Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cetaceans in captivity: a necessary part of marine conservation - or an idea past its time?

The lead article in today's Vancouver Sun focused on an issue that has become a very controversial and complex subject.

The story "Turbulent waters ahead for Vancouver's captive whales" is bound to stir up emotions and some heated conversation, as it's a topic about which almost everyone seems to have an opinion.

Often, opinions will change over time. Sometimes more than once.

The article is very well written, it presents both sides of what has the potential to become a very divisive subject. I won't go into its details here, as you can read it at the link above. However, I have a perspective about this topic different from many, because of my own experiences.
It's feeding time at the aquarium.
(Photo courtesy of Vancouver Aquarium)
 In April of 2005, Wildlife Conservation Magazine assigned me to write an article based on experiencing the Vancouver Aquarium's beluga encounters program

The society has since stopped publishing the magazine, but when it was in publication, there was one department every month, At the Zoo, that focused on a zoo or aquarium that was a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a non-profit organization that accredits facilities meet rigorous standards for animal care. The Vancouver Aquarium is a member.

Anyway, I showed up before the facility opened for the public, took a tour (and actually got reacquainted with a hyacinth macaw I'd met two years before at the old Crystal Gardens in Victoria - the parrots ended up in the the aquarium's care), then proceeded to participate in the beluga experience.

It was a wonderful experience, being close to such beautiful, intelligent and playful creatures. I helped prepare the food, I performed some basic commands with the help of the trainers, I engaged in a "splashing" fight (and lost!) and patted Aurora.

I enjoyed it immensely, as I enjoy all interactions with animals. I wrote my story and filed it with the magazine.

Within a week or two of filing the story, Tuvaq, a baby beluga, died at the aquarium. I wasn't sure what to do; I knew the story had been slated for the next month's issue, and I didn't know how far into the publication process the magazine was. I decided I needed to let the editor know, since I wanted to continue writing for them. I emailed her the info along with links about the death.

The magazine decided to pull the story, and it never was published. Fortunately, it still paid me for my effort. Unfortunately, the aquarium never really got any publicity from letting me enjoy my "freebie" experience, and I felt a bit bad about that.

As I began to think about the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity, I also felt a little guilty that I had enjoyed my experience with Aurora.

I also felt as an accredited professional travel writer, I had not followed through properly by placing the story elsewhere. If a facility allows a writer access to that type of experience, a professional should follow through, regardless of personal feelings.

So I was very conflicted by the whole affair.

I have come to the personal opinion that keeping cetaceans in captivity is wrong. Some will agree with that, others will disagree.

No one ever wins a splashing fight with a beluga.
(Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Aquarium)
But it's much more complicated than most people realize. There are other factors that need to be considered.

I do think aquariums play a key role in conservation of marine life. The Vancouver Aquarium has also helped many wild marine animals in distress, animals that might have suffered and even died without aquarium intervention. For that, funding is needed. Plenty of funding. And that comes from crowds of visitors flocking to the facility every year.

One of the questions I have that the Sun article did not really answer is, "What would happen to the numbers of visitors (and funding for rescue and research) if all of the high-profile animals were suddenly not there?"

I realize there is no way to really know that, but it's unfortunate the article did not at least speculate about that, and address it. It did mention that before there were large charismatic creatures there, the annual visitor turnout was about 300,000. It would be interesting to see how the numbers would compare now, and how management might view that changing if the whales and dolphins were no longer there.

I believe people really crave a connection with animals, with the wild. Encounters like the one offered at the aquarium provide that to those who cannot access them in their natural habitat. That can produce an incentive to help protect them in the wild. But is that a good thing? Probably not, at least not for the best health of the individual captive animals.

Wildlife conservation and animal welfare often find themselves at loggerheads on these types of issues, and there is never an easy answer.

I'm very lucky because I have the resources - as well as a career - that afford me the ability to see many creatures in their wild habitat. In fact, a few years ago, I had tentatively planned to go paddling in sea kayaks in an area of Quebec, through Tourisme Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean, that would have allowed me to see wild belugas. Unfortunately, health issues caused cancellation of that plan and I have not had the opportunity to do that again.

But many people do not have that kind of access.

Complicating this issue of wild animals in captivity is the fact that many wild animals are endangered; one of the functions of zoos and aquariums in the AZA is participation in the species survival plan. While I personally think animals should not be kept in cages, an argument can be made that without this genetic pool of endangered animals, many of these species could become extinct within the next 50 years - and we will lose them completely from our planet, they will exist only as memories and photographs.

