Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles

Orkney
In my school library in Canada, there was a curious old volume printed in 1909 called “The Orkney Book.” It was written for schoolchildren living in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and told them about their land, culture and history.

This book fascinated me with its stories of Viking warriors and mysterious stone circles. I studied the grainy black and white photos of those remote islands and dreamed of going there. Last week I finally did.

Orkney, as Orcadians call their home, is a group of about 70 islands between the North Sea and North Atlantic. The exact number is a matter of dispute because in addition to the numerous inhabited islands, some with a population as low as one, there are many more uninhabited islands and skerries. When is an island really an island and not just a rock sticking out of the sea? I suspect this has been the subject of many long conversations in Orcadian pubs.

My wife, 6-year-old son and I landed in the tiny airport at Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. With a population a little above 7,500, it’s not exactly a booming metropolis, but it does account for more than a third of Orkney’s population. What Kirkwall lacks in size it makes up for in history and character. In the broad harbor are moored numerous fishing and pleasure boats and a few larger vessels. Beyond can be seen other islands, green humps rising out of the gray sea.

Dominating the Kirkwall skyline is the 12th century St. Magnus Cathedral built of red sandstone. It was built in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, a Viking at a time when most Vikings were nominally Christian. He built it to house the remains of his uncle Magnus, who had become a saint after having his head split by an axe in traditional Viking fashion. Magnus had been an Earl of the Orkneys, ruling for the Norwegian king along with Magnus’ cousin Hakon, who was Earl of another part of Orkney. This co-rulership led to trouble and when Magnus and Hakon met to sort things out, Hakon betrayed him. Hakon didn’t want his own hands soiled by a kinsman’s blood and called on his cook to perform the foul deed. Soon miracles started happening around Magnus’ grave and he was proclaimed a saint.

Kirkwall also has an excellent museum tracing Orkney’s history from the surprisingly active prehistoric period to the modern day. There’s also a cool Wireless Museum filled with a huge collection of old radios; one from 1912 actually works and on another set you can practice your Morse code. My son was more interested in the old TV where you could play Pong, a video game from an era that must seem as remote to him as the Neolithic.

%Gallery-160901%Our next stop was Stromness, a half-hour bus ride from Kirkwall. As we got off and gazed over the cluster of gray stone buildings huddled around the harbor, my son asked, “Is this the other place they call a city?”

Well, after growing up in Madrid, I guess it doesn’t seem like much of a city to him, but with a little over 2,000 people it’s the second biggest town on the islands. It has a thriving artistic community and many artists display their work at the Pier Arts Centre. There’s also a large museum about the lives of the hardy local sailors, whalers, and explorers of days gone by. Many of the displays are of the things they brought back from their travels, everything from artwork from Niger and Greenland to whalebone scrimshaw and necklaces made from human teeth.

The highlight of our visit to Stromness was walking along the shore and around a promontory. Soon we left the town behind us and looked out over the cold waves. Seals popped their heads out of the water to study us. “Look, a seal! Look, a seal!” my son kept shouting as he spotted another and another. A few rocks became identified as seals too, and spotting more seals took on the uncertainty and excitement that adults generally reserve for UFOs. We clambered over the remains of a World War II gun emplacement, one of many on the islands, and admired the high hills of Hoy island, shown in the photo above.

Both Kirkwall and Stromness are on Orkney’s main island, which Orcadians call the Mainland even though mainland Scotland is barely twenty miles from its southern shores. For those wanting a base from which to get out and about on the islands, either of these two cities is a good bet. Many of Orkney’s top attractions are on the Mainland and Kirkwall and Stromness have regular ferry services to other islands. While we stayed in Kirkwall, my wife and I found Stromness more attractive. Its old architecture and quieter streets had a more traditional feel.

We’d only been on Orkney for 24 hours and we were already hooked. I was looking forward to seeing the countryside and the smaller islands.

This is the first in my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney!”

Chasing leopard seals in Antarctica


Though everyone would agree that ice is king in Antarctica, the most powerful of natural elements, when it comes to the animal world the Leopard seal – 1,000 pounds of lightning fast muscle armed with a mouthful of sharp incisors – is the top of the food chain. While confident due to their size and position, they have been known to drag the occasional diver to the bottom of the ocean and not playfully.

