp, alien place?

As a psychotherapist I always search for the “whys,” the motives that steer our course through life. Were my husband and I unconsciously re-enacting an ancient drama? From earliest known time and throughout the world, traditional peoples have engaged in rites of passage to foster their transition from one place to another, one life phase to another.

Was our choice to travel across the world to a region this remote an unconscious rehearsal for the rupture we faced? Leaving the community where we had met, married, and reared our young was going to mean tearing away from the house, garden, streets, schools, shops, theaters, restaurant, offices, lecture halls, patients, students, colleagues and friends among which our lives had been enmeshed for nearly thirty years. It was going to be a kind of death. Were we drawn to the primal—the earliest modes of human life surviving today—to practice that death by disconnecting emphatically from our familiar existence?

Asmat warriors approach us. Photo by Bob McCollum.

My musings were interrupted when a flotilla of canoes streaked out from an unseen river mouth, each vessel propelled by a dozen or more standing men. In single file, exquisitely balanced in their narrow craft, their dark bodies worked in synchronized effort. Each thrust of the paddles, at least twice the men’s height, was punctuated by a deep and urgent grunt that resounded across the water. “Yu-wa. Yu-wa. Yi, Yi, eh!” As they approached we saw that the aged and the very young were seated between the men, not to be left out of this exuberant male excursion.

Now they were close. Their muscular bodies had been smeared with bold stripes of white lime and red ochre, incongruous with the trade store shorts they wore (and would doff as the day advanced). Their eyes were masked by designs that swirled across their foreheads and cheekbones and traveled down the bridge of their noses—broad noses with bulbous tips. Their nasal septums had been pierced and dragged downward by the weight of carved bone or shell ornaments, causing the nostrils to flare outward and upward like the wings of a bird in flight.

Several men wore strands of dog’s teeth around their necks, and many wore headbands of amber fur bordered with tiny cowry shells. The headbands, like the shafts of some of the paddles, were festooned with white plumage that glistened in the rays of the rising sun. With adornments such as these, the Asmats traditionally “transformed” themselves into birds or fruit-eating bats (“flying foxes”) for a celebration. Or a headhunting raid.

Soon we were encircled by canoes and chanting men and I felt the cold edge of fear. I scanned the other boats for a reassuring glimpse of Wiesmar, but he was invisible in the throng. Surrounded by tribesmen, Bob and I trusted that the good will they felt towards Wiesmar would extend to us. But still, we all waved at them gaily, and smiled urgently to convey our friendly intentions.

The canoes closed in and five men leaped into Bob’s and my Zodiac. Black Melanesian skin was pressed against Caucasian white, an oddly pleasant intimacy. One man had a slender oval face. He looked shy, eager, and very young, holding a carved bamboo horn between his legs. Another man’s face was heart-shaped, his cheekbones wide and the vee of his chin accentuated by a trim moustache and pointed beard. His eyes looked wary beneath his fur headpiece, made from the cuscus , a tree-climbing marsupial. The third had a sculpted face, the bones tautly covered with back-brown flesh. His fur headpiece was adorned with soaring plumage– the white of the graceful egret, the black of the king cockatoo.

Asmat warriors. Photo by Bob McCollum.

The fourth Asmat had frontal facial bones that jutted forward so much that his brows overhung and shadowed his eyes, giving him a menacing mien. The fifth man sported a huge shell ornament that half obscured his face. Joined at his nasal septum, its two sides curved like a wild boar’s tusks or a coiled cuscus tail. Both creatures were symbols of headhunting and the ornament –- a bi pane –was the most important one a man could wear. It announced that he had taken a head.

We all moved toward the river mouth amidst bursts of chanting and the mournful counterpoint of bamboo horns, the horns that were traditionally blown during raids to terrify the enemy. When the tribesmen paused, a few of us had an irresistible urge to respond, so we offered a spirited round of “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream …” The tribesmen looked perplexed.

And we didn’t go gently down the stream. Left to their own, these men would follow the tides that inundated their land every day, sometimes as far inland as sixty miles. But, governed by the schedule of our ship, we had turned upriver against the current, confident that outboard motors could overcome nature’s rhythms. And following our lead but needing more power than muscles could provide, paddlers in twenty dugouts tried to attach themselves to our seven Zodiacs with looping vines and clasping hands.

Encumbered by the clinging canoes, the Zodiacs lurched off course. The strong current shot us all diagonally to riverside. Asmats were swept by overhanging mangrove trees into the turbulent water. Would they drown? Would they become hostile? To our relief, the river was shallow and they clambered back into the boats, dripping but with good humor.

At last, after a four-hour journey, we landed at the village of Biwar Laut, coaxing our Zodiacs onto the grey-brown mud that the ebbing tide exposed. But the canoes veered back out, forming two opposing lines. A gutteral cry set in motion a nautical ballet as thrusting paddles propelled the boats toward, between, and around each other, leaving swirls of glistening sherry-colored water behind.

