Muck diving & other dive adventures in Dumaguete, the Philippines

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The Philippines is truly one of my favorite dive destinations, ever!  From the beautiful reefs at Puerto Galera to the pristine pelagic diving in Tubataha and now the fabulous muck diving in Dumaguete, the diving here is so varied that every diver will find something they like.

Seahorses are always a favorite with divers.  The Thorny Seahorse above is one of about a dozen to be found on the house reef at Atlantis, Dumaguete.  That’s crazy!  The views from the resort aren’t too bad either.

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The “muck” diving is world class.  Muck diving is diving on a black sand bottom instead of a beautiful coral reef.  You find some of the most unique critters when muck diving.  I missed out by a few minutes of seeing one of my most sought after critters – the Blue Ring Octopus!  However, about half of my group did get to see it.  I was bummed but… oh well, that’s diving!!

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I got a nice shot of the Mandarin fish mating and a couple of white eyed moray eels were clowning for me.  Maybe they were mating too.  I mean, what do I know about eels mating???  There was a fabulous variety of critters in Dumaguete.  You can also take a day trip to snorkel with Whalesharks.  If you’ve never seen one, you should definitely do that.  For little critters, check out the tiny frogfish below with a friends thumb nail to show it’s true size!!  How do the dive guides find this stuff???  I’m loving my Olympus TG-3 camera.  It takes wonderful underwater photos!

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There are unique sights everywhere.  The motorcycle taxi above cracked me up.  Note the signs on the back.  Across the top it says “Keep me safe oh god” and down at the bottom it says “Bang me nicely”  Like I said, you see some unique things!  I would highly recommend the Philippines as a dive destination.  There is something for everyone and you can combine multiple destinations into one trip.  Thanks Atlantis Resorts for another great time diving.  So worth the trip!!

New Camera for Diving Palau

It felt like I said goodbye to an old friend last week when I sold my camera.  I don’t use the big, fancy ones with the double strobes that cost big $$$, I use a point & shoot with underwater modes from Olympus.  I have been using the same one since 2008 which is an eternity for a camera.  I have taken literally thousands of pictures with it, maybe even 10’s of thousands.  All of my photos from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Indonesia, Borneo, Maldives, Bonaire, Belize & other odd & end dives are all with this camera.  It was a SW1030 in a housing and I loved it.  It felt like it was time to upgrade so last week, I did.P5170124Puerto Galera Day 1 084 sm

Like I said, it was like an old friend.  I decided I still don’t want the big & expensive, hard to handle, large camera so I went with another Olympus point & shoot.  I love the brand & it hasn’t disappointed me yet.  I decided to get a TG-3 with a housing.  I also added a strobe & small arm that go directly on top of the housing.  This will be my first experience with a strobe & I may well decide that I need the cradle & long arm that most setups use.  We will see.  I like to keep it as small as possible and as simple as possible.  I also added a big eye lens and red filter to make it possible to take wider angle shots.

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For me this feels like a big (HUGE) step.  For a serious underwater photographer, they are still laughing at this post.  But for me, this feels right.  I have always been proud of the photos I have accomplished with my little camera so I am confident that I can do even better with this new setup.  I will have the perfect test area with a 10 day live-aboard trip to Palau next month.  Palau has lots of big critters to try out the wide angle shots and lots of little stuff to test out the macro & see if it is still as good with this new camera.  It does have a couple of new modes that I am excited about & a better lens.Puerto Galera Day 1 179a sm

Of course, you know I will be posting pictures on my return but I felt like I needed to give my old friend one more showcase in my blog and bid a fitting goodbye!

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Where to plan the next dive adventure? Always the big question – this time Roatan!

As the owner of my own small travel agency and it’s sole travel agent, I plan travel for myself and others to many different travel destinations around the world.  For myself, that usually involves diving.  I always have at least one group dive trip in the works for the future but this is always the big question.  Where to next?  Where is the next big dive adventure to be?  It’s part of the fun!

