Sunday, 14 December 2014

Life at sea... big ship,little ship ?

As we near the half way stage of my narrative about our Far East adventure, I'll take time out just to look at cruising as a holiday, particularly if you are interested in wildlife watching.
Most importantly it depends where you journey to, then of course there is accessibility. Large ships can't get to the same destinations small ones can so which is best ?
Again there is no obvious answer because both large and small can score points off the other, and with only two ships to compare I'm not really in a position to give a definitive answer, I can only share my own findings.
Our previous experience was on the Marco Polo, seen here in Lisbon.
Marco Polo in Lisbon 2014-01-10
Compared with the Sapphire Princess it's pretty tiny ! When we were docked in Barbados we were surrounded by three huge cruise liners all capable of taking a few thousand passengers. The numbers flooding out of them was enough to put me off the idea of ever taking a large ship and yet here I was 9 months later boarding along with a few thousand other people.
What had made me change my mind ? Well, basically a sense of fair play. The itinerary sounded interesting but it was Claire who was most keen to go and it was only right she should have her choice. I have other birding trips in the pipeline for my own choice, some in which Claire will not have the luxurious surrounds of a cruise ship!
So, from my experience where does the small ship win ?
Firstly and indisputably on accessibility. Not only would it be impossible for the Sapphire to have navigated the Amazon as we had done previously,on this cruise it wasn't able to dock close to the centre of the city in both Hong Kong and Shanghai and we probably could have been closer  in Bangkok and Ho Chi Min City.
The smaller numbers of passengers made for a more intimate experience on the Marco Polo and as the cruise was 42 days long there was plenty of time to get to meet them.
On the Sapphire Princess we might not see the same people for days !
The Sapphire Princess might be huge but it offers space and far more amenities.
There's an indoor pool for poor weather
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An outdoor one with a cinema screen
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That seemed to be the favourite location during the day but for me far too crowded and noisy !
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The back of the boat was completely different, a lot more space
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even when the weather was brilliant
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There was always something to do if you looked for it although my own preference was not to get involved with any activities other than the photography one. In fairness, there was a large modern theatre
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but there were very few lectures, so the Marco Polo won there.Likewise, the shows might have appeared to be slicker
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but there were not that many and the comments about the performance were not very positive. Strangely I didn't go to any and just had a quick peep to take a photo.
Both ships look for ways of extracting extra cash from you, S.P. won on this one !
They had lots of shops selling expensive gear.
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and they also had art auctions, photo opportunities and a casino.
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You could lose money at almost any time of day or night and from my experience some  tables had the same people sat at them for the duration.
There were options to pay extra at some restaurants on board but we didn't feel it was necessary, the food was excellent in all the restaurants.
You could of course spend a fortune on drinks but that was equally so on both ships. The Sapphire Princess offered an all inclusive package but at $112 per day we felt it was a ridiculous sum to commit to drink. As it happened we only exceeded that amount on 1 day of the 17 on board. We did buy a 12 bottle wine package where any bottle of wine cost $20(+15% tip) from the the wine menu that included wines priced up to $29(+15% tip) so that was a decent saving ( There was a dearer option too but my palette, or is it my pocket doesn't recognise expensive wine so I was happy with lesser priced ones.) Typical prices were 2x pints of Stella $15.53, 2xG&T $14.38, a bucket of 5 bottles of 330cl Stella $20.53 or 2x500ml Strongbow $13.69.
We enjoy a drink or two and it was quite easy to run up a bill for over $1000 during the 17 days. We tried to be as sensible as possible sticking to cider and avoiding the delicious cocktails at $8.95(+15% tip) a throw. All drinks were subject to a 15% service charge which was added to the bill. You also were deducted $11.50 per person per day as a general gratuity charge. This is negotiable though as it was on the Marco Polo. 
The centre of the ship was quite magnificent over several floors.
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One of the biggest plusses for the SP was the dining experience. Unlike the Marco Polo you had a choice of either fixed dining times, flexible dining or self service buffet . After a few days of fixed dining we swopped to the flexible option. We still had our meals served and it was the same menu but we felt it was a better experience. There was a choice of four  restaurants each with their own atmosphere.
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The food I might add was far superior to the Marco Polo but there again, the cruise was a lot dearer.
When the weather was poor there were lots of places to sit in peace and quiet, many bars to choose from
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but if you were up for it you could sit and watch a film outside !
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Talking of the weather, a few points here ! We boarded in the cold wether of China and disembarked in the steamy heat of Singapore. A balcony cabin was unlikely to have too much advantage for much of the cruise. We didn't have extreme weather as we had on the Marco Polo either.
While we were away the accident report about that cruise was published. It seems we had been in far greater danger than even we had realised at the time. The official weather report stated winds reached hurricane proportions, Gale Force 12. One person was killed, many injured, one very seriously.The ship had been dangerously out of control at times as the speed couldn't be kept up as there was danger of engines burning out when it increased speed every time the propellors came out of the water. Consequently we had been very much at the fate of the elements and were lucky to get away with it. A nearby ship had lost over 500 containers ( on and average year 350 are lost WORLDWIDE) and we could easily have been hit by one.
How the bigger Sapphire Princess would have coped is open to conjecture and is a different issue. I don't think any ship should have knowingly sailed in these conditions but that's a different story.
From deck 7 2014-02-14
Whether it's a good idea to leave a northern port in Winter is worthy of consideration but certainly one of the advantages of leaving and returning to your home country is that there are no luggage restrictions. When you fly, it a whole different ball game and sacrifices have to be made. In my case camera gear !

