SVI Journal: Day 7, Punta Tamarindo Grande and Flamenco Beach, Culebra

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Just after sunrise, the airport opened in Dewey, Culebra. Loud little Cessnas and other small planes were taking off right over the Ensenada Honda anchorage all morning long.

I had filled the 4GB SD card in my old camera the night before, so Mary went into town to explore the grocery store situation and look for SD cards while I helped gather fresh water jugs from the other two boats to re-fill our tank.

Chateau du Mer donated their two 5.5 gallon jugs as they still had plenty of water. We took those back to Caicu and emptied them out before making another run to the Dinghy Dock Restaurant with both their jugs and our jugs. The bartender turned on the water hose for us, and we paid 25 cents per gallon to fill up — we didn’t even have to lift the tanks out of the dinghy.

Even though the bar wasn’t officially open yet, the bartender from El Paso overheard that we were from Texas, so she still sold us a round of Coronas. She started telling us about the deer that swam from island to island. We had seen something that looked like deer droppings on Culebrita, but we took the story of swimming deer with a grain of salt.

Mary and Jayne appeared across the way on the municipal dinghy dock with grocery bags, so we downed our beers and went to pick them up. While we had hoped to grill steaks that night, the best non-fish proteins Mary found were some mediocre looking pork chops. However, they only went to the small market close to the bay, they didn’t venture all the way up the hill to the Ralph’s. More importantly, the dive shop, which Mary described as “more of a dive tent” had SD cards.

Once we got the water in the tanks, we pulled up anchor — along with a huge amount of sea grass and mud. I did my best to pull it off the chain as it was coming up, but I couldn’t get it all, and the windlass was basically flinging crap all over the foredeck.

We really enjoyed the atmosphere in Dewey, and we were a little disappointed that we couldn’t stay longer to explore more of the the town. That’s someplace I could see us hanging out for a while and playing music in the bars at night.

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We headed west around Culebra towards Punta Tamarindo Grande, and yes, we did notice that Batubara went in the wrong channel and took the scenic route towards Culebrita before finally turning wide and sailing back.

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We snagged a mooring ball in the nature preserve and just when we thought Culebra couldn’t possibly get any better, we took a snorkel and got absolutely blown away by the reef. It was the biggest one I’d ever seen.

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I spent the entire afternoon snorkeling and came across another green sea turtle.

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Later in the afternoon we dinked over to the beach and took the trail across the island to Flamenco Beach.

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On the way, what should we run into, but a deer. It wasn’t swimming, but we decided maybe there was more to the swimming deer story than we had thought. We also encountered several chickens as well as a quite smelly dead cat.

When we finally crossed through the chained but loose gate, which led into the parking lot of Flamenco Beach, we saw this sign. Glad I didn’t go wandering off the path to catch a photograph of those chickens.

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Flamenco Beach was picturesque with blue water and white sand ringed by hills.

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At the very north end of the beach some of the crew discovered abandoned army tanks covered in graffiti. I was really sorry I missed getting a photo of them.

We stopped by the drink huts for a pina colada before making the hike back across the reserve to our mooring field.

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The sun was dropping fast, but I took one more snorkel before dinner. Mary made stir fry with peanut sauce — another big hit with our crew.

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The crew of Chateau du Mer brought a special whiskey, so after dinner we all met on Batubara for a “wee dram.” I regret it now, but I passed on the whiskey that night because my stomach was feeling a bit rough, and I was already nodding off, even with Batubara’s bilge alarm going off every ten minutes. I went to foredeck to check out the stars and nap a bit while Mary enjoyed a game of charades with the rest of the crew.

When we finally dinked back to Caicu, I was out before my head even hit the pillow.

SVI Journal: Day 4, Esperanza, Vieques

Around 2:30 a.m. I couldn’t take the banging any longer.

We’d moved the kayaks around to the starboard side of the boat to give the visiting dinghies access to our transom, but we hadn’t moved them back. Now they were repeatedly banging against the side of the boat right beside our berth.

I got up and re-tied the kayaks to the stern pulpit and went back to bed until the sun was shining into our open hatches.

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It was dead calm but a rough morning. The salon looked like a fraternity house with empty cups, cans and bottles everywhere. We slowly started cleaning up the mess while Andy phoned the captain on call to find out where the air-conditioner breakers were located.

