Isla Las Aves, Venezuela

Expedition Leader Art Cooley called Isla Barlovento “the Back of Beyond,” a place you’ve never heard of, in a corner of the Caribbean where no one ever goes. Long experience has shown that these are always the very best of places, so we were eager to explore these seldom-visited islets off the Venezulean coast.

Leaving the National Geographic Endeavour at 6:30 by Zodiac, we cruised up shallow channels into a fringing mangrove forest on Barlovento and entered a teeming metropolis! True, there were no people other than ourselves, but nearly every one of the low bushy trees was occupied by nesting red-footed boobies, a busy, active colony that gave us a perfect opportunity to observe these striking seabirds and photograph them from point-blank range. Snow white, downy chicks peered from nests tucked in amongst the dense greenery, sleek adults wheeled above and preened in the tree tops while grayish juveniles squabbled with each other on crowded limbs or regarded us with one eye and then the other, showing off the exquisite pink blush at the base of their blue bills.

Nearby, egrets and herons fed in the shallows, mangrove warblers sang from concealed roosts in the tangled branches and a peregrine falcon made occasional passes, patiently enduring the harassment of a pair of carib grackles while waiting for its next meal.

Returning to the ship for breakfast, we then turned our attention to the watery world surrounding the islets. Kayaks and boats full of snorkelers hit the beach, scuba divers slipped beneath the waves and swimmers splashed in the clear, sunny shallows. Here we found great fishy cities and coral kingdoms, astounding architecture and swirling crowds, another metropolis of the southern Caribbean. Tiny fish indistinguishable from jewels flashed through the bright water, while silvery barracuda stalked the deep blue. Corals grew one upon another, waving fans and ferns on the reef's top giving way to crenellated castles and promontories at the drop-off, many of them decorated with iridescent Christmas tree worms like the one in this photo. Later in the day, Dennis and I used the ROV to provide a live look at the strange and lovely side of this world that lies beneath the reef, 200 feet down.

It was a rich day. These are the places to see, this was the place to be: the back of beyond, the center of the universe.