Monday, May 25, 2015

Hawaii to Houston

Following some more blissfully relaxing days at sea from Honolulu, we've arrived in the beautiful city of Vancouver, capital of British Columbia in Canada. Amazingly the seas seemed to go from calm to completely flat for the majority of this last leg of our passage across the Pacific however (not surprisingly) the temperature also started to drop dramatically as we approached the USA west coast. Since we packed for summer temperatures that put an end to wandering out on deck to enjoy the sea breeze. Someone in charge on board was very careless and we lost an hour each day almost every night of this last leg. Apparently it was to catch up to Pacific Daylight Time. 

Whale watching in luxury
One moment of special excitement in the afternoon of day 19 - we just managed to be in the right place at the right time on the Observation Deck to spot a pod of whales passing us. They were obviously heading for their summer vacation destination in Hawaii. One of the whales very obligingly breached completely our of the water within 100m of the ship!

Whales going on holiday to Hawaii
On our second last night on board, a small group of Piano Bar regulars schemed a little celebration to acknowledge all the fun we'd had with our Aussie pianist, singer and friend Paul. We were also celebrating the many friendships developed with the other of guests who also discovered and became regulars at this fantastic late night venue. Lots of towel animals escaped from their cabins to come and join in the singing on the top of the baby grand piano. 

Towel animals visit Paul C McD at the Piano Bar
Our short stay in Vancouver was chance to regroup and also to take in the whole of Stanley Park experience. On the three previous visits to the capital of BC we've not been able to undertake a thorough investigation of the park 's attractions, including its amazing views and its abundant wildlife. 

A visit to the Vancouver Aquarium was the highlight of day one in Vancouver.  Vancouver Aquarium is very impressive and features a large outdoor section - home to rescued penguins, seals and sea lions, dolphins and also a pair of Beluga whales. 

Beluga whales
The Beluga Whale was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List in 2008 as being "near threatened".Of seven Canadian beluga populations, the two inhabiting eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay are listed as endangered.

Beluga Whale being fed
Inside the main building a comprehensive set of tanks exhibited a comprehensive range of the diverse sea life from the numerous British Columbia coastal regions. I've also included some more detail about the aquarium in the side panel to the right.

We saved a Stanley Park exploration for day 2 and hired push bikes get around. A popular (apparently the world's longest uninterrupted) cycle and roller-blade track and footpath for walkers and runners follows the 8.8km seawall/waterline. In addition to this main access path the 400 ha park is criss crossed with walking paths all suitable for bikes and several sealed roads.

Cool Bike Chick
Prospect Point provides some amazing views of 473m main span Lions Gate Bridge (also called First Narrows Bridge) and Burrard Inlet. 

Bulk carrier Orhan passes under Lions Gate bridge bound for Turkey
There's lots of wildlife both native and introduced in the park. The Black Squirrel was introduced from the east coast in the early twentieth century.

Black Squirrel (introduced)
Stanley Park now has a growing population of black squirrels. The squirrels have also thrived and spread throughout the Vancouver area.

Canada geese and their offspring are a common sight particularly in the park lands around Lost Lagoon

Canada goose and goslings
In recent years, Canada goose populations in some areas have grown substantially, so much so that many Canadians consider this bird to be a pest due to their droppings, bacteria in their droppings, and their noise. 

Almost as common are the wood duck or Carolina duck (a species of perching duck found in North America)

Wood Duck (male)
Whilst exploring the dozens of internal trails amongst  the centuries old trees we learnt a little about one of the difficult management decisions in Stanley Park when we came across a pair of (introduced) white swans nesting on the edge of Lost Lagoon. The numbers of this territorial bird species has been expanding and has begun threatening the local fauna.

Nesting swan on shores of Lost Lagoon
The low impact conservation measure being used (we were told by a local "friend" of Stanley Park) was the removal of eggs to cut down on the growth of this species.

It was obvious from the dams being built that beavers are local resident in both Lost Lagoon and Beaver Lake although we weren't lucky enough to see any during our visit. Their natural behavior of dam construction in the watercourse flowing out of the two lakes in the park is having a dramatic impact on the fragile environment of this urban landscape. I've included some more detail about the local Beavers in the side panel to the right.