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We reset the main air-conditioner breaker, but then flipped off the breaker for the salon unit. We decided we didn’t need air-conditioning in the salon enough to deal with the mess or electrical problems it was creating.

Being a very calm morning I tried stand-up paddle boarding for the first time. It was much harder than I expected. I’m pretty sure I just looked like a wobbly clown.

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We pulled up anchor and headed southeast along Vieques. We’d been warned several times by the charter company that we were basically going the wrong way, and that it would be a rough sail, but we wanted to visit Bio Bay during the new moon.

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As we rounded Monte Pirata we saw a salty looking boat headed west, but that was the only traffic we came across until we arrived in Esperanza.

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Esperanza, Vieques came with special instructions from the charter company. The first was to call Christine to pay for the mooring ball, which would be $25 per night. Again, when we actually picked up the mooring ball, it also had Christine’s name and number, same as in our charter books, written on fenders in marker attached to the mooring balls. I have no idea of Christine’s last name. Apparently in Vieques you don’t need a last name.

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We called Christine, but we didn’t get to meet her. Instead, a woman named September dinked out to take our cash. We assumed she was working for Christine, but who knows? Either way, she said she lived with her husband on the big catamaran at the edge of the harbor, so if we needed anything, just come find her.

I put on a mask to check the mooring and found that someone had run giant chains across the bottom of the bay and all the mooring balls were connected to those chains, which I assume were secured at each end. It seemed to work.

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Of course, there were three wrecked sailboats clearly visible around the bay. Maybe that’s what happens to people who don’t pay Christine?

Our second instruction from the charter company regarding Esperanza was to lock our dinghies, lock our boats and to make sure that nothing was left on deck to go missing in the night. This admonition made Esperanza feel a bit suspicious from the get-go whether justified or not.

While the girls went to shore to do some shopping, Cade and I went to explore the sunken sailboat. We tied our dinghy off to the spreaders and snorkeled around it for a while. It was fascinating how many species of fish had taken up residence in and around the hull.

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Mary had an interesting time grocery shopping. Thankfully she did not add canned escargot to our meal plan. She and Jayne ran into some of the Vieques wild horses on their way back to the dinghy dock (but didn’t take a photo).

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We did our best to lock up the boat before heading to shore for dinner only to find that the big sliding door on the back of Caicu didn’t actually latch. Sure, you could lock it, but not being latched to anything the door would still slide right open. We did our best to make it LOOK locked and crossed our fingers.

After thoroughly locking up our dinghy we took a stroll up and down El Malecon, or “The Strip”, to check out the junk shops and survey our restaurant options.  Despite having discussed splitting up for dinner, so that we didn’t overwhelm any one restaurant, most of the crew still ended up at Duffy’s for dinner.

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Locals were cruising the strip in beat up cars with loud stereos hoping to be noticed while island dogs happily trotted back and forth between restaurant patios hoping for a handout.

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After dinner some of the group grabbed drinks at Bananas while we waited for the sun to go down then we headed back to the dinghy dock to meet the bus that would take us to Bioluminescent Bay.

While waiting near the street in the dinghy dock parking lot we noticed a guy that sent a young kid, maybe five or six years old, down the dock with a flashlight to check the locks on all the dinghies. Then a few minutes later a car came in, pulled right down to the dock and angled it’s headlights for a view of the dinghies. It saw there a minute or two, then pulled back out and drove off.

Perhaps people were benevolently making sure all the dinghies were secure. And maybe those guys in the car were just looking to see if their friend was ashore. However, it felt pretty suspicious from where we were standing.

A few minutes later an old yellow school bus arrived to pick us up and take us to the Island Adventures Bio Bay headquarters, so we could all pay for our scheduled tours. We had just enough time to grab one drink in the Bio Bar before getting back on the bus and heading to Mosquito Bay.

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There was a time when you could swim in the bay, but these days your only option is to take a guided tour by kayak or aboard an electric pontoon boat. Since we had a crew of 17, and I hoped to get some good photos of the phenomenon, we opted for a private pontoon tour.

We were greeted by a very enthusiastic, pony-tailed docent on a sidewalk covered in phosphorescent spots. He immediately explained the difference between phosphorescence, reflecting light, and bioluminescence, generating light.