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Many of you don’t know how I came up with the name of my company, Sun Key Travel.  It’s very simple.  When I was planning a vacation, both before I started diving and after, a sunny warm location was a must.  You see, the sun was the key to where I wanted to go – so Sun Key Travel was born.  Above is a picture from my winter home in Lake Havasu City, AZ and one from Long Caye in Belize.  Totally different, but the sun is huge in both places.  Thus, a place I want to be!

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For a dive destination, fun critters to see is also of great importance.  I love the life underwater, both big and small.  I feel blessed to have been able to visit some of the spectacular places where these pictures were taken such as Bonaire and Oahu in the above photos.  I also, occasionally, revisit a destination with a group of divers that maybe hasn’t been to that destination or, like me, would like to go back.  I am in the planning stages of one of those now.  Roatan, Honduras will be the first place I return to for a third time.  It is beautiful, the diving is great and it is still a very affordable trip.  Sometimes that combination is hard to find.

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Roatan has is own specialness!  Creatures large and small underwater and on land.  Beautiful sunsets like the above picture, white sand beaches and warm water.  What’s not to like?  Depending on where you are, you may see monkeys, iguanas or blue crabs.  You will likely hear some pretty noisy birds too.   Roatan is one of the Bay Islands, off shore from the mainland of Honduras and it’s like you’re in another world.  There are other Bay Islands, like Utila, Guanaja and Cayos Cochinos that also have a diving story to tell.  For February, 2016, however, it will be all about revisiting Roatan!

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What’s on your scuba diving bucket list? Mine is very long…

I was just sitting here thinking that I have been pretty lucky to visit as many of my bucket list destinations as I have, so far.  Later this year, I will cross off another one.  In November, I will be diving Palau.  I feel really blessed to get to do that one.  There are a lot of sites I will probably not ever make it to that are high on the list.  Galapagos, Australia, Coco’s Island, The Socorros, Raja Ampat, the Solomon Islands,  Wakatobi, the Red Sea & Thailand are all on the list but they are all pretty expensive.  Will I get to all of them?  Not likely, unless the Powerball gods smile on me.  However, I will probably make it to some of them before I have to quit.

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The biggest challenge right now is finding an affordable and reasonable way to get there.  Especially for transpacific & transatlantic flights.  With diving, you have equipment.  With equipment, you have checked bags.  The days of 2 free checked bags are nearly over.  Many airlines charge for all checked bags to some destinations and only for the 2nd bag to others.  Recently, United and some others have raised a second bag fee to $100 each way!  That’s a pretty handsome profit for a small amount of handling.  Another thing I had never even given a thought to when flying, is what countries I am flying over?  After the recent Malaysia Air tragedy, it is certainly something to think about.  I can’t say any of this will ever keep me from going but it’s an eye-opener for sure!

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There are just so many really special places in the world for scuba divers and vacationers, I hope you get to visit many of your bucket list destinations!  I plan to keep at it until something makes me quit.  Diving is the passion of my life and I discovered it when I was already 45.  I love it as much now as I did when I first started.  Now if the airlines would just let us enjoy our sports and our vacations by making their bag fees reasonable and still make a profit without bankrupting its travelers in the process!

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All things dive travel – Remember when flying used to be fun?

I recently took trip to the Philippines for diving in the Tubbataha Natural Marine Park and in Puerto Galera.  I was lucky enough to be invited on a familiarization trip with one of my suppliers.  These trips are crucial to learning about an area for individual and group dive trips, which are my bread and butter.  I get very excited about traveling before and during a trip and I am fanatical about diving.  So this post is a totally different thing for me.  I just need to sound off at the airline industry about the total annihilation of all things fun (and affordable) about flying!

First, let me say, this trip is not the only reason for the post.  I have not really had a good flying experience for a very long time and I fly quite a bit.  To start with, lets talk fees.  Everyday I read about more and higher fees being added by the government or the airlines to make it more expensive to get anywhere.  Last week it was that congress was increasing the TSA fees on every leg of every flight.  Increase?  They at least doubled every fee and added new ones if you have a long layover.  Ok, so we need to fund the TSA, right?  Wrong, this will not be used to fund the TSA.  This will be used at the discretion of congress!  Give me a break.  Why are travelers the new unlimited bank for a totally out of control congress.