Again, ideally, they should be able to live in the wild - but there is less and less wild for them to live in. Example: there are more tigers in captivity in the world than are wild ones, now; but there is not enough suitable habitat for all the living tigers on this planet. It's a real Catch-22. 

And that does not even begin to address the poaching issue.

In a perfect world, all the good done by aquariums would not be dependent upon keeping animals like beluga whales in captivity. Whether we can obtain that successfully is always open for debate.

But it is certainly something to aim for, and work toward.

Aurora goes through her paces at the aquarium.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee, a travel writers' life for me...

Sooner or later, friends, family, casual acquaintances, just about anyone I meet actually, all get around to asking me one question when they find out I'm a travel writer.

"How did you get to be a travel writer?"

It sometimes takes the form of, "What school did you attend to learn journalism?" Other times, it takes the form of, "Boy, I'd sure like to find out how you got that job!" Sometimes it even comes disguised as a not-so-subtly-veiled hint, "Do you ever need anyone to come along with you on one of your trips?" (the latter because travel writers are often hosted on press tours where the expenses are minimal.)

First of all, I don't think anyone ever sets out to become a travel writer. A writer, yes; a travel and tourism industry professional, of course; a travel agent, maybe. But I don't remember anyone I ever knew in high school or university who set out with the career goal of becoming a travel writer upon graduation. Most of us just fall into it.

And as far as "tagging along" with a travel writer on assignment's not all pina coladas on the beach and free massages at the spa (although there is a bit of that). A working travel writer often has a tough schedule in order to get to all the destinations, see all the sights that need to be seen in order to meet the demands of the trip itinerary/assignment.

Ready to launch our kayaks and paddle to the cays in Belize.
A travel writer is usually up early, going all day long, and even after the schedule is done for the day, there is often work to do at night - especially these days with social media becoming more and more a part of the picture. That means that not only do you stay up late, going over the days' notes, organizing photos and preparing equipment for the next day's activities, and perhaps journalling about the day's, a writer may also end up writing a blogpost or posting photos and videos on social media.

Opting out of scheduled events is NOT really an option, as it is on a family vacation. If you're on the trip, you have to attend everything. The schedules can be very demanding.

That being said, I cannot imagine myself enjoying any other career as much as this one.

So ... How did I become a travel writer?

First you have to understand how I became a writer. I went to the University of New Brunswick enrolled in a Bachelor of Science-Forestry program. Ever since I was 12, I'd wanted to help conserve our natural resources - forests, lakes, wildlife - and made up my mind to go into forestry. While working as a junior forest ranger in Gogama, Ontario in the summer of 1973, the head foreman told me about UNB. I decided to go there rather than one of the Ontario universities because I wanted to see another part of the country - I wanted an adventure.

The first week at UNB, I made very good friends with Dan Arsenault...he had joined CHSR 700, the on-campus AM student radio station and eventually convinced me to join, too.

I might as well have said good-bye to a forestry career right then, but I tried to combine the two for another two years, eventually giving in to my passion for radio and switching to a degree program that would allow more leisure time for my broadcast interests. Eventually, I worked my way up through the station as program director, then station manager before moving into my true broadcasting love: sports. After leading the station's sports department into the era of FM broadcasting, I got work as a professional freelance sports reporter first at CFNB then CBC Radio in Fredericton while finishing my business degree.

I also began writing sports for the student newspaper, which led to my first full-time in Barrhead, Alberta, after graduating. For the next 15 years, I bounced back and forth between broadcasting and newspaper jobs in Alberta and B.C.

While still working as sports editor for the Alaska Highway News, I took my first international vacation, an ecotour in Belize. It involved paddling sea kayaks for a week, then touring around the jungle in caves, on horseback and at Mayan temples for a week, swimming in underground rivers, seeing wild parrots, finding scorpions in one's shirt --- I loved it!

I went back and wrote up two articles about it for the paper, and I was hooked. This was even more fun than sports-writing.

Fast-forward to 1999: my SO and erstwhile companion the Divine Ms. K. got a killer job in Calgary, and I began my freelance career. Not focused strictly on travel, but a mix of the outdoors, conservation, adventure, food and travel.
Looking at parrots on Grand Cayman Island.

In essence, I'd come full-circle. In many of my articles, I was informing people about the importance of protecting the environment and by sharing many of my travel adventures, I hoped to connect them to nature.

Kind of a convoluted path, but a path none-the-less. And I've travelled on it now for 15 years.

It's helped me enjoy some incredible experiences... seen places in the world I might never have seen, otherwise... I've met some wonderful people that I am still friends with - and I've even made a few bucks along the way.

And it's something I intend to do until they pull the camera and keyboard from my cold, dead fingers.

Your takeaway from this?