Village women had gathered among us, their hair shorn as closely as the men’s, their loins and thighs covered with sarongs of shabby trade store cloth. Children who looked as old as three or four clung to their mother’s backs like baby monkeys, well supported by maternal arms. And woven carriers enfolded the youngest ones. No little Asmat seemed unattended.

Then, as the men again approached the shore, the women began hurling sticks and clods of earth toward them. The women were laughing but I learned how much their missiles could sting when two grazed my shoulder. Asmat women, said to be happy and powerful, customarily pelted their men when they came back from an excursion. It was the women’s revenge for any wrongs they had suffered.

“Hey, I’m not a man,” I muttered as I daubed at the trickles of blood on my arm. Yet I wasn’t an Asmat woman either. Was this ambiguity a foretaste of life after our family move – not belonging, my identity peeled away?

Bob and I joined the passengers traipsing through banana trees and sago palms to drier, springier, open ground. It was strewn with wood chips from carvings, both recent and old – the carvings of canoe prows, paddles, spears, shields, drums, headrests for slumber, and ancestor figures for which the Asmats were world-renowned. In Asmat myth, the Creator of Man was also the First Woodcarver, and master carvers were revered.

We gathered in front of the yeu, a longhouse that spanned at least sixty feet and was supported five feet above the ground by several dozen poles. This was where bachelors slept and all the males passed much of the day. It was where hunting forays and ceremonies were planned, and where small boys learned the legends and lore of their people.

We mingled there with the villagers, tramping unavoidably over the buried bones of tribal ancestors with whom they felt always connected. Some of those ancestors’ spirits were embodied in a soaring bis pole erected in front of the yeu. But to our disappointment it was draped today in dried banana leaves that hid the carvings from our eyes.

Asmat wood carver. Photo by Bob McCollum.

To welcome us, the women were starting to dance., but the men couldn’t wait. They began carrying some of their carvings out of the yeu and offering them for sale. The Asmats still lived outside of a cash economy, but those men who had traveled to Agats were aware that carvings had been purchased by the cultural museum there. They also knew that their carvings could be sold for money that could, in turn, be exchanged for fishing hooks, matches, razor blades, and the spiced, pressed tobacco of Indonesia.

Bob and I joined our shipmates as they surged forward, jostling each other in their eagerness to see and compare the carvings. Crude but powerful designs represented the hornbill, the black king cockatoo, the praying mantis, or the bi pane – all symbols of headhunting. Many were painted in an intricate interplay of three colors. White was made from ground shells mixed with water and symbolized strength. Red had been extracted from a special tree and stood for happiness – or violence. Black paint prepared from charcoal represented the vagina or female fluids. Some of our shipmates bargained energetically for drums, spears, ancestor figures and even paddles.

Amidst the confusion, some Asmat women did dance, responding to the insistent beat of their carved hourglass shaped kundu drums. The women’s torsos were almost motionless, but their feet swiveled and their thighs parted and met in rapid oscillations as though wings were being flapped. One elderly woman whose skeleton seemed to press through her withering flesh danced exuberantly, her haunches bare except for a scanty grass skirt pulled back between her thighs like a loincloth and held in place by a woven waistband. She drummed and chanted and sang with such passion that the veins bulged in her neck. I longed to understand her message. I longed to join in her song.

Asmat women drumming. Photo by Bob McCollum.

When the ship had called at small Indonesian islands, many in contact with Europeans since the earliest explorers appeared, I was welcomed into the women’s dances. But although I tried to engage the Asmat women’s eyes, and although I tentatively imitated their movements, they didn’t respond. Their glances were uncomprehending and indifferent.

Their energy was intense, yet they looked as though they had been sucked dry by their babes. Among the older women, probably younger than I, bare breasts were pendant flaps of skin, abdomens were slack, loins were skinny and narrow. The Asmats gathered a variety of protein foods—fish, crustaceans, birds, wild boars, cuscus, flying foxes (fruit-eating bats), and highly prized sago beetle grubs. But it looked doubtful that the women got the share they needed.

After the dance we were allowed into the yeu; it faced the river so that the men could watch for approaching enemies. This was a male domain, forbidden to women except for special occasions – a celebration of peace between villages, the inauguration of a newly built longhouse or, apparently, an arranged visit by foreigners. We reached the porch and the five raised entrances by clambering up a sturdy pole with notches hacked out to form crude steps – a ladder that could readily be drawn up and pulled inside while arrows were drawn against invaders. Our awkward entrance must have provided a strange spectacle for the silent watchers.

The interior was dim and dense with smoke from five or six fires smoldering on mud hearths that protected the wooden flooring. We could barely discern the shapes of seated men grouped around their family hearths, with their drums and spears stacked on rafters above. And our understanding of what we saw was as hazy as the air. Bob and I retreated, frustrated by our sense of disconnection. It wasn’t simply to view images–as though we were watching a television documentary–that we had traveled across the world.

Photo by Bob McCollum.

The Asmat women had melted away into the shadowy dwellings they shared with their young–airy but simple dwellings raised on poles. Three sides were enclosed by vertically aligned stems of the sago palm leaf, and the roofs were made of thatch.

