Tour Review: Solar Whisper (Daintree River, Queensland, Australia)

If visiting the world heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest in Queensland, Australia, a riverboat tour is a must. With their solar-powered vessel, Solar Whisper offer the true eco-tour option. Even if not visiting the Daintree, their Facebook page is well worth a Like both for the amazing photography and to keep up to date on the “Days of the Daintree,” a tabloid-style narrative about the escapades of the river’s resident wildlife (particularly the crocodiles, many of whom are named after Royals).

FNF Solar Whisper 05

Up close and personal with Kate the crocodile

Having been on a Daintree river cruise with a different company 2 years ago, the absence of harsh engine noise was notable, and allowed one to actually hear the rainforest birdsong as we glided through the mangroves.

FNF Solar Whisper 02

I imagine the local wildlife prefers it as well, as we saw considerably more than on the other tour I went on, including 2 White-Lipped Treefrogs, a colony of threatened Spectacled Flying Foxes, several birds, and (despite being the low season for sightings) 2 crocodiles. None of the wildlife seemed perturbed by our presence.

FNF Solar Whisper 04

A sleepy White-Lipped Treefrog that just kept sleeping

David’s narrative was interesting, educational, and humorous all at once. It is obvious