Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Transatlantic Cruise Aboard the Norwegian Epic

The Norwegian Epic - one of the mega ships in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet

"The thing I don't like about cruising is all these people who don't speak English."... An ignorant, myopic, xenophobic American woman aboard the Norwegian Epic in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, November 12, 2017

The Norwegian Epic, a nearly quarter mile long 316 million pound mega ship, sailed from Barcelona, Spain at 1800 h local time on November 5, 2017.  Thirteen very fast days later she was tied off at the cruise terminal at Port Canaveral, Florida, near Cocoa Beach and the Kennedy Space Center.  My wife and I were aboard the Epic as she cast away from the pier in Barcelona and as we watched the sun set over an ancient fort overlooking the harbor we had already resigned ourselves to the trip being over almost before it began.

We had booked the cruise in August 2016 and with our early booking (and incredibly good per person rate for the cruise) which entitled us to accepting two inclusive packages from Norwegian.  Our options were 1) Unlimited drinks, 2) a 4-restaurant specialty dining package, 3) 250 minutes of Internet use, and 4) reduced rates on shore excursions.  

Because we usually make our own plans when in ports, and since this cruise offered landings in only two ports, we instantly rejected the reduced rates on excursions option.  250 minutes of internet for $125 seemed like an easy thing to pas up considering the value of the other options.  Later Cathy purchased the Internet package and had nothing but constant problems with the service.  We were glad we didn't choose internet for our "free" package.

What we chose were the specialty dining package and the unlimited drinks package.  Both, it turned out, were no-brainers to choose and the next time we cruise on Norwegian (which means the next time we cruise) we will select those same two options.  They turned out to be the most cost-effective options possible.

The Itinerary

Although our cruise departed Barcelona on November 5, we boarded an American Airlines plane in Tampa on October 28 bound for Miami where we connected to an nonstop flight to Barcelona, 9 hours away.  Because I am the absolutely best husband on the planet, I used some of my American Airlines frequent flier miles and and flew us to Barcelona in First/Business Class.  This was Cathy's first real first class experience including being seated in lie-flat sets that converted to a bed.  We left Miami a few minutes early, not long after the National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for Palm Beach County about 50 miles north.  To say the departure was bumpy was an understatement.  The in-flight service was impeccable, the dinner (and breakfast) we were served were tasty and filling, and the hard sleep made possible by the lie-flat seats made the entire 9 hours worth the 100,000 frequent flier miles it "cost" to fly in First Class over the pond.

We arrived in Barcelona early, quickly cleared Customs and Immigration then found a bus operated by Andorra by Bus and took off on a 3-hour drive across the Catalonia countryside to the tiny country of Andorra on the Spain/France border.  Andorra was the 119th country I have visited.  We spent one night in Andorra then returned to Barcelona.

For my birthday, October 31, we flew to the Balearic island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean where we spent three nights.  We did some SCUBA diving with the excellent folks at Scuba Ibiza Diving Center, then returned to Barcelona on November 3.  On November 4 we spent much of the day exploring Barcelona with the superb local company Barcelona Day Tours.  Travelers simply cannot go wrong booking a trip with this company.  Ask for Elena as your guide - you will not be disappointed.  While in Barcelona we stayed at the Barcelona Airport Hotel which, not surprisingly, is quite close to the airport but about 20 minutes by taxi from downtown.  The rate was ridiculously cheap for this 4-star hotel and we look forward to returning to Barcelona if only to stay here again!  The breakfast alone was worth the nightly rate.

Departing Barcelona aboard the ship on November 5 we set a course for Malaga, Spain, about 500 miles south.  Unfortunately there was an on-board medical emergency overnight and when we woke up on November 6 we were a mile or two offshore from Isla Ibiza (where we dove 5 days earlier).  The unfortunate passenger was dropped off here for medical care shortly after sunrise and we continued on our course for Malaga.

We spent November 7 in Malaga and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Established in 770 BC it has to be one of the prettiest cities I have visited in Spain and in much of Europe for that matter.

Cafe de l'Abuela near the cathedral in Malaga was a perfect place to chill with a glass of Spanish red wine and simply watch the city come alive.

Walking around Malaga was made so much easier by the highly-polished marble streets

Central Park in Malaga epitomizes the beauty of the city

Departing Malaga we spent 4 days at sea before arriving at Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island in the stunningly beautiful Azores.  
Sunrise over Ponta Delgada harbor, November 11, 2017. I absolutely love this island!