Stanley Park, Vancouver

Our hosts in Texas (Jeff and Laura) have a property in the far east of Texas on the edge of Caddo Lake. This freshwater lake is a network of bayous that eventually runs into the Mississippi River in Louisiana near Sheveport.

The area is extremely quiet and is popular as a fisherman's paradise and get away from everything holiday destination. The place is full of critters, many of which come close to the house. The bayou is home to alligators (Helen spotted a small one swimming close to the back verandah), snapping turtles and many varieties of fish including Largemouth Bass (a prized sport fish) and the American Paddlefish. On land around Caddo Lake there are deer, cougars, cottontail snakes, armadillos and squirrils just to name a few.

Big Cypress Bayou runs through Caddo Lake and once permitted commercial riverboat travel to nearby Jefferson from ports such as St. Louis and New Orleans via the Mississippi and Red Rivers.

Big Cypress Bayou

Native to the Mississippi River Basin the American Paddlefish are among the largest and longest lived freshwater fishes in North America. Fossil records of paddlefish date back over 300 million years, nearly 50 million years before dinosaurs first appeared.

American Paddlefish

Fishing on Caddo Lake

The property has a water frontage onto a backwater of the Big Cypress Bayou called Pine Island Pond. The pond is surrounded with Bald Cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. Spanish moss is an epiphyte which absorbs nutrients and water from the air and rainfall and is colloquially known as "air plant". Its presence on the Bald Cypress tree branches creates a stunning and somewhat spooky appearance of the silver-gray strands, hanging like natural Halloween decorations.

Pine Island Pond

The historic town of Jefferson - once a major inland port on Big Cypress Bayou was a thriving city - the sixth largest town in Texas just a few years after the Civil War.  The railway, amongst other things eventually forced the decline of river transport and the significance of the city.

Historic Jefferson General Store
Inside Jefferson General Store

Almost four years ago we visited Kennedy Space Centre (Cape Canaveral) in Florida. During this trip we've been able to also visit the Apollo manned Moon landing program facility in Houston, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) center for human spaceflight activities -Johnson Space Centre.

Johnson Space Center is home to NASA's astronaut corps and is responsible for training astronauts from both the U.S. and its international partners. It has become popularly known by its central function "Mission Control", from the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle Programs.

One of the newest Space Centre Exhibits is the Space Shuttle mockup Independence (delivered from Kennedy Space Centre mounted on top of a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

Space Shuttle Cockpit

A restored Saturn V complete with Command and Service Module is housed in a custom built building after it sat exposed to outdoor elements from 1977 through 2004. At almost 3,000 tonnes, 110m tall and 10m diameter, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status.

Apollo Command and Service Modules attached to Saturn V
Saturn V explained

Inside the Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Centre building, the now historic Shuttle Flight Control Room (FCR) has a new, futuristic look. Upgraded from its honorable service with the Space Shuttle, the famous room has transitioned into what is called MCC-21 – is all-but ready for its future role in supporting NASA’s current and future launch vehicles and spacecraft.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Heading North to Hawaii

Just in case we or any of the other guests on our Trans-Pacific adventure got a little confused by all the time zone changes, we had a magnificent Waterford-crystal globe in the Atrium to help us stay focused on our objective.

The spendour of the Oosterdam Atrium

Pago Pago on the mountainous island of Tutuila, is the de facto capital town (and only significant port) of American Samoa. Despite centuries of European influence, it was very obvious how Samoans have maintained their culture and historical and social customs.

Surf spray off the fringing reefs of the island of Tutuila

Tuna fleet in Pago Pago Harbour
Pago Pago Harbour

This rock is known locally as the Camel Rock because of its obvious shape. I can't see it myself.

Camel Rock 

Nawiliwili Harbour was our first port after American Samoa and is on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Kauai - Hawaiian Islands

The mountain at the very center of Kauai, Mt. Waialeale receives so much rain each year that totally unique flora and fauna exist at its summit. Receiving up to an annual record 17.3 metres of rain, this mountain (at least the bit where the rain gauge is located) is claimed to be the wettest place on Earth.