Now the airlines fees.  First it was a small baggage fee for checked bags and no more free food.  I have a group that will be going to the Philippines in February and I finally got the airfare arranged with United.  This was after 2 months of trying really hard to get a decent group rate on at least 6 different airlines and finally giving up and booking individual air.  Then I checked the bag fees.  OMG, they just raised them earlier this year and instead of the usual 2 – 50 lb bags for an overseas flight, they allow one and charge —–READY FOR THIS—–$100 for the 2nd bag!!!  That is highway (or skyway) robbery.  When you are a diver (or a golfer, or a surfer, or a hunter, or a fisherman, etc.), you have some luggage because of your dive or sports gear.  The only saving grace for this trip is the partner airline that will be the first leg back out of Manila, All Nippon Air, didn’t change theirs to 1 bag and $100 until 3 weeks after we bought the tickets.  Lucky us, we only get extorted one time for $100 instead of two.  Look out, I bet all the overseas airlines will be following suit.  What’s next?  Carry-on fees, charging for water, having pay toilets?

Now for the next thing.  Theft out of checked bags.  I have had things stolen out of a checked bag three times, locked with a TSA approved lock two of the three.  This trip was the worst.  My dive knife, a safety sausage, a retractor and several other items were stolen.  The replacement cost is $120!  I can’t use a regular lock because the TSA would cut it off so I can’t protect any of my belongings.  I take all real valuables in a carry-on but this was just small dive gear stuff and the knife that I can’t carry on. My knife has been stolen from a checked bag before.  It is perfectly legal for me to bring a dive knife and it can save my life if I get entangled while underwater.  What gives some airport schmuck employee the right to endanger my life and steal my safety equipment?!?!?  Why are they hiring thieves in the first place?  I’ve seen hidden camera reports about this and it’s a serious problem and rampant in most large airports!

Because I flew on 2 airlines, I don’t have anyway of knowing who to blame.  I flew EVA from Manila to LAX and United from there home.  It’s just disgusting that they know they can steal anything they want and get away with it, no problem.  You can’t secure your bags.  I have tried the no lock way too.  I still have had things stolen.  I will be looking for a metal box to put the knife in from here on.

That’s just the first installment, next will be luggage abuse!

 

Dive the Philipines – Critter diving at the Atlantis Resort, Puerto Galera

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After a really wonderful week diving the Tubbataha Reef area, I traveled to Puerto Galera for a few days.  There is nothing easy about getting here but it is definitely worth the effort.  We took a short flight back to Manila and Atlantis loaded our luggage in one van and the rest of us in a couple of other vans and we were off.  It is about a 2 hour drive south of Manila to the dock where we caught a boat to Puerto Galera.  A 1 hour ride on a boat and we were there.  Puerto Galera is not what I expected but the diving is great.  There are wall to wall dive shops, resorts and restaurants lining the coast but we never felt crowded on the dive sites.  There is a lot to see here, especially little stuff.  My first dive here was my 500th dive so I really wanted it to be special.  We saw the yellow pygmy seahorse above on that dive.  I think any dive with a pygmy seahorse is very special.  The nudibranch on the right was a later dive but the colors and variety of them in Puerto Galera is amazing.

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The critter life here is really varied and interesting.  Above is a Warty Clown Frogfish and an Ornate Ghost Pipefish.  These are things you don’t see in a lot of places.  I was not there long enough to schedule a full day trip to Verde Island but I am sure I would have enjoyed that as well.  It is highly recommended as a day trip of diving.  Instead we concentrated the 2 days we did have to dive on the best of the local diving and it was very good.  The only down side was a night dive that had very strong current and should have probably been called off.  If you want some adrenalin in your system, go out in heavy current on a night dive!  You can’t see where you are going well enough and always feel like you are going to hit something.  It was crazy.