No matter what path you're on, no matter what background you come from, no matter what your education background is, if you can write well, or take good photos (better if you can do both) you can be a travel writer.

And remember what T.S. Eliot said: "The journey, not the arrival, matters."

Enjoy your journey.

On assignment: Playing with sharks and rays at the Maui Ocean Centre

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Itching to be a travel writer? Read these books first

When talking to people about what I do for a living, I often get asked, "Gee, what would it take for me to become a travel writer?"

(This usually comes right after, "Boy, I'd sure love to have your job!" when you've regaled the person with tales of your latest adventures.

Before you can travel, you have to be able to write; 
before you start writing, you should read the books below.

It's not easy being a travel writer, although many people do find they have a knack for creating good travel prose. Perhaps I should re-phrase that: it's not easy to be a successful travel writer.

However, if you are set in trying it out, you will need to invest in a bit of study, first.

To help, here are “Five Books Every Travel Writer Should Have.” 

Some of these books are very basic, and if you’re already an experienced freelance writer, they will seem rudimentary. Some of them do not deal with "travel-writing" at all. But if you're a newbie, you have to walk before you run. And if you're already running, even the best pros experience “slumps” from time to time - and like a slumping hockey player trying to get his game back on track, it sometimes helps to go back to the basics and remind ourselves about how we got there.

You may notice one thing that is absent from my list: any book dealing specifically with travel writing online or travel writing in social media. I don’t know of any that hard-copy books that deal specifically with travel writing, although there are several books about social media and blogging in general. Because these types of media change so quickly, you're probably better off borrowing e-books from your local library or digging up info online about writing for websites or social media platforms.
Once you've mastered freelance basics and
queries, you can move on to this book.

So here are the books:

  1. Beginning Writer’s Answer Book, edited by Kirk Polking. This is one of several books published by Writer’s Digest Books. It’s the first book I read about freelancing, and if you’re new to freelance writing, you really need to read it. It outlines how to get started, important terms to know, some of the really important “do’s” and “don’t’s” about working with editors and publishers. Even if you have been freelancing for a while, it’s not a bad book to have for reference.
  1. The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell. This is the second-most important book a freelance writer needs. Once you’ve learned the rules about freelancing from the book above, this one teaches you how to break them all – successfully. There are times and situations where it’s okay – in some instances it may even be imperative – to break the rules. This book helps you figure out when and where those are. It covers topics like simultaneous submissions and/or queries, calling editors on the telephone, etc. It’s written in a very entertaining style, as well.
  1. How to Writer Attention-Grabbing Query and Cover Letters by John Wood. This is another Writer’s Digest book. When it comes right down to it, there are two essential aspects of successful freelance writing: A) The ability to deliver good quality writing, on time and on target for an editor; and, B) The ability to get an assignment in the first place so you can deliver great articles. This book helps with the second item. It deals with soliciting work from periodical publications as well as books. In addition to query and cover letters, it also provides advice about how to handle other forms of correspondence with editors. As I mentioned in the intro, it’s not a bad idea every now and then to re-read some of this stuff and eliminate any less-than-desirable habits we may have picked up without even being aware.
  1. Writing Travel Books and Articles by Richard Cropp, Barbara Braidwood and Susan M. Boyce. Okay. The first three books I’ve listed here are not travel-specific; however, if you’re not a good freelance writer to begin with, these last two – or any book dealing with just travel writing - won’t help you at all. (Besides, how many “how to be a travel writer” books do you really need?) This book was my bible when I became interested in concentrating more on freelance travel writing. It covers some of the same basics as the books above, but without as much detail. Then it goes on to provide many more details about all the different aspects of travel writing, including the importance of images. Which leads us to …
    Basic photography skills are
    a must for any travel writer.
  1. Digital Travel Photography – Digital Field Guide by David D. Busch. If you want to be a successful freelance travel writer, you have to be able to take good photographs. Not great - but good. This book briefly covers the basics that are essential to any kind of good digital photography, and then spends most of its pages focusing on how to produce successful digital travel photos. It goes into a great deal of detail about the different elements as well as the different types of travel photography. It also offers a list of online resources at the back. Best of all, it’s really small enough to travel with, in the event you need to refresh your memory with some forgotten detail, while on the road. It does not really delve into getting your travel photos published, but if you’ve read the first four books listed here, you’re good to go.
If those five are not enough …

Five more books you, as a travel writer, may want to read, or have for reference or inspiration (in no particular order): 

  • The 10 Best of Everything, by Nathaniel and Andrew Lande
  • Travel Yoga, by Darrin Zeer
  • 1000 Places to See Before You Die, by Patricia Schultz
  • A Sense of Place, by Michael Shapiro
  • Writing to Change the World by Mary Pipher. 
Travel Yoga is not about writing - but if you do pursue the life of a travel writer, it may come in handy. And while the last book is not about travel or travel writing, as travel writers, each one of us has the power to change the world - something we should always bear in mind when we put words to paper or into cyberspace.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Getting surreal in Ecuador with Batman and weird pizza

There is one aspect of travel that is almost guaranteed, if you travel enough.

