The Underwater World of Mexico: Part 2: Whale Sharks and Sea Lions

 

The Underwater World of Mexico: Part 2: Whale Sharks and Sea Lions

 

A post by Lady Felicity

 

I’ve always admired sharks. I once read that they originally evolved from a tiny, leaf like fish and from there they split into bony fish or cartilage fish – the latter being the category which sharks fit into. This cartilage is lightweight and flexible making sharks incredible agile.

Sharks are prehistoric. They have existed for about four-hundred million years, which is about two-hundred million years older than dinosaurs. While some (like the famous, sixty foot, inspiration for Jaws, the Megalodon) have become extinct, over five-hundred species of shark – not including the six-hundred species of ray and skate or fifty or so species of chimaera which are also part of the shark family – are still in existence today.

Shark species are diverse and each one is perfectly adapted for its environment, even when that means living in fresh water rather than salt!

From tiny lantern sharks that glow in the dark, to the beautiful tasselled wobbegong, so well camouflaged you probably wouldn’t find it hidden on the sea floor while swimming right above it, to the epaulette shark using its specially adapted fins to run across coral reefs, to the hammerhead, the most recent shark to evolve (35-50 million years ago) with its head being the equivalent of a satellite dish for the electro-sensory receptors located in the head and particularly snout area, and finally to the impressive whale shark, the largest non-mammalian vertebrate alive today (The average length of the whale shark is 32 feet but the largest on record grew to an incredible 61 feet in length!).

I could tell you about the amazing adaptations they have (the camouflage for example doesn’t only include the beautiful carpet sharks like the wobbegong or the whale shark, all with decorative patterns on the skin, but even the great white when you consider the white belly and darker back so that when looked at from above or below you easily lose them), or the fact that their skin is actually made of tiny teeth- dermal denticles (so that as they swim, each little tooth creates its own vortex, therefore reducing drag as they cut through the water), or the fact that the majority of shark species have a brain as complex as that of mammals. Plus not only do they use the same five senses that we use, in addition they also sense electrical currents which helps them locate prey as well as orientate themselves using the earths geomagnetic field and they sense pressure changes. They have something called a  lateral line- a small row of pores running the length of their body. As water flows through the pores sensory cells calculate pressure change. It gives the sharks spatial awareness, the ability to navigate and to create a pressure map of the area around them.

The only downside I can see to their incredible senses is that when they use ‘touch’ they don’t have hands, so instead use their teeth, which contain pressure sensitive nerves. A little tester nip to a shark can sometimes be fatal to a human or unpleasant at the very least! It’s why a second bite is very uncommon however, as we aren’t their intended meal and don’t taste particularly good to them!

That brings us to their teeth- sharks have rows of teeth which they replace every two weeks. For some species this means they will shed about 30,000 in their lifetime. They aren’t all the same, scary teeth everyone pictures either, their teeth are adapted to their diet. This means flat crushing teeth for those eating shellfish. Pointed teeth for gripping fish. And sharp serrated teeth for larger prey, such as seals.

You can learn so much from looking at sharks. The shape of their fins for example (particularly dorsal fin) which indicates speed and lifestyle, and even their mood.

Some people think that sharks have to always be on the move or risk drowning- true for some but not all. Swimming forward, water is driven in through the mouth and pushed out over the gills where they absorb the oxygen. Some species of shark however are able to suck the water into the mouth and squeeze it over the gills while laying stationary.

Sharks are also sometimes believed to be cold-blooded, hence the ‘cold blooded killer’ title. While some are cold blooded, however, others are not. The great white is actually as much as 10’C warmer than the surrounding water due to a network of tiny capillaries which act as a heat exchange system, keeping the muscles warm making them far more efficient predators.

Ok, I know I’m going too far now. Unless you’re a shark ‘fin’atic (sorry!) then you probably didn’t need to know all this, but, truthfully, I hope that the more people who learn just how incredible, how misunderstood and how beautifully evolved and adapted these creatures are, the less people will fear and dislike them – avoiding news like the headline ‘Killer Sharks Swimming To Our Shores’ which drove Greg into a rant in this video:

Despite surviving 5 mass extinctions, many shark species are threatened with extinction once again today. It’s all down to human activity which has led to sharks becoming one of the most threatened groups of animals on the planet. You look at the huge rate of over-fishing and the demand for things like shark fin soup. Even as that slowly declines the demand for shark meat increases. Plus Chinese medicine want shark teeth, shark liver oil is used in cosmetics, their cartilage is a health supplement and their jaws are sought after ornaments. Every year tens of millions of sharks are caught and it greatly harms not just the shark population but the marine ecosystems they are such an important part of.

Add to that the fact that sharks are slow growing. Taking things to the extreme is the Greenland shark, it can live for 400 years and doesn’t reach sexual maturity till the age of 150. Many are caught before they’ve ever reproduced, and reproduction is not quick for sharks either! Shark pregnancy averages between about 9-12 months, but it can be as long as 31 months. They don’t produce many young and often rest a few years between reproducing.

I don’t want to preach to those that don’t wish to hear it, but I hope to spread the word to those capable of caring in the hopes of making a difference to these incredible creatures that should be admired rather than killed.