So anyone who dives in the Southern Ocean is constantly attuned for who, or what, is swimming nearby. When my friend Kelvin Murray, who splits his underwater time between two cold water destinations (the North Atlantic and Antarctica), sent this photo of himself being followed/observed/stalked by a big Leopard seal I had to know what he was thinking:

“Let’s face it; diving in Antarctica is not for everyone. Many people ask me what is it like to roll out of the boat into zero-degree water. First question is always, Doesn’t your face freeze? Well yes, but it goes numb so quickly I don’t feel anything. Is the equipment heavy? Yes, but I’m ‘weightless’ in the water. Is there anything to see?
Yes, lots… “It’s when I tell them about the Leopard seals that they truly believe me to be mad. With a head three times the size a man’s, equipped with large canine and tricuspid teeth, powered by 1000 pounds of muscle and flesh in a twelve-foot long frame, this is a creature that demands respect.

“It was while I was guiding a group of underwater photographers on a recent trip along the Antarctic Peninsula that I had my closest encounter.

“We were reaching the end of the dive when the seal appeared. It immediately swam around and amongst us, using its long foreflippers to manuever with precise grace. Straight away it began to gape at the various camera dome ports, flashing its teeth in time with the flashing of the strobes.

“My dive partner took this particular shot as the Leopard circled us. Seconds later I turned around and found myself eyeball to huge, black eyeball with the mighty seal, literally, physically and metaphorically in my face. It hung in the water, slowly twisting and gazing at me with what looked to b a huge crooked smile. I was careful not to blow bubbles – this is sometimes regarded a sign of aggression or frustration in marine mammals – and slowly turned my face away, reminding myself a stare-down might be seen as a challenge. The seal continued to stamp its authority on the area as we returned to our boat, giving us ample opportunity to express a mix of admiration, joy and well…relief. Later in the day we returned to the site and watched with macabre enthusiasm as the seal chased down, drowned and dismembered a penguin, with our snorkelers mere feet away.

“This was a very special encounter. There are few places in the world where you can get so close to an apex carnivore to observe while it stalks, hunts, kills and eats. With iconic top predators under intense pressure the world over, mostly due to some kind of human impact – whether wolves and dogs, bears or big cats – the much-maligned Great White shark is more endangered in the wild than the tiger. All of these majestic animals deserve respect and probably a small portion of appropriate fear but despite our inherent misgivings, the reality is they have more to fear from us than we have of them.”
Photograph by and courtesy of Chris Sterritt

Crowds flocking to Navy SEAL Museum

Navy SEAL
While Navy SEALs normally work in the shadows, they came into the international limelight on May 2 when they killed Osama bin Laden.

Now the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum has seen its daily attendance triple. The museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, documents the history of the SEALs from their humble beginnings in 1943 as the Naval Combat Demolition Teams and Underwater Demolition Teams to the cutting-edge special ops force it is today.

Yet what will surely go down in history as one of the SEAL’s greatest hits isn’t covered by the museum yet. It’s too recent. That will soon change if the museum raises $1.5 million to set up permanent exhibits in its new wing.

On memorial Day about 2,000 people attended services at the museum, and the SEAL team that killed bin Laden got special attention.

“The signal was sent that you cannot attack the U.S. and murder innocent women and children with impunity, that we will find you and get you and win this war,” said Admiral Thomas L. Brown II.

[Photo of SEALs in Afghanistan courtesy U.S. Navy]

Video of the Day – Underwater in the Galapagos


I’m not one to shy away from a good adventure. I’ve bungee jumped Victoria Gorge, plummeted from a plane at 15,000 ft, and stood atop the summit of Kilimanjaro.

But the thought of strapping a cylinder to my back and descending into the depths of the ocean mildly terrifies me.

If there was one video that could change that and make me reconsider my fear, it would be today’s Video of the Day from underwater videographer Darek Sepiolo. Captured along the coast of the Galapágos Islands with a Sony EX1, this 7 minute adventure displays some of the incredible sea life that the Galapágos is famous for. From sea lions and exotic schools of fish, to hammerhead and whale sharks; it’s a stunning glimpse into an entire world that all too often goes unnoticed.

