Snorkeling in the Galapagos

Snorkeling allows those of us who either can’t afford or are too scared to SCUBA dive to still experience the wonders of the ocean. That said, often the most awe-inspiring aquatic sites are hidden deep below the surface and hidden to those of us who don’t have an oxygen tank strapped to our backs. Thankfully, if you find yourself in the Galapagos Islands, the animals of the sea come looking for you. That makes it one of the most satisfying and rewarding places to snorkel.

I visited the islands a few months ago and strapped a ContourGPS HD video camera to my snorkel mask for a week of exploration. Every single time I entered the water, I swam with a creature that I’d only previously encountered at aquariums. Notice that I said “swam with.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that the sea lions frolicked with us, the penguins teased us and the sharks shared some close encounters with us. Unlike any other place that I have been, snorkeling in the Galapagos is very much an interactive wildlife experience and you don’t need to be a professional cameraperson to capture the action.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games with animals in the Galapagos. I learned a few things in the water. Did you know that penguins poop while swimming? It’s like a public pool over there!

Budget Maldives: How to find perfect beaches and unbelievable snorkeling on a relative shoestring

The Maldives

The lowest lying country in the world does not offer much above sea level, just 7 feet 7 inches at its highest point. This fine sliver of sun kissed atolls is so postcard perfect it borders on ridiculous. White sand beaches, Kool-aid blue seawater, and densely populated coral reefs are de rigueur in The Maldives. It is a different kind of world, a water-world with flying taxis and manta rays measuring over 20 feet from tip to tip, soaring over their colorful underwater kingdoms.

With 1,192 islands covering 26 atolls, the Maldives island chain covers a significant portion of the Indian Ocean between India and Africa. The scantly populated nation boasts only 400,000 humans, many of which are Muslim. The one time British protectorate and Islamic sultanate habitats only 200 of its many islands with the rest defending the deserted island ideal – groves of shady palms trees, tide pools filled with skittering creatures, soft white beaches that disappear into cyan water, and nary a human in sight to spoil the dream.

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Getting there
From the New World, reaching The Maldives is a serious commitment, but the effort is rewarding. While no direct flights exist from the United States, London and Dubai provide worthy hubs to the island nation. British Airways and SriLankan Airlines fly direct from London to Male – the capital city of The Maldives. Emirates flies direct from Dubai in just about four hours.

From Southeast Asia, Singapore Air services The Maldives from Singapore. The easiest (and cheapest) connection to Male is from nearby Colombo in Sri Lanka via SriLankan Airlines. Colombo can be reached cheaply from the hub of Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia.

The Maldives

Lodging
The Maldives is home to some of the nicest resorts on the planet. It is one of the most exclusive and expensive places to visit, but value can be found for those that look. Websites such as Kayak will show aggregate pricing from a number of hotel booking sites, and it is possible to pounce on insanely good deals. Just be sure to factor in airplane transfers (seaplane taxi can reach $500 per person from the airport) and the inevitable massive dining bill on top of your nightly fee. For a mid-range resort in the Maldives, expect to pay at least $35-$100 per meal per couple (without massive alcohol consumption) and be sure to choose a package that includes a free breakfast.

A great workaround to the expensive seaplane taxi is to book a resort that can be reached by yacht. Resorts such as Kurumba and Kuramathi are close enough to the airport for cheap boat transportation, but the trade-off of hearing planes landing may not be worth it for some people.

The Maldives

Since every property in the Maldives outside of the capital city of Male is on its own private island, it is very important to choose wisely. The commitment is unlike choosing a regular hotel in a regular city because you are literally on an island, forced to eat and sun exclusively on island, with the exception of occasional excursions. If the food is sub-par and expensive, then you will be a slave to this dining arrangement for the duration of your stay. Therefore, it is very wise to do research on sites like Tripadvisor to insure yourself against the plague of daily disappointment.

The Maldives

Underwater
As far as snorkeling goes, it does not get better than the Maldives. With 200 species of coral reef and 300 species of fish, the underwater beauty is mind-blowing. It is one of those rare locations where the snorkeling is as good as, if not better than, the scuba diving. Experiencing both is ideal, but if you are not into breathing compressed air, then snorkeling the Maldives will certainly suffice in providing one of life’s great experiences.

The coolest thing about the snorkeling is the accessibility. The water is extremely calm, and many offshore reefs are shallow. This provides an environment that even novice swimmers can be comfortable with. Most resorts also have house reefs that begin just steps from one’s guestroom. This proximity to the coral reefs provides a convenient, and free, gateway to the underwater kingdom of the Maldives.


