Lindblad Expeditions / National Geographic
EXPLORATIONS – A Lindblad Expeditions Blog

Expedition Recon: Snorkeling with Rays & Sharks

Sven-Olof Lindblad is in the South Pacific right now leading a reconnaissance trip to seek out never-before-offered experiences and ultimate snorkel and dive sites for guests on our five new 2018 South Pacific & French Polynesia expeditions. Follow along for an inside look at the thought, planning and passion that goes into creating Lindblad itineraries. Follow Sven on Instagram

Photo Vincent Truchet

Just off the tiny isle of Morea, which we’ll explore on our Isles, Atolls, and Pristine Corals: Southern Line Islands expedition in 2018, our recon team discovered a splendid place for our guests to snorkel with schools of rays and sharks.

Photo Justin DeShields

No need to be scuba proficient for this experience. Our recon videographer Justin DeShields captures some of the schooling action with a drone.



Expedition Recon: Sailing the South Pacific aboard Hōkūle‘a

Sven-Olof Lindblad is in the South Pacific right now leading a reconnaissance trip to seek out never-before-offered experiences and ultimate snorkel and dive sites for guests on our five new 2018 South Pacific & French Polynesia expeditions. Follow along for an inside look at the thought, planning and passion that goes into creating Lindblad itineraries. Follow Sven on Instagram

Sven & team joined the Hōkūle‘a, a traditional Polynesia sailing vessel, to sail from Papeete to Raiatea on one of the final legs of their around-the-world journey. This is their first dispatch.

“A full day preparing the Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia for our momentous journey Papeete to Raiatea tomorrow.” -Sven Lindblad, who will be joining one of the last legs of Hōkūle’a, a Hawaiian voyaging canoe, sailing across earth’s oceans to grow the global movement toward a more sustainable future.

Meanwhile Justin DeShields gets on with expedition preparation.


Before sailing Sven Lindblad interviewed fellow Ocean Elder Nainoa Thompson as they prepared to embark the Hōkūleʻa and Hikianalia on one of the final legs of the three year Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage. Heading towards the completion of a circumnavigation of the globe using the stars and other elements of nature in traditional Polynesian fashion, they from Papeete to Raiatea. The goal of the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage is to cross the Earth’s oceans to join and grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world. The interview will be part of a video created at the completion of this recon expedition.

“Getting settled in with a good wind and 8 knot speed.” -Sven Lindblad


“Dolphins escorted us out of the port in Papeete and the adventure begins. Always a good sign to be beside these messengers of the sea. The Hokulea is underway and we will shadow to Raiatea.” -Kristin Hettermann

“Kalepa gazing out towards Moorea. A captain and a master navigator, he seems to be contemplating our course and everything that plays into our journey.” -Sven Lindblad

10% of World’s Mangrove Finches Aboard National Geographic Endeavour II

Hatched between 0200-0500 aboard National Geographic Endeavour II Thursday en route to the Charles Darwin Research Station.

It is the rarest bird in Galápagos with an estimated population of just 80 individuals—and 8 of their eggs were just safely transported to the Charles Darwin Research Station via our ship National Geographic Endeavour II. And even better news—one of the eggs hatched en route! Beau Parks, lead keeper at San Diego Zoo’s Avian Propagation Center, was aboard with the team from the Mangrove Finch Project who are bringing the 7 eggs and one hatchling back to the Charles Darwin Research Center. Thank you Fanny Cuninghame, Mangrove Finch Project Leader at the station, for trusting us with this precious cargo. The eggs and hatchling retrieved on this expedition, the latest in a multi-year collaboration between the San Diego Zoo and the CDRS to give the birds a a head-start. It’s a good day for conservation in the islands. We’re thrilled to be support this important work.

You’re looking at 10% of the world’s Mangrove Finch population aboard our ship in Galápagos.

Peek Inside A Photo Instructor’s Expedition Kit

By Rich Kirchner

I’m very lucky to work for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic on a number of different expeditions around the world. As a Lindblad-National Geographic certified photo instructor on these voyages it is a big part of my job to give advice to guests on all aspects of digital photography, including what gear I use for traveling on board our ships! Even though there are slight variations in what I travel with, depending on which itinerary I’m on, most of my gear remains fairly consistent.

I am a “wildlife” photographer, so here is a quick overview of what I normally travel with!

Two DSLR bodies, one full size sensor, and the other a smaller APS sensor. Also, I’ve started bringing either a mirrorless camera along, and or a good point-and-shoot, so I don’t always have to carry a larger body on shore!

An add-on vertical release battery pack, several extra batteries and charger, and a number of additional memory cards. What I have found over the many years of doing these trips is that many guests don’t bring an extra battery, or any at all (very necessary, they do fail), forget their charger, or forget both because they plugged them into charge and then neglected to pack them!

