Saturday, 19 July 2014

Part 1. Cruising the Amazon and West Indies...London to Cape Verde

Information on bird and general wildlife watching on sea cruises isn't it seems well documented so, despite it being some six months after the event, I thought I'd share some thoughts and experiences should anyone be thinking along the lines of taking such a trip. From a personal point of view it was the last thing on our minds until we across came an advert for Cruise and Maritime's "Marco Polo" 42 night voyage that sailed on the 6th of January 2014 . The prices were ridiculously inexpensive for such an epic adventure, sailing from London's Tilbury docks the itinerary certainly captured the imagination. Stops in Amsterdam,Lisbon,Madeira,Cape Verde then across the Atlantic and up the Amazon then heading to the West indies before returning to London via the Azores. After the stop at Funchal,Madeira it was all unexplored territory for us .. as was cruising for that matter.
We had always thought of cruising as being something that attracts the older tourist and despite being in my 60's I deemed myself too young! In the meantime though my son took his young family on a Mediterranean cruise and they were hooked. The grandkids chose it over a visit to Disneyland and they loved every minute. Maybe I was to be proved wrong.
The Marco Polo is an old boat, it's an ex Russian ferry converted to a cruise ship, built about 50 years ago. I read various reports on internet forums after we had booked and they were varied to say the least. This boat doesn't have the latest attractions.... cinemas,casinos, you name it.... but what it lacks in that department it makes up for with a very special charm all of it's own. It's small, it has less than 800 passengers, and it can go where other cruise ships can't. That includes 1000 miles up the Amazon to Manaus in Brazil.
Sailing from and back to London Tilbury docks has huge advantages, namely luggage limitations or lack of them. Basically, the only limit is what you can get to the ship and where you can store it in your cabin. Claire will say my photographic equipment takes up the majority of our luggage allowance on flights and to a point she's right. No such worries on the cruise but we had loads of other luggage issues to contend with. Firstly dress code. Secondly climate change. Thirdly an epic 42 night holiday.
When all the potential luggage was laid out in a spare bedroom we both began to panic... there was loads and loads of it ! However, Claire's a superb packer and most of what we had disappeared in to two large suitcases especially bought for the trip. Ironically only a few weeks before booking the cruise I had disposed of our big suitcases deeming them of little use due to their oversized proportions but that said, being able to fit them under the bed in our cabin was vitally important too. Talking of cabins we elected for the cheaper inside cabins on the second to lowest decks, a decision we still don't regret by any means, in fact there is a distinct advantage when it comes to rougher weather as we were soon to find out.
Gleaning as much information before we set off the most useful tips I can pass on are
1) With only one in the cabin a short lead with several extra sockets allows you to charge several things at once.
2) A thermos drinking mug keeps your much needed hot drinks hot on a cold windswept deck.
3)Stock up with water to take on board as there are no restrictions and at £2.20 a 500ml bottle, two 5 litre bottles from Asda in Tilbury saved us a fortune.
Luckily for us we have good friends who lives in Cambridge who kindly offered not only to put us up the night before departure but also to drive us down to Tilbury too which saved me nearly £400 in parking fees. Dropped off with our mountain of luggage embarkation was surprisingly easy. Our main suitcases were whisked away whilst we headed off to the departure lounge to await our call to board the boat. With nightfall descending we set sail for Amsterdam full of anticipation for what lay ahead.
The first night it seemed had been rather stormy but we had slept well in our cabin not really noticing that there was much movement due to the conditions, some it seemed didn't appear from their cabins for several days as they struggled with the ships motion. One cabin on our deck did however suffer when the waves forced a scuttle (porthole to you and me) open and flooded the interior ! In rough seas you are supposed to fit covers, they had been omitted ! Never mind, the occupants allegedly got an upgrade to a suite ... can't be bad !
Anyway, next morning we sailed from the North Sea up the canal system that takes you right in to the centre of Amsterdam.
It was a bright sunny day but not many passengers ventured on to the rear decks to witness the scene unfolding all around us unless they wanted to smoke.
Amsterdam 2014-01-06