We had stopped here on a Transatlantic cruise in 2014 and I thought I would never see the island again.  While here we completed a 2-tank dive with the good folks at Best Spot Azores Dive Center located just a 5-minute walk from the cruise terminal.  Cathy dove with this PADI resort in 2014.  We dove today with a Brit living in Lisbon.  Bruno the owner of the company, and Diego a PADI Instructor served as our divemaster.  Despite the bottom temperature 60 feet beneath the surface being a chilly 63 degrees we enjoyed two great dives and look forward to going out with this company again.
There are five dive shops within a stone's throw of the cruise terminal in Ponta Delgada.  At least 3 of them are PADI shops and one is SSI (Not sure about the affiliation of the 5th one). Despite the competition you cannot experience a better dive than with Best Spot - just make sure to wear a 6 ml wetsuit!

We reluctantly departed Ponta Delgada on time at 1700 h local and spent 6 days at sea before arriving at the Port Canaveral Cruise Terminal near Cocoa Beach, Florida on November 18.As with every cruise we have been on with Norwegian Cruise Lines we didn't want the trip to be over and especially so soon.  Its truly shocking how quickly 2 weeks can fly by when you are on a cruise ship.

The following images show the approximate route we followed on this journey.

The Cruise Ship

We spent 13 nights in Stateroom 10097, a Mini-Suite located forward on the starboard side of the ship

Seabird Observations from a Transatlantic Cruise

The Norwegian Epic in Ponta Delgada, Azores, harbor, November 11, 2017.  The balcony from stateroom 10097 provided an excellent platform from which to observe seabirds

We sailed from Barcelona, Spain, on November 5, 2017, aboard the Norwegian Epic cruise ship arriving in Port Canaveral Florida on November 18.  During the 13-day trip we made stops in Malaga, Spain, and at Ponta Delgada in the Azores.  Our stateroom was on Deck 10 and it had a balcony on which I spent most of the daylight hours each day we were at sea.  Below is a list in taxonomic order of the birds observed from the ship while at sea with occasional notes about some of the observations.

Common Loon - offshore from Isla Ibiza in the Mediterranean

Northern Fulmar - 1 in Bahamas waters
Northern Fulmar image by Mark Oberle

Black-capped Petrel - 1 near Bermuda

Black-capped Petrel image by Mark Oberle

Fea's/Zino's/Soft-plumaged Petrel - an unidentified Pterodroma of the Soft-plumaged complex 140 miles offshore from Portugal. 

Bulwer's Petrel

Cory's Shearwater - the most common tubenose

Great Shearwater - 1 in Portugal waters 

Sooty Shearwater 
Sooty Shearwater image by Mark Oberle

Manx Shearwater - in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!

Yelkouan Shearwater - in the Mediterranean

Balearic Shearwater - in the Mediterranean

Audubon's Shearwater - in Bahamas waters

Little Shearwater - offshore from Portugal

European Storm-Petrel 

Leach's Storm-Petrel

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - near the Azores where this species nests

White-tailed Tropicbird - at 2 different mid-ocean locations including one swimming on the surface of the ocean

Brown Booby - 1 juvenile in Bermuda waters
I photographed this Brown Booby on Cayman Brac in July 2017

Northern Gannet - abundant offshore from Portugal

Great Skua - 5 birds offshore from Portugal

Pomarine Jaeger
Pomarine Jaeger image by Bill Murphy

Parasitic Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger image by Mark Oberle

Black-legged Kittiwake - Portugal waters
Black-legged Kittiwake image by Mark Oberle

Sabine's Gull

Yellow-legged Gull - abundant in the Mediterranean and common in the Atlantic.  Last one seen was 570 miles southwest of Flores Island in the Azores.  This or a different Yellow-legged Gull remained with our ship for 4 days while at sea.

Lesser Black-backed Gull 

Gray Wagtail (!).  One bird, an apparent migrant, came aboard the ship and rested on the rail of  our balcony while offshore from Alicante, Spain in the Mediterranean

Other Wildlife:
Unidentified Whales - 2 spouts were observed one day out of the Azores but I was unable to identify them to species.   Both Humpback and Sperm Whales are regular migrants in that area.

Ocean Sunfish 

Roseate Tern - Although not seen on the open ocean, this term was quite common in Ponta Delgada harbor in the Azores and also seen while we were being taken to a couple of scuba diving sites east of Ponta Delgada.

This was our second Transatlantic crossing - the first from Copenhagen to Miami in October 2014.  Species diversity was similar on both trips although birds were much more numerous on the October crossing.  Transatlantic cruises are a relatively cheap way to observe a variety of seabirds.  Our 13-day trip cost $799 per person or about $61 a day which is a very cheap pelagic trip.  Our next Transatlantic cruise will be in April 2019 from Miami to Rome.  Im interested in how different the abundance and diversity will be during spring migration as opposed to fall.