The entrance to the harbour is very picturesque and narrow. I have included the following pictures to show you.


Sunset at Nawiliwili Harbour

As I spent the majority of my childhood at a small harbour in North Queensland that exists primarily for the export of raw sugar my interest (and thus this photo) piqued. The sugar industry on Kauai has ceased to exist largely due to the cost of land and labour. The storage shed at Nawiliwili Harbour is one of the few remaining vestiges of this significant periods in Hawaii history,

Raw sugar storage shed - Nawiliwili Harbour

We visited Waimea Canyon State Park, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific - a large canyon, approximately 16km long and up to 900m deep formed not by the steady process of erosion and by a catastrophic collapse of the volcano that created Kauai.

Over time, the exposed basalt has weathered from its original black to bright red.

Waimea Canyon

Spouting Horn is located on the southern coast of Kauai. Wave action has eroded lava rocks on the coastline creating narrow openings. With every wave, water shoots upward when it is forced through an opening and creates a sound suggestive of (a lizard's roar) hissing.

Spouting Horn Blowhole

Honolulu Harbour was also host to Star Princess the day and evening we spent on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. This is the second cruise ship by this name operating for the Carnival Group. The first was renamed Pacific Pearl and transferred from Princess Cruises to P&O Cruises Australia in 2010. You may recall that (ironically) we berthed in Noumea on the same day as Pacific Pearl.

Star Princess and her "Grand" class sister ships Grand Princess and Golden Princess featured the unique Skywalkers nightclub suspended over the stern - I've read at least one comment that the nightclub makes these "Grand" class ships look like a shopping trolley.

Pacific Star berthed at Aloha Tower Cruise Ship Terminal

The suspended nightclub on Grand Princess has since been removed.

Goodbye Skywalkers 

Bunkering operations in Honolulu Harbour was a whole day affair with the tug Namahoe and accompanying oil field support barge came alongside until an hour before departure.

Tug Namahoe with bunker barge Neena alongside Oosterdam

Pearl Harbor, our primary objective in Honolulu, is a National Historic Landmark and still remains an active military base as well as the headquarters of the USA Pacific Naval Fleet.

The visitor centre consists of several exhibition buildings which describe the history and the drama of the "surprise" attack on multiple US military assets on Oahu (including Pearl Harbour) by the Empire of Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

The highlight of the visit is a short launch trip across the lagoon to the USS Arizona Memorial. Here lies the sunken wreck of the battleship Arizona and the tomb of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and marines killed on December 7. Oil leaking from the sunken battleship can still be seen rising from the wreckage to the surface of the water. This oil is sometimes referred to as "the tears of the Arizona".

The shrine within this national memorial is a marble wall bearing the names of all those killed on the Arizona. Many of the surviving crew members have subsequently elected to have their ashes interred within the sunken remains.

USS Arizona Memorial straddles the sunken wreck

The battleship USS Missouri is a late addition to the memorial and is berthed 460 metres from the USS Arizona Memorial. Missouri was the last battleship commissioned by the USA Navy

Those of you familiar with WW2 history will recall that the Japanese formally surrendered to United States on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, thus ending World War II.

Plaque commemorating the surrender of Japan to end World War II

The pairing of the Arizona wreck and the Missouri has become an evocative symbol of the beginning and end of the United States' participation in the war.

USS Missouri now berthed at Ford Island

The Pearl Harbour Historic Landmark also features the USS Bowfin, a Balao-class diesel-electric submarine commissioned 18 months after the Pearl Harbour attack. Bowfin served in the Pacific during the remainder of WW2 and was recommissioned for service during the Korean conflict.

Notably amongst the numerous enemy vessels attacked, an unmarked Japanese cargo ship Tsushima Maru was sunk by Bowfin on 22 August 1944 as the ship was carrying hundreds of schoolchildren from Okinawa to Kagoshima. About 1,484 civilians, including 767 schoolchildren were killed,

USS Bowfin

The numerous sea days with warm evenings and smooth seas has been perfect for some evening photography with my new camera.

The twin funnels serve as both air intake as well as an engine and waste heat exhaust.  Up to 5 diesel engines and one gas turbine on board Oosterdam can power electric generators that in turn provide electrical energy to the ships electric propulsion motors, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, freshwater production and cooking plus all the other navigation functions and the hotel electrical load.