Several ranges of zoom lenses, 200-500mm, 70-200mm, plus a compatible 1.4 tele converter, and a wide angle of 18-35mm.

Often I’ll also bring either a 16mm fisheye, and or a 60mm macro, depending on where I’m headed!

I try to bring my medium sized camera pack whenever possible, but sometimes it is my large one that gets pressed into service, as well as a smaller one that can hold a single body and telephoto zoom. This is for carrying on shore and will fit into my dry-bag (backpack) for coming back-and-forth to shore on Zodiacs (very important). It can also be used to protect equipment while on shore in inclement weather, or while kayaking!

A monopod, rather than a tripod, seems to work better for using telephotos from a crowded bow on board ship, or doing walks and longer hikes on land! Many modern zoom telephotos can be hand-held however using the vibration reduction technology, and a faster shutter speed!

One of the most important tools in my bag always is a really good pair of binoculars, used to spot and observe wildlife movements.

Lastly, having several good microfiber cleaning cloths along, and accessible, for cleaning lenses, as well as a “Rocket Blower,” or similar tool, to clean particles off of your sensors, is very important to take care of your equipment under “outside” environmental conditions!

One last thing I’d like to talk about is the advantage of traveling by ship for photography. Often we are visiting places in remote locations worldwide that can only be accessed by ship. Ships can access extreme sea ice conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic for observing, and photographing, elusive or dangerous critters like polar bears, walrus, and other pinnipeds or whales! The other great advantage is our fleet of Zodiacs that can safely get guests to and from shore in very remote places, plus can get you an incredible close encounter with many elusive animals around the world! It’s a great way to travel, and can be an incredibly rewarding photo experience!

SEA CHANGE — Fish as Food or Wildlife?

Global Efforts to Protect Our Depleted Ocean Ecosystems Present Difficult Choices for a World That Depends on the Consumption of Fish

By Kristin Hettermann, Grace Delivers

My seafood vs. wildlife conundrum about fish really started about two years ago, when I started traveling the world with a partner who shares my deep love of the ocean. We began exploring, ocean by ocean. The more I saw, the more I learned. We witnessed pristine seas, rich in wildlife, but commonly saw destroyed ocean ecosystems. The more I experienced, the more I felt both strong love and awe for the ocean, and also a heavy concern for the loss of fish and ocean destruction. Over 70% of the earth is covered in ocean, and reports point to the fact that ocean fish populations have been cut in half since 1970. That’s a lot of life on earth lost.

Where did all the fish go? We have consumed them. Nearly three billion people rely on fish as an important source of protein. The trend seems to be: eat the big fish. When they are depleted, eat smaller fish. When they are gone, only the smallest edible fish will remain, and we will, out of necessity, eat them. Eventually, all of them. Until the fishermen catch what they refer to as “the last fish.” Scientists refer to this chain reaction as “fishing down the food chain.” In the 1870s, Atlantic cod were so abundant in the North Atlantic Ocean that it was a popular belief that one could walk across the ocean on the backs of cod fish and never get wet. Today, there is barely a geographical area in the world unspoiled by fishing and containing primeval, non-exploited fish populations and intact ecosystems. Aside from a few remote, far-off reaches of the globe, most places are missing their stars of the sea.

There are still some spectacular exceptions to this devastating trend. Hope spots: places where you see and experience biomass as it swirls around you and the abundance darkens the waters above. It is in these areas, mostly “no-take” protected zones and remote areas far from humans, that I began to understand what it felt like to be a fish. I saw life through their eyes—sometimes looking into their eyes. Because of this connection, I then lamented the loss of these creatures at a personal level—something I had never experienced. But my heartache soon turned to hope and a new determination to take action to inspire others to understand the fragility of these ecosystems and work toward solutions.

Recently, I dove in the Galápagos, a place found to have the largest shark abundance in the world. Healthy oceans need sharks. Marine biologists point to the presence of large predatory fish as a sign of the health and resilience of an ocean system. What I found in the Galápagos was biomass unlike anything I had ever seen—massive schools of fish, from the surface to the depths.


Turning an 800-Year-Old Tree Into A Story of Reconciliation

By Sharon Eva Grainger, Naturalist & Lindblad-National Geographic certified photo instructor

James Hart carving. Photo by Sharon Grainger. 

All cultures create monuments to represent and commemorate an aspect of their history and ancestry. In the Pacific Northwest First Nations people carve these stories in tall and ancient Western red cedar. Since the end of September, James Hart, his family and several colleagues have been in the final stages of carving an 800-year-old tree, transforming it into their story of Reconciliation. The pole is being completed behind the Museum of Anthropology on the UBC campus in Vancouver British Columbia. The creation of this 70-foot tall story pole actually started far to the north in Haida Gwaii more than two years ago.

