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Pilot Whales: A Close Encounter

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Tarifa, 5th October 2012
Waiting for the Next Trip
Naturally, on my last day there was hardly a breeze blowing. Should I put my backpack into storage and go out again?

No. The hostel was too unwelcoming. Unlike any other I’d stayed in during this trip they didn’t even offer storage. Rather the signs on the walls proclaimed—in no uncertain terms, and in both English and Spanish—that check-out was by 10:30 at the latest: you and your luggage!.

The bus station didn’t have any left-luggage facilities either.

Part of me thought I should try the firmm office, but then I thought better of it. Talk about being unprofessional.

Mistake? To be sure…

But you know me by now, don’t you? I spent another three minutes vacillating, then shouldered my backpack and marched back to the hostel a toda prisa as they say in Spain. Luckily the place was only about 7 minutes from the bus station, on the way into town. The receptionist grudgingly agreed that I could leave my bag, provided I paid 2€ upfront. I kept hopping from foot to foot and popped a Valium while she went on with her cleaning. When I followed her into the courtyard she finally relented and led me to the first floor where she locked the backpack into a shower stall. One thing that can be said about the hostel was that it had a lot of showers.

“Come back soon,” she said and I hurriedly assured her that I would be back around noon.

By now it was almost 9:40 and I marched to the harbour to find the meeting point devoid of people. The first trip would not leave before twelve.

Oh no! My flight wasn’t until the evening, but buses from Tarifa are a rarity. Having missed the 9:30, the next bus would leave at 11:50 and after that times were a little hazy. There was only one thing for it: march straight back to the bus station to check the timetable.

At this time I almost wished that it had been windy and this dilemma would never have arisen. I wished for it even more when I arrived to find the bus station closed. I could see the timetables through the glass door. My binoculars (which turned out to have many surprising uses) brought them tantalisingly close. But they were at an angle and I could not read them.

What now? The station might open again at eleven, but by then the trip might have sold out. I stood—binoculars in hand—pondering what to do next when a man in a green striped COMES shirt and tie stepped up and gave me a strange look.

“I was just having a coffee,” he said.

And I was able to check that—yes—I should be able to make the 15:30 bus to Algeciras and connect with the 16:30 bus to La Linea, hopefully getting to the airport by 17:30, if I did not get get frisked at the border. Failing that, the 16:55 would go directly to La Linea, but that would be cutting it mighty fine.

This was one of those days. If I decided not to go there would be orcas and sperm whales and even migrating finwhales in addition to all the dolphins and long-finned pilot whales that are resident in the strait. The last time I’d seen pilot whales was on my trip to Bilbao, more than seven years ago, and I missed them.

On the other hand, if I stayed the wind might pick up, we’d all get drenched and I’d miss my flight.

But Nina at the firmm reception assured me that conditions would remain calm, so I parted with my last 30€. My multiple-trip discount meant that I received just about enough change for my bus tickets.

It felt like providence.
[read on]

Day of the Dolphins

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Bay of Algeciras, 3rd October 2012
Common Dolphins
I’d been watching the wind forecasts for days, and finally it looked like conditions in the Strait of Gibraltar were calming down. My mind was made up. I left Malaga and made straight for Tarifa where—weeks earlier—a persistent sea state of 3-4 put paid to my plans to go whale watching.

Most of the cetaceans here are concentrated in the middle of the strait where common dolphins, striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales are frequently encountered, as well as orcas (who follow the bluefin tuna and have developed a knack of nicking it straight off the fishing lines, to the chagrin of the Moroccan fishermen in their tiny boats), and also sperm whales and the odd fin whale that might be passing through. So it was with great expectations that we set out. But there are forecasts and then there are actual conditions. Not for nothing is Tarifa known as one of the kite-surfing hotspots in Europe.

The wind picked up steadily and after getting thoroughly drenched without seeing as much as a fin, the good people at firmm (the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals) promised us another outing, this time departing from Algeciras to see the dolphins in the bay (no pilot whales or orcas there, but I remember the wonderful experience I had when I first came to Gibraltar in 1987).