Anyway, this is a travel blog, so on to our adventure…

The intention was to dive with bull sharks while in Mexico. You must be careful with this for a few reasons. The first is that it has become relatively popular in Mexico and some companies use food to encourage the sharks into the area they wish to swim in, even though this area is not safe from shark fishing, thus putting the sharks at great risk. The second is that the bull shark is not only the shark famous for being able to swim in fresh as well as salt water (specially adapted gills), but also for having the highest amount of testosterone, meaning that it is naturally the most aggressive of shark species. Bull sharks, tiger sharks and, largely due to mistaken identity when hunting, the great white, are the only sharks that make me especially nervous. So, of course, I was crazy enough to want to swim with them.

Greg’s perforated eardrum (which you’ll have hopefully read about in part 1 of this post HERE) put a stop to this plan. I was disappointed till we discovered what else we could swim with instead.

When doing my initial research I had found out that Mexico is a good place for swimming with whale sharks… in July and August. This didn’t work for us as we were going in February-March for the grey whales in Magdalena Bay (see HERE). When we started looking at what we could do instead of diving around La Paz, however, we found a snorkel tour where you can swim with not just whale sharks but sea lions too!

I like a lot of different shark species but I must say, whale sharks are one of my favourites.

As I mentioned earlier, they are the largest non-mammalian vertebrate alive today. They are certainly the biggest fish in the sea. Their life span is estimated between 70-150 years.

They are migratory animals, they like warm water and will follow their food source. Like other sharks, they have a mouth full of teeth, about 3,000 to be exact, all in a mouth that can be between 4-5 feet wide. They don’t use these little teeth to feed though, they are one of only three species of filter feeding shark (the other two being the megamouth and the basking shark) and have gill-rakers (long, comb like structures on their gills) to trap and filter krill, crab larvae, jellyfish etc.

To be honest, they are probably one of my favourites because they are gentle giants and so beautiful. Their skin is a beautiful blue/ grey and decorated (carpet shark, remember) with bright white speckles. These speckles seem to glow against the blue background and are as individual as a humans fingerprints. They are stunning.

The trip itself was with Karla from MexPlore and I highly recommend it. It has three parts, they take you to a location where the whale sharks are feeding and get you close enough to swim with them. You are then taken to the sea lion colony where you can swim with them and admire the beautiful corals and parrot fish there. Lastly they take you to a gorgeous Sandy bay where they set up a picnic for you to enjoy before taking you back to the harbour where the tour began.

I mentioned earlier that you have to be careful when booking the Bull shark dive as some companies encourage the sharks into areas where they are not safe. To be honest, for any experience where you come into close proximity or contact with animals, please do your research first – for both your safety and theirs! I have even found some instances where a place is claiming to be a sanctuary, but they are still training animals (think Elephants, big cats and whales and dolphins) and treating them appallingly to do so  – and those are just the ones I’ve found. The worst places have no problem with lying about their activities, so dig as deep as you can before booking anything.

Especially when coming into contact with wild animals you should be an observer and not interact, unless the animal instigates it – and even then it should be done cautiously.

That’s why I was pleased when Karla used our boat ride out of the harbour not only to kit us up (wetsuit, fins, snorkel if you didn’t have your own), but also to give us some general information about whale sharks and to go through some rules with us about not getting too close and certainly not touching the sharks. The area of the bay is also strictly controlled, only so many boats out there at a time and only so many people are allowed in the water with the sharks at once. Only five people in the water per boat, that sort of thing. It stops us from overwhelming the sharks, amongst other things.

Sliding off the boat and into the water, my first glimpse of those beautiful spots and then the size of her enormous tail as she swam past me, that distinctive shark tail… left me breathless.

I quickly recovered and started to swim alongside her, making sure I was at least the instructed distance away. Her movements were graceful and unhurried but she was apparently a ‘quick’ one. Greg and I could keep pace, but the other two in our party were not swimmers. Karla called us back to the boat to locate a slower moving shark. We did this relatively quickly and off we went into the water again.

This next shark actually started vertical feeding!

Whale sharks have three methods of feeding:

The first is passive- swimming slowly with mouth open to get the plankton. This is most common and what we saw most of.

The second is vertical feed- where they stay almost motionless and use a suction method to pull in the food.

The third is active or ram-filter-feeding where they suck the water in as they swim to filter feed it at higher velocities.

Watching them do the things I had heard about was fantastic. We were so absorbed watching this shark feed, we failed to notice another one swimming towards us till it collided with us. It actually happened to us twice!

The sharks mouths are unusual in that they are on the front of their face rather than beneath like most sharks. The position of their eyes, to the sides, also means they can’t see anything in front of them. We were in their blind spot and they were in ours. On the first occasion Greg and I both felt the impact but were quick to swim back, trying to get out of her way. On the second occasion she bumped into Greg who was quick to alert us so the other swimmer and I could move before the shark caught us too. We both agreed afterwards that you can feel the strength in the sharks, they are moving slowly, drifting and feeding and yet when they collide with us you can feel the size and strength of them. The fact it didn’t hurt, they really are gentle giants.
The sharks seemed as surprised at the collisions as we were yet they didn’t panic, like us they just tried to adjust course to get past us. You should never try to touch them, in fact you should try very hard not to touch them, it’s not natural for them, but I was pleased that the experience didn’t cause us or the shark any harm. How could anyone want to harm such an amazing creature. The fact that some people do, it baffles me.
When we went on our honeymoon, we didn’t know we would be filming a documentary or that it would start us on the documentary making path. It was just our incredible honeymoon. Greg filmed the experience for a while and then returned the camera to the boat.

We then swam hand in hand, keeping pace with this fantastic fish. She knew we were there and she didn’t mind. We kept a reasonable distance but kept pace with her for quite a long time. It was something I want to return to Mexico to do again. It was incredible.