A few of us tried to explore the village, escorted by eager children. My companion, a little girl, stroked the beads of perspiration off my hand and probed my arm through my long-sleeved shirt. Bob’s escort was concerned with his sweat. He drew his fingers across Bob’s streaming neck and then wiped the wetness on himself, first his own neck and then his groin, maybe absorbing Bob’s essence to strengthen himself. And Bob happily surrendered his sweat as a pleasant alternative to his head.

The going was precarious. The few dry pathways were connected by slimy logs and a misstep would mean a plunge into the ooze. We soon turned back. Most of our shipmates returned to the Zodiacs to chug away for their picnic lunch. One by one, Asmat men and boys were doffing their shorts and exposing their bodies to whatever whisp of breeze they could find in this torrid climate.

Mike stayed behind with Wiesmar. Valerie, who was searching for a new lizard skin for her kundu drum, stayed with Mark and Ron. And Ellen, a young American teacher, stayed with Bob and me. She clearly shared our rising urge to communicate, to reach across the chasm between our techno-culture and these people’s elemental existence.

Feeling uncertain about how to do that, the three of us crouched on a dry log in front of the yeu. More curious children gathered around. Their sparkling eyes and sweet smiles drew us toward them even as we fought the urge to back away from the purulent green mucus oozing out of their noses. There was an expectancy as the children gazed at us and we at them, so Ellen lifted her arms and began to count, signing each number with her raised fingers.

“One”, she said. “One”, they replied. “Two.” “Two”, came the response. And so pure was the imitation that when she stammered “s-s-seven” the response was “s-s-seven” with precisely the same inflection. These children’s ears were so attuned to the myriad sound of the rainforest that no subtle change was missed.

Ellen fell silent. The children’s eager gazes were unwavering so I began to sing. They listened intently, bright brown eyes fixed on my face, and they drew even closer. Impassive men watched from the porch of the yeu and Bob was quiet too. My repertory of college songs and folksongs was soon depleted. But, perhaps because it was approaching Christmas, I thought of carols. “Silent Night, Holy Night,” I sang softly. And then I felt an uncanny awareness that I was no longer singing alone. As though there was an echo coming out of the jungle, clear young voices accompanied my own. The words were in a strange dialect but the melody, surely taught by an itinerant missionary, was pure and true.

“All is calm, All is bright . . . “ Eerily, in a forested swamp 10,000 miles from the snowy lanes and Yuletide lights of home, we celebrated the Christmas message with children of headhunters.


Argentina’s Staten Island: Pioneering Expedition

Photos & story by Eric Guth.

Four years hard work from our staff and agents finally paid off as today we were the first foreign-flagged expedition ship in history to sail into the protected waters in and around Staten Island, Argentina. Administered as part of the Argentine province of Tierra Del Fuego, Staten Island has been off limits to tourism since 1923 when it was decreed a natural reserve for fur seals. Since that time protection of the islands natural heritage has increased and visitation further limited. As of this year local authorities have decided to slowly open up the island to permitted visits with the National Geographic Explorer being the first.  We will be spent three days exploring this small island located 18 miles of the south eastern tip of Tierra Del Fuego.

With a strong western wind and another vessel ahead, our attempt to land on Cape Horn today was a lesson in patience. Hopes were high that the forecast of calming winds would prevail but when our chance came, and there was no reprieve, we made the charge anyway. This photo was taken from my porthole aboard the National Geographic Explorer while rounding Cape Horn for the first time this season and about an hour before we all braved the elements and stepped foot on the southernmost bit of land outside of Antarctica.

The southernmost corner of Hoppner Bay on the islands sheltered northern shore.

Day two at Staten Island, Argentina. During the night National Geographic Explorer cruised into Puerto San Juan del Salvamento, located in the extreme northeast corner of the island. This is the protected locale where Jules Verne wrote the first draft of his adventure novel, The Lighthouse at the End of the World in 1901. This is the view from the lighthouse (San Juan del Salvamento) that inspired his writing and offered our first opportunity to step foot on Staten Island after a day of Zodiac cruising yesterday. With calm conditions and warm weather our first hike ashore could not have been more inspiring.

Our last day at Staten Island proceeded as unexpectedly calm as the rest. With only a few kilometers to cover between Cook Bay (our evening destination yesterday) and Isla Observatario, we arrived to this low, inconspicuous island early this morning and were immediately inundated with life. Imperial blue-eyed shags, Magellanic penguins, South American sea lions, fur seals, etc. were all coming to and from the sea as we cruised along the edge of this unassumingly biologically rich island. Here, a group of imperial blue-eyed shags takes off from their nesting site on the north shore of Staten Island.

Before pulling away from Argentina’s Staten Island until next year I wanted to add another shot from my favorite location this trip. Hoppner Bay on the islands northeast corner was thick with lichen, moss and southern beech trees like this gnarled specimen. Right down to waterline this wind sculpted flora will leave perhaps the most lasting memory for me when I day dream about the landscape of Staten Island.