Our guide gave us the rundown on the single-celled organisms Pyrodimium Bahamense, the dinoflagellates that give off a blue glow when the water is disturbed. Then we cast off and there was a lot of banging and kicking the boat in an effort to make fish jump, which would resulting in glowing water, but obviously the most intense glow was coming off our propellers on the back of the boat.

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Then the guide went into a long explanation of the lifecycle of mangrove trees, which was kind of interesting, but everyone just wanted a photo of the glowing water. However, the flash photography and lights from the phones was irritating the guide, and he insisted everyone turn off their electronic devices.

I had all my camera equipment aboard, but even with an f1.4 aperture at ISO 3200, I still couldn’t get any sign of the bioluminescence to appear without resorting to long exposures.

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Even when captured in photos, the glow just looks like underwater LED lights, so you lose the magic of the moment. It is really cool when the guides let you put your legs in the water and kick and suddenly it starts glowing around them like magic fairy water. They also did the “bucket challenge” where a volunteer got a bucket of water poured on their head, which glowed as it doused them. That was pretty neat as well.

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Everyone agreed that Bio Bay was worth the experience … once.

We saw more scruffy horses on our way back to the dinghy dock. Our dinks seemed fine, and our boats had not been bothered while we were gone.

Everyone was too tired to party. As soon as they were aboard the boat they headed for bed.

The wind picked up quite a bit during the night, and the cat was rolling enough that I kept having dreams that we were underway.

SVI Journal: Day 2, Icacos and Isla Palominos

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The chop was rough leaving Puerto del Rey, and we were beating right into it. However, the teens on our crew had been asking to go swimming since we landed in San Juan, so they congregated on the bow of the Lagoon 400, squealing with delight as the surging waves splashed them through the tramps.

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Mary, on the other hand, was sitting in the back of the boat with white knuckles hoping the pounding stopped soon.

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Once the teens were sufficiently soaked we turned into the wind and raised the sails, then set our course for Icacos.

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Andy, our captain, had brought his own pirate flag, so we hoisted it on starboard.

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The small, uninhabited island of Cayo Icacos is only a 15-minute water taxi ride from Fajardo, though it took us almost an hour sailing from Puerto del Rey Marina.  We had no trouble finding a mooring ball when we arrived, but it was a very popular spot with lots of people fishing and snorkeling on a Sunday afternoon.

It was my first time to pick-up a mooring ball, but Sail Caribe had nice harnesses with shackles on the front of both catamarans that made it quite easy. The second we were securely moored, I was in the water. I was greeted by a school of blue tang nibbling on the algae growing on our hull.

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I was so excited to be in clear water and to be playing with my dive camera, I completely forgot to take a single photo of the island or the anchorage itself, but I did run into these two interesting characters while snorkeling.

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It was a fantastic feeling to be bobbing around on a pool noodle with a beer, soaking up the sun.

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Mary and Jayne prepped lunch while I grilled burgers. It was a nice first meal aboard.

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As the afternoon slipped into evening, we headed for our overnight anchorage, Isla Palominas. One of the provisions of our charter was that we couldn’t sail after sunset, so we all quickly motored to the other island to pick up a mooring ball.

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Palominas, which is just a short hop from both Puerto Rico and Icacos is owned by the the Fuertes family. There is what looks like a private residence and dock on the west end of the island, but most of the island is leased to El Conquistador Hotel & Casino, which runs a ferry back and forth to Puerto Rico all day.

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Boaters can walk on the beach and drink at the resort bars, but they only take credit cards. Andy loaded the teens into the dinghy and dropped them off at the beach to explore.

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Then as soon as he made it back to Caicu, the dinghy motor refused to start again.

Meanwhile, the girls found out the resort had already closed, so they were stuck waiting on the beach until the crew on the Lagoon 450, Batubara, dropped their dink and went to pick them up for us.

We called and left a message with Sail Caribe detailing our dinghy issue. We hoped they’d offer to just run a replacement out to us since we weren’t that far from the marina. (They didn’t.)

While the adult members of our crew were shuttled to the “big boat” for drinks, the teens used a kayak to slip aboard and steal the Texas flag from Batubara and deliver invitations for the pirate party we’d be hosting the next night.

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I did my best to party late into the night, but I’d fallen asleep with a drink in my hand by 10 p.m. Becoming a pirate of the Caribbean is exhausting.

