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Return to Eden.

RETURN TO EDEN

As the world becomes more accessible and comfortable--hardly a corner without its Big Macs--I find myself leaving home looking for adventure rather than a lazy week on the beach. And I'm not the only one. close encounters with nature are a growing travel trend, providing deeper and more exhilirating glimpses into an expanded world--and more sophisticated traveling companions with different expectations.

I assumed the people who would go along with me on such adventures would be younger and fitter than I. As it turned out, they're fitter, maybe, but younger, no. The average age is 50, and many are older. What I like is called "soft" adventure; participating in some physical activity but not too much of it. My favorite adventure trips usually involve animal encounters in the wild. Here is a sampling of three of the best.

THE WHALES

Spy hops, soundings, flukes, baleen, breaching--this is the language of whale-watching.

Water churning with dolphins, desolate islands either lost in the mist or shimmering in the sun, colonies of quarrelsome elephant seals, cluds of swooping seabirds, "picked fences" of whale spouts--these are the sights.

A wild, 40-ton creature approaching to get his head stroked or to eyeball your boat rather than turn it over--this is the adventure.

When I began whale-watching--the first time was off the coast of Maritime Canada--I assumed (logically, I believed) I would be watching whales. But I quickly realized the term most often means watching for whales, a different and somewhat iffy proposition.

I did find my original assumption to be true after all when I cruised on the Searcher to Mexico's Laguna San Ignacio. In this sheltered lagoon, where whales once were slaughered by the thousands, it's not only possible to watch whales but also to reach out and touch one--an unforgettable and somehow transcendental experience. So many whales inhabit the lagoon that at times the horizon is laced with spouts, a sight called a "picket fence."

The whole drill is possible because California gray whales journey to the warm waters of San Ignacio lagoon each winter to breed and give birth before eventually launching their big babies on the procession back home to the icy Bering Sea near Alaska. Said to be the longest animal migration in the world, the annual 15,000-mile round trip offers humans an unmatched opportunity to observe large numbers of whales running loose in the ocean. As a result, whale watching excursions are now big business up and down the Pacific coast.

Nowhere else can you see more whales up close than on the ultimate whale-watch devised by Biological Journeys, a respected wilderness tour company. It commissions the 30-passenger Searcher, a basic 105-foot sport-fishing boat with pint-sized cabins, for weekly seven-day cruises during the whale season (Jan. 26-March 24).

While whales star, there are plenty of splendid opportunities during the week to observe the other flora and fauna that occupy the wild, unspoiled Baja Peninsula and it tiny offshore islands. Daily nature walks and boat rides with a naturalist guide take passengers past elephant seal and sea lion rookeries, along guano-covered cliffs teeming with seabirds, and through sand dunes and mangrove swamps.

The Mexican government allows only two cruisers at a time into the wilflife refuge of San Ignacio lagoon, and Searcher spends three memorable days anchored there. Outfitted in wet gear, passengers leave the cruiser by day, going out in small motorized skiffs that don't disturb the whales but offer many chances to observe and photograph at close range.

What brings "friendlies" to the boats? Nobody knows for sure, and the whales aren't talking. Some drink it's curiosity, but it's a fact that some whales completely ignore the boats, and others don't. They aren't fed, and wouldn't eat anything that was offered them anyway. I prefer to believe the gentle giants come alongside looking for love.

For more information: Biological Journeys, 1696 Ocean Drive, McKinleyville, CA 95521 (1-800-548-7555 outside California, or 707-839-0178 in California).

THE BEARS

Before leaving for Manitoba, I took out an insurance policy against death or dismemberment and hung a St. Christopher's medal around my neck. Touching all bases, I also slipped in a mustard seed and my lucky Elvis keychain. Since you're reading this, you know something worked.

Polar bears were to be the main objects of our observation, and I shivered at thethought of meeting the giant critters common to Canada's semi-frozen north.

Those deceptively cuddly carmivores migrate through Churchill, Manitoba (billed as "The Town That Loves Polar Bears"), while waiting for Hudson Bay pack ice to freeze over enough to hold their weight. During the thaw they become ravenous for their usual diet of ringed seal. In the meantime, they might be glimpsed dining inelegantly in Churchill's garbage dump of strolling along the streets begging for handouts.

In the cold, isolated town, I look over my shoulder while strolling past bear traps and signs warning "Polar Bear Alert!" But the only one I see is a stuffed giant in the Inuit Community Center.

Our conveyance, the Tundra Buggy, is a fancy name for a jerry-rigged truck/school bus contraption with giant tractor wheels but without shocks. It's a rough ride over ice-covered tidal flats out to Gordon Point, also known as Lunch Point because somebody had lunch there, or was lunch, I forget which.

