Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Glamping in Guatemala, more gorilla permits in Rwanda and easy entry into Mozambique

Volcan Fuego gives the night sky a warm glow over Antigua and
Maya Trails' new glamping site. Photo: Trek Guatemala
What's happening this week in the Kusini Collection:

Trekkers don't rough it - tents have queen-sized beds with down
duvets and meals are sumptuous and delicious.
Maya Trails: Maya Trails is excited to offer a new way to experience Guatemala at a walker's pace. Two new trekking options are available - a two day/one night 'glamping' experience outside of Antigua with optional nature hikes, and for more intrepid hikers, a four day/three night option that begins in Antigua and ends at Lake Atitlan. The longer trek is rich with natural beauty and meanders along local footpaths and among Mayan villages with locals going about their daily life. Trekkers only need to carry a day pack for their hikes.

Tad couldn't wipe the smile off of his face after going up
for a spin with Will
Albatros Travel: Guests traveling with Albatros Travel can have a real 'Out of Africa' experience when staying at Lewa Wilderness in Kenya. As an optional add-on to a stay, travelers can enjoy an an open cockpit biplane safari with pilot Will Craig. Will takes guests above the treetops and weaves through gorges to show off the beauty of Laikipia. The plane can take two passengers who accompany the pilot on a journey over forests, herds of game, and through ravines that are otherwise virtually inaccessible. The experience is a thrilling bit of time travel! Flights are dependent on pilot availability.

It's impossible not to have fun when traveling with Tex!
Costa Rica Sun Tours: Costa Rica Sun Tours (CRST) boasts some of the best guides in the business. They are natural and experienced talents, and are fun to be with! Meet Tex. Marco Fallas (aka "Tex") is full of energy with a contagious sense of humor. With 20 years of guiding experience, Marco continues to study every detail of Costa Rica, and has taken many courses, including in ornithology, ecology, history, and most recently, nature photography. With his ready laugh and caring manner, Tex is one of CRST's most popular tour leaders! Meet more guides here!

Getting into Mozambique is getting easier!
New Frontiers: Effective immediately, tourism visas for Mozambique can now be obtained on arrival. A government-issued notice has confirmed that citizens from countries that require a visa to enter Mozambique (including US citizens and Canadians) will be able to obtain one on arrival at 44 border posts. These include Maputo, Vilanculos, Inhambane, Beira, Pemba and Nampula airports and the Ponto D'ouro border post (for White Pearl). New Frontiers recommends clients carry copies of their booking confirmations as well as their airline tickets. The cost of a 30-day visa is US$50.00.

VIDEO: It's hard to describe the joy of being part of a turtle
release, but this video will give you an idea!
Todos Santos Eco Adventures: Don't take our word for it - here's just one guest quote to tempt you to Todos Santos Eco Adventures' Sea Turtle Camp: "...Spending the night looking for and helping move sea turtle eggs and then falling asleep for a few hours in a tent listening to the waves was only improved by getting to watch baby turtles hatch and then see them released into the ocean...being able to have such a small part in this noble project is very rewarding." This exclusive experience is offered only 10 nights this year (Aug 25 - Sept 3) and now is the time to book! Click here for more details.

VIDEO: Train safaris don't get any better than this!
Imvelo Safari Lodges: We've mentioned how amazing green season sightings have been in Hwange this year - it's been cats (in trees!), cats and more cats (and a few dogs, too)! Speaking of cats, we love this video of one of the more exceptional Elephant Express rides of the season! It's a good nudge to encourage your clients to get moving on their 2018 Zimbabwe safari planning. Imvelo Safari Lodges have released their rates for next year (including Green Season Stay 3/Pay 2 specials!). They can be found in the Travel Trade section of our website.

More gorilla permits in Rwanda equals more money
for conservation!
Classic Africa Safaris: Effective April 1st, the number of daily gorilla permits available to trekkers in Rwanda has increased from 80 to 96. Two new groups of gorillas previously only accessible to researchers have been added, so trekking groups will remain at 8 travelers each. A group of US agents will join Gretchen and Classic Africa Safaris next week to explore Uganda and Rwanda, including many of Uganda's highlights, as well as gorilla trekking in both countries. Visit Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to follow their travels!

The Ultimate guide tribe attending training at //Huab
Ultimate Safaris: Ultimate Safaris hosted their entire guiding tribe at //Huab, with a major focus on naturalist guiding and //Huab itself. Time was spent with their internal guide trainer, the team from EHRA (Elephant Human Relations Aid) and guest lecturers, including Jeff Muntifering from the Minnesota Zoo. Most importantly, a lot of time was spent with SRT (Save the Rhino Trust), focusing on rhino conservation and the practices involved in running a sustainable and effective tourism operation. Guides are taking things to the next level and are ready for a busy year!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Introducing Costa Rica Sun Tours

Three-toed sloths are one of the many unique and wonderful species that can
be spotted in Costa Rica's forests

We are thrilled to announce and welcome Costa Rica Sun Tours to the Kusini Collection!