The approximate route followed on this cruise

The only thing I don't like about going on a curise is putting everything behind you 

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Debacle of Exiting the Norwegian Epic Cruise Ship at Port Canaveral

The Norwegian Epic at anchor in Ponta Delgada harbor, Azores, November 11 2017

On November 18, 2017, we completed a 13-day transatlantic crossing aboard the beautiful Norwegian Cruise Line ship "Epic."  Our itinerary included departure from Barcelona Spain on November 5, a one-day stop over in gorgeous Malaga, Spain, another day in Ponta Delgada in the Azores, and then 6 full sea days from the Azores to Port Canaveral, Florida.  Other than a few minor glitches on board the ship, it was a wonderful cruise until we attempted to disembark in Port Canaveral on November 18.  There the word "clusterfuck" immediately came to mind and the following letter sent to Norwegian Cruise Line today spells it out.

November 20, 2017

Guest Relations
Norwegian Cruise Line
7665 Corporate Center Drive
Miami, Florida 33126

Dear NCL;

My wife and I are Gold Latitude Rewards members.  This past Saturday we completed a great cruise aboard the Epic on her transatlantic repositioning journey from Barcelona to Port Canaveral.  At least the cruise was great until we encountered the debacle of disembarking in Port Canaveral.

Rather than doing the “Easy Walk Off”, we chose to let you handle our luggage, and we chose the “Green” zone for a 9:00 a.m. departure.  Things started to go downhill early when at 8:30 our housekeeper Melody (Deck 10, Forward, Starboard) was miffed that we were still in our stateroom and were impeding her ability to make up the room for new guests boarding for the ship’s next cruise departing that afternoon.  This was despite information we had from Norwegian saying we could remain in our staterooms until 9:30. 

To assuage her concerns, we immediately left our room and assembled outside the Bliss Lounge at 8:45 a.m. There we noticed a humongous line of Easy Walk Off guests who were not having a very easy time walking off the ship.  We were directed to wait in the Bliss Lounge where we sat until 9:45 a.m. before the 9:00 a.m. Green Zone was called.  When we reached the security checkpoint just before stepping off the ship, we were told that “because of Immigration and Customs” we would have to wait “a few minutes” before we could exit the ship.  “A few minutes” began at 9:50 a.m. – after standing in the hot sun with no water available, we finally stepped off the ship at 10:45, only 1 hour 45 minutes after we were supposed to originally depart.  Meanwhile there were still tons of guests on board who had later departure times than we had, and they likely were as upset as we were with this debacle.

Once in the Customs area we were told by an immigration officer that the hold up was because “Norwegian let too many guests off the ship at once and that immigration had insufficient personnel.”  Thus, nobody accepted responsibility for this mess and instead the two major parties (you and Customs) passed the buck to each other.  After standing in line for what seemed like ages, we FINALLY reached a Customs agent at 12:05 p.m., a mere 3 hours and 5 minutes after we were supposed to originally depart the ship and be on our way home.

Whomever is to blame for this mess needs some immediate people management training.  There simply has to be a more efficient way to disembark a ship load of passengers.  Once in Bangkok, I watched Thai Airways unload a full capacity 747 and then board a plane full of people in 25 minutes.  Granted there are more people on a cruise ship than on a 747, but if they can do it quickly why can't you?

Don’t you have some systems engineers on staff who can identify passenger flow problems and find ways to eliminate what happened in Port Canaveral yesterday?  I can imagine the rage felt by some travelers who had to get on a bus or grab a rental car to make a flight out of Orlando in early afternoon.  If they were in the “Green Zone” with us and had planned a 9:00 a.m. departure to catch a 1:00 p.m. flight they were SOL and I would imagine you are receiving a ship-load of angry comments from those travelers.

Its frustrating enough that we have to endure the ridiculous “safety demonstration” on entering the ship the first day where we spend 45 minutes learning how to attach a life vest (by the way after 13 cruises I STILL do not know how to board a life boat!).  Its beyond annoying to have to endure what a ship load of passengers experienced exiting the Epic yesterday in Port Canaveral.  NCL management and the people on the ship responsible should be ashamed of themselves.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Storm Surge

Photo by LBC9 News

During the extensive media coverage of Hurricane Irma this week anyone listening to the radio, watching television, or reading the newspaper heard endless discussion about storm surge.  Some agencies and entities estimated that places on the Southwest Florida coast would experience 10 to 15 foot storm surge and along with that discussion came all sorts of angst and misinformation about what exactly is storm surge.