So we set off in convoy, with a kind English-Dutch couple giving me a lift in their car. As we crossed the hills into Algeciras the wind died down and the harbour lay baking in the sun. We boarded the FIRMM Fly Blue and set out into the calm waters of the bay with gentle waves rippling the surface. The sea state was 2—almost perfect.

Sweeping with my binoculars I half expected to see dolphins leaping in the distance, but it wasn’t until we drew level with the tip of Gibraltar that the guide pointed out the first group of common dolphins—and there was no need for the binoculars because we were nearly on top of them! In fact we were on top of them as two to three individuals swam directly underneath the bow, twisting and turning and darting from side-to-side.
Common Dolphins
[read on]

The Town Of The Pink Dolphins

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Pink Dolphin, Supra Resort

At 6:15 it was still dark. The rain hammered against the bungalow with such violence that the main light flickered on and off. I’m not making this up.

It didn’t ease up much until seven, by which time I made it to the Supra resort restaurant under the cover of my rain jacket. The sea was calm but it had a scratchy look about it. The pale sun struggled to break through the clouds, making the water fluoresce an eery quicksilver against the gunmetal sky. What I had taken for hills were layers of monsoon clouds.

Typical Holiday Weather

I thought I had chickened out back in Songkhla. I hadn’t.

The Supra waiting staff were eager to serve their only customer. Breakfast was on the table almost as soon as I sat down. It was heartbreaking to leave them.

With the rain increasing to monsoon strength once more, the receptionist told me that there was “no taxi”, not even when it eased off again half an hour later. Maybe Khanom’s sole moto-taxi driver was ill-disposed. I lucked out by scoring a ride with two German flashpackers who had ordered the only car taxi. They were true livesavers as I may have been stuck in uptown Khanom for some time.

We aquaplaned our way the hell out of there.

Still, as we pulled up next to the waiting Nakhon Si Thammarat minivan, I felt a pang of regret about not seeing more of the town itself, with its sodden fishmarket and nearby pier. There seems to be no way of staying here, even if I could somehow convey that I had come for the dolphins, not the beach.


In summation I don’t think I can do Khanom justice with my flying visit. Apparently, around June this place is truly beautiful with clear sparkling waterfalls, lush jungle treks and wats and caves to explore (on a side-note: isn’t it funny that the rains are always supposed to end in ‘June’? Takes me right back to Trinidad.)

Of course the dolphins are the main attraction. There are statues depicting them everywhere, and they look like bottlenose dophins. But if they can be seen from shore it should be kept that way. Following them by boat, even carefully, will interfere with their behaviour and feeding patterns and could endanger them. If there is really a pod of albino dolphins out there, that is something unique and precious and needs to be preserved.

Flashpacker Growing Pains

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010


It looks like tonight I’m bedding down in luxury. But I’m wary of that much luxury. There is a silk scarf draped over one edge of the bed that I don’t dare to remove or sit on. The intricatedly folded towels are like works of art; I won’t unroll them. The seashell curtain in front of the bathroom sounds like something is breaking every time I’m parting it, however gingerly. There are pebbles in the glass sea-shell sink. Pebbles. How could I spit on them? CNN on TV is everything I wanted to escape from. And the aircon means that I can’t light a mosquito coil.

I think I’ve set it to warmer than it is outside.

All I wanted after yesterday night was a bare patch of floor to sleep on…


Wednesday, January 6th, 2010


I arrived in Khanom after a minivan ride from hell, with a spoiled little brat alternately pinching and kicking me; breaking out in screams of fury when I didn’t allow her to pull the glasses off my face. But it didn’t matter. I was glad to have arrived after what felt like a cross-desert trek. I jumped onto the back of a waiting scooter and let it ferry me off to the resort, not caring that it was away from the town, nor that the heavens opened and threatened to wash us off the road, nor that my first choice of accommodation—and only farang outlet—was closed.

I checked into a pink bungalow next door which had aircon and smelled of rose water and cost the same.

There was a shop with a small bar opposite where I got talking to some Germans. It turned out that most of the farang here are from south Germany, so I decided to dig out my neglected mothertongue and found that I would not regret it. The Germans had been coming here for four years and often saw the dolphins swim through the bay during late afternoons.