Having known and worked with their team for over a dozen years, it gives me great personal pleasure to welcome them. For thirty years, owner/operator, John Aspinall, and the incredible crew at Costa Rica Sun Tours (CRST) have paved the way of responsible travel in Costa Rica while creating one transformative experience after another. And they have fun doing it! It's no wonder they are the most trusted and recognized tour operator in the country.

I can say from experience, there is no request too big or small for CRST to tackle. They'll exceed the expectations of your travelers every time - individuals, families, and group adventures alike. As a boutique operator with dedicated focus on the travel trade, they realize the importance of partnerships and building your brand - ensuring continuity, safety, and creativity.

We can't wait to welcome your guests in true Costa Rican style!

Pura Vida!

Setting the bar...and raising it!

The company recognizes their most important resource is their staff - most have 10-20 years with the company! This level of commitment and loyalty ensures excellent customer service and client satisfaction with a personal touch.

With many surprise inclusions and top-notch business relations within the country - the value provided to you and your client is clear. They even build in a home-hosted meal on every tour - always an unexpected highlight!

Did we mention CRST has hands-down the best guides in the region? Their natural abilities are further supported through annual certifications and training focused on educational and safety components.

Define your adventure

How do your guests define adventure? First, let's start with the right ingredients:

A creative, enthusiastic, and detailed team.

A diverse range of accommodations and transportation options for the active adventurer, nature lover and/or luxury traveler.

A destination which has it all - white-water rafting, surfing, world class fishing, diving or rappelling...or on the softer side - yoga and natural healing treatments, dips beneath crystal waterfalls or bird-watching through the cloudforest - Costa Rica delivers!

With the these three ingredients, you have a recipe for adventure in Costa Rica, no matter how you define it! So, whether you have a heli-hopping VIP or passionate birder, CRST can craft an itinerary unique to each traveler.

Click here for sample itineraries that give a taste of CRST's adventures.

CRST staff pick - Hacienda AltaGracia!

There are so many incredible places in Costa Rica! To whet your appetite, we're highlighting a new luxury property which is receiving raves from the CRST team and our travelers!

Less than two years old and already the recipient of Conde Nast's "Worlds Best" and "Reader's Choice" awards, Hacienda AltaGracia is a boutique hotel nestled in over 850 lush acres among traditional agricultural towns and overlooking the exceptionally beautiful Valle del General.

Activities abound, including horseback riding, ultralight flights, mountain biking and hiking, farm activities such as cheese workshops, cooking classes and coffee plantation tours, visits to neighboring Los Cusingos Wildlife Refuge, or simply enjoying the property and spa. Meals are sumptuous and the service is outstanding!

Sustainability - beyond the buzzword

Costa Rica Sun Tours has achieved a 5 Leaf rating - the highest possible - through the Costa Rican government's CST Sustainability program. This is a major achievement and CRST is one of the first tour operators to achieve this rating. This program was designed to differentiate businesses in the tourism industry, based on the level at which they comply with a sustainable model of natural, cultural and social resource management. Read more here about CRST's other sustainability efforts and partnerships.

What next?

Not sure where to start? Read on for the many highlights of Costa Rica!
For more information about Costa Rica Sun Tours, contact Sonya.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

New family digs in Baja, divine dining in Ecuador and the Mara for less

The view from Babisuri House makes it easy to slip into vacation mode
quickly upon arrival!

 What's happening this week in the Kusini Collection:

Bedrooms are large and gorgeous, and even more guests can
be accommodated in the shared living area
Todos Santos Eco Adventures: The new Babisuri House was built to blend into the surroundings at Todos Santos Eco Adventures' Los Colibris Casitas and provides beautiful, wheelchair-friendly accommodation with spectacular views. A cactus-garden roof keeps things cool indoors while keeping views intact for the Casitas. A spacious living and kitchen area is shared, while 2 large bedrooms have separate entrances and can each easily accommodate a family of 4. Guests have access to all of Los Colibris Casitas amenities including Iker's Colibris Cafe, the Yoga Sky Deck, the gardens, infinity pool and hot tub. The house can be booked out as three different rooms or for exclusive use. Note: wheelchair access will be complete in approximately 8 weeks.
Visitors to Mara Expedition Camp enjoy all of the luxuries
at an amazing rate

Albatros Travel: Great Plains' Mara Expedition Camp is tucked away on a bend in the Ntiakitiak River in the north-central section of the Masai Mara. Set just inside the main reserve, it is perfectly positioned for the migration and provides easy access to river crossing sites. Combined with traversing rights in the exclusive Mara North Conservancy, the intimate, 5-tent Mara Expedition Camp offers the best of both worlds to your travelers. With reduced rates for the remainder of 2017 (no more than $660/pp/pn, even in high season!), Albatros Travel highly recommends it for your Kenya clients.