Oosterdam's "twin rubbish bins" funnels
Satellite Dish Dome
Moon rising over the Observation Deck

Finally a photo from the Piano Bar on Aussie Night.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Coral Sea Adventure

As I begin to write for the first time since we sailed out Sydney Harbour on April 19th (our 35th Wedding Anniversary) we are now more or less in the middle of the Pacific Ocean sailing north towards Hawaii. We've been steaming (motoring) non-stop for almost a week since we departed Pago Pago on Tutuila - the largest and the main island of American Samoa. American Samoa is situated just south of the equator and just west of the International Date Line. Of course crossing the IDL meant we doubled up on a day (last Sunday) and ever since the events department has been having trouble working out what is the actual day on the printed activities sheet (printed daily).

Sydney Skyline

Life on board Oosterdam is pretty hard to take ;-). For us it is a monotonous routine of sleeping in, late breakfasts (or early lunches), visiting the spa (Helen), taking in a movie, reading, playing trivia, partaking in the mandatory "Happy (cocktail) Hour" in the Crowns Nest bar, silver service dining in the sumptuous two story Vista Dining Room around 8pm. We generally stagger out of the dining room around 9:30pm having mentally prepared ourselves for the long trek from the stern to the late show in the Vista Lounge (theatre) at the bow of the ship (almost). I'm sure the cruise ship builders deliberately position these two venues as far apart as possible to ensure that passengers get some exercise during their "busy" day. This devious design also weeds out those who've drunk one or two glasses of red more than they should - walking along the winding corridors as the ship pitches and rolls in the gentle swell takes a special skill that red wine does not improve. After the late show we shuffle in to join the regular crowd at the piano bar where the laughter is as plentiful as the singing as we sit around the baby grand. Finally after our drinks waiter stops serving, it's time for a late night hot chocolate on the Sea View Pool Deck at the stern of the ship to take in the stars (occasionally) and the sounds and the smells of the ocean. When the weather permits we might also take a late night stroll around the Observation Deck and spend a few minutes on the forward verandah below the bridge.

Relaxing near the pool

The deprivations are particularly horrendous. Top of the list would be never experiencing hunger and the burden of choosing from the extensive menu and wine list. Selecting a cocktail for happy hour is also a burden nobody should have to endure. Then there are the music venues - so many to choose from. Now we don't want to create the impression that it is all bad. There are a few challenges that are not so burdensome (for us at least) and all involve adding to Holland America's bottom line. There's the lure of the "Onboard Opportunities" (seriously - that's what they are referred to in the Daily News / Activity sheet) including the Casino (wouldn't know what to do anyway), the Sale Days at the shops (Gift, Jewelry and Apparel) and last but not least the "Fine Art" Auctions.

So far we've experienced excellent weather - warm temperatures and mostly a long low swell that reminds us that we're travelling across the ocean. For a couple of days this week, as we crossed the equator, the sea was smooth (almost glassy). Overall we haven't had many sunny days but then again there haven’t been too many rainy days either and the rain has been in the form of occasional showers.

So a little about some of our ports of call. Our plans for a private History Tour fell through in Noumea (the only port on this trip we've been to previously) so we settled for a walk to the top of the hill behind Cath├ędrale Saint Joseph.

Noumea Harbour

Oosterdam berthed at the nearby Container Terminal

We were sharing  the port with several thousand Aussie passengers from P&O's Pacific Pearl.

Pacific Pearl berthed at the Cruise Passenger Terminal

The cruise ship passenger terminal was awash with Aussies and locals selling excursions on the very popular tourist train that drives around the city streets and the nearby beaches providing a running commentary to the passengers blaring over the loud speakers in each open "carriage". Whilst this excursion type is not exactly our cup of tea, sadly this style of tourist attraction (a multi trailer mini road train) would never be permitted to operate on public roads in our over regulated state of NSW.

Le Petit Train in Noumea

Rue de I'Alma
The following day we anchored off the beach at Easo on the island of Lifou, New Caledonia and were tendered to the pier on beach. This locale is very low key with some of the local French Polynesian community offering bikes for hire and locally produced souvenirs. The main beach is fringed by a coral reef and some snorkelers were rewarded with encounters with green turtles.

