Category Archives: Wildlife

Our Day with Mario in Zapata National Park, Cuba

The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience continues in Zapata National Park, Cuba…

Our new host, Dayami, used to work for Zapata National Park until her and her husband opened their casa to visitors. Now it’s full time at home. I pulled out my map and showed her where we planned to explore and hike in the park, and asked about transport. Little did I know this plan wasn’t possible without an official guide, and she didn’t think there would be any guides available during our stay. An official guide was needed not just to enter the park lands but to veer us away from the military stationed around Zapata. Really? This pretty important point was unfortunately not made clear during the planning stage by any of our hosts or contacts or research. Now our team was on the cusp but not allowed to enter. How could we come all this way but not complete my so-carefully outlined itinerary? It’s in these moments we’d learn about Cuban openhandedness. There is no lack of generosity in Cuba. Dayami seeing my stricken face immediately began to brainstorm possibilities and a friend she could call to get us in the door and satisfying our scientific goals.

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Dayami Hostal in Playa Larga, Cuba

Unfortunately the friend she had in mind to guide us was already booked for the week by a Chinese couple interested in birds. Did they know the migrating bird season had come and gone? Maybe we should switch itineraries. Not to be deterred, we walked through town to the park’s visitor office, a small understated cement block building you could walk right passed if you weren’t paying attention. We hoped to turn our luck.

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Zapata National Park Visitor Center, Playa Larga, Cuba

Inside I finally found a shelf of pamphlets and maps, and excitedly began to look through them, only to realize they were from everywhere but Cuba. There was even a pamphlet about saving the redwoods of California. As I’m a native Californian, I’m all about protecting our redwoods but shouldn’t the Cubans be promoting their own homeland campaigns? There’s been no money for such luxuries. A tall man wearing a cap and canvas vest both displaying a logo for Zapata National Park greeted us. After some moments of discussion with my rough Spanish and his bits of English we miraculously found a guide would be available in about an hour, and would give us a ride into the park. Of course there were no park maps or booklets, and we had to pay an entrance fee and a fee for his guidance and a fee for the car and driver, but that was expected and truly worth every kook.

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Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

About an hour later our guide Mario arrived at our casa in an old jeep with a driver. He has worked for Zapata Park Service for over 22 years, and was yet another Cuban willing to share all his knowledge and make sure we were more than satisfied with our experience. We could not explore the area to the west as planned, including the unpaved road to Santo Tomas due to flooding. I felt thwarted. But Mario’s plan saved the day and saved my face from being stricken again. He had us driven to another stretch of the park definitely less traveled by tourists and locals alike. We walked the forest floor in search of Cuban insects, turning over rotting logs and large rocks and inspecting the underside of leaves hanging down from the canopy. We dressed in head-to-toe protective gear and a thick layer of Deet. And somehow escaped the onslaught, coming away with photos and jotted notes and discussions of all the wonderful diversity we’d seen. I even photographed a pygmy owl.

Zapata Insects Julia ThomsenCopyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

We arrived back at the jeep to find its driver shirtless, hot, sweaty and burnt red leaning over the engine with a frustrated, apologetic expression. Something was apparently wrong with the vehicle, and we were out in the park a good hike from any used road and without cell phone reception. In fact, for the Americans there is no cell reception in Cuba. And despite the news of Internet cafes opening, we never found one. After some moments of discussion between Mario and our driver, and a definite word that sounded like “broke”, a plan was hatched. The ladies would get in and the men would push and jump in once the engine got going. I had to wonder if it would get going. To everyone’s surprise with a hard push the engine started. The men jumped in and off we went on the bumping dirt drive back to Playa Larga. We were dropped off at Dayami’s casa, paid Mario for his services and with a push and a wave the jeep was on its way. Once again fresh cold juice was awaiting our arrival, and with a cold shower and clean clothes, all was right in the world. Our day with Mario was unplanned and perfect.

Zapata National Park, Cuba Julia ThomsenCopyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

Explore insects of Zapata National Park, and look for The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience to continue…

Sanctuary of the Monarch Butterfly

Sanctuary of the Monarch Butterfly: NOW is the time to visit Monarch Grove Sanctuary. According to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History in Pacific Grove, California (also known as “Butterfly Town, USA”), the butterfly population is now estimated at 14,000.  The Monarchs cluster by the hundreds into beautiful orange cascades in the pine and eucalyptus trees of the Sanctuary. We were recently at the preserve and saw the clustered butterflies awaken and flutter about as the sun warmed the area.  A remarkable sight.