Safari guests can participate in an exercise where animals are
immobilized and fitted with radio collars for research and
Ultimate Safaris: For the third year running, Ultimate Safaris are finalists in the prestigious We Are Africa Innovation Awards for their 'Giraffe Conservation' safari. The safari allows guests to spend time in the field with Dr Julian Fennessey, Africa's authority on giraffe conservation, and educates travelers on topics ranging from giraffe ecology and conservation, to misconceptions regarding the highly threatened animals. The journey also focuses on a number of other conservation projects including the AfriCat Foundation and Save the Rhino Trust. The safari benefits the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Learn more about their nomination here.

New Frontiers: Southern Africa travelers wishing to make the most of both Cape Town and Victoria Falls will be able to do it with greater ease in just a few months, as Airlink will launch direct flights beginning July 2nd. Daily flights (except Saturdays) will depart from Cape Town at 8:30 am arriving at VFA at 11:15 am. The return will depart VFA at 11:45 am and arrive in Cape Town at 2:40 pm. The 11:15 am arrival in Vic Falls allows guests to enjoy an afternoon activity in the Falls or even Hwange. New Frontiers can book these flights for clients combining Cape Town and Vic Falls/Zimbabwe.

Did we mention the gorgeous views from Gorges?
Imvelo Safari Lodges: Zimbabwe has been topping hot lists for travel in 2017, and recently published an article featuring its top places to visit, including Imvelo Safari Lodges' Gorges Lodge. "It's an absurdly easy association to call the fantastic Gorges Lodge... 'gorgeous,' except it really is... Each of the lodge's individual rooms is delicately perched right on the precipice of the gorge, built into the rocky terrain with an elevated wooden deck." Visitors can escape the hustle and bustle of Vic Falls town and are guaranteed an idyllic stay with magnificent views!

Chef Alvaro's new tasting menu will make your foodie
clients swoon!
Tropic Ecuador: Cotopaxi NP draws adventurous travelers, and visitors are welcomed with warm Andean hospitality. Tropic Ecuador's Chilcabamba Mountain Lodge raised the bar by welcoming renowned chef Alvaro Reinoso into the kitchen. Chef Alvaro cooks with local products using techniques mastered while working at some of the world's best restaurants. He has created 'Nuna,' a 10-course menu designed to showcase the best Ecuadorian ingredients to please the palates of mountaineers and gourmands alike. Now one of the best meals in Ecuador can be found in one of its most awe-inspiring locations.

Special, limited-time offer exclusive to Tropic clients:

  • $60 USD/per person for the Nuna tasting menu (for 2 people, $45/per person for groups of 4-8). Wine pairings and overnight programs available.
  • This is a great option to upgrade your client's 'Full Day to Cotopaxi' extension. Add on Nuna for $40 USD/person - available for confirmed bookings throughout 2017.

All prices are inclusive of taxes. Contact Tropic for availability and reservations.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Time of year travel

The Great Migration is magic any time of year, though we have a soft spot
for the calving season
This week's enews is to inspire ideas for your travelers who are specific about when they can travel, with options throughout the year by season....

January - March

Whale watching in Baja hits the spot for those seeking a
'transformative travel' experience. Photo by Colin Ruggiero.
Baja California Sur's whale watching season runs from October through March, but mid-January to mid-March is an extra special time with the arrival of gray whales. Todos Santos Eco Adventures has a great track record of getting their clients up close and personal with the gentle giants! Some even suggest that the experience can 'change your perspective.'

The Great Migration moves in perpetuity, and every season has its own highlights. What we love, love, love about visiting Tanzania this time of year is that we have the chance to see the calving season, where wildebeest are dropping their babies on the plains of the Southern Serengeti. Predator activity is also incredible during this time of abundance. Albatros Travel can advise on the best camps for your clients' safari to witness this beautiful spectacle.

For a delicious diversion a bit closer to home, we suggest visiting Guatemala for the annual coffee harvest. Maya Trails partners with De La Gente in Antigua for community-based coffee tours. The participatory tour comes with a translator and a bag of seriously delicious coffee! 100% of the cost of the tour is paid directly to the farmer. Add a traditional Guatemalan lunch with the family for an extra special experience.