I could have happily spent all day swimming beside those sharks. But it was time to move on to the sea lion colony.

Sea lions are Pinnipeds – carnivorous, fin footed, semiaquatic marine mammals. Sea lions are the ones with the visible, external ear flaps and can actually move well on all fours.

Again we had the safety and rules briefing. While sea lions are not normally aggressive to humans, incidents are not unheard of. The males often stay on their rocks, but if you approach the males on the rocks you’re invading their territory and they don’t look on that kindly. The males are a lot bigger, stronger, more agile not to mention faster in the water than us and have a powerful bite with sharp teeth.

Being respectful of the creatures and the environment around us sounds so obvious but you’d be surprised by how many people seem to think everything around them was put their purely for their own amusement and that they are entitled to do what they want, when they want.

Once in the water, the female sea lions turned into water puppies. They were everywhere. Dashing around, above, beneath us. Floating upside down having a good look at us. It became a bit of a game, diving down, spinning around, they would almost mimic us. Where the sharks had been majestic, full of grace and beauty, the sea lions were boisterous, inquisitive and playful. I was so careful to try to tuck arms and feet in so as not to accidentally bop one but looking back at our footage, there was no danger of that. They were in control in that water, coming only as close as they wanted. I couldn’t have touched one without it’s wanting me to even if I had tried. (Which you never should!)

The smell of the area isn’t pleasant, at one point my snorkel clearing wasn’t good enough and I got a mouth full of… I don’t even want to think about it. Yuck! But overall it was such an amazing experience, just the kind of interaction I want. You should never chase an animal down, forcing it to interact with you. It should always be on their terms.

The whales in Magdalena choose if they want to surface beside a boat to say hello. The sharks here had the ability to swim away at speed if they didn’t like us being near them. The sea lions can certainly either swim quickly away or return to their rocks if they don’t want to be near us. In each place, these animals were fine with our presence and some even chose to play and interact with us. It makes the experience special and meaningful.

The thought of marine parks (I’m not going to open that can of worms here but I highly recommend everyone watch the BlackFish film documentary!), where animals are badly treated and forced to perform and interact with us when it’s not what they want, it’s beyond terrible.

Watching Greg spinning underwater and having two inquisitive sea lions swimming around him, the beautiful reef behind him and the sound of the nibbling parrot fish in my ears… memories I will treasure forever.

Again, I could have stayed with the sea lions all day but other people’s tummy’s were rumbling. Another quick ride on the boat took us to our final destination.

The sandy bay with its warm, shallow, clear water, warm gold sand and a quickly erected table and vegetarian friendly (on request) wraps, salad and crisps with a selection of soft drinks… what a lovely way to end an incredible experience. It was the last day of our honeymoon and what an incredible way to end it.
Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

The Underwater World of Mexico: Part 1: SCUBA and Cenotes

 

 
 
The Underwater World of Mexico: 
Part 1: 

 

SCUBA and Cenotes

 

 

A post by Lady Felicity

 

 

When Greg and I agreed on Mexico as our honeymoon destination we knew there was going to be some fantastic marine life to see. In preparation for this we decided it was time to learn to SCUBA dive.

We went for the basic ‘Open Water PADI ’ certificate, with the assistance of ‘Island Divers‘ on the Isle of Wight. This entry level qualification allows us to dive to 60 feet. Most marine life, coral reefs etc can generally be found within this depth anyway, so it’s the ideal one to start with.

It does, however, require both pool and open water sessions as well as passing a few theory tests. The pool and theory were no problem to either of us – we passed easily. Finding a time when the weather and water conditions in England were suitable for diving, when we are also both fully booked with work throughout the warmer months, was another story. Add to it that you cannot dive when you have blocked sinuses (Greg suffers from hay fever and I have a knack for catching colds!) and the time between us and the honeymoon started fast disappearing.

In the end, we had to bite the bullet and went to Lake Andark for our first of the two necessary open water dives. In January. To say the water was cold would be a huge understatement. If my memory serves, it was about 3 degrees.

Luckily our fantastic instructors took pity on us (they told us quite frankly that they weren’t getting in that water without a dry suit on and it seemed a bit harsh to make us do it if they weren’t willing to) and showed us how to be efficient enough in a dry suit to get by on our open water course. This worked a treat on Greg’s body. That stayed warm and dry – although his lips didn’t fare so well. Even a lip filler fanatic wouldn’t have wanted his huge, purple tinted cold induced swollen lips! Our instructors and I were quite bemused!

I was less lucky in the body department. I have somewhat skinny wrists and a skinny neck. This meant that every time I moved, a lovely cold trickle penetrated my suit, soaking me and my padded clothing beneath. Add to it that the algae was so thick, I couldn’t see anybody if they went more than a couple of feet away from me… it was an interesting introduction to open water diving. Despite this, the session was a success and we scheduled our final one to take place, just in time before our honeymoon.

Then Greg got earache. Which ear drops made worse. Turns out he got an ear infection most likely caused by the combination of temperature and sediments in the water. It was severe enough to give him a small perforation, which meant that diving was no longer an option (as with the infection he couldn’t equalise air pressure at depth).

Initially we were gutted. We had already booked to dive in four separate locations in Mexico. Luckily some of these could be changed to snorkelling trips instead, while others we had to cancel. It was also fortunate that the marine parts of our honeymoon were during the second half of the trip, giving Greg’s ear longer to heal, or all water activities would have been impossible.