The Monarch overwintering season is from November through February. “Overwintering” means to pass through or wait out the winter.  The Monarchs venture to the mild climate of the Central California Coast to avoid colder weather. They may travel up to 2000 miles to make this journey. A docent at the Sanctuary, explained this phenomena is unique as several generations of Monarchs have lived and died since the departure of last year’s gathering, and so this generation appears without ever having been to the Sanctuary.

Big Sur Expedition - Jan 2014 XplorMor Inc

XplorMor: Monarch Grove Sanctuary

Monarch Grove Sanctuary is located at 263 Grove Acre Avenue, Pacific Grove, CA 93950.  Open everyday from sunrise to sundown, and admission is free.  The Pacific Grove Museum emphasizes, “The community has always welcomed the butterflies and sought their protection. Citizens of Pacific Grove voted to create an additional tax to create the Sanctuary of the Monarch Butterfly, led by dedicated volunteers.  The Pacific Grove Police Department continues to enforce strict regulations that prohibit the “molestation of butterflies.”  The fine?  $1,000.”  

Read more about Monarch Butterflies and this wonderful Sanctuary of the Monarch Butterfly.

Elephants of the Sea: Exploring Piedras Blancas Rookery

From last week’s find of petroglyphs near the Piedra Blanca rock formations in Los Padres National Forest (See Pictographs Found), we head to the rocky Pacific Ocean shore of Piedras Blancas Rookery.  

Friends of the Elephant Seal explains the area best: the “Northern Elephant Seal, Mirounga angustirostris, is an extraordinary marine mammal. It spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1000 to 5000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest. The Piedras Blancas rookery, on Highway 1 seven miles north of San Simeon on the California Central Coast, is home to about 17,000 animals.” This number is difficult to fathom.  Yet in visiting the breeding ground, we were able to take in the sea of seals, masses of birds, and even an otter!

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

Unfortunately due to the crowd of onlookers pushing to get a shot with their cameras, smartphones, camcorders, it was difficult not only to glimpse the main Elephant Seal beach but to even get into the main parking lot! Fortunately, a few hundred feet up the road there is another smaller parking area. We easily found a space here, but don’t count on it as this lot filled up quickly too. Get to the Rookery early to beat the crowds. It is definitely worth a stop as you may even witness a pup being born (peak time: mid to late January).

From this parking area, the XplorMor Team explored the dirt coastal trail heading north. As you wind around the headland, the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse comes into distant view from a point directly North. Along the trail, keep looking at the small inlets below as Elephant Seals will be wading, sunbathing, sleeping, molting, birthing or breeding depending on the time of year. A short distance from the parking area there is another large cove with enough sandy shore to host dozens of Elephant Seals. It’s not as large as the main viewing area, but if you wish to avoid crowds, this is the spot. Team XplorMor stood alone watching the seals interact and call out with their amazing sounds.

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

In late November and early December the adult male seals arrive along the six-mile Rookery. Pregnant females join the scene around mid-December. Their influx climaxes between mid-January and early February. Birthing typically begins within a week after their arrival. Once a pup is born, its mother begins calls to impart her sounds in the pups memory, creating a bond so they may track each other easily on the beach. After four weeks of nursing and care, mothers wean their pups and head to sea in search of food to refuel their bodies as all Elephant Seals, except nursing pups, fast while in the Rookery. By March birthing has ceased along with breeding, and adult seals disperse back into the ocean to begin the cycle again. Pups stay in the area another eight to ten weeks before making their way into the vast sea to join the cycle.

It’s amazing to witness this natural wonder. I’m thankful public access remains. Read signage and be RESPECTFUL of the barriers as these are for your protection more than for the seals. Elephant Seals along the shore are there to birth and mate, and are not happy to be interrupted by unwanted visitors. I watched one man laugh as he jumped the border rope to walk amidst the seals, and take “better” photos. He nearly slipped and fell to his demise, and clambered back up embarrassed. I hope that one person does not destroy this gift for all.

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

Friends of the Elephant Seal is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about elephant seals and other marine life and to teaching stewardship for the ocean off the central coast of California. If there is something you would like to know about elephant seals, or about other marine mammals that inhabit this area, these are the people to contact! Membership is also offered to help support this wonderful cause: JOIN.