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The Maldives

The Capital
Malé is the island capital of the Maldives (above) with 100,000 Maldivians making it one of the most densely populated islands in the world. The island is filled with tall buildings, mosques, and fish markets. People do not generally visit the Maldives to see this bustling island, but those that do visit the capital find an extremely interesting society based around the worship of Islam and bounty of the sea. It is also the cheapest place to stay in the Maldives with sub $50 rooms.

The MaldivesMaldives on a Budget
So what is “budget” in an island playground for the wealthy? The term “budget” is relative. Visiting Quito, Ecuador on a budget may involve a $35 per day allowance, while a budget Maldives trip can be realistically done for $250 per day per couple. A huge difference, but the price of paradise has a premium.

The Maldives is one of the most expensive destinations in the world. Just getting there will cost at least $300 round-trip, and upon arrival, the real hemorrhaging of cash begins. Rooms reach upwards of $1000 per night, private taxis from the airport can cost over $500, and food, bearing hefty logistical costs, is also quite expensive.

If done right though, it is possible to book a room for a little over $100. Airport transfer can also cost a fortune, but, if the resort is close enough to the airport, it is possible to pay only $25 each way for private boat transport.

Utilize websites like Kayak and Agoda to find cheap rooms and inquire directly with the resort about cost of transport from the airport. On my last visit to the Maldives, I paid $166 per night for a room at Kurumba (with breakfast, crucial, for stealing snacks later called lunch) and about $50 per person for return transport to the airport. My daily budget averaged $280 for two people that drink modestly – not a shoestring, but relatively cheap for one of the most expensive destinations in the world. (Disclaimer: I ate chicken nuggets off the toddler menu twice.)

Global warming and the Maldives
In 2009, the president of the Maldives and his cabinet held a meeting underwater to illustrate the Maldives status as one of the few endangered countries on the planet. With sea levels rising and the Maldives being the lowest lying country in the world, its fate as the first submerged nation is very possible. All the more reason to visit this spectacular land while it is still above sea level.

All photography by Justin Delaney
Aerial photo of Male from Wikimedia Commons

Video of the Day – Jellyfish Lake, Palau


Swimming in water filled with millions of jellyfish may be most people’s worst nightmare. But for visitors to the Palauan island of Eil Malik, it’s the main attraction.

Situated about 500 miles east of the Philippines, Jellyfish Lake is one of 70 marine lakes on Eil Malik that was formed when the ocean receded over 12,000 years ago. After being trapped in this natural basin, the jellyfish that inhabited the lake gradually evolved without the ability to sting since there were no predators sharing the same waters. Now, daring snorklers can fulfill their worst nightmares (or biggest dreams) by swimming among the jellyfish without being stung. However, those with sensitive skin are advised to wear a wetsuit or protective clothing.

This beautiful, dreamy music video comes from photographer/videographer Sarosh Jacob who captured his adventure with a Canon 5D Mark II and a Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, set to Radiohead’s “Nude”. For more great underwater videos, check out Sarosh’s Vimeo page.

What’s the most daring adventure you’ve been on? Share it with us! Upload photos to Gadling’s Flickr Pool or leave a comment with a link to your video in the comments below & we may select it as our next Photo/Video of the Day!

5 incredible, adventurous things to do in Kauai, Hawaii

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Kauai. Just the mere mention of the word brings a million amazing memories rushing back, and immediately makes those who have been wish they were kicked back on Poipu beach without a care in the world. It’s one of America’s wonders, and while the Garden Isle is far from being the biggest, most populated or easiest of the Hawaiian islands to get to, it’s unquestionably worth the trip. Particularly so if you’re the adventurous type. If there’s any island in the Hawaiian chain that begs for you to plop down in one spot for the week, Kauai most certainly isn’t it. This place abounds with things to do, and those who aren’t afraid to climb, jump, sweat and dive right into the wild will have no shortage of fun. I’ve compiled five of my favorite Kauai adventures here in hopes that you too will find certain thrills while visiting, so grab your untouched itinerary and read on!