As National Geographic Explorer transitions from Staten Island to Ushuaia and preps for her next voyage the link between the two locations might not be readily apparent. Inhabited initially as a penal colony, Staten Island’s prison was abandoned in 1903 and all its inmates, as well as their buildings, were transferred to Ushuaia, establishing the roots to this jumping off point towards the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica, the three destinations for our upcoming trip aboard National Geographic Explorer. Goodbye Staten Island. See you next year.

In 2016 every Lindblad-National Geographic Patagonia expedition will explore Staten Island. Choose from the 12-day Patagonia: Chilean Fjords and Argentina’s Staten Island; the 16-day Best of Chilean Patagonia: From Torres del Paine to Cape Horn; or the 20-day Rounding the Cape: Chilean Patagonia & Argentina’s Staten Island

Vanuatu’s Tanna Island, Devastated by Cyclone, Welcomes Its First Visitors

By Erin McFadden. Photos by Jack & Rikki Swenson.

The reception we received as we landed on the tranquil shores of Tanna Island was filled with the distinctive joviality that lines many of the South Pacific shorelines we visit. On this Vanuatuan Island women with wide smiling faces proudly placed colourful flowers behind our ears as we walked up the beach to the sounds of the gentle and cheerful singing voices of the locals. Children sat and stood by their families; their shyness was soon overcome and replaced with wide-eyed and cheeky smiles. The adults were selling their local produce and handmade souvenirs. Tanna is known as the Garden Island of Vanuatu with fertile soils producing kava, coffee, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. It is also one of the most traditional islands. Most of the population are Melanesian and our welcome included a variety of dances by men, women, and children dressed in grass skirts and with painted faces.

Our welcome to Tanna was a picture of happiness and with a large number of local people having come to join us on the shoreline there was an aura of enthusiasm and pride. There was nothing to suggest that just seven months earlier in March 2015 this island bore the brunt of one of the worst natural disasters to have ever hit Vanuatu. Homes, farms, crops, schools, and almost the entire infrastructure of this gentle island was destroyed in a matter of hours as Cyclone Pam travelled directly across Tanna. All of these smiling faces had lost something if not everything and yet as the first expedition vessel to visit Tanna since the disaster the resilience and positivity of the Tanna people emanated from everyone throughout our visit.

Asking of their plight since the disaster would be to put words in the islanders’ mouths. People answered our questions, explaining how houses and roads were destroyed, drinking water was unavailable, and that the clean up effort continues to this day. They did not complain or dwell. Dozens of young school children huddled together ready to sing for us and as children would anywhere else in the world they jostled for space amongst their friends, not wanting to be pushed to the front or right to the back. Many of their lives were severely impacted by the cyclone and yet here they were smiling, singing, and happy to greet us. Receiving our donations of school supplies, fuel, clothing, and tinned food it was clear to see that these islanders would ensure those who needed these supplies most would be the ones to receive them.

Our local guides pointed out some of the more obvious effects of the cyclone as we travelled in the back of trucks through the rain forest past small villages where many houses were in the process of being patched up and reconstructed. Some of the immense fig trees that dominate these rain forests had come crashing down leaving patches open, bare, and a gaping sign as to the magnitude of this cyclone. But again our guides smiled and pointed out the brilliance of the erect fig tress and the fact that although the road had been blocked by dozens of fallen trees they were now clear.

Now the roads were repaired and cleared they could once again take people to see the imposing Mount Yasur volcano. After a steep and winding final stretch of road we reached a rather abrupt looking staircase—our final ascent toward the crater rim. The guides ushered us with keen excitement to the top where they kept a watchful eye over us lest one of us step too close. Every time the volcano erupted their animated grins filled the atmosphere as much as ours. It is evident that these islanders have an island they cherish and respect. It is evident that despite the worst that nature can deliver, these islanders will continue to smile.

The Seychelles & Beyond, an Expedition of Reconnection

Story and photos by Kristin Hettermann

In a very special journey connecting generations of sustainable tourism, Lindblad Expeditions’ Founder and CEO Sven-Olof Lindblad traveled to the Seychelles in April to join National Geographic Orion on an expedition through this stunning Indian Ocean island nation.

He was greeted in Mahé, the capital of the Seychelles, by Sir James Mancham, the founding President of the Seychelles. Also a longtime friend of Sven’s father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, Sir James has a longstanding history of support for Lindblad Expeditions and was to join the Orion expedition through the Seychelles as a special guest and Global Perspectives guest speaker. Sir James is a notable global personality, in addition to his role in Seychelles politics he is known to be an International Promoter of the Global Forum for Peace, Reconciliation and Prosperity.

The Lindblad name is synonymous with economic development and sustainable tourism in the Seychelles through the early efforts of Sven’s parents, Lars-Eric Lindblad and Sonia Lindblad, historically recognized as pioneers of the Seychelles tourism industry. Lindblad efforts originally came to the Seychelles in the 60’s to open up international tourism through their Lindblad Explorer eco-cruises — long before the Seychelles opened its international airport. At this time, it was evident that the Seychelles needed tourism to vitalize the precarious economy of the country, but there was a genuine focus on it being done without destroying the wildlife or scenic beauty of this pristine paradise.