Our home for three days is a movable four-vehicle camp up on wheels large enough to keep out hungry polar bears. In addition to a sleeping car, generator wagon, and observation deck, the camp's main hub is Dan's Diner, an erstwhile school bus boosed by the famous polar bear hunter, Dan Guravich. Stalking only the perfect photograph, he works incessantly to preserve his furry subjects from the predators who endanger them--men. No other animal is capable of bringing down the "Lord of the Arctic," and then only with high-powered rifles and motorized vehicles.

Here at last we see our first live bear, asleep like a big rock by the bay. As the curious bear moves closer and closer during a snow-flurried day, we risk frostbite and starvation to bear-watch and bear-photograph. Eventually, we name him Yoga Bear because he assumes so many different positions.

He goes surfing for all the world as though the 25-below-zero windchill factor is balmy. He stands and peers at us, covering windows with his huge paws. He poses for stand-up pictures, lounges, pokes his nose in a shed window, rips foam rubber off a three-wheeler and eats it. A real ham, he comes close enough to touch, but we don't Next to man, this is one of the most dangerous creatures alive.

As a bonus we watch other tundra species incluidng Arctic fox, ptarmigan, snowy owl, and countless other birds, as well as learn to appreciate the subtle beauty of their seemingly inhospitable habitat. After a regretful departure I realize that my adventure consisted of spending three days in a school bus without my feet ever touching the gound. Yet it was an experience to remember for a lifetime.

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours feature tundra adventures mid-October through mid-November. For more information contact them at Box 33008, Austin, TX 78764, (512) 328-5221. Or contact Dan Guravich, P.O. Box 891, Greenville, MS 38701.

THE LIONS

The story is told in Kenya of the passing of a lion and a Masai warrior, each on opposite sides of the road and each respecting the rights of the other. "If I had been walking there instead of the Masai, it would have been the end of me," says my Kikuyu guide, who explains Africa's delicately-balanced ecosystem as we jounce around Kenya's vast Masai Mara Game Preserve, the largest and to me most beautiful of Kenya's game parks.

Here in the cradle of life as we know it, where the bones of the first man were discovered, an extraordinary number of wild creatures are left to pursue life just as they have since the beginning of time. For the animals in a Kenyan game park, Eden still exists.

Kenya's game preserves are like giant zoos in reverse, with visitors staying strictly inside their mini-vans and lodge perimeters and the animals wandering around free and almost close enough to touch. Having outlawed hunting about 10 years ago, Kenya now attracts 600,000 visitors a year--a mere 9% of them Americans--armed only with cameras.

I expected to enjoy the fascination of Africa at the expense of comfort, but I was agreeably surprised. Having chosen the deluxe Micato Safaris to orchestrate my adventure, I land in stylish, comfortable lodges scattered around the country in prime game-viewing areas. At some, game is so close that lions have been known to drink from swimming pools, and at night you leave animal wake-up calls.

Game runs are predictably bumpy, dusty, and hot, yet the incomparable close-up encounters are so exciting that such mundane discomforts are ignored and soon forgotten as well-fed safari-goers compare adventures over a congenial nightcap.

A mere week's sampling: One day my vehicle is stuck in the mud underneath a cat-napping leopard; another time it's "bluff-charged" by a rhino and a cape buffalo both on the same day. Along with a veritable train of other safari vehicles, we circle a lion "kill" and watch lion families laze around practically within arm's reach. Elephants flap their ears at us and giraffes daintily graze on acacia trees like statuesque ladies nibbling on their umbrellas.

An optional sunrise "Balloon Safari" skims over the landscape and its herds of creatures, an hour after an elegant champagne breakfast is served by red-coated waiters on the vast savanna.

A large fleet of small planes operates out of Nairobi, flying to most of the game parks on a daily schedule; transferring from park to park by plane, rather than driving long distances over terrible roads, is worth the extra bucks.

Most safaris begin in urban Nairobi, still the motley town Lady Karen Blixen (Isak Dineson) described in her book, Out of Africa. But the dusty sprawl pulsates with life and commerce and imparts an irresistably adventurous feel. By the time my jet-lagged body had journeyed the long distance to Africa, a luxury suite at the chic Nairobi Safari Club was exactly what I needed. A luxurious picnic-tour of Karen Estates, the author's home, soon followed, a fitting beginning for one of the world's all-time greatest travel adventures.

Hundreds of safari tour options are available in Kenya; Micato Safaris' deluxe 15-day Hemingway Safari stands out for high quality of accommodations and itineraries plus personal attention to detail. 15 West 26th St., New York, NY 10010; 212-545-7111.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:wildlife watching tours
Author:Burton, Marda
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Words:1761
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