April - June

Calm seas ensure great wildlife viewing both above and
below the surface in the Galapagos!
The Galapagos Islands are a year-round destination, but this time of year marks the end of the warm and wet season. Showers are brief (when they happen!), and the seas are at their calmest. With that calm comes easy boat transfers between islands for land-based travel with Tropic Ecuador (or smooth sailing if that's your choice), but best of all, it ensures excellent underwater visibility for checking out the amazing wildlife!

Travelers hankering for adventure in Namibia would do well to visit during our spring months as the rainy season is coming to an end and their winter sets in. Days can still be hot, but the air is fresh and clear, vegetation is green (great photography conditions!) and the mercury blissfully dips at night. It is pre-high season so there are fewer tourists, and game viewing gets better as the vegetation dies back. Ask Ultimate Safaris what they love about this special time of year.

Primate viewing is one of the ultimate wildlife experiences in Africa, and the countries with excellent trekking opportunities use that draw to help fund protection of the primates with permit fees. Savvy travelers can visit Uganda during the months of April, May (and November!) to take advantage of discounted gorilla and chimpanzee permits ($50 off chimp permits and $150 off of gorilla permits). These discounts might mean the difference between one or two days of trekking, multiple primate treks or a longer safari. Be sure to contact Classic Africa Safaris well in advance to secure permits!

July - September

Shutterbugs can perfect their elephant shots during Zimbabwe's
dry season. Photo by Mark Butcher.
Imvelo Safari Lodges' Nehimba Lodge is an epic location for close encounters with elephants during the dry season. Elephants can be seen close to the Lodge all year, but numbers swell significantly during the dry season. Guests can reliably witness the spectacle from July - Nov, both at the Lodge and at the Nehimba Seeps. Nehimba also offers an elevated vantage point for photographing the hundreds of elephants and other game that frequent its very popular waterhole. With lots of new flights into VFA (including this direct one from Cape Town with SA Airlink) it's easier than ever to visit!

August marks the peak of South Africa's flower season. In the country's arid northwest (Namaqualand), the plains come to life with a riot of color. The 4,000 species of flower seeds lie in wait for the right conditions, then bloom in a different and stunning way each year. Adventure opportunities in Namaqualand go beyond viewing its seasonal color palette, and include hiking and biking, fantastic seafood, walks to ancient rock paintings, delicious wine and tea, and more. For the short flower season, be sure to contact New Frontiers early, as accommodations can sell out months in advance.

These shoulder season months mark the end of summer and the onset of autumn in Ethiopia. September is particularly magical with landscapes that will defy your imagination - verdant and lush from the rains. Yellow (Meskel) daisies dot hillsides and their arrival ushers in the Ethiopian Orthodox church's celebration of Meskel (Sept 27), marking the discovery of the 'True Cross' in the 4th century. Weather is generally mild, though Travel Ethiopia recommends that travelers be prepared for rain with boots and a waterproof jacket.

October - December

Predators were abundant during Gretchen's visit to Kenya
during its 'secret season'
Procrastinators, rejoice! There is something to love about year-end travel and squeezing out every last vacation day. All of our destinations provide an opportunity to escape the oncoming North American winter - it's just a matter of choice! Maybe Kenya's 'secret season' with fewer tourists (but lots of wildlife!), or marking the holiday season in Latin America with family to experience a shot of culture in an escape close to home...the only limit on where to go is travelers' imaginations!

Speaking of Latin America, if olive ridley, green, and leatherback turtles or the elusive resplendant quetzal are on your client's 'must see' list, we have an exciting announcement coming in a few weeks - stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Kusini in Kenya, cats on the tracks and octopuses can walk

Lions cause a delay for the Elephant Express -
this is the kind of traffic jam we can get behind!

 What's happening this week in the Kusini Collection:

Direct flights to Kenya from the US will get clients on
safari faster!
Albatros Travel: Tad is currently exploring Kenya with Albatros Travel (keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates!), and while his journey went off without a hitch, no traveler would object to getting there faster. Good news on that front - Kenya was recently granted approval for non-stop direct flights to the United States. Permission was granted more quickly than anticipated after Kenya implemented a number of US recommended security enhancements. Kenya joins four other African countries whose airports have achieved Category One status - South Africa, Ethiopia, Cape Verde, and Nigeria.