 

One of the things we had initially booked as a dive but had to change to snorkelling was our trip to the Cenote Dos Ojos, and for those that don’t know what a cenote is, I will explain:-

A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.

The meteorite that collided with earth about 66 million years ago, causing the chain of events which scientists attribute to causing the dinosaurs extinction can be found (if you go underwater and dig deep enough!) close to this part of Mexico. We also heard that these cenotes were a result of that meteorite. How could we pass up an opportunity to swim in them after hearing that!?

As well as this, cenotes were sometimes used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial offerings. In one documentary we watched, it explained that the Mayan pyramids are usually built over a cenote or near to a river. There is also usually a tomb inside the pyramids. This is to replicate sacred mountains as well as the cenote that runs beneath them.

This is a sacred place to the Mayans – they believe it to be the gateway to the afterlife. Many of the Maya used to perform a sort of pilgrimage to these sacred places and it would be replicated in the cities in the form of their great pyramids.

Some cenote are large, open pools, while others are caverns or cave systems. The water is usually clear, mostly due to being rain water filtering through the ground. When the cenote contains fresh rainwater but also connects to the sea, a halocline is created. The salt water meets the fresh water and it creates a blurry wall type effect. This in particular is, I think, the area which the Mayans believed led into the afterlife. They also believed that cenotes are home to demigods and water sprites.

All of these theories and beliefs fuelled my intrigue and desire to see them for myself.

The Cenote Dos Ojos, meaning two eyes cenote, is actually two cenotes connected by a 1,312 foot passageway. It’s famous for having the deepest known underwater cave passage at 387 feet deep. The cave system itself is also at least 200,131 feet in length. Add to it that the fact that the water maintains a very comfortable 24-25’C temperature throughout the year and is a great place to snorkel as well as scuba dive… it’s no wonder it’s so famous!

As we had originally booked to dive here we kept our guide, a lovely lady called Andrea from DivingPlayaDelCarmen.com, for the snorkel session. She kitted us out with wet-suits, fins and flashlights (we had our own snorkels and masks) and into the first of the cenote’s eyes we went.

This first Cenote was stunning. Quite deep in places and with stalagmite filled caves around the back and sides. The walls were decorated with fossil corrals and the water had a few delicate, beautiful, silver fish. As we dived underwater these fish were the only visual sign that we were in water at all – it was so perfectly clear. As we looked up at the surface it was a strange sensation. We could have been standing on land looking into the water rather than the reverse. As I ventured into the darker recesses towards the back of the Cenote I could see a line along the cavern floor- a line for the scuba divers to hold onto to guide them through the cave systems to the next cenote. I wondered if it would feel claustrophobic or fascinating. Likely both. I hope to return one day and find out.

Instead of going through the underwater cave system to reach our next Cenote we walked along pretty little jungle paths. Instead of going straight to the second eye, however, we went to a smaller, less visited Cenote.

This one had a sediment floor and pretty lily pads. It was home not only to fish but also to terrapins/ turtles. They were adorable little ones, more terrapin than big sea-living turtles. It was Greg’s first time seeing them in the wild and a very special moment.

Deciding we had intruded on the turtle long enough, we headed to the back of the cenote, where through a narrow maze of winding passages created by stalactites and stalagmites, at times only centimetres from our heads, was a bat cave. Lots of beautiful little bats flew around the cave and around our heads. For those of you that have watched our Mexico video, (Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty), it felt a bit like the bat cave in Calakmul if we had been standing in the centre of it! It was amazing!

There were also little silky string-like lines made by worms dangling from the stalactites, waiting to catch bugs for dinner. They were pretty (they seemed to glow around us) – but I didn’t fancy them in my hair!

**For any of you considering a trip to Mexico and to the Cenote Dos Ojos, to enter the bat cave you must be with a guide. To swim in the two eyes cenotes you don’t need one but to dive or enter the bat cave you do.**

The second eye cenote was another big, deep one. Open space, crystal water, caves along the edges and a larger, more open bat cave but home to a lot less bats.

No wonder the Mayans thought that the cenotes were spiritual, a place connected to their gods and the afterlife. It felt otherworldly and strange to me and I understand some of the science as to how they were created and why the water looks that way. Picturing the ancient Maya exploring cenotes without that understanding, without the diving or snorkel equipment… it’s not hard to imagine how it must have felt and appeared to them. It was certainly magical to me.

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

 

The Isle of Man – Too Close To Home?

The Isle of Man – Too Close To Home?

A Blog Post By Greg

 

It was while we were halfway through our Honeymoon in Mexico that I was looking at some of the footage we had taken so far on our adventures and I came up with an idea. Why wouldn’t we edit together the footage into a travel adventure video to release to the world (we had planned on making a video for ourselves and our family anyway), and Felicity really liked the idea. Fast forward to late July 2019 and the video, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’ was ready for release on YouTube.

I had released videos on YouTube before. Together we had put out a Steampunk series the year before called ‘The Last Airship’, which to date has had an average of 2,000 views per episode. Within a few days the Mexico video had surpassed the views on any of the videos which had been out for eighteen months at that point, and we quickly realised that we had made something that not only had we enjoyed, but also which other people seemed to be enjoying watching too. Could we, we began to ask ourselves, make this more than just a one off, and actually try to make travel film making a career which would allow us to travel the world?