The Lindblad seal of approval has subsequently been influential in the Seychelles for many decades. Thousands of travelers have been introduced to the Seychelles through Lindblad cruises and also the development of Travel Services Seychelles, which became the top travel agency in the Seychelles in the 70’s and 80’s. The government wanted to recognize this important relationship by officially awarding Sven the high honor of Cultural Ambassador during his recent visit.

“Tourism started in earnest when people ventured beyond their own borders to see cultural and historical sites of interest. This is what the Lindblad Group were doing when they added Seychelles onto their list of “must-visit” destinations decades ago,” said the Seychelles’ Minister of Tourism and Culture Alain St. Ange, emphasizing their sharing of the “tourism through culture” and eco-conscious platforms.

Sven and Sir James left Mahé on April 13 and flew by small plane to Assumption island, part of the Aldabra archipelago, to meet the Orion and over 100 guests who had made the first few days of the expedition from Tanzania across the Indian Ocean. Once coming aboard, Orion cruised the Aldabra atoll and other islands in the Seychelles group before returning to Mahé on April 23.  Travelers enjoyed some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world, impromptu whale watching, nature walks, the magical Valle du Mai (home of the largest coconut in the world, the Coco de Mai) and inspiring talks by National Geographic photographers and the esteemed Sir James.

The visit to Aldabra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was of particular interest to the group. Uninhabited (with the exception of a small research center) and extremely isolated, Aldabra is the world’s second largest coral atoll and virtually untouched by humans. Known as “one of the wonders of the world,” the atoll is the largest raised coral reef in existence (elevation of 26 feet) and boasts the largest population of the extremely rare giant tortoises (about 100,000 animals). Aldabra also has a large population of the world’s largest terrestrial arthropod, the coconut crab; and hosts the Aldabra rail, the only surviving flightless rail species in the Indian Ocean.

In 1978, Lars-Eric Lindblad, Tony Beamish and Sir James joined forces in an international influence campaign and were instrumental in stopping the Anglo-American decision to turn Aldabra into a military base. Lars-Eric Lindblad covered many aspects of his association with the Seychelles in his story, Passport to Anywhere, which was published in 1983 by Times Book, a division of the New York Times. Included in his expose is background of this influential campaign, where conservation beat politics and now decades later awards the sea to tell the story.

The efforts of a small group of people campaigning to keep Aldabra, and its giant tortoises, preserved and protected eventually resulted in the build-up of the Anglo-US military complex shifting away from the Seychelles and eastwards to the Chagos archipelago. The Seychelles Island Foundation (SIF), a public trust of Seychelles, took over the management and protection of the atoll in 1979, it was declared a Special Nature Reserve in 1981, and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.

One of the real highlights of the trip was having Sir James on board as a Global Perspectives guest speaker. Sir James, known as the Founding President of the Seychelles, also lived in exile from the country for 15 years after his opposition staged a coup in 1977. It was during this time in exile that he was invited to travel freely on Lindblad Expeditions, sharing his knowledge and stories with eager travelers. Sir James recalls discovering French Polynesia, Micronesia and Europe with fond memories during these times.

Today the world has become a village. Sven, his mother and Sir James met in New York from various parts of the world for an unlikely reunion in September 2015. Sir James was in New York speaking at a conference on peace and conflict resolution, something that he spends a fair amount of his time doing now around the world. 

Sven reflected on the reunion, “My mother looked at Jimmy when he walked in and said, ‘How long has it been?’ ‘Too long, too long,” he replied and then they went on to tell stories. They had accomplished a lot together in the Seychelles in the 70’s and 80’s. I listened mostly with considerable admiration and realized I might never have experienced the beautiful Seychelles if it were not for the confluence of Sir James and my parents.”

The Viking Ruins of Brattahlid: From a Teacher’s Perspective

By Angie Miller, Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in the Arctic

As I step out of the Zodiac and onto the rocky beach, I am acutely aware that over 1,000 years ago, a crew of Norsemen—loyally following their exiled leader, Erik the Red—stepped onto this very beach. I pause and look around at the beckoning green hills that stretch beyond the lower fields and wonder what fears they may have held tight in their hearts and what wonders they must have experienced as they decided to claim it as their new home.

My own heart is full of wonder and awe that I have the opportunity to be here to learn.

It is an unusually blue-sky, billowy cloud kind of day, but the glacier that sits at the head of the fjord, the rocky pitches on the horizon, and the chunks of ice floating in the waters are a reminder that Qassiarsuk, Greenland is a fierce place to survive. Currently, around 90 people, mostly sheep farmers, live here in the few houses splattered across the countryside. Across the fjord sits the Narsarsuaq Airport—the only international airport in southern Greenland, built in 1941 as a US airfield and military hospital during World War II.

But what brings us here are the ruins of Brattahlid (“the steep slope”)—Erik the Red’s estate in the Viking Eastern Settlement. In 985 Erik arrived here, in the inner end of Eriksfjord, recognizing it as some of the best farmland in Greenland. It is here that he built his newly-converted wife, Thjodhild, a Christian church—the first Christian church on the North American continent. The first Greenlandic parliament was held here, and it is also where Leif Eriksson departed to go on to discover Newfoundland and Labrador. The Norse lived here for approximately the next 500 years, which is extraordinary when you consider the United States was not colonized 500 years ago.