Big cat sightings in Hwange have been amazing during the
green season! 
Imvelo Safari Lodges: We've mentioned that timing is important when booking Imvelo Safari Lodges' Elephant Express, and we must acknowledge that every now and then the train is delayed. It had to make an unscheduled stop last week due to a convergence of cats on the rails, though there wasn't a single passenger complaint. Big cat sightings have been abundant during the beautiful green season. Earlier this week guests spotted two different litters of lion cubs on a drive. Leopard and cheetah sightings have also been incredible. No matter the season - Hwange NP delivers!

Tents are basic but comfortable, and allow guests to
experience the wild side of Murchison Falls NP
Classic Africa Safaris: Classic Africa Safaris is now offering mobile tented walking safaris in Murchison Falls National Park! Walks take guests into one of East Africa's oldest forests, over the lip of the Albertine Rift Valley and into the Nile Valley. These safaris allow guests to experience Murchison Falls and the White Nile in a way few others ever will. The two or three night adventures are led by Andy Ault, a licensed professional guide from Zimbabwe who has lived and worked in Uganda for the past 8 years.

Todos Santos Eco Adventures: Octopuses (yes, that's the correct plural!) have proven to be highly intelligent, with the ability to use tools, 'walk' outside of water, and deploy camouflage in a way that rivals that of any other creature found in nature. Guests of Todos Santos Eco Adventures can see octopuses and myriad other sea life in both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. Check out this blog post for a word with Bryan and Sergio Jauregui and to learn more about these incredible animals that have been swimming through our oceans for nearly 300 million years.

T+L's '50 Best Places' list for 2017 includes
Botswana's Okavango Delta
T+L's 50 Best Places to Travel in 2017: What do Cape Town, Guayaquil, Ecuador, the Okavango Delta and Rwanda have in common? They all share real estate on Travel + Leisure's '50 Best Places to Travel in 2017' list! They all also happen to be destinations well represented by clients in the Kusini Collection. If you are seeing demand for these exceptional locales, New Frontiers can steer you right for Cape Town and Botswana's Okavango Delta, Tropic Ecuador will give you the goods on Guayaquil, and Classic Africa Safaris can unearth Rwanda's magic for your clients.

Gelada baboons are among the unique endemic wildlife
found in the Simiens 
Travel Ethiopia: Travelers are drawn to Ethiopia's Simien Mountains to explore the area's beauty, endemic wildlife and cultural opportunities. The African Wildlife Foundation and Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority are supporting new tourism ventures in the Simiens to disperse tourists over a wider area, benefitting both communities and the landscape. They include a new multi-day community-based trek incorporating simple lodging, authentic food and cultural interaction, and the AWF partnership with Limalimo ecolodge makes it a great, community-enriching choice for lodge-based trekking. Contact Travel Ethiopia to discuss options, including ways to combine both.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Octopus's Garden

Credit: Lara Ray
To travel with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA) is to understand their passion for what they do. Bryan and Sergio Jauregui are not just running a business, but do it for the love of the land and sea...they are always learning, always sharing. When we came across Bryan's most recent, and fascinating, blog post, we had to share. But first, a few questions with the two of them:

KUSINI: What was your inspiration to write this article?
TOSEA: (Bryan's voice): My sister gave us Sy Montgomery's book, The Soul of an Octopus, for Christmas last year. We both found it absolutely charming and completely revelatory about the intelligence and emotions of octopuses. This book actually inspired omnivore Sergio to stop eating octopus! It also inspired us to do the behind-the-scenes tour at the New England Aquarium in Boston when we visited last summer and it was wonderful to meet the aquarists who are doing such great work there. I write regularly for our local Baja California Sur magazine, Journal del Pacifico, and when the editor asked if I'd like to do a piece on octopuses I jumped at the chance to dive even further into the octopus's garden.

KUSINI: Are visitors to Baja California Sur able to see octopuses in their native environment?
TOSEA: (Sergio's voice): Yes, we see octopuses in both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. Several of the 300 species of octopus can be found in Baja California Sur.

KUSINI: What are the threats to these magnificent creatures?
TOSEA: Climate change and the resulting increase in ocean acidification is one of the key threats to the octopus. When the pH level of the ocean gets too low, octopuses can't circulate enough oxygen to survive. Octopuses are also threatened by habitat destruction and events which cause a decline in their key food sources.

KUSINI: What's your best octopus story/sighting?
TOSEA: (Sergio's voice): There is an octopus that lives in a conch shell right off the shore at Camp Cecil and we see him all the time with our guests - he's quite friendly. There's another octopus who lives near one of the dive sites near Espiritu Santo and he likes to keep a series of shells in front of his house. If we move one of the shells, even a little bit, he always comes out and fixes them back just so. Octopus are also amazing predators. One of our guides actually saw an octopus eat a bird!