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This is unquestionably my favorite thrill on Kauai. Kipu Falls are conveniently located near the popular eastern side of the island, around 20 minutes or so from downtown Lihue. Ask any of the locals about Kipu, and chances are they’ll be able to guide you right to it. It’s actually fairly easy to locate via GPS (it’s off of Kipu Road), and you’ll probably see a dozen or so cars parked along the side of a road beside a massive field. Park, hike along the stream’s edge (the beaten path is private property, but the stream itself isn’t), and ten minutes later, you’ll be in paradise. A huge, freshwater pool to leap into, a massive tree swing to reenact Tarzan on, and plenty of opportunities to meet fellow tourists and locals from all over the world. If you pick the right day, you may even see locals running out of the edge of tree limbs and backflipping 70 feet into the water below. Astounding. Have a look at my experience above.

Fair warning: cliff jumping is risky. Be smart, and stay safe! If you’re in doubt, don’t jump! It’s plenty entertaining to just watch the pros who are experienced.

Tunnels Beach has grown into a real spectacle in recent years, making the parking situation somewhat of a nightmare. Not a ton of tourists flock here, but enough have come for the neighbors to turn their yard into a pay-for-parking lot. Bummer. Your best bet is to show up early and park along the sections of the road where it’s allowed — even if you have to walk half a mile, it’s worth it. Rent some snorkel gear down in Lihue or Princeville before heading out, and bring along your waterproof camera if you have one. You’ll find loads of fish here, crystal clear water, gorgeous stretches of sand, and — if you’re lucky — a giant sea turtle. I was able to swim with one for a couple of minutes on my last trip, shown above. Talk about Hawaiian hospitality!

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Similar to Tunnels Beach, the only catch with this outing is the parking situation. The Queen’s Bath is a magnificent rock formation along the ocean’s coast, but it’s actually hidden behind an upscale housing community / golf course in Princeville. You’ll need to drive back into the neighborhood (found two to three miles within St. Regis Princeville) and park at the handful of public spots. If those are full, you’ll need to park wherever it’s legal nearby and hike. There’s a well-beaten path through the woods and to the ocean, and chances are, you’ll be able to follow the other tourists and locals down. The pool is formed with lava rock, and it blocks crashing waves as you sit and soak. There are also plenty of cliff jumping opportunities here for the daredevils in attendance.

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The grueling, gorgeous Kalalau Trail (reached by driving as far north as you can along Highway 560) is likely Kauai’s most famous, but few people know that it takes days to complete, and to proceed beyond Hanakapiai Beach at the ~2.5 mile marker, you actually need an overnight camping permit from the state. The full ~11 mile hike has managed an incredible 9.0 out of 10 on Sierra Club’s difficulty scale, making it the most difficult trail that doesn’t require vertical scaling of a mountain. Thankfully, the first bit — which wraps around the north of the island and provides astonishing views of the Na Pali coast — isn’t so tough. You’ll need great hiking shoes, a few liters of water, a bathing suit and a towel. After you’ve hiked down, you’re treated to a waterfall that nearly runs directly into the ocean. Take a dip in the Pacific, bask on the sand, and then rinse in the waterfall before heading right back where you came from. Take a camera — the views are unmatched.

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You’ve got only a few options to actually see the Na Pali Coast, and while a helicopter ride (or a ride from the highly recommended Wings Over Kauai) is just fine for some, I prefer a little more adventure. Taking Captain Joe’s zodiac tour is a great excuse to visit the vastly under-appreciated western swath of Kauai, and moreover, an amazing way to see parts of Kauai that you could never see but by boat. You’ll get a personal view of the island’s Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility, schools of dolphins, and of course, the Na Pali coast. Joe also provides lunch as well as an opportunity to snorkel for an hour or so while out at sea. On the ride in, you’ll get a great view of Niihau, and feel free to ask Captain Joe anything you want — he’s a wealth of information, and the vibe on zodiac is one that’ll make you want to relocate rather than fly back home.

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Any other amazing sights to see or activities to engage in while on the Garden Isle? Speak up in comments below! Aloha!

Photo of the Day – Sea turtle in action

Snorkeling is one of my favorite travel activities, especially because it’s such a visual feast. Simply grab a mask and some fins, stick your head underwater and suddenly you’re staring at an alien world: bright neon-striped fish, strange wispy corals and of course, the graceful sea turtle. Flickr user kumukulanui snapped this beautiful specimen in action just off the coast of the Big Island in Hawaii. Of all the spots I’ve been snorkeling, the Big Island has to be one of the best, particularly to get up close with these amazing, beautiful creatures.

Taken any great travel photos recently? Why not share them with us by adding them to the Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.