Recently, reconstructed versions of the longhouse that once existed on these lands and Thjoldhild’s church have been built, so that visitors can see what the actual ruins may have looked like when they were a thriving community. We admire the sod walls and duck into the tiny chapel that would have once housed 30 Norse for Christian worship. The longhouse is full of sealskins, a loom, and reproductions of clothing, an interesting and closeup look at life during this time.

After passing a statue of Leif Eriksson that overlooks the fjord and climbing over a sheep fence, a colleague and I stretch our legs and see what lies beyond the town, losing ourselves for hours in the highlands. Mountain lakes, rushing rivers, small ponds, and sheep smatter the fertile landscape. The colors are all Kodachrome; the air crisp, clean, and still.

Standing at the top of a hill in comfortable silence, I realize that this is the kind of professional development that will stay with me forever. I will remember the facts. I will understand the spirit of the Norse. I will know the climb of the gray mountains and the cerulean blue fjord.

And this makes me wish I could bring my students here—I wish I could pull each and every one of them across the Atlantic, into this fjord, up this mountain, and have them stand in the very awe that I am experiencing. Of course, this is unfeasible. And I will have to settle into finding ways to deliver this magical experience to them, instead. But it makes me realize the importance of the oft-cut-in-the-school-budget field trip. My students cannot get to Greenland. But back at home we have mountains and lakes, too. We have historical Revolutionary War sites in our back yard. We have museums, conservation areas, and islands filled with ghost stories. We all have magnificent ways to bring our students into their world, and we need to remember, just as I do, standing on top of a hill, that sometimes the best learning takes place when we leave school for a day.

The Galápagos Gang Greets Philadelphia

Worlds collided at the Phillies game this Sunday, as mascots from local schools and pro teams gathered at Citizens Bank Park for the Phillie Phanatic’s birthday celebration.  But the big surprise came when the Phanatic’s friends from afar, the Galápagos Gang, charged onto the field.

Never before seen in south Philly, Bessie, a blue-footed boobie, Sid, a Galápagos sea lion, Iggy, a land iguana, and Calvin, a giant tortoise, all appeared in their Phillies finest for the celebration. Legend has it that the Phanatic came to Philadelphia from the Galápagos Islands 37 years ago. And a few years ago he joined us to revisit his homeland—quite a surprise to our guests aboard National Geographic Endeavour.

The reunited Galápagos Gang did not miss a beat as Bessie, Sid, Calvin and Iggy joined the Phanatic in the stands.  They danced.  They goofed around.  Young fans and families looked on in wonderment, as if they were seeing their favorite players up close.

The Phanatic’s real birthday surprise came when Citizens Bank announced that the Galápagos Gang is taking up residence in south Philly. That’s right, they’re staying! And the citizens of Philadelphia will be hearing more about these creatures of the Galápagos as the season continues.

The celebration culminated with one lucky fan winning our Galápagos expedition to see the islands and their extraordinary creatures for herself. Maybe she’ll find a little Phanatic. It seems stranger things have happened.

By Marc Cappelletti, Director of Expedition Development 

Sven Lindblad Appointed Cultural Ambassador of Seychelles

The Seychelles Ministry of Tourism has appointed Sven-Olof Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, as Cultural Ambassador of Seychelles.  The presentation of the official document of his accreditation was made by Minister Alain St. Ange, responsible for Tourism and Culture, at a dinner held on April 11th in honor of Sven Lindblad at the residence of Sir James Mancham, the founding President of the Republic of Seychelles.

The Lindblad family was integral to tourism development in Seychelles from its inception. Sven’s father, renowned adventure-travel pioneer Lars-Eric Lindblad, brought his expedition ship to Seychelles in the 1960’s, even before the opening of the Seychelles International Airport. A deep friendship and collaboration developed between Lars Eric and Sir James, and together they worked to open up the Seychelles to travelers while ensuring that the magnificent natural riches would be protected.  That collaboration continues today, with Sven Lindblad and the 102-guest National Geographic Orion in the Seychelles for a series of voyages exploring the archipelago.

In making the appointment, Minister Alain St.Ange said, “Tourism started in earnest when people ventured beyond their own borders to see cultural and historical sites of interests. This is what the Lindblad Group were doing when they added Seychelles onto their list of must visit destinations. As we welcome back the Lindblad Group this time through Sven Lindblad, the head of the organization,  we say thank you for your support and for flying our flag high.”

“Seychelles is a tourism destination where its culture has been positioned at the base of its tourism development and it is with this ‘tourism through culture’ tag line that we have the pleasure to appoint you Cultural Ambassador for the Seychelles” he continued.

Sir James Mancham and Sven Lindblad then embarked on National Geographic Orion for an expedition that will explore the Aldabra archipelago—a Seychelles World Heritage Site—and other islands of the Seychelles. Sir James will serve as a Global Perspectives guest speaker on the voyage, where he will share his unique insights and knowledge of the region with the guests.