The Octopus's Garden

by Bryan J√°uregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures
This article was originally published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

California Two-Spot Octopus, The Pacific Ocean.
Photo by Kaia Thomson
There was a thief in the aquarium and no one knew what to do. The institution had just recently purchased 10 Australian Pineapplefish at a price per head that brought tears to the financial officer’s eyes, and now these expensive beauties were
disappearing – eerily, quietly, and exactly one fish per night. Management’s initial hypothesis was that night-time employees were seeking to boost their fortunes by selling the fish on the black market, so they set up monitoring stations at employee exits to inspect bags and purses. No pilfered fish were found, and they kept disappearing, one fish each evening. Puzzled, and anxious to protect what remained of their investment, aquarium officials finally decided to set up a camera monitoring system at the Pineapplefish tank to try and catch the thief in the act. Turns out, it was the perfect inside job.

Three tanks away the giant Pacific octopus planned and executed the crime. He figured out how to undo the lock on his tank, walk past the (obviously less delectable) Barrier Reef Anemonefish and Bicolor Parrotfish, open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, and leisurely enjoy his midnight snack. He then carefully replaced the top of the Pineapplefish tank, walked back to his own tank, and put the lid back in place.

An Octopus planning? Picking a lock? Walking? The aquarium theft story is one that is widely told in marine science circles, although no one seems to remember the name of the aquarium or exactly when it happened. Even is not entirely sure. Yet the story has such wide currency as those who study and work with octopuses (yes, it is “octopuses” as the greek-derived word octopus will not suffer a latin ending like “I”) know an octopus could easily plan and execute such a caper. In fact, the remarkable intelligence of octopuses, coupled with their other-worldly, alien-seeming bodies, has given rise to a spate of books in recent years that explore and celebrate these amazing creatures. In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith talks about engaging with octopuses as “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” In The Soul of an Octopus Sy Montgomery tells wonderful stories about the octopus friends she made at the New England Aquarium, their personalities and their sophisticated cognitive skills of being able to imagine what is in another creature’s mind. And in Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea, Harmon Courage discusses how “the big-brained cephalopod can navigate through mazes, solve problems and remember solutions, and take things apart for fun.”

Mirror Minds

Octopuses and humans last shared a common ancestor (a wormlike critter) about half a billion years ago, so minds of the two groups developed into complex, sentient entities completely separately. As did their bodies, which seem to be almost the inverse of each other. Octopuses can shape-shift through cracks no larger than their eyes. Humans lack such fluidity. Vertebrates are structured around a central nervous system centered in the head, while the brains of an octopus – whose neuron numbers are comparable to those of mammals – are distributed, with two-thirds in their 8 arms and only one third in their heads. This means that the arms can engage in independent problem-solving behavior, like how to open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, while the owner can be checking to see if there is a similarly worthy object of its attention in another tank. As Godfrey-Smith notes, “An octopus is so suffused with its nervous system that is has no clear brain-body boundary.” Imagine.

And that’s just for starters. Vertebrates have just one heart, while octopuses have three.  Two of the hearts are engaged solely in the task of moving blood beyond the gills, while the third heart is tasked with keeping circulation flowing for the organs. When an octopus swims, the organ heart actually stops beating, which explains why in many cases an octopus would rather walk, or crawl, than swim, as swimming is exhausting for them. And walking does come in handy when getting out of the water for an aquarium hunting expedition.

Common Octopus Juvenile, Sea of Cortez.
Photo by Kaia Thomson
But perhaps of all the cool things that an octopus’s brain/body can do, the most amazing is its ability to disguise itself by almost instantaneously changing not only the color and pattern of its skin, but the very texture of its skin to everything from small bumps to tall spikes to match its surroundings such that even the most determined and observant predator or prey cannot distinguish it from nearby coral, algae-covered rocks, kelp fronds or the sandy seabed. And color also denotes mood. As Sy Montgomery wrote upon meeting an octopus named Athena, “As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. Later, I learn this is the color of a relaxed octopus.” Alternatively, “An agitated giant Pacific octopus turns red, its skin gets pimply, and it erects two papillae over the eyes, which some divers say look like horns.”

It is tempting to chalk up the body-changing abilities of an octopus to instinct alone, but Dr. Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist who studies octopuses, has found that octopuses use specific disguises for specific species in specific conditions – both offensive and defensive. That is, it is another sign of the octopus’s intelligence. Dr. Mather believes that the octopus’s loss of the ancestral shell is what lead it to develop this intelligence. Being shell-free allows the octopus to be an active predator like a lion, rather than a passive muncher like a clam. But the dozens of different prey species that it hunts require different hunting strategies, just as different strategies are required for defending itself against different predators.  Dr. Mather has documented that octopuses will often use what is called the Passing Cloud display – flashing pulses of color that move across the octopus like passing clouds – to startle an immobile crab (one of its favorite foods) into moving and give itself away. To catch shrimp, octopuses have been seen to compress themselves, creep up to the shrimp, extend an arm up and over the shrimp, then touch it – an act which scares the shrimp right into the mouth of the octopus.