I have been very fortunate to watch this process from the beginning. Working for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic as a naturalist and photo instructor, I travel with guests for two weeks, once in the spring and again in the fall, aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion and Sea Bird through the Inside Passage from Washington State, through British Columbia to Southeast Alaska. In the spring, we travel north, following the migrating animals and birds returning to their feeding and nesting grounds. In the fall, we travel south, following the return of the salmon, an ever changing bounty. These fish return to their natal rivers, flowing through Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, providing food for bears, birds, small forest creatures, and for all humans who celebrate in the harvest of these fish. In the spirit of this place, our small vessels journey through the waters of the Inside Passage following canoe paths of generations of Native and First Nations people who have called this land home and celebrated the abundance of land and sea. Indigenous peoples are resilient, living their culture in spite of generations of trials and tribulations. They constantly consider how they are treating the Earth and how to preserve it for the next seven generations who will follow in their footsteps.

A highlight of our journey is a visit to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago, located approximately 62 miles off the coast of Northern British Columbia. Crossing Hecate Strait and waking up in Haida Gwaii is heartily welcomed by staff, crew, and guests. I often rise early, walk out on deck and watch the approach to the dock in Queen Charlotte City, excited to be in another home along the Northwest coast. I am looking forward to visiting old friends and seeing where the months have taken us all! Once our guests are on shore, we board two school busses, the only available transportation large enough for all of us, and make our way north along the length of Graham Island to the community of Old Massett.

Old Massett is one of several communities in Haida Gwaii where the resurgence of Haida culture and art can be found. Over the last three years our travels here have included extraordinary visits to the home and workplaces of Haida Artists. In Old Massett, in the late 1960s a new totem pole was raised, the first one in nearly 100 years. Today, 50 years later, as we walk around the community we see many totem poles, carved canoes, painted house fronts and signs advertising argillite carving.

I think back on my first visit to James and Rosemary Hart’s home three years ago. I often reflect on those moments being welcomed into the home of a renowned living Haida artist with his family all around him. His home was his studio, his studio was his home. It was a visual feast: tools, future plans for projects, and so many implements associated with family life covered in form line design. When I really listened, I heard James speak about Haida Gwaii, a land he is firmly a part of. I could not only see the sharp and precise motions he made in carving, but I became aware that it was exactly how he spoke, carefully choosing words, shaped to make the same impact as a crooked knife or elbow adz makes in red cedar.

In these last weeks I have been fortunate enough to watch as James and members of his family and community continue transforming this 70-foot Western red cedar log into the Reconciliation Pole that tells the painful story of the residential schools of Canada.

From 1876 until 1996, when the last federally-operated residential school was closed, the Canadian government removed First Nations children from their homes and communities to eradicate First Nations language and culture. As a result of the effect on First Nations people in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation commission was officially established on June 2, 2008 and completed in December of 2015. The James Hart Reconciliation Pole was inspired “To keep the memory of residential school history alive. Through understanding, through truth, through respect, forward movement can happen.”

Northwest coast art is constantly evolving. The Reconciliation Pole tells a story in wood but James has taken that idea a step further by placing a residential school near the center of the pole “to look like it was dropped onto the heads of the people.” The carvings below the school represent the world of the Haida people before the children were removed from their families and villages. A mother bear and her cubs, a shaman in ritual, salmon, and the central figure of Raven, the trickster. Raven not only cajoled the first humans out of a clam shell in his trickster voice but also brought the sun, moon and stars to the world of Haida Gwaii along with many other things the Haida people enjoy today. Above the school are the children with numbers carved into their torsos, as was the custom during the time of the residential schools, where children were only known by numbers.

James is working with different indigenous carvers from North America carving the faces of these children. Fifty-seven-thousand-two-hundred solid copper nails are being pounded into various parts of the totem pole represent children who died while attending residential schools across Canada. Above the carved children, the spirit figures of a killer whale, bear, eagle and thunderbird representing water, land, air, and the supernatural moving the story towards the future with hope. Above these figures there is a carved mother, father, and children showing “the family unit getting stronger today.” Following upward another symbol of reconciliation: water waves and two boats. One is a non-native long boat, the other, a traditional First Nations Canoe representing reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples moving forward together. At the top of the pole an eagle is poised about to take flight. This part of the carving was done by James and his late son Carl, an expression of keeping those we have lost close to us, always near in our hearts. As James would say, “that motion of flight taking us towards our future.”