I was petrified by what was forecast to happen in Florida and especially in Sarasota.  I had images of a tsunami-like force gushing water into de-watered areas causing all sorts of havoc and destruction.  Reports began to accumulate about how far from shore water had moved near Marco Island, then Naples, then Fort Myers, then Charlotte Harbor, Sarasota Bay and finally Tampa Bay.  With each incoming description my heart rate increased and my blood pressure climbed because I was convinced that a tsunami like the one we witnessed 15 or so years ago in Sumatra and Thailand was about to occur here.  

My angst subsided substantially about 10:00 pm last night when Weather Channel meteorologist Stephanie Abrams, reporting from the balcony of a hotel just up the road in Bradenton, explained that storm surge is not a tsunami.  Its a gradual refilling of areas that had been de-watered but by no stretch of the imagination is it a repeat of what happened in Phuket Thailand in 2004.

Thinking about what Stephanie reported I wondered if maybe the issue isn't what the water does but how the process is explained to the public.   Storm surge estimates are developed by the National Hurricane Center in Miami, a vital arm of the National Weather Service. Perhaps the old adage of "Its not what you say but how you say it" applied to reporting on storm surge and it was words used in that reporting that scared so many people.  Maybe the answer is to use a different word or phrase that is more descriptive of what actually happens.

That said this morning I wrote the following letter to the National Hurricane Center and asked them to not stop forecasting the phenomenon but to use different, less ominous, words to describe it.  Whether I hear from the Hurricane Center is up to them, but I had to try.

Public Information Office
National Hurricane Center
11691 SW 17th Street
Miami, Florida 33165

Re:  Renaming “Storm Surge”

Dear NHC

First of all, thanks so much for the yeoman’s effort all of you put into keeping us informed and safe during Hurricane Irma.  You should each receive an award for your efforts.  That said, I have a question and suggestion about storm surge that I’d like someone to answer.

Beginning with the first images of the “dry” bay on Long Island in the Bahamas we heard endless mention of storm surge and were warned about its dangers.  Then, later, we saw water recede from Marco Island, then Naples, then here on Sarasota Bay, and finally Tampa Bay.  In each instance, we were warned about the impending dangers of the surge when water comes “rushing back” to fill the space that had been de-watered.  The images many of us had, myself included, was that water would gush back to fill the void like how a tsunami functions.

However, it wasn’t until Stephanie Abrams from The Weather Channel reported from Bradenton during the peak of the storm here that anyone explained to the public how the water doesn’t come back in a rush like in a tsunami.  Instead it filters back sort of like the tide but on steroids (my words, not hers).  Thus from Ms. Abrams’ description the “surge” isn’t a surge as much as a refilling.

I hold a BS degree with a double major in geology and in biology with double minors in math and in physics.  My Master’s degree is in wildlife biology and I am retired from 31 years as a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. With that much science in my background, and especially geology and physics, I still thought the “surge” was going to be of tsunami proportions.  However, it isn’t.  If I was this misinformed and concerned can you imagine the confusion experienced by a local bank teller or the janitor at the nearby elementary school?

I’m writing to ask if there is a way for the National Hurricane Center to develop a different term or phrase to use for what is currently called a “surge” because it is not.  It’s something akin to a resoaking or a refilling but it is not the tsunami-like gush of water that so much of the public believes it is.  Perhaps use of a different phrase to describe the phenomenon will reduce the degree of angst among the public (and me) the next time we are faced with a land-falling tempest like Irma.

Again, thanks for all that you did during this storm.  And please consider my suggestion. 

cc:  Stephanie Abrams, The Weather Channel

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Department of Justice Seeking Visitors to tRump Resistance Website

I learned this morning that the US Department of Justice is seeking the IP addresses of 1,300,000 freedom-loving Americans who visited a tRump Resistance website.  In order to save DOJ some time I sent the following letter to the Attorney General giving him my personal information and encouraging him to add me to the list.  In the letter below I replaced my actual numbers with X's for obvious reasons but the letter that was sent to Sessions contained the real information.

You should consider doing the same thing.  #Resist

Craig Faanes
Sarasota, Florida 34232

August 15 2017

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, 
Chief Bigot
U. S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Re:  IP Addresses of Those Using Trump Resistance Site

Dear Attorney General Bigot

I would consider it a high honor and a great privilege if you would add my name to this august group of patriots.  Rather than giving you my IP address I am providing you with my home address (above),  my phone number 941-XXX-XXXX, my Social Security Number XXX-XX-XXXX and my Florida Drivers License Number FXXX-XXX-XXXX-X.