Common Octopus, The Pacific Ocean.
Photo by Kaia Thomson
On the other side of the equation, if an octopus is being hunted by a hungry fish it might rapidly change color, pattern and shape; fish have strong visual memories for certain images, and if an octopus is rapidly changing from light to dark, from spots to stripes, the fish can’t place it and moves on to something it can identify to eat. But if that psychedelic display is not enough, octopuses have many more tricks in their bag – including the ability of some species to deploy a pseudomorph, a life-size self-portrait made from a cloud of ink and mucus. This essentially freaks out and disorients the predator, allowing the octopus to get away. It seems that octopuses actually enjoy messing with the (lesser) minds of would-be predators. The mimic octopus, rather than making itself look like something passive such as coral or rock to avoid detection, transforms itself to look and act like venomous creatures such as jellyfish, sea snakes and spiky lionfish to send its would-be predator running the other way.

Octopuses also employ tools for defense. Researchers in Indonesia have documented octopuses lugging half coconut shells across the ocean floor, assembling them into spheres, and climbing inside for protection. An octopus at the Middlebury octopus lab found that a sea urchin was hanging around too close to its den so she ventured out, found a piece of flat slate, and erected it in front of her den like a shield.

As Sy Montgomery notes, “…of all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature’s mind, the one that must do so best might well be the octopus – because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetrate its many self-preserving deceptions. An octopus must convince many species of predators and prey that it is really something else….(then) assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different. “Writes Godfrey-Smith, “When surviving requires decision-making, brains have developed awareness. Sentience,” he notes, “has some point to it.”

Love and Friendship

Common Octopus. The Pacific Ocean.
Photo by Kaia Thomson
Montgomery, Godrey-Smith and numerous others have documented that octopuses can readily distinguish different people, even if they are wearing identical uniforms, and that they have very particular feelings about those different people. With people that they like, they will touch them, hold their hands and arms, give them gentle squeezes, and allow themselves to be stroked. They are friendly and engaged and will readily come to the surface of their tank for interaction. People that they don’t like may be subjected to rude squirts of water and – if the visitor is too close – even a bite. But what about with each other? Every Valentine’s Day the Seattle Aquarium hosts the Octopus Blind Date, in which the partition between the tanks of a male and female giant Pacific octopus is lifted and nature is allowed to take its course – six hearts beating as three might be the romantic view. But in 2016 the blind date was cancelled due to fears that the 70-pound male, Kong, would simply find his 35-pound date a tasty snack, a decidedly unromantic outcome. While it was a loss for Seattle’s octopus sex voyeurs, it was a new lease on life for Kong. Mating, while ensuring the survival of the species, is a death knell for male octopuses, who die shortly thereafter. This close link between sex and death might account for some octopuses rather hands-off approach to sex – literally. The males and females of the Algae octopus will find houses next to one another so that the male only has to reach his hectocotylus (sex arm) out his front door and into her’s to get the job done. The Argonaut octopus doesn’t even get that intimate. Males simply detach their hectocotylus and send it off to mate with a passing female.

Female octopuses can lay up to 400,000 eggs, which they attach to the ceiling of their dwelling and lay in long strings like translucent ropes of pearls. They guard and tend their eggs diligently until they hatch. Sy Montgomery reports how her octopus friend Octavia in the New England Aquarium wove her egg chains and tended them with meaningful rituals, even though there was no male to fertilize them. Of course the eggs never hatched and Octavia succumbed to death a few months later, as do all female octopuses once their reproductive cycle is over.

The Octopus’s Garden

Octopuses are the blue bloods of the marine world. Truly. Octopuses evolved a copper rather than an iron-based blood, and it’s the copper that turns their blood blue. Copper is more efficient at transporting oxygen than hemoglobin in deep ocean environments, where water temperatures are low and there is not much oxygen. But this system also means that octopuses are very sensitive to changes in acidity, and when the ocean’s pH gets too low, octopuses can’t circulate enough oxygen. There is therefore a great deal of concern in the scientific community about what will happen to octopuses with the increasing ocean acidification being brought about by climate change.