When this pole was shipped in late September from Haida Gwaii to Vancouver it was scheduled to be raised on October 15, 2016. That date has been changed to accommodate ongoing meetings with the Musqueam band council, whose unceded lands include the UBC campus. All parties involved are now completing decisions on the exact location for the raising of the pole and that date has been delayed until March of 2017. An honoring celebration was held on October 15, 2016 in support of the Reconciliation Pole, hosted by James Hart and his family. Many supporting Northwest Coast people and community members across borders were in attendance. Speeches, blessings, and a fine meal were shared by all!

The delay of the raising of this pole has allowed many people within the Pacific Northwest to be involved, to share, to witness and to help in completing the Reconciliation Pole.

I will continue to write segments throughout the winter to inform, not only all our guests who have watched the carving of this pole, but our communities both in Canada and the United States about its progress. I look forward to sharing more as this project moves towards the raising of the Reconciliation Pole this coming spring.

Dos-Polacas – Photography, Heart & Stories
Founded by Sharon Eva Grainger and Pamela Pakker/Kozicki

A Young Explorer’s First Bear Encounter

By Charlotte Fisher, Junior Naturalist, Age 11

No words can truly describe the full experience of seeing the elusive ice bear up close. In my humble opinion, this kind of a thing can’t be captured on camera, or film, one has to be there in person to understand the magic of being so close to a creature so, well, magical. Yesterday morning, I woke up, slightly tired from the gentle rocking of the ship, but also very excited. We were in bear country!

The previous night, we had sighted a bear. It had been amazing! Unfortunately, we were unable to get very close up to it, so it ended up being a “pixel bear”. Still, this had given me a taste of what was yet to come. At breakfast that morning, I ate a pancake while sitting precariously perched on my chair, nervously waiting to run to the bow of the boat in the event of any bear sightings. After breakfast, as I was walking back to the room I shared with my Mom, somewhat disappointed, the Captain came over the loudspeaker that was wired through the boat. Before he could even finish the words “polar bear,” my mom and I were madly dashing to the upper deck of the National Geographic Orion’s bow.

That bear was, well, simply breathtaking. The Orion is an ice-class ship, which allows her to slide through the ice fields in order to get up close to the bears. The boat came so close to that bear, that I could see the brown in its eyes. The polar bears are actually surprisingly cute. They roll around on the ice like they’re playful dogs (I later learned this was simply a cleaning process) however, still remain composed and strangely dignified.

As I watched this first bear in it’s natural habitat, I thought: “Wow. This is real. Not manufactured.” There was something so truly wholesome and magical in the experience, that the other five times bears appeared that day, I ran as quickly as I could to the bridge of the ship to watch them, as excited as if I had personally discovered the polar bear. This was probably the best day of the entire adventure. I saw mother bears with their cubs, a giant male bear, prowling over the ice, searching for a seal to snack on, and more! By the time the day ended, I was exhausted, invigorated, and amazed.

But probably the most exciting part of the day—the final bear we saw was rolling around on the ice on the port side of the boat. From my room, I could see the bear directly out the window. It was a very surreal moment, and a perfect way to end a day that I will remember forever.

* Charlotte Fisher is an 11-year old from Colorado who has traveled with her mother and grandmother on several Lindblad Expeditions. Our naturalist staff, charmed by her intelligence and obvious passion for exploring, has consistently engaged her. Given the task of writing Daily Expedition Reports on past South Pacific and Alaska expeditions as well as presenting at Recaps, she performed superbly, earning the right to call herself a “Senior” Junior Naturalist. So we asked her to act as a Lindblad Expeditions field correspondent on her most recent adventure in Arctic Svalbard. This is her just-filed report.

Galápagos in 360, By a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow

Each year exceptional teachers from around the country apply to be Grosvenor Teacher Fellows and join us for expeditions to the Arctic, Galapagos, and more. The teachers selected participate in the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program, named in honor of Gilbert M. Grosvenor, Chairman Emeritus, National Geographic Society and Education Foundation. The program is designed to give teachers and educators the opportunity to extend Grosvenor’s legacy of excellence in geographic education, in this case through firsthand experience that they can bring back to their classroom and beyond.

One of those teachers, Jesse Lowes, joined us in Galapagos with a small Ricoh Theta camera, which is capable of shooting 360-degree photos. He put together a virtual map of his expedition that allows you to see and interact with some of the places we explore as well as our ship, the 96-guest National Geographic Endeavour.

He said, “I had a lot of fun working with the 360 camera that I used during my Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. I am still floored by the opportunity to join on the expedition and it continues to be a life and profession changing experience!”

Check out the 360 photos. A bit on navigating: use the yellow arrows in the spheres to move, and you’ll find the white icons link to online readings, video, or video spheres. Also, if you hit the 3D icon on a device you can pan around the sphere, and if you hit the Cardboard icon and drop your phone in a Google Cardboard viewer for the full VR experience.

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