Exploring the reefs of the Spanish Virgin Islands

I shot just a little bit of video during our week in the SVIs — most of it by accident when my thumb hit the video button while gripping the camera case. I do apologize for my underwater video skills. There’s not really anywhere to practice here in Galveston Bay, and I can’t actually see where the camera is pointed underwater. However, I hope this is still watchable.

Through which lens do you see the world?

Tonight we’re packing for a week-long charter in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Unlike weekend trips aboard Gimme Shelter where I can bring along most anything I want, space is limited.

Packing clothes is the easy part. I’m throwing in four shirts, two pairs of shorts and two swim suits. Done. However, I’ve been perplexing for more than a week as to which lenses are going into my camera bag.

Once upon a time I used to travel with just a small point and shoot camera in a dive case. Life was simple, and the photos weren’t that bad.

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But through the years I suffered from gear acquisition syndrome, or GAS, as it’s known by most photographers. I kept changing camera bodies and accumulated more and more lenses until traveling with a camera ended up extremely complicated. When you have limited space, how do you decide what to bring along?

The 50mm f1.4 is my favorite lens. It’s razor sharp, it creates a nice shallow depth of field, and it’s my number one choice for video and portraits. It’s also said that a 50mm best replicates a normal human field of view.

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While not my favorite, the 28mm f2 is my most used lens. Sharp as a tack and great in low light, I usually find myself needing the 28mm for landscapes, sunsets, architecture, group photos, photos of people around tables in classrooms or restaurants, and any wide angle video shot.

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However, when you’re on a sail boat, you can’t back up from your subject or you’re in the water. The 28mm is just wide enough to grab the cockpit, but if I want to capture a shot with the entire mast and sails, I’ve got to swap to the ultra-wide 15mm f4.5. The 15mm is also a must for interior shots on the sailboat.

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But lately all my best shots seem to be with an old 90mm f2.8. The 90mm has been giving me some really nice portraits as well as some nice landscape shots when I need to cut out the foreground.

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But the 90mm just doesn’t quite get me close enough for birding or wildlife. While it tends to suffer from a bit of chromatic aberration and weighs more than all the previous lenses combined, my 135mm f2.8 can catch a nice bird shot if the bird is within throwing distance.

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Of course, my new favorite lens has been the 280mm f2.8, which came with its own suitcase and weighs about ten pounds. If I’m in the very back of the boat, I can capture just a person’s face up on the bow. That might make it too long for shooting on the boat, but it’s great for shooting wildlife or people on other boats. The downside is that if I were to take it along, it would count as my carry-on luggage, and I’d have to check my real bag.

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But sometimes the 280mm isn’t long enough, so I’ve got the 400mm f6.8. I carried this lens in Belize to capture exotic birds, monkeys and kinkajous. I caught a few birds, but it turns out the monkeys and kinkajous only came out in the dark, so it was a bit useless in the middle of the night.

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So that’s seven prime lenses that I REALLY need to bring along.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, hey dummy, just get a zoom lens and be done with it.

Well, I have nothing against zoom lenses. In fact, I’m definitely bringing a 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 zoom with the Sony NEX-6 since that’s the lens that fits in the dive case. It’s not as sharp as the primes, and it has some barrel distortion at the wide end of things, but if I want underwater shots, it has to be in the bag.

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I’ve also tried a 70-200 f4.5 to replace my 90mm and 135mm primes. Yes, it was more versatile when it came to framing shots, but again, it just doesn’t seem as sharp as my primes. I also lose a stop of light, so I can’t shoot with it as early in the morning or as late into the evening as I can with the f2.8 lenses.

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I definitely cannot pack NINE lenses, one of which has its own suitcase, for this trip. Even if I could pack all nine, there’s no way I would use all of them in a week. Yes, each lens has a purpose and is a tool for a certain type of shot, but unless I’m hired for that specific job, those lenses are nothing but a security blanket.

As photographers, our choice of lens is our choice of how we see the world.

Do you want the big picture? Shoot your trip with a wide.

Want to live in the moment with a first person view? Slap on a 50mm.

Want to focus on the details of a place or event? Pack nothing but a telephoto.

Discover what you want to say through your photographs and choose the focal length that best conveys that message.

So here’s my challenge. Next time you go out shooting, simplify everything. Decide how you want to see the world, take just one lens, and discover what kind of story you can tell.

Of course, I’ll still be taking at least three lenses to the SVIs. I mean, come on, I’ve got to get some dolphin pictures!