Vietnam & Cambodia: Intimate, Up-Close Cultural Experiences Abound

By Jennifer Kingsley, field correspondent for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, who is currently working on #MeetTheNorth, a project about the lives of the four million people living above the Arctic Circle. Follow along at or on Instagram.

The floor of my balcony aboard Jahan is so close to the Mekong’s surface that I can almost dip my toes in the water. When I open the curtains, I see the red sun rising. I open the sliding door to let in both the heavy air and the sound it carries; boats thrum by and the river laps at water hyacinth. The earthy smell of wood smoke reaches our boat from shore. Today, this river will carry us from one country to another; I head up on deck to watch it happen.

Our days in Vietnam have been busy, some would say “bustling” which sometimes means crowded but also (and always) means full of life. Our last morning is no different; as we head for the border with Cambodia, we travel through knots of boats. The small ones carry coconuts, jicama, rose apples or bananas. I see a woman alone in a small canoe. She crouches at the very tip of the bow, and, using a single paddle, swivels the boat around herself like a weathervane. Mid-sized boats putt by, powered by car engines connected to tiny propellers by long steel pipes. Drivers use the heels of their hands and feet to raise, lower and twist the propellers through shallow water. The larger boats spill rice husk from piles three times my height, and the biggest vessels carry tons of silt and soil to the cities for construction; workers walk barefoot over the cargo to shovel it into perfect pyramids.

I wander the deck after breakfast to catch so many glimpses of life—men together packing fish, women hanging laundry from the stern decks. I don’t yet know how different the river will look two hours from now in another country.

The border is calm and uneventful. The Mekong carries us effortlessly; this river is an ancient trail that has seen political boundaries change countless times. By mid-afternoon we are the only boat on the river. Green branches trim the riverbanks, then give way to the fabric of fields. I see some smoke trails, wooden houses, and the occasional temple in shapes entirely different from what we visited in Vietnam; we could be back to that country in two hours, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s hard to believe we are barely across the border.

Children bathe and splash in the water up ahead, and the closer we get the more enthusiastically they wave. Further on, two men bring their white cows to the river for a drink. Anything white, like a cow or an ibis, stands out against the red earth and the green forest. On this first day in Cambodia, the natural world steps forward. The river is quiet, and I find myself thinking about borders and transitions.

I overhear someone say that it’s like traveling back in time, but that implies forward and backward as though progress looks a particular way. It doesn’t feel like the past to me; in fact, it feels more like what I hope for the future. I wonder what I’ll see when I pull back the curtains tomorrow.


On Hallowed Ground in Haida Gwaii

Exploring the British Columbian Archipelago’s Most Remote Sacred Site

By Marc Cappelletti

I am walking in the footsteps of chiefs and carvers, warriors and weavers, shamans and slaves; people as connected to the land as the very trees from which they once made their homes.  The ground is soft.  It is sacred.  And it lies at the edge of the world—Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.

We are at the ancient village of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay, formerly known as Nan sdins or Ninstints, on the eastern edge of SGang Gwaay (Anthony Island).  The most remote place in Canada’s most remote archipelago, some 160 miles south-west of Prince Rupert, the environment here is as abundant in natural and cultural resources as it is unforgiving.  So abundant in fact that UNESCO listed SGang Gwaay as a World Heritage Site in 1981, the same year that they cataloged the Serengeti, Great Barrier Reef, and the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls.

Just up from the rocky landing site, we have our first look at the eroding and silvered totem poles that line the shore.  Made from red cedar, and carved to display the crests of their owners—eagles and ravens, bears, beavers and more—the poles have endured for 150 to 200 years or more.  From yards away, without even a clear view, I feel what no photo could ever hope to capture.

“Each pole contained the essential spirit of the individual or family it commemorated,” said famed Haida artist Bill Reid.  “…as well as the spirit of the artist who made it, and by extension, the living essence of the whole people…”

Some poles, known as mortuary poles, were erected to hold the remains of the village’s high ranking chiefs, who at one time looked after hundreds of inhabitants in an area no larger than two square miles.  For the Haida Watchman who live in a small cabin on site and greet visitors, they are showing us the physical and spiritual remains of their ancestors.  Ask them about the poles and their spines straighten.

“These men watched over our people and this land,” one of the watchmen, Ken, himself a carver, says of the chiefs.  “Now we are here to watch over it while they are in the spirit world.”

Barbara Wilson, a Haida educator, resident of Skidegate Village, and cultural interpreter for our voyage, explains further. “It was respectful to put our chiefs up high on the mortuary poles and not to bury them in the ground.  It was the ultimate sign of respect.  And we are honored to have them amidst us, even after their deaths.”

The village site is much more than its totem poles.  Large cedar beams on the mossy forest floor show where longhouses once stood.  Centuries old, they are a reminder that these “islands at the edge of the world” have for so many been the islands around which the world turns.  I snap a photo, knowing it is like taking a shot of a wave and calling it the ocean.