We decided we wanted to give it a try, and the first step would be to see if we could make another video that people liked, and so we began to discuss our next destination. I pointed out that I had a show on the Isle of Man in October 2019, and that instead of just flying over for a night, we could stay for a few nights and turn it into our next travel video. Felicity wasn’t sure, as after Mexico it seemed a little close to home – and so we agreed to film an episode on the Isle of Man, and then later in the year head a bit further away from home for a third video as well (in the end we opted for Turkey, where we filmed ‘Turkey – Fairy Chimneys and Underground Cities‘).

It therefore became my task to try to prove that we could make a travel video on the Isle of Man, as well as in the more far-flung corners of the world. So I tried in the planning to look at the Isle of Man as though we were looking at any other destination we were planning to travel to for a video, to find out what it had to offer, and to see as much of it as we could.

By now, you may have seen the result, ‘The Isle of Man – Railways, Castles and Seals‘, and you may have noticed, even from the title, that in my early research I found three main areas. We always start researching any new travel with a view to any wildlife in the area, as this is one of Felicity’s big passions, and in particular it is marine wildlife which interests us.

Although we were unfortunately out of season for basking sharks, I found that there is a point on the south of the island which is good for spotting seals – and if you want to hear what that was like when we got there, you can read Felicity’s blog post on them here.

Once we have had a look to see what wildlife is local, we then look into the history. In Mexico, this was the Mayan ruins which we visited for most of the first half of our trip, and in Turkey this meant the underground cities and Greek ruins. On the Isle of Man, this meant the castles.

From our point of view, having grown up, and still living, in the British Isles, these castles were a very familiar style to us. While they seemed familiar to us, and we both worried that this might hurt the travel aspect, each of the castles we visited had their own fascinating stories, some of which you can see in the videos, and some of which I will write about in a future blog post. We were reminded that you don’t have to go a long way, or to somewhere ‘exotic’, in order to find something fascinating to see and learn about.

Finally I found an abundance of historic railways on the island, everything from steam trains to electric railways and mountain railroads. I have always been enamoured with steam trains (part of how I got involved in the world of steampunk), and so it was a joy finding out about all of them, and choosing which ones we could fit in to our travel.

We spent a wonderful week on the Isle of Man, and although it was a very different style of adventure from our others of 2019, (in that it was closer to home, we spoke the language, stayed in one place, and everything felt very familiar), it was still an incredibly fun week. When we got to the editing suite we realised that as we had only been there a week that the video would necessarily be shorter – half an hour as opposed to an hour – but that we had a lot of footage.

Once we finished the video and released it, we were so pleased with the response it received. Far from being a ‘difficult second album’, it had been a joy, both to film and edit. People’s responses so far have been really nice, with some people saying it is their favourite out of our first three videos. It was an important lesson to us that with the right planning we can make travel videos even in places which are more familiar. We are also pleased that both the Isle of Man and the Turkey videos have, in their first twenty days, done even better than the Mexico video did in the same window.

We have learned that we have a chance, if we work hard, to make travel our lives – and so expect our videos and blog posts to continue for a long time to come!

If you want to help us with that, then please head over to YouTube and be sure to ‘subscribe’ to our channel and ‘like’ the videos. Perhaps you could also leave a comment on your favourite of the videos to let us know that that is your favourite one, and why, and that will really help us make more videos that you all enjoy!

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and safe travels!

Greg

P.S.

You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

The Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia: Part 2

 

The Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia: Part Two

A post by Lady Felicity

The Fairy Chimneys in Cappadocia, Turkey, are big business. While flying in the hot air balloon during our first morning in Turkey, we got to see first hand just how big a business it’s all become – but if you want to know more about the hot air balloons, you’ll have to read the first part of this blog post!

The locals in Cappadocia have found just about every way imaginable to celebrate and make a living from the views. We saw horses riding through the valleys, people posing atop vintage cars and ATVs zooming along, kicking up dust behind them. Lots of photo shoots –  wedding photographs, romantic roof top accommodation, love seats, horse and carriages, all sorts of things to incorporate not just the landscape itself but us in our balloons above it too in the photographs. The balloons have become an important part of the view which draws people to this incredible part of Turkey. And why not – it is certainly an incredible spectacle to behold!

We decided that we should explore the fairy chimneys and these picturesque valleys from a different perspective, given the range of options available. We decided on two methods. First was an afternoon ride through the valleys on an ATV and second we went for a sunset horse riding tour.

The ATV (all-terrain vehicle – which in this case mean quad-bike) tour had me a bit apprehensive as I cannot drive and have never ridden a bike (unless you count Greg’s Stage-Tricycle!).

After a quick practise (despite what Greg tries to make out in the video, ‘Turkey – Fairy Chimneys and Underground Cities’) on their test track I was confident enough to give the tour a go, so long as Greg and our guide didn’t mind my cautious approach.

Our tour lasted two hours and included a visit to the areas main valleys: Rose Valley, Girls Monastery, Red Valley, Swords Valley and Love Valley. At each of these valleys we would park up and hop off of our ATV’s for a quick look around and a picture or two before carrying on to the next one.

Each valley was special and distinctive in its own way, whether for the colour of the stone or the shape of the chimneys. All of them were beautiful.

As the tour went on I gained in confidence enough that our guide took us on a few bumpy, hilly, fun paths, much to Greg’s relief. Greg wanted to play and by the end, play we did!

While Greg wanted and enjoyed the bumpy, twisting, hilly paths when on an ATV, he was less keen on them when on a horse. Greg and I are not experienced horse riders by any stretch of the imagination – you can count the amount of times we’ve ridden horses on one hand – and still have a few fingers spare.