Do you have underwater pictures or video that we should see? Have you faced your fears while traveling? Leave a comment below and it could be tomorrow’s Video/Photo of the Day!

Santa Claus to seals: 5 California sights worth visiting

You already know the Southern California’s top tourist attractions by heart. Disneyland. Hollywood. Hearst Castle. Ever wonder what else is out there? Here are five great lesser-known attractions to check out on your next visit to the Golden State.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Wildlife is often entertaining, and you will get more than your money’s worth (it’s free) by making a stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Located about seven miles north of San Simeon (site of Hearst Castle) along Highway 1 on the scenic central California coast, the rookery is home to an estimated 15,000 animals, according to Friends of the Elephant Seal.

The seals travel in the open ocean for 8 to 10 months a year, but they head to land at the Rookery to give birth, breed and rest. The site is typically a hive of activity as the animals bark, scratch, crawl, fight, sleep and care for their young. They are funny, sweet and fascinating creatures to watch any time of the year. Parking and entrance to the Rookery are free, and there are plenty of viewpoints from which to enjoy the antics of these strange but wonderful creatures.

Santa Claus Statue
Did you know it’s Christmas all year long in Nyeland Acres, California? You might just miss the area’s very own jolly old St. Nick, unless you know where to look. While cruising down Highway 101 through this area of Ventura County north of Los Angeles you’ll encounter a giant 22-foot-tall statue of Santa Claus resting behind wrought-iron gates off the Rice Avenue exit on South Ventura Boulevard.

For more than 50 years, this SoCal Santa stood atop a candy store in what was then Santa Claus Lane off Highway 101, nearly 30 miles away. After the Christmas-themed attraction closed down, Santa’s future was in jeopardy. In 2003, Mike Barber, president of Garden Acres Mutual Water Co. in Nyeland Acres, took possession of him, and the 5-ton Saint Nick moved to his new digs. The custom wrought-iron gate has Santa’s initials (an “S” and a “C”) in it, and he now has company: a snowman and two soldiers. Although the site is opened by appointment only and on special occasions, you can still come to peer at him behind the gates any day of the year for free.

Santa Paula Murals
The quaint Ventura County town of Santa Paula holds a treasure trove of artwork — all on walls of buildings in the city’s downtown. As the city says, you can “enjoy a Walk Through History” by viewing the nine colorful murals as you stroll through town. Santa Paula’s rich history in aviation, “black gold,” citrus, Chumash Indians, Latino culture and more is represented on the various murals. Best of all: It’s free. Visit SantaPaulaMurals.org for more information, including a map with the murals’ locations.

Nitt Witt House

Chances are you know about Hearst Castle, the opulent mansion built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst in the central California coast town of San Simeon. But have you ever heard of the “Poor Man’s Hearst Castle?” That’s the nickname given to the Nitt Witt Ridge home at 881 Hillcrest Drive in Cambria, about 15 minutes away from Hearst’s fancy digs.

The Nitt Witt home, built lovingly out of junk, is the product of Arthur Harold Beal, aka “Captain Nitt Witt” or “Der Tinkerpaw.” Beginning in 1928, Beal spent 50 years building his “castle,” out of such items as toilet bowls, tires, tile, rocks and beer cans. In 1986, the home was named California Historical Landmark No. 939. Today’s owners, Michael and Stacey O’Malley, offer tours of the folk art home. Call 805-927-2690.

Fillmore & Western Railway
Residing in the rural town of Fillmore, north of Los Angeles, is a star of huge proportions. He’s been in more than 400 TV shows, movies and commercials. “He” is the Fillmore & Western Railway, also known as “The Movie Trains.” Just a few of his credits: “Monk,” “Seabiscuit,” “Criminal Minds,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Walk in the Clouds,” “City Slickers II,” “Bugsy” and “Fatal Instinct.” You can ride the rails on this famous train year-round for a myriad of special excursions, such as murder mystery dinner train rides, the Pumpkinliner Halloween journey and the North Pole Express trip. Visit Fillmore & Western’s Web site or call 1-800-773-8724 for ticket reservations. All aboard!