So what about the wild life experience ?
Well from memory the Marco Polo had 9 main decks , the Sapphire Princess has 16. Quite a difference. At the top you are a long way off the water but there is a deck you can circumnavigate the ship on deck 7... the same as the Marco Polo ! The big difference is that it was 8 circuits to complete a mile on the MP, only 3 on the SP.
We favoured the back of the ship and our cabin was at the front. It was along way to dash back to the cabin if you needed something in a hurry. In fact on the first day at sea after Shanghai I was suddenly confronted by a small brown bird which I couldn't identify. By the time I returned with my camera it was too late and it had vanished, I swore to try not to be caught out again but sadly I was several times.
The beauty of the ship was that anything that landed would have a good chance of remaining undisturbed and possibly undiscovered !
With a third of a mile to cover you could easily miss something particularly if they decided to fly down to someone's balcony below.
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If you look carefully you will spot a Pigeon !
This was one of five that appeared to live on board for the duration of the trip from Shanghai to Singapore.
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If they were in a long distance competition they knew the easy way of how to win it !

One morning I was amazed to find this Brambling searching for food. I found a single grain of wheat at the bottom of my camera bag which the bird devoured instantly.

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I was down on my hands and knees photographing this one when someone passing told me there was another bird on the other side of the ship. I went off in search of it only to see it fly off towards the vey populated area in the middle of the boat. I relocated it looking for food under tables and chairs where people were sat. They must have thought me a bit odd scrambling around on the floor !
Well worth it though, cracking little Durian Redstart..a lifer for me !
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Things were looking up after a poor start which had been even worse the day before. I had seen something flying around the ship and set off in search. By the time I got to the deck over the bridge I found it.
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Very sad, it was still warm when I picked it up.A Pale Thrush.
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It had flown in to the windows at the front.
You wonder if the other birds that made fleeting stop overs survived too.
One day we had 5 Chinese Pond Herons flying around the ship all morning, by the time the afternoon had arrived they were down to 4. Where the other had gone is anybody's guess.
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No problem with the height of the ship with these although the biggest surprise capture stayed frustrating close to the water below
Another lifer, as had been Chinese Pond Heron, the Watercock seemed well out of place out at sea too.
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Some birds went on their way after a brief rest, like this Barn Swallow.

Barn Swallow  2014-11-26
Others like the Pigeons decided that life as a stowaway was more than acceptable.
This Drongo ( I'm not sure which species) was regularly seen flying off on forays away from the ship only to return later. It stayed with us for a week .
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We also had a resident Sparrow in one of the bars which was regularly fed by the staff. Much to my frustration I failed in getting a shot of the most stunning Warbler I have ever seen but one photo opportunity that was abandoned though was the photography meet ! Our resident pro had got herself all dressed up in her glamour outfit especially to pose as our model.
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Boobies I cried much to the horror of the rest of the photo group.They must have thought I'd gone mad and had left in a hurry ashamed of my outburst.
Not at all !
I had the best session of the whole trip. All afternoon about 40 Red Footed Booby were hunting off the front off the boat. The light was awful, the action fabulous. An avian photo fix at last !!!
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They were diving for Flying Fish.

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Which unlike the journey across the Atlantic seems in short supply.
Nevertheless they stayed around for ages sometimes screaming Gannet like as they plunged downwards.
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Overall the birding experience on the Sapphire Princess was probably a lot better than the Atlantic Crossing.
Being higher up gives a better field of view too but sadly we didn't encounter a single Dolphin,Porpoise or Whale on the whole of the trip. Maybe because we are in waters that have been fished out by the whale fleets that still ply their horrible trade.
Mind you there were opportunities still if they had looked. I was surprised someone hadn't been harpooned on our ship !
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No given a choice I would always choose the bigger ship particularly for longer journeys.
There were times when we felt we had the luxury of our own huge private yacht.
More often than not we had the bar at the back of the ship all to ourselves.
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What could be a better way to watch the sun go down !

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I never did go back to the photo lecture and practicals. I think I missed the last one as it was later during the day when I was having a sundowner. It was going to be Black and White photography and if there was an opportunity to to try out her studio I would have been devastated to miss it. However, when it comes to models i have my own so who cares !

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Next Hong Kong !

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