The horse riding tour offers views which you cannot see in any other tour because the places they take you are only reachable by horse. This is why some companies will not take you unless you have some riding experience.

When we booked our tour, we explained our inexperienced position to the owner of Moonlight Horse Ranch and he reassured us that we would be in safe hands, that he would show us how to ride the horse and, like the ATV’s, his horses are practically automatic.
Upon arrival at the ranch we donned our helmets, mounted our horses (the stunning, eager Cappadocian Caradot in my case and the stubborn Arabian beauty, Caramello in Greg’s), he explained the basic commands and off we went with our guide.

This tour also lasted for about two hours with a short rest stop in the middle. That rest stop was in the middle of nowhere… a nowhere that was an incredible journey to reach.

At times we were on flat or gently sloping tracks, enjoying the fairy chimney and valley views around us (when Greg’s horse wasn’t planting its feet and completely ignoring his words and nudges of encouragement!), while at others we were completely focused on our horses and the incredibly steep inclines or, worse, declines in front of us. Often with a cliff edge on one or both sides of us. I’d never seen a horse’s back legs resemble a frog’s before, but I have now. Watching the guide’s horse jump in that manner to ascend a steep incline and knowing mine was next was one thing, but when it came to the declines I quickly learned that I didn’t want to even look at his horse, didn’t want to see the crumbly, dusty floor which made the horses look as though they were stumbling and slipping as they descended.

When we reached the rest stop I suspect Greg and I were more in need of the rest than the horses were! Perhaps Caremello wasn’t just being stubborn so much as knowing what was coming and wanting no part in it!

Considering the rest stop was in the middle of nowhere and accessible only by horse, it was all remarkably civilised. A fresh fruit juice bar station, canopy covered seating, a blanketed, cosy cave room and, up some frankly disastrous looking steps (May once have been a wooden ladder but when it’s got that much glue and that many nails at odd angles trying to hold it together, I’m reluctant to call it even that!), a cave church with beautifully preserved, colourful frescos.

Greg was so shaken, he opted not to test the steps or his knees, and left me to explore the church while he sampled some juice and enjoyed the fantastic view across the valley.

While at the rest stop, another group of riders joined our small party of three. While some were experienced riders and were exhilarated and loving the views, one couple were as inexperienced as us and quite frankly terrified. The poor lady didn’t want to get back on her horse, she just wanted to stop. Her guide was reassuring, explaining the steepest parts were now over but also had to point out that the horse is the only way out of there, much to the lady’s dismay.

I had thought that Greg and I were afraid but not like this. While we were truly frightened at times we were still giggling rather than crying. Excited as well as scared. Enjoying the incredible views and experience even though it made us gasp in my case and sound like a religious sailor at times in Greg’s. If we had known what it would be like beforehand, we may not have been brave enough to do it and that would have been an incredible shame. It was an amazing, terrifying, exhilarating, extraordinary experience and, having both survived it injury free, I’m so very glad we did it.

If you have never been on a horse and have a real fear of heights, just don’t do this one. It’s not for you. Stick to the ATV and unless the fear of heights means you struggle in tall buildings, try the balloon too. Both are excellent and purely enjoyable.

If you are fine on a horse, however, this is an experience not to be missed.

If you’re like us and inexperienced but want to give it a try, do it but don’t be surprised when you break out in a cold sweat or question your sanity for doing it!

At the end of the day, remember that the horse doesn’t want to fall over the cliff either and they tread this path regularly, they know what they are doing. So long as you don’t fall off the horse, you’ll be perfectly fine and have a chance to see some stunning views and have an experience like no other.
I’m less sure if Greg’s legs (or Caremello!) would let him but I would certainly be willing to do it again.

The Fairy Chimneys are incredible and however you wish to explore them, I doubt you’d be disappointed. We certainly weren’t. Just fantastic.

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

Palenque: Part 2: A Lost City

Palenque – A Lost City
A post by Greg

If you haven’t already done so, I suggest starting with part one of this blog post series, about our times in the jungles outside of Palenque, where we saw some of the ruins of the ancient Mayan city in the same state in which they were originally found… It’s ok, you can go and read it now, I’ll wait right here for you.

Are you back? Perfect! Then I shall continue with us crossing a small stream out of the jungle, bidding ‘arrivederci’ to our Italian speaking guide, and entering into the main archeological site of Palenque, the part where many of the buildings have been more or less uncovered.

In my first blog post about our trip to Mexico I talked about Teotihuacan, and it is interesting to contrast these two amazing cities for a moment. While we felt the heat of the sun in both, the site of Palenque, surrounded by jungle, about 500 feet above sea level, felt a world away from the desert ruins at over 7,000 feet which we had seen at Teotihuacan.

While the view from the top of the ‘Pyramid of the Moon’ at Teotihuacan opened out, seeing all of the remaining ruins and stretching out across roads and modern buildings, when you look out from the top of the ‘Temple of the Cross’ in Palenque it is a more restricted and isolated view. You can see a number of buildings and some open space, but on all sides this disappears into jungle, and you can’t see roads or modern buildings.

The views from the top of the ‘Temple of the Cross’ in Palenque ‘Pyramid of the Moon’ in Teotihuacan.

There are a number of features which make Palenque unique, however, and the two which I found perhaps most interesting were the tombs of two men, whose deaths were separated by nearly thirteen centuries!