Oosterdam at anchor at Lifou

During our visit to Port Vila we were confronted with evidence of cyclone Pam. The CBD was not too badly damaged but in the outlying communities, where construction standards are fairly relaxed, the devastation is appalling. We saw plenty of evidence of NGO other international aid activity particularly in the outlying schools in Port Vila. By far the predominant building element in the greatest demand continues to be roof sheeting. Everywhere we looked, almost all of the factories, shops and warehouses have new (mostly green) Colourbond roofs.

Cyclone Damage are Port Vila

 Our snorkeling adventure - a private excursion (just seven of us), was to the least affected western side of the main island of Efate. Our guide Peter  took us aboard his trimaran to three locations just off the beach to snorkel around the coral reef.

Efate West Coast

Two of the dive locations were immediately adjacent to the camp sites selected by the producers of the ninth season of the American CBS competitive reality television series Survivor filmed in 2004.

"Survivor" Beach

Peter explained that during the filming the Vanuatu Government declared and enforced a no-go zone around the entire coastline to prevent unauthorsed filming that might interfere or otherwise undermine the surprise element of the series. Apparently the subsequent long term economic benefit flowing from this series in the form of additional visitor numbers to Vanuatu has been negligible.

Our next stop was Suva, Fiji on Sunday 26th however at dawn on the sea day between Vanuatu and Fiji we took part in what was probably the most significant event on board Oosterdam during this cruise for hundreds of Australians and a handful of New Zealanders (plus a number of Canadians and Americans) a  ANZAC Commemoration Service. Planning for the commemoration of this historic event started with an online Cruise Critic conversation and then several emails with Holland America. The Cruise Director Rick Barnes and his Events Team was tremendously supportive and the service was attended by up to 500 guests and some of the officers and entertainment staff (I originally anticipated up to 30 participants).

Our Master of Ceremonies was Rev. Major Barry Brown. Barry also delivered the address and New Zealanders Duncan Middlemas and Chris Cochrane and fellow Aussie Andrew McCarthy from Coffs Harbour each helped with planning and took an active role during the service. We were privileged to have the grandson of a Gallipoli Veteran (a stretcher bearer) on board who placed a wreath on behalf of all Australians. The service went off flawlessly and concluded just as the sun rose above the horizon. Dozens of passengers approached me following the service to thank me for ensuring that this significant commemoration took place and I was also thanked by Rick during the two shows that evening.

A wonderful surprise on this cruise has been reuniting with pianist, singer and all round entertainer Paul McDonell. We first met Paul on our first cruise aboard ms Zaandam on our Alaska to Vancouver Trip in 2011. Paul comes from Queensland and the Alaska cruise we shared was his first gig with Holland America. Sitting around the bar with Paul playing and singing is a hoot. Rather than try to learn the names of the regulars he refers to the guests by their home country eg. Germany, Holland, Canada and sometimes more specifically by their state eg. Queensland or location eg. Magnetic Island. The audience participates in song, actions and sound effects where applicable. Paul plays 7 nights per week from 9pm until after midnight. It is very tempting to skip the headline nightly show in the theatre just to stick around and not miss the fun.

Aussie Nite at the Piano Bar

On the subject of music and singing, on the morning we berthed in Suva we walked the short distance to Wesley Central Methodist Church to be part of their quarterly combined worship service. The singing was everything we could have wished for; every hymn and every item (from the various visiting congregations) was sung in glorious four part harmony. They are still using the Australian / New Zealand Methodist Hymn Book (lots of thee's and thou's) but we really didn't care. The congregation knew every note of their respective part and they weren't afraid to sing enthusiastically.

Suva Wesley Methodist Church

My pre-cruise research suggested that we could expect to find that Suva was a bit run down and unkempt. This was not the reality – the modern city that greeted us was neat and well maintained. Even though most of the city was observing the holy day, a few shopping malls near the dock were open for the visitors.

Port of Suva
Next edition we’ll share more of our adventure starting with the port of Pago Pago, capital city of American Samoa.