 With an average age well in to the 70's perhaps they feel the cold a bit more, perhaps they are not that interested, however, I was ready with my camera in the hope of getting some avian close ups. Alas it was not to be, everything was distant and beyond the reach of my lens. There was quite a lot of activity but nothing of much unusual interest except for Egyptian geese perhaps.
A day out in Amsterdam in January, well, I have been a few times previously. Still a look around the flower market for Claire, nice lunch in a cafe and by 5.00pm we had had enough and returned to the ship despite it not sailing until much later. Claire has succeeded in steering us away from the Red Light district ! No harm in window shopping though is there !!!!
For the next two days we steamed down the English channel and across the Bay of Biscay. It was pretty nippy out on the decks, watching big waves crashing on to the decks of passing cargo ships made you aware of the dangers at sea for those who earn their living in much smaller boats.
Over a couple of days other bird watchers started to get to know each other, there was a group of 6 ardent watchers amongst the almost 800 passengers.  Easy to spot each other in the crowd as we were the only ones outside ! The outside rear deck gave a good vantage point whilst still being sheltered.

Birdwatchers 2014-01-09

Again there was little to see that was unusual in the Channel but I was lucky to capture this, the exception, a Sooty Shearwater and a first for me !
Sooty Shearwater
Across the Bay of Biscay we spotted our first Dolphins...Common ones, but the glimpses were far too fleeting to capture in camera, we also spotted a few, perhaps 20 in total, over wintering Puffins looking quite dull and unattractive when not in breeding plumage. Overall, it was most disappointing with very little to be seen. Perhaps the recent winter storms in the area had had the wildlife scatter to distant refuges ?
Our arrival in Lisbon was welcome. Again, arrival by sea brings a much nicer sense of expectation than arriving by air. A few Yellow Legged Gulls flew around the boat to greet us at our dock, right by the city centre once more.
Lisbon 2014-01-10
This was the only avian connection I made in Lisbon.
Lisbon docks 2014-01-10
Apparently Black Redstarts were seen on the dockside but I headed off inland to explore the city.
Our first full views of the Marco Polo were soon to be had.
Marco Polo in Lisbon 2014-01-10
And the weather was surprisingly good. Overdressed we returned to the ship to put on some lighter clothing picking up some cheap wine of the way. At 6 euros for 5 litres it was more than drinkable. The ability to take alcohol on board certainly helped reduce the cost of the trip as we could partake in a little pre pre dinner drinks ! Bar prices on board were not unreasonable.. a beer was about £3.20 for a 500ml bottle, wine was from about £16 a bottle. However with 42 nights to budget for you were easily in to a four figure bar bill !
Anyway, back in Lisbon we took a taxi tour for 50 euro and excellent our guide was too. Lisbon is a great destination and very cheap too compared to other European capitals. A set 3 course lunch was as little as £6 and included some tasty offerings. However, with full board on the ship we were trying to avoid over indulging so settled for a toasted sandwich and a beer.
Next stop was Madeira. Things would surely start to get better soon but alas it was not to be. We were only scheduled to stop for half a day and as it happened it was light rain there too. We had a wander around Funchal , paid homage to a spot well known to us where only a few years ago I had taken my aged Mum and Aunt on a two week holiday. Both are now sadly gone, so it was a somewhat poignant visit with the occasional bout of guilt remembering how they drove me mad on occasion !!!!
The weather had improved during our morning in Funchal. A couple of my new found birder friends had taken the cable car ride from town and had glorious views of Firecrests at the top. Ah well, they remain on my wanted list !
As we sailed from Funchal the rain clouds once again descended, we escaped just in time, and at last we had a following of gulls to photograph.
Funchal 2014-01-12
We had been left 6 days and this was the first real opportunity for action. Sadly, they soon returned to land and we headed south towards Mindelo in Cape Verde.
The weather was certainly getting warmer and brighter, people were beginning to appear on deck.
You can just see Claire sat next to the lifebelt on the middle deck...what was to become the birdwatchers gathering point and general look out station.
To Cape Verde  2014-01-14
Things just had to get better from now on !

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