The first, inside the grand ‘Pyramid of Inscriptions’ belongs to Kʼinich Janaab Pakal, a ruler of Palenque who had died in 683. His tomb was not actually discovered until well into the excavations at the site, when an archaeologist named Alberto Ruz Lhuillier noticed that a stone inside the pyramid actually had holes in it, which were plugged with other stones.

Ruz Lhuillier realised that these holes would have been used to lower the large stone into place – suggesting that it was some form of doorway. Moving the stone uncovered the entrance to a stairway, covered in rubble.

The rubble took four years to clear out, until in 1952 Alberto Ruz Lhuillier finally found out just how special his find was as he entered the tomb of Pakal, still intact with statues and, wearing a mask made of jade, the skeleton of Pakal himself.

Facing the entrance to the pyramid of inscriptions is a far smaller tomb, but one which is incredibly poignant. For here is the last resting place of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier himself, after the Mexican Government gave special permission for him to be laid to rest among the ruins he had worked so hard to reveal to the world. To see that the archaeological study of the site has now become part of the history and structure of the site itself is a real connection between the days of Pakal and the modern era!

If you want to see some more of the site, be sure to watch our video ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’.

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Greg

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

The Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia: Part 1

The Fairy Chimneys of Cappodocia: Part One
A post by Lady Felicity

Another adventure and another chance to try something from my ‘bucket list’.

In November 2019 Greg and I visited Turkey to film our video, ‘Turkey – Fairy Chimneys and Underground Cities’. In a place called Cappadocia you will find the Goreme National Park, which is famous for its ‘Fairy Chimneys’.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of the Fairy Chimneys, a brief explanation might be necessary. Millions of years ago there was a long series of volcanic eruptions. The volcanic ash which fell as a result hardened into multiple layers of rock, geologically known as tuff. Over a long period of time, wind, water and ice whittled away at the tuff, but in areas where a harder rock layer rested atop the softer layer of tuff, the erosion couldn’t reach the tuff beneath – and so the fairy chimneys or ‘castles’ as the locals refer to them were created.

There are numerous valleys in the area, each with distinctive rock formations of different shapes, sizes and colours. We wanted to see all of these valleys, and so my aim was to view them and their famous Fairy Chimneys from above, from a hot air balloon.

Cappadocia is also world famous for flying hot air balloons. The amazing, otherworldly landscape combined with good weather conditions makes it the perfect place for people to fly in a balloon and also makes the hot air balloon the best way to see the landscape.

Our arrival in Cappadocia was actually after dark after a full day of aeroplanes and we had arranged the hot air balloon ride for our first morning in Turkey, just in case our flight was cancelled- we wanted time to try again on another morning if necessary, meaning that before our flight we hadn’t seen anything of the landscape yet.

We had booked our flight in advance, with Butterfly Balloons, and their van collected us from our hotel at 5:50am. We enjoyed a small buffet breakfast at their office to start and then still in darkness we were driven to the balloon inflation site.

A row of about five massive balloons, each in varying stages of inflation, their blasts of fire providing the only illumination. I must admit, the sight was both impressive and a little intimidating. While I’m not really afraid of heights, I have a healthy fear of landing unexpectedly from a great height. In other words, going splat!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a ride in a hot air balloon aside from the gorgeous view. It didn’t exactly help matters when, upon climbing up and into the balloon’s basket, the first thing they do is demonstrate the ‘brace position’ we all had to master before taking off, just in case we landed badly!

I didn’t really expect a rough ride and yet I was still surprised by how smoothly we just drifted up into the air, the earth dropping effortlessly away beneath us. Flying in a hot air balloon isn’t so much flying as it is floating. That’s certainly how it felt to me at least.

The wind didn’t even so much as ruffle my hair. I imagine that if I could have felt the wind, that would class as too strong for the balloons to fly. This is why all balloons fly so early in the morning, calmer weather before the sun rises and starts to heat things up.

The small towns below, such as Göreme, fit into the natural shape of the land. Little pockets of light nestled into the valleys in an otherwise dark landscape.



As the sunrise approached and the sky started to turn a more agreeable blue, the view opened up around us!

It was so surreal and peaceful up there, gazing at the incredible valleys below, it was actually a bit of a shock each time our pilot ignited the flames and with a noisy gust of fire our balloon rose higher.

As well as admiring the fairy chimneys and the beauty of the land below, the spectacle of all the other balloons, about 130 of them, rising into the skies all around us was fantastic, with our flight lasting an hour and twenty minutes and reaching a maximum height of 6,800 feet.

At one point, a lady in the basket next to ours asked where our landing area was. Our pilot waved his arm vaguely encompassing all the land below and said ‘’there.’’ He went on to explain ‘’I control how high we go but the wind controls where we land’’.

An incredible way to travel, but the harder job belonged to the driver below who had to chase us with his car and trailer bed. They are well practised in this, however, and as our balloon gently descended, the driver arranged his trailer perfectly, our basket gracefully landed upon it with barely a discernible bump.

Our flight had finished but the fun wasn’t quite over yet- the Butterfly Balloons team pulled our balloon down to the ground with ropes while the passengers clambered out of the baskets. We then all proceeded to shuffle along our partially deflated balloon, releasing the warm air from within and drawing it completely down to the ground. It felt almost ceremonious. Especially when the champagne corks popped and we were all sprinkled with bubbly, before enjoying a glass and a slice of cake before being driven back to our hotel – just in time for breakfast!