“But not if the sea is like this,” said one of them.

The sea was hidden by trees and buildings, so I asked the way to the beach but resolved to wait as the rain picked up again.

“Is the weather always like this?”

“Not usually. We can have sunshine, we can have rain. It will get better from mid-January.”


The other man cut in. “The best time to come here is June. It’s what we usually do.”

I pondered asking them why they were here now, but I was struggling to understand their heavy southern accents and so let it ride.

“Do you know why they keep those birds there?” his friend asked, by way of nothing in particular. He pointed to the cage hanging from the roof above us.

“Dunno. Good luck?’

“Not a bit of it. They’re weather prophets. See its backside? It’s rouge. Means the weather is bad. When the sun comes out, it turns greenish-blue.”

I don’t know whether he was having me on, but on that day all over Khanom the arses of the little birds remained a resolute ‘rouge’.


I made my way through a deserted resort and down the rough sloping sand to the beach. The place was as abandoned and desolate as Ampana. The sea was boiling. There was nothing on—or in—the water that I could see. No boats, no birds and sure as hell no dolphins. Far in the distance I could make out the pier where the fabled dolphins are said to congregate.

Maybe I should have bought a fake driving licence on Kao San Road so that I could rent a scooter, or maybe they won’t ask to see a licence since schoolchilodren are riding around on them. But then I remembered that the farang place that rented bikes was closed. As things stood, it was best to wait for calmer weather.

I went to get my binoculars and scanned the sea until the rain made me seek shelter in the deserted beach bar.

The Only Farang

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

At last, I was the only farang (OF) in town. This was not the best time for it though. I had managed to avoid one drunk and was trying to stay out of sight and unnoticed, although the few people who passed by all waved cheerily enough. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself because I was dog tired and didn’t feel like chatting and would be an easy target for any thief. Unlikely though that was (this isn’t Makassar), I couldn’t take any chances. I have also found that—even at my ripe old age—I’m by no means safe from pick-up artists.

This turned out to be true when a man sat down next to me. But I was in luck, because I was no longer the OF. I was watching the bags of the other farang in town who was off to locate the bus terminal down the street, in a hury to get to Ranong for his visa run. Everybody on a visa ruin is in a hurry, as if that somehow makes the ordeal pass quicker. Presently he returned and the man who sat next to me got up and left without greeting, clearly conceding that I was somebody else’s property.

We relocated to the bus terminal and drank strong, sweet tea until the sun rose and the farang was whisked away. I found that I felt lonely without him. I paid for the tea and got my directions with the change (“Khanom? Go across, other side!”) Within moments I was directed to a bus which didn’t say ‘Khanom’ on the side but, according to the Lonely Planet, would probably drop me at the junction from where I could get a moto-taxi. There were more farang here and I realised that I wouldn’t be able to recognise ‘mine’ even if he was among them. The tiredness was beginning to tell.

Just as we were about to leave, a minivan with ‘Khanom’ written on it drew up next to the bus. There was a direct service! For a moment I was tempted to get off, but it was too late. My backpack was stowed away and we were rolling.

We were all of us marked, those who had been on the night boat. Barely awake, slumped into our seats, some snoring. The cheeky conductor boy wasn’t slow to pick up on it as I handed him 100 baht. “Twenty change?” He grinned and cocked his head. “OK. Donate. I donate!”

I hope he’ll go to university rather than grow up to be a con-artist.

Because I was so dozy, I didn’t pull out the guide book or find the right map until we had passed Phanom, the last town before the Khaosok National Park a hundred kilomentres to the west of Surat Thani, which was where all the farang were going. No wonder that I thought the journey had taken a bit too long. There were hardly any houses around here, no traffic and no service stations. Instead the landscape rippled with spectacular limestone peaks. According to the Lonely Planet there were ‘at least’ two minivans a day going from the park back to Surat Thani. Great.

It had been 16 hours since I had last seen a loo.

I got off the bus as soon as we were near a place that sold water. I was prepared to hitch, but no sooner had I been spotted that a local man took me under his wing. It turns out that the yellow structures by the roadside aren’t shrines but bus stops. I sat stifly in the shade, eyeing the road and grabbed my backpack when I saw a bus approach, ready to throw myself in front of it.