If there is any additional information you need to help track me and the millions of others who are fed up with you, your president and the fascist government for which you are a major part, please do not hesitate to contact me.  Can I expect jack-booted thugs to bust down my front door any time soon?

Oh, and by the way, when are you instituting the president’s Muslim registration program because I have converted to Islam and want to make damned sure I am on that list as well.

Yours in Intimidation,

Craig Faanes

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dive The Maldives - June/July 2018

Cathy and I are planning a dive trip to the Maldives in June/July 2018.  Many people claim that the Maldives offers the best diving in the world and we are anxious to discover if that is true.

For the geographically challenged, the Maldives is a country made up entirely of atolls in the Indian Ocean.  Straight line distance from Sarasota to the Maldives is 9,730 miles.

This will be our second Asian dive trip of 2018 and want you to know about the details. We also want to encourage you to come along on your own.  Like our Philippines trip in February 2018, this is NOT a Sarasota Scuba Club official trip – just information about an opportunity to dive a spectacular area and do so relatively cheaply. 

We will be diving from the MV Emperor Voyager a 30-meter (100 foot) live aboard moored in Male, Maldives harbor.  

The M/V Emperor Voyager has 4 decks including a sun deck

Diving is done from a smaller dinghy (their word not mine) on which all your dive gear is stowed throughout the trip. Divers are assigned one tank for the week and it is refilled after each dive

The Voyager has 10 rooms on 3 decks for 20 divers. 7 of the rooms have two double beds and 3 have one Queen.  We set sail from Male on June 30, 2018, and disembark on July 7. 

Deck Plan for the M/V Emperor Voyager

Cost is 1,579.00 per person for the Upper Deck rooms and 1,479.00 for the Lower Deck. Both prices include Nitrox. Currently the Euro and the US Dollar are almost exactly on par.

Lower deck rooms have a porthole and are $100 cheaper than upper deck rooms with large windows.  We are paying the extra $100 for a view!

Diving will occur at and around 6 different atolls in the Maldives where the targets are Hammerhead Sharks (one dive especially for them) Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, Gray Reef Sharks, and a super abundance of reef fishes.

Traveling among these islands will be tough duty

Our itinerary, entirely dependent on the Captain's discretion and weather, of course, includes the following locations:

Rasdhoo Atoll - Hammerhead shark diving, beautiful reef fishes with pelagics.

North Ari Atoll - Gray Reef Sharks, Night dive.  Multiple Manta Ray cleaning stations.

South Ari Atoll - Whale Sharks.  Underwater pinnacles

South Male Atoll - Gray Reef Sharks, Eagle Rays, Other Pelagics.  Wreck dive.

Vaavu Atoll - Beautiful channels with soft corals.  Night dive with Nurse Sharks

North Male Atoll - Underwater pinnacles.

Chill out at the bar after a long day of diving

Main dining area

Lounge on the Main Deck

If you are interested make your own reservations through Lisa at Liveaboard.com (booking@liveaboard.com).  Price includes up to 17 dives (including 2 night dives), value added tax, onboard accommodation, transfers/pickups from airport, tanks, weights, belts, dive master services, all meals, free Nitrox.  Not included are: flights, dive equipment, alcohol, soft drinks, juices, WiFi (an additional 22 Euro for the week), crew gratuities and 15 liter tanks.

The cheapest airfare we have found is on Qatar Airways from Miami via Doha, Qatar, for $950.00 US roundtrip.   Purchase your tickets and select your seats at www.qatarairways.com/us/en/homepage.page

Qatar is regularly ranked as the number 1 airline in the world for in-flight service

As Jimmy Buffett once sang about Paris, "Its a mighty long airplane ride" and its even longer to Qatar. However these coach seats on their Boeing 777 make it look much more desirable than the cattle car feel of coach in most US airlines

Qatar Airways allows a free stopover in Doha, Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula.  The Poseidon Dive Center at the Doha Hilton offers day trips (shore dives) to the nearby Persian Gulf.  We are considering a 2-tank dive there simply because nobody we know has ever dived in the Persian Gulf. Who knows what lies underneath the surface there that will be interesting to see.

For the geographically-challenged, Qatar is an oil-rich country sitting on tiny thumb-like peninsula in the Persian Gulf. Among other things, Qatar is home to the Al Jazeera news channel - the only source of news I seek out for coverage of world events.

Again, this is not a sanctioned Sarasota Scuba Club trip...we aren't offering to lead a trip or are we offering to make your reservations for you.  We are only providing information on an affordable dive trip to a spectacular part of the world and we hope we see you on the Emperor Voyager when she pulls out of Male harbor next June!