Octopuses have existed on the earth for at least 296 million years, the age of the oldest known octopus fossil.  That’s over a thousand times longer than humans. “The sea is the original birth place of the mind. When you dive into the sea, you are diving in to the origin of us all’” writes Godfrey-Smith. It is perhaps for this reason that Godfrey-Smith dedicates his book to “all those who work to protect the oceans.” As Carl Safina notes, “As we change the world, let’s bear this in our minds: Other minds are living their own lives here with us on earth.”

In Baja California Sur our two oceans, the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, are filled with many of the 300 species of octopus that inhabit the world, and it is possible to visit many octopus gardens and match wits with these amazing creatures when snorkeling and diving. Jacques Cousteau, who called the Sea of Cortez the Aquarium of the World, tells a charming story in his 1973 book Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence. “Our friend Gilpatric … brought an octopus home and put it in an aquarium, which he then covered with a heavy lid. A short time later, the aquarium was empty, and Gilpatric found the octopus going through his library, book by book, turning the pages with its arms.” And that’s a true octopus story.

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Ultimate Stellar Escape, Rift Valley lakes and new flights to VFA

Spend an enchanting night under a billion stars on a Stellar Escape with
Ultimate Safaris in Namibia!
 What's happening this week in the Kusini Collection:

Namibia's night skies are the ultimate 'bush TV!'
Ultimate Safaris: We are beyond excited about the introduction of Ultimate Safaris' new 'Stellar Escape!' This very special sleep out experience is set in an ancient dry riverbed on Ultimate's private concession in the //Huab Conservancy. In addition to an afternoon walk, sundowners and a sumptuous bush dinner, the evening offers crystal clear skies with nothing between travelers and Namibia's brilliant stellar display. As guests drift off to sleep, they'll spot satellites, galaxies and shooting stars with the naked eye! Learn more on the Kusini blog.

Albatros Travel: Exciting news out of East Africa where Albatros Travel reports that plans are underway for the Kenyan government to establish a customs and immigration office at the Sand River Gate on the border with Tanzania. The new facility will ease the movement of cross-border travelers visiting the Mara/Serengeti ecosystem, and will eliminate the need for significantly lengthier border crossings via the Narok-Nairobi or Kisii-Migori-Isebania routes. Stay tuned for updates on construction and opening dates!

Ecuador has the easiest access of any country into the Amazon
Tropic Ecuador: There's a lot more to Ecuador than the (admittedly wonderful) Galapagos Islands. Whether your travelers are interested in history, culture, adventure or cuisine, Ecuador has something to offer everyone. Tropic Ecuador crafts tailor-made and small group expeditions throughout the country, from an insider's Quito exploration to unveiling the secrets of the Amazon. View this brief Ecuador Mainland Programs webinar for a taste of what makes the country such a diverse and amazing destination.

Imvelo Safari Lodges: More direct international flights into Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe? How 'bout a direct connection to Cape Town? Done and done! The hope for additional service to VFA's new international terminal is coming to fruition as both Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines have added flights into the hub. Ethiopian Airlines starts direct ADD - VFA service March 26th, followed by the addition of Kenya Airways flights from Nairobi beginning May 18th. Even better, the Kenya Airways flights continue on to Cape Town! It's never been easier to connect the Mother City with Victoria Falls and a safari with Imvelo Safari Lodges!  
Visitors to lovely, wallet-friendly Rukyia Safari Camp
will not be disappointed

New Frontiers: 
With space at a premium at New Frontiers' preferred safari properties, Christine and Faith recently embarked on a rekkie to northern Kruger and managed to find some new gems that offer authenticity, great value and a good safari experience. The areas visited include Balule, which is part of the Greater Kruger bordering Klaserie and Timbavati, as well as the Timbavati itself. Get the skinny on these carefully curated options on the New Frontiers Agent Zone.

Todos Santos Eco Adventures: Todos Santos Eco Adventures created an annual Christmas Bird Count Circle (CBC). It is a citizen scientist effort that has evolved to become a critical data pool for researchers studying status and ranges of bird populations across the Americas. The only other similar count is the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) run during the June breeding season. Survey results become the combined yardstick by which ornithologists and conservation biologists assess the health and migration status of bird populations across the Americas. The Todos Santos circle has a 15-mile diameter encompassing estuaries, coastline, desert and mountainous areas.

The Haile Resort on Lake Ziway is a lush sanctuary
Travel Ethiopia: Travelers wishing to visit Ethiopia's beautiful and otherworldly Bale Mountains National Park will have the chance to see a large swath of country on their journey, including descending into the Rift Valley with its lovely lakes. Travel Ethiopia recommends breaking up the drive with an overnight at either Lake Ziway or Lake Hawassa. Haile Resorts have a modern, full-service property at each lake. Both have excellent dining and leisure activity options, and each has a unique feel. Ask Travel Ethiopia which would be best for your clients.