“No, no!” shouted the man who’d kept an eye on me from a nearby stall. “Not that! You wait, you see. Ten minutes.”

He was right. Almost exactly ten minutes later a minivan slowed down and hooted. When he saw me signal, the driver got out, ran around the van and opened the door for me.

Night Boat Shuffle 2

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

...Koh Tao Nightboat:After

There was some shuffling, but at first it seemed fine. We just moved closer together even though the berths were quite narrow. Two Chilenian girls got talking to the guys on my right and settled in as the berths filled up.

“If one sleeps with the feet next to the other’s heads, we could fit three into the space for two,” I said, “but I don’t think it works for the locals since it’s offensive to point your feet at someone’s face.”

“You’re right, else they’d try to fit twice as many people in here,” said sailor-boy who had the space next to mine.

But he turned out to be wong. And we weren’t taking twice as many. The Thai women who were settling in next to me had booked a grand total of two berths between them and were trying to fit in all five of them. It would have worked, if two of them hadn’t been supersized—by which I mean clinically obese.

We were still mostly sitting up and chatting. There was a marine on board (Isn’t there always?) and we stared in disbelief as he proceeded to attach a heavy duty canvass hammock to the pillars in the aisle. Who but a marine travels with a heavy duty canvass hammock? While people were squirming on the deck below him, he lay down in comfort, watching a movie.

We were underway. Carrying twice its assigned number of passengers, the boat listed heavily in the swell. The last time I had been in a boat this crowded, it almost sank off the coast of Zanzibar. That didn’t worry sailor-boy who lay with his hat pulled over his eyes, already half-asleep.

“Don’t worry, this is normal,” he drawled. “Trust me, I’ve crossed oceans. If I panic, panic.”

There was a moment’s silence as the boat bounced off a particularly large wave.

“Also there’s lots of boats around here. Easy Mayday.”

“Yeah,” I said. “If you have the means to signal Mayday.”

“Sure, they do. They all have shortwave radio.”

Dream on, sailor-boy.

But I kept my worries to myself. At least back in the day we didn’t have mobile phones, just a whistle that was useless in the stiff breeze. I wondered what the reception was like out here. I wondered if the marine had a satellite phone.

My problem was that I’d had the squits all day and my stomach was decidedly delicate. While the others bedded down, I sat and stared at the swaying lights of the night fishing boats all around us. How embarrassing to be the only one on board to be potentially seasick (apart from the toddler who’d thrown up earlier, into a plastic bag).

Every time the boat caught another swell, sailor-boy (who had given up pretending to sleep) regalled us with another mini-lecture about seamanship. Now it was my turn.

“If you’re feeling sick, keep looking at the horizon. It’s the most stable point.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled, rubbing at a kink in my neck from keeping my head turned towards the window for the last half hour or so. Only eight more to go.

It got worse when people fell asleep. Still unable to lie down, I conceded my space and found myself squeezed like toothpaste out of a tube by sailor-boy on my right and the convention of fatties on my left.

Somehow I managed to lie down uncomfortably on my side and got 90 minutes of doze with people constantly prodding, tickling or stomping on my feet. Eventually I had enough and resigned myself to spend the rest of the journey upright. I had lost the battle against the bulge. I’m no lightweight, but the woman who now lay flat on her stomach next to me, snoring, not only occupied my entire former berth but oozed across numbers 38 and 40 to either side.

At least our arrival time went town from six a.m. (as the agent had told me) to five and now to four as the lights came back on. Maybe the swell had pushed us along.

We were in port.

I gave the touts the slip, regretted it briefly when confronted with Thai-only signs, but managed to stumble across the night market which gave me back my bearings.

Everything was closed.

It was ninety minutes until daybreak.

Night Boat Shuffle 1

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

I was the only farang in town, but only for the 15-odd minutes which it took the pick-up driver to deposit me at the pier. There I was joined by about a hundred others and a handful of Thai.