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Above is one of 3 Fimbriated Moray eels I saw during my stay at Puerto Galera.  There were some other not so usual morays there as well.  I saw a Snowflake and a White-eyed Moray there as well.  I have not seen many of these 3 varieties in the past so it was a thrill.  The yellow thorny seahorse above cracked me up when he rolled his eyes up for this picture.  It was like he was saying “enough with the pictures, already!”  You can do up to 5 dives a day and you choose which ones or all.

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The Atlantis Resort at Puerto Galera was interesting.  It is in the middle of town, basically.  You have the 50 Bar in front near the water, then the dive shop & briefing area, then an alley that the town people & the public walk through, then the rest of the resort.  The restaurant had great food, just like the Azores did.  They really do a fine job on that.  There is a gift shop, a dive storage area with rinse tanks and then the main desk.  The rooms are in back as well as a pool.  The rooms were very nice and had plenty of space for everything.  All in all, a great resort.  If you want to be in town, this is the place for you.  If you are looking for an out of the way place, away from everything, this is not it.  The diving is really good, however.  Above is a pygmy scorpionfish that was about 1/2 inch long.  Pretty cute and a first for me.  The Flambouyant cuttlefish on the right, was one of 3 we saw.  That is incredible.  I had only seen 2 ever, before this.

To recap, the Atlantis Resort in Puerto Galera is a nice resort in a really different location and a good choice for great diving and some extracurricular activities in town.  I wish I could have done Verde Island but there just wasn’t enough time.  This was a short stop so I could experience this area and it’s diving.  The diving in the Philippines has yet to disappoint me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dive the Philippines – Diving the Tubbataha Reef on the Atlantis Azores

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First thing to say about the Tubbataha Reef is that you would have to try really hard to find a more remote and stunning place to dive.  You take a grueling flight into Manila that takes about 24 hours of flying and airport time from the west coast and that’s only the start.  Here is where Atlantis Resorts and Liveaboards shines!  They meet you at the airport with a cold bottle of water, get your luggage and you into vans and take you to Terminal 2.  You’re thinking, same airport, right?  Wrong!  Different airport for domestic flights.  Atlantis stays with you through the check-in at Cebu Pacific and you’re off the Puerto Princessa.  Again, the Atlantis people pick you up and transfer you and your luggage to the Atlantis Azores,  their liveaboard dive boat, and you’re off again.  The pictures above show the stunning sunsets & sunrises and there are 3 turtles on one coral head in the other.  That is unbelievable!  That was a first.

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The Tubbataha Natural Marine Park is 90 miles from land in the middle of the Sulu Sea.  There is virtually no land anywhere there, it’s crazy!  You can see how calm the seas were from the first picture in my post.  There are a couple of sand spits always visible and more at low tide.  One of the sand spits has the ranger station and the other has a lighthouse.  The entire area is protected and is a no fishing, no take zone and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It really shows in the fish life and marine & reef health.  It is actually a group of Atolls but with the lack of land showing, you would never know it.  The huge schools of fish, numbers of Pelagics -Shark, Turtles, Whalesharks, etc. is amazing, considering this is Asia.  Most parts of Asia have depleted the fish populations and with shark finning rampant, their numbers are dangerously low in places.  I was very impressed.  The reefs, walls and coral are incredibly healthy & vibrant.  You can see from the sharks above, they’re not afraid of divers here.  I loved that!

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I has some firsts here.  Above is a marble ray.  It was stunning.  There were many varieties of moray eels too.  I can stress enough how healthy the marine life is here.  Literally thousands of fish of every size and shape EVERYWHERE!  There is also a lot of little critters to see like nudibranchs and tiny (1/4″ or so) creatures like the pygmy squid below left and pygmy seahorse right.  I had to have the dive guide put his finger behind it to find it in the camera lens.  I was expecting big things not tiny!  I always wonder, who ever found these things in the first place.  You can’t believe how small they are!

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The Atlantis is a really beautiful liveaboard with a fabulous staff that works very hard to please the guests.  The food is the best I have had on a liveaboard.  If you go on a night dive, they ask you what you want to drink after like tea, hot chocolate with baileys or for me, a glass of wine.  I was met with my wine after a hot shower on the back of the boat.  Nice!!  I have been on a variety of liveaboards and I have to say this one is really very good.  The staterooms are not large but adequate and functional, the bathrooms are pretty big and they are 110 power so you don’t have to use adapters or converters.  That is a HUGE plus!  They do several different itineraries during the year and I may have to try another one in the future.