What an incredible way to start the first day of our newest adventure!

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

Palenque: Part 1: Into The Jungle

 
Palenque – Into The Jungle
A post by Greg
 
I can distinctly remember being in my childhood home and sitting down to watch a film with my father and older brother one evening – we’re going back nearly thirty years here. We’d watched all of the James Bond films to date (an era pre-Brosnan, let alone Daniel Craig), and I had enjoyed them, but they were never to be one of my favourites when it came to films.

That night we were going to watch a film called ‘Raiders of The Lost Ark’, which was apparently the first film featuring a character named ‘Indiana Jones’. I didn’t know it at the time, but sitting down to watch that film was going to be a life changing experience, and one which gave me a dream in life, one that would take nearly three decades, and Felicity, to fulfil!

As soon as the opening shot appeared of a mysterious figure in a fedora in a South American jungle, I was hooked on the idea of adventure. As his story unfolded over three films (the fourth would not come out until much, much later in my life of course) I watched a world of history, adventure and travel unfold before me. The only other film that reaches these heights in this way for me (and is, arguably, a better film), is ‘The Mummy’ with Brendan Fraser – which I won’t go too deeply in to at this point or Felicity will bring up the fact that I will watch anything with Rachel Weisz in it. That film, released when I was fourteen felt like part of the storytelling journey that had begun for me with ‘Raiders’, an adventure story which continued to inspire me.

It was these films that started me on my interest in history, and sparked the beginning of my history shows. They were also part of the reason why I leapt at the chance in 2007 to head over to Italy, where I would spend most of seven years travelling around the country performing. The first time I went to Venice in 2008, travelling overnight on a train from Turin to get there, it was Indiana Jones visiting the city in ‘The Last Crusade’ which had inspired my journey.

That, however, is the past and a world of fiction. This blog is about our adventures in the real world!

When we sat down to plan our honeymoon, we decided on Mexico because it was a country where Felicity could visit the whales of Magdalena Bay, and I could visit some jungle ruins. My imagination conjured up that opening scene of ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ from a faraway childhood memory, and that was what I was hoping for (hence Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty as the title of our video!).

You may have already read about our first ruin in Teotihuacan in an earlier post, and at some point I will get around to writing about El Tajin and Uxmal. All of these were incredible sites in their own ways, and it felt through those three as though we were edging ever closer to my ‘real jungle ruin’, but each one of them just missed it.

Then we arrived at the Mayan city of Palenque.

As we pulled up in the car-park, intending to head straight into the main site to see the ruins as they have been uncovered, we met the gentleman in the photo above, Marco. He introduced himself as a guide, and offered us a guided tour into the jungles outside of the main site. He was friendly and not pushy, and after he had explained what he could offer, he left us alone to discuss it.

It was only a short discussion – we were very keen to experience something a bit different, and the price was very fair – and so we set off with him out into the jungles. A few minutes in we discovered what could have been a minor problem – in the form of a slight language barrier. Luckily we discovered the problem and the solution at the same moment.

As we first made our way into the jungle we were introducing ourselves, and in some way a mention of Italy or Italian made me mention that I speak the language. At this point in time Marco seemed to relax and, switching to Italian, explained that he was fluent in Italian while his English was basic. In Italian we could relax, chat and ask questions, and suddenly I became Felicity’s translator for the tour. It was strange to be in Mexico speaking a foreign language, but one that was so familiar to me, having been struggling thus far with what wouldn’t even pass for ‘schoolboy Spanish’.

There is a lot of mystery about the Ancient Mayan people, and one mystery involves why there was a mass departure from their large cities. In Palenque, however, their reasons for leaving were probably as simple, and recognisable to us, as climate change.

This jungle, Marco informed us, had been cut back as the people expanded their city from its origins around 266BCE. This led to climate change, and the area became a desert, without enough rainfall to grow crops and feed the ever increasing population, until the city was finally abandoned some time during the 9th Century CE. After the people were forced away by this lack of water, however, the jungle began to take back control and spread back over the ruins until they were once again engulfed the city, and water returned to the area, where now a small river runs through the jungle, and a host of wildlife has returned including monkeys – which are beautiful to see, but don’t stand beneath them in case they need a ‘bathroom break’.

Out here in the jungle, as well as watching out for monkeys, we were seeing the ruins as they had first been found. We were pleased to hear that, with all the wildlife in the jungle, that the trees are now protected. What has been uncovered of the ruins (which, we were informed, is a mere 5% of the whole city) are now preserved as an archaeological zone, while everything left in the jungle remains overgrown.

Nearly every step you took you could see, buried beneath hundreds of years of tree growth, remains of Mayan houses, temples, and other buildings. We were off the beaten track – literally, a lot of the time – and when we paused we could hear nothing but the sounds of the jungle – monkeys in the trees, a river flowing and birds singing. There was no sign that we were within a mile of ‘civilisation’, and all of a sudden we were living a dream. We were in a jungle, finding ruins everywhere – and even making our way through some of the ruins – and I was having the type of adventure which I had only imagined while watching Indiana Jones. All that was missing was a bullwhip (although I did buy a couple of these to add to my show kit while we were on Isla Mujeres later in our journey).

In my next blog post I will delve deeper into the site itself, and its discovery. This post, however, is about achieving a childhood dream. I must note, I also watched Tarzan as a boy, and Palenque did give he a chance to play at being Tarzan – but for that, you’ll have to watch the video HERE!

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Greg

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.