“SGang Gwaay Llnagaay is a special, special place,” Wilson says when I ask what the village means to her.  “It’s…” she pauses and I sense that she wants to pour a lifetime’s worth of emotion into what comes next.  But it’s too much.  She takes a breath.  “…It’s just a really special place.”

There is a reason for her hesitation.  In the mid-19th century the total population of Haida Gwaii was ravaged by an introduced smallpox epidemic and a once a mighty Nation of around 25,000 fell to below 600.  Whatever art, stories and sacred ways of life they had left were stripped by Christian missionaries.  The last of the Haida left SGang Gwaay for good in 1880.  The remains of their chiefs stayed behind.

With damp eyes, we follow a trail away from the village site, through deep, vertically-walled gorges and lush patches of cedar, spruce and alder.  We link up with a second Watchman, Nick, who is the college-aged grandson of a Haida chief.  It is his first day on the job.  He has yet to memorize the information, but he reads with conviction.  After a minute his notepad seems to vanish and I find myself looking in the woods for the spirits he describes, as if they could emerge at any moment.

“When I visit those sites I need time to be by myself,” Wilson says.  “To just sit and think.  And remember the times I’ve been there and heard the beating of the drums.”

She is referring to the drums of her ancestors, which other Haida say they have heard when they are on sacred ground.  Having spent time with Barbara and having seen the indelible link between the Haida and their ancestors I can say this: it is not poetic license.  She has heard the drums.  The drums are real.

We press on, and Haida Gwaii eventually becomes lost to the mist of the Inside Passage.  Still, I feel the soft pull of the forest.  I want to know more of the totem poles and the drums, of struggles and wildness and prideful people.  Like a kid around a campfire, I want to hear more stories.  And I will, someday, I know.  Because even as we stare at Alaska’s soaring glaciers, I see myself walking on hallowed ground again.  I can feel the spirits in the trees.

This voyage was taken with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.

Extreme Ice Survey: Farewell to the Antarctic Peninsula

It’s hard to believe, but in less than a year, we’ve expanded our network of time-lapse cameras to include 16 new cameras on South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. The cameras, fixed in the gripping cold and howling winds characteristic of these regions, are watchful eyes, helping us understand the rapid changes occurring in these landscapes. Now, with cameras strategically positioned in the Southern Hemisphere, EIS has a truly global network—an important milestone for our project!

Looking back to last February when we first arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, with crates full of new time-lapse equipment, our hopes were high but so too were our concerns, as many unknowns stood between us and the successful installation of our cameras. Fast forward two trips and days spent wondering whether or not the cameras would survive an Antarctic winter, we are headed home with a total of 16 cameras in place and more than 15,000 new images!

Stephen Nowland, EIS Photographer, returns from time-lapse cameras “AP-02” and “AP-03” at Neko Harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula. These cameras successfully captured over 6,000 images since they were installed. ©2014 Extreme Ice Survey/Dan McGrath

Successful fieldwork in the polar regions can’t be attributed solely to hard work or good preparation, although both are important parts of the equation. Here, screaming winds, horizontal snow, and whiteout conditions can make installations downright impossible and worse, present a true threat to one’s well being. With a huge sigh of gratitude, I can report that we made it through our most recent journey with thermoses full, rain tarps stowed away, and fingers comfortably warm.

That said, our trip was most definitely not a tropical vacation. Heavy packs, pre-dawn starts, frozen battery boxes, smashed solar panels, back-breaking Zodiac rides, and equipment failures kept the experience lively but just on the right side of enjoyable. Work like this earns the label of Type 2 fun, where Type 1 is playing hooky on a powder day and Type 3 is an awful 14-hour workday racing to meet a looming deadline. You can celebrate Type 2 hardships because, in the end, the good outweighs the bad and looking back, the sense of accomplishment far outweighs the temporary discomforts.

Dan McGrath and Matthew Kennedy attempt to excavate a battery box that became entombed in ice over the winter. Thankfully the cameras still functioned properly. ©2014 Extreme Ice Survey/Stephen Nowland

While weather often presents a major hurdle in the polar regions, logistics also present their challenges. It is with great gratitude and praise that we acknowledge the team at Lindblad Expeditions and the crew, staff, and guests aboard the National Geographic Explorer. Without their support, we simply couldn’t have made these camera installations a reality. Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic’s commitment to science and conservation is genuine, and we hope our 16 cameras can serve as a testimony to their values.

The National Geographic Explorer carefully navigates through the thick brash ice and towering icebergs occupying Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula. ©2014 Extreme Ice Survey/Matthew Kennedy

Our initial work is done. Our cameras are hard at work capturing the passing of time and the changing Antarctic landscape. When we return in 2015, we’ll download the cameras’ images, which enable the compression of time into a documented record understandable from a human perspective. Much like the field notes, documents and photographs left behind by explorers and scientists of the last century, we hope our imagery will play a similarly important role and be referenced for years to come. Only time will tell, but until that moment, we will continue to collect and share our experiences and images to the best of our abilities. We encourage you to join us in this journey!

Follow the Extreme Ice Survey’s latest adventures and updates on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. EIS is a project of the Earth Vision Institute.

By Matt Kennedy, Extreme Ice Survey