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This is only the first of my posts about the Philippines.  I will be visiting Puerto Galera and Dumaguete in the next few months so stay tuned.  So far, the Philippines diving is very impressive indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scuba Diving Belize – Nurse Sharks & Eagle Rays & Morays – oh my!

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When I planned this group trip to Belize, I had visions of the Blue Hole and clear waters on the barrier reef off Ambergris Caye in my mind.  I have to say, the reality of the diving in Belize really surprised me.  First, I knew they had nurse sharks there but I never had any idea of how many.  We literally saw dozens on some dives.  The second thing that really shocked me was the eagle rays.  I have never seen an eagle ray that was not afraid of people and swimming away.  That includes many destinations in the Caribbean and all over the South Pacific.  I saw at least a dozen and none was afraid.  Most were close enough to get a photo of and see them clearly.  That impressed me, a lot!  Some swam so close you could nearly touch them.

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Moray eels were in abundance too.  The above picture is an eel on my fin as I was kneeling to take the photo.  They were friendly and playful.  I can only think that the dive masters in Belize don’t harass the big animals to the point of wanting to flee because they seem to actually enjoy interacting with divers.  That is very unusual!  The biggest down side to the diving was that because the barrier reef is just that – a barrier – the visibility was not as good as I thought it would be.  There is surge against the reef that stirs things up.  However, it did make for a great place for pelagics.

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We did the Blue Hole & Lighthouse Atoll area one day.  I had heard that the boat ride was long and brutal – it was!  I had also heard that the 2 dives after the Blue Hole at Half-Moon Caye and Long Caye make the boat ride worth it – They do!  We dove with Hugh Parkey’s at the Sunbreeze and their boat was bigger than a lot of them so that did help some but it is still a very long ride.  The Blue Hole is cool but it is a do it once – check it off the list – type of dive.  The other two dives were absolutely beautiful.  We had planned to make another excursion to Turneffe Atoll but a broken boat side-lined that plan.  Too bad, I would have loved to dive more of the Atolls.

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The top-side activities on Half-moon Caye include a trip to the Red-footed Booby nesting site.  They are found only in the Galapagos and here, on Half-moon Caye.  The picture above clearly shows the red feet and blue bills that make them unique.  It was a nice place for lunch and nature watching.  On the whole, I waited a long time to dive Belize and am really glad I finally got to do it.  Next time, I would either do a live-aboard or stay out at Turneffe so I can do more diving on the Atolls.  However, that said, I think the trip to Ambergris Caye for diving was really worthwhile.  The resort is very nice and dive operation is first rate.  Everyone is very friendly and helpful.  The eagle rays and nurse sharks alone made this trip worth it!

 

Visiting Denali National Park, Alaska

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One of the things that, for me, was a must do on a visit to Alaska was to go into Denali National Park.  What I didn’t know until I looked into it was that you can’t drive a private vehicle into the park much past the entrance.  You have to take one of several bus tour options.  I had mixed feelings about that kind of trip but I was determined to go anyway.  We took the longest one to the end of the road at Kantishna. The only complaint I have is that the bus driver had been driving there for several summers and was pretty jaded about the animals we wanted to see, especially Caribou.  That is NOT good for a tour guide!  In the end we saw several Caribou, including 2 big bulls like the one below.  We had some really nice weather and got to see Mt. McKinley before & during our time in the park.  That put us in the “30% club”.  The mountain is only visible 30% of the time in the summer.  It was breathtaking!

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After the mountain, the animals are the main attraction in the park (the scenery isn’t so bad either).  We were rewarded with several of the most popular animals.  We saw at least 9 different brown bears (Grizzlies), several Caribou, the huge bull Moose at the top of the post and other creatures.  Unfortunately, a lot of your pictures have to be taken from the bus because they won’t let you off in very many places.  After living near Yellowstone for many years, this seemed a little goofy to me!  It was pretty exciting to spot a big grizzly, like the one above, foraging for berries.  As you can see, he was a bruiser!