You are going to have a few very surreal moments.

We've all had them, I think; and one corollary to that is the fact that what may be surreal to one traveller may be ordinary, run-of-the-mill stuff to another traveller.

The experience that immediately comes to mind when I think of this topic is one I had in Ecuador - Quito, to be precise - during my first trip to South America.

In a nutshell, it boils down to this:

I found myself eating unpalatable Pizza Hut pizza, watching Batman, in Spanish at 1 o'clock in the morning in the capital city of the South American country famous for its Galapagos Islands.

(By the way, we're not talking Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, here - we're talking Adam West. The cheesy 1966 TV series. Actually, come to think of it, I wish my pizza had been that cheesy...) 

"Buenos dias, Senor Batman. Como esta? Donde esta el Riddler??" and so on.

And I was doing this while eating a really bad Pizza Hut veggie pizza.

How did come to this undesirable state? Funny you should ask...

View of the cloud forest (Adventure Life photo).
It actually came about as the result of a near-fatal case of altitude sickness, suffered by my travelling companion, the Divine Ms. K. 

We had spent a week paddling in the jungles of Ecuador with a native tribe, then returned back to Quito before starting out on a second week of adventure in the cloud forests of the Andes, hoping to see wild parrots. 

Both trips were co-ordinated by a company called Adventure Life.

However, one of her lungs started to fill up with fluid because of the altitude, she couldn't breathe and we had to rush back to the city at 3 in the morning to get her fixed up. Luckily our guide knew the ins and outs of the medical system and took us to a private hospital where she was looked at almost immediately (apparently we might have waited as much as half a day to see someone at the public hospital, and that could have been tragic).

She was okay; but it left us without an itinerary.

I spent the next day setting up a trip for me, as she had to remain in hospital. (She did not want me sitting there bored out of my gourd for four days, so shooed me off).

That night, after spending some time with her at the hospital until visitor hours ended, I went back to our hotel, the Hotel Sierra Madre. The dining room was closed, though, due to some celebration or something.

Cue the Rod Serling music ... this is where I start to enter the Surrealism Zone.

The girl at the front desk told me she was going to order in a pizza from - Pizza Hut! That's right, even back in 2002, they had Pizza Hut established in Ecuador.

As I found out though, their versions of the recipes are a b-i-t different from what they dish up in North America.
Green vs. Black: no contest.

I ordered my regular veggie pizza with feta cheese, black olives, onions and peppers, then waited.

When it arrived I went down to pick it up and the minute I took it in hand, I must have gotten a weird look on my face, because the girl asked me what was wrong.

Something about the pizza just smelled .... well, different. Not quite off or bad. And when I opened the box I saw why.

They didn't use black olives on their pizzas in Quito. They used green olives.

I don't know if many people realize it, but the taste and scent of the two different kinds of olives are very much different - at least to my palate.

I HATE the smell and taste of green olives. I won't even have them in my Martinis.

And my pizza - my only meal since lunch, my only chance to eat before breakfast - reeked of them.

Disappointed, discouraged, disheartened, but still hungry, I tried to explain to the girl, but she didn't get it. So I took my pizza and slunk up to my room.

For the next hour, I tried to pick off the olives, in vain, so I could eat the pizza. It didn't help much.

I turned on the TV, hoping it might distract me enough to get some of the pizza down, but of course it was all in Spanish. My Spanish consists mainly of "Cervezas, por favors," and "Donde esta el bano?" so it was not really all that entertaining.

I tried watching the Three Stooges --- "You chica?? MI CHICA!" --- then Zorro (ironic to watch that old TV show in Spanish, since it is set in Spanish settlements), then finally, Batman. All the while, I was trying to pick off more olives and ignore the taste of the olive brine that had soaked into the pizza, trying to gag something down, with minimal success.

And not even a beer in sight to wash it down with, since the bar was closed.

Bad pizza. Bad TV. No beer. I'd had enough. Time to turn out the lights, the party's over.

And I will never, EVER order a pizza from Pizza Hut in Ecuador, again. Unless I channel my inner Macaulay Culkin and make sure it's just a plain, cheese pizza.

And that would be even more surreal.