At first it was civilised. Everybody was assigned a number and pointed to their place on the upper or lower deck. The berths were narrow but clearly marked, with clean sheets and pillows and a life west in the rafters above (almost) every one. I got there early and swapped my ticket with that of a Dutch girl who wanted to sit with her friends.

Then the boat began to fill up and the first un-numbered tickets started to appear. Soon the flip-flop attitude took hold as everybody flung themselves down wherever was free.

The commotion began.

Apparently the boat—licenced to carry 125 passengers according to the writing on its side—is routinely overbooked, but unlike with flights you don’t get bumped up. You’ll get to wait for another day.

In order to secure a berth you will need to go to the ticket office at the pier early in the morning to get a booking number. Passengers who turn up early for departure are assigned the remaining numbers. Omit either of these steps and you’ll be left high and dry.

A Thai businessman carrying a laptop bag found that out when he saw a farang sprawled in his place.

“That’s my place. I got number this morning!”

“So? I got my ticket yesterday evening. There’s someone in our place, and they claim there’s someone else in theirs. Just find somewhere free.”

“You don’t understand. I got number this morning. Where your number? Show me your ticket.”

“Chill man. Just find somewhere to sit.”

“Your ticket! Show me your ticket!

For a moment, violence hung in the air. The Thai man threatened to fetch his bodyguard and then the captain. Himself not small, he drew visibly closer.

The farang sat up straight and it was clear that he was no pushover in the gymn either, or maybe the dojo. Finally we persuaded him to give in. I was relieved about that. I believe the Thai man was in the right, yet he had to put up with this kind of hippie nonsense every time he took this trip. What do you make of an environment where farang out-number Thai ten-to-one? Sooner or later the situation will come to blows. Its either that or they’ll have to run Thai-only services.

Everyone settled down. I was even more relieved when I noticed that the man was joined by his wife and toddler.

Whose fault was it? It wasn’t entirely the farang’s as he had a numbered ticket and some dickass up ahead had started a chain of unofficial swaps which now forced several dozen of them to shift. Yet he should have acknoweged that the man had the right reservation and moved on.

It was partly the fault of the guy who directed everyone onboard. He’d started to scrawl asterices on the remaining tickets and continued to wave people on.

But it was mainly the fault of the inept agents who sell tickets all over the island without booking. Very few tell their customers that they’ll have to book the places themselves at the only official ticket office by the pier. At least my agent had arranged for me to arrive early.

So I lucked out. Right?


(To be continued)

On The Trail Of The Pink Dolphin

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Boats Before The Rain

I’m taking the night boat to Surat Thani.

After almost a week Koh Tao has grown stale on me, not to mention crowded. I miss being the only farang in town, so I’m off to chase marine mammals. In particular, the Lonely Planet mentions a ‘breed’ of pink dolphins that can be watched from the pier of a small town not far from here. They could be Orcaella brevirostis or Susa chinensis, both of which often have pink/albino individuals, but I can’t find out anything more about them. I’ll have to go and see for myself.

Don’t expect daily updates. I may be some time.

Catching up: Dolphins of Sarawak

Thursday, July 9th, 2009


My recent surprise contact from somebody who knows of our 1985 exploits involving Ganges dolphins (Platanista gangetica) has resulted in me searching for more info on same (the area we visited is now a dolphin sanctuary), and some of my other haunts as well.

And behold, there is a blog dedicated to the dolphins of Sarawak. Apparently, Irawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) are still relatively common in the area, although by-catches and pollution pose problems. There was a fledgling dolphin watch enterprise in operation while I was there (I never noticed it) and—even better—a local kajak enthusiast who might even have set me up for a field survey! If only I had known *sigh*. But there is now a research initiative and a conservation movement in place and proper guidelines will hopefully ensure responsible dolphin watching which will bring income to local operators.

Read through Pesut’s blog and—if you can—book a trip with FH-2-GO, the kayak operator. I’ll envy you!

[EDIT: with regard to my previous post, this is what I consider fair and responsible eco-tourism. I doubt that any of the local operators would ask for “thousands of pounds”. I also have a feeling that a discount is on the cards if you want to go out every day for a week in order to make notes ;)]