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On one of our stops, I saw this little ground squirrel sitting on a rock just taking it all in.  It looks like he is surveying his realm.  Because of the extreme spring run-off some of the river valleys are pretty bare of vegetation in places like the area above with the bear crossing the valley.  It made him pretty easy to spot.  There were berry bushes on both sides and he was moving from one side to the other.

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The picture of Mt. McKinley above was the closest we got before it clouded up.  It really is a very impressive site.  I grew up in Washington State and I have seen my share of really pretty mountains like Mt. Rainier so for me to be blown away, it had to be spectacular.  You just can’t imagine how huge it is until you actually see it.  The flowers above were at their most beautiful while we were there.  It’s called Fireweed because it is the first thing that comes back after a forest fire.  It’s everywhere and adds a lovely splash of color.

I would highly recommend a trip to Alaska sometime in your lifetime.  “The last frontier” is a really accurate description of how unpopulated and unspoiled it really is.  If you look on a map, there are very few roads compared to the lower 48.  For us, the cruise was a means to see some areas that are difficult to get to and a good way to get to the Kenai Peninsula and use it as a gateway to Anchorage and Denali.  We rented a motorhome for that part of the trip and that is a great way to go in Alaska!  In the end, I am really glad we made the trip.  Another one crossed off the Bucket List!!

 

Alaska Cruise 2013 -Skagway, Hubbard Glacier & Kenai Fjords

Continuing on our Alaska Cruise, we went to Skagway.  We decided to take the White Pass & Yukon Railway to the top of White Pass. It is a narrow gauge railway that uses only antique railcars.  It’s pretty cool and the scenery is stunning.

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There are 5 flags as you enter Canada that represent Alaska, USA, Canada, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory.  These are the areas served by the railroad.  There are several interesting sights along the way including the trail of 98, an old cemetery from the gold rush era and a monument to 2 men crushed when a slab of rock fell on them while the railroad was being built.

The railroad was built in only 2 years.  That is an amazing feat when you consider that they had no heavy equipment like we have today.  There were 35,000 people that worked on it.  As for the trail of 98, it was the route that the miners in the Klondike gold rush took to get from Skagway to the Klondike.  It started with a 20 mile hike up very steep country to White Pass and that was just the start.  It was an arduous task to get to the Klondike including having to enter Canada with at least 1 year of supplies and then having a 600 mile trip by boat and land to the Klondike.  The gold must have been a pretty powerful motivator.  There is actually a place called Dead Horse Gulch where many of the pack animals finally just gave up and died.  It was an unbelievably hard trip to the gold fields.

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Our final day at sea we cruised to the Hubbard Glacier.  You really need a panorama picture to do the Hubbard Glacier justice.  The photo above is only one part of the glacier.  It is over 600 feet thick, with 250 out of the water and 350 under water.  Its sheer size can’t really be described, you need to see it to understand how huge it really is.  The iceberg above that has the seagulls on it shows how blue the ice is in parts.  It is really quite beautiful.  It was a pretty big chunk of ice!

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After our arrival in Seward, we spent a day going to Anchorage to get our rental motor home for the rest of our adventure.  When we returned to the Kenai Peninsula, the boys went fishing for Halibut & Salmon and the girls took the Kenai Fjord tour.  On the tour we saw a lot of wildlife including Humpback Whales, sea lions, Puffins, Dall Porpoises and the Bald Eagle and Sea Otter above.  The scenery was pretty spectacular too!  The color of the water on Resurrection Bay is such a pretty blue, it could be in the Caribbean.

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Our time on the Kenai Peninsula was a lot of fun and included a trip to Soldatna and fishing on the Kenai River and a road trip to Homer.  No visit to the Homer Spit is complete without stopping at the Salty Dawg Saloon.  If you make it, check out the gift shop called Salty Girls, out behind the bar.  It has some pretty cute stuff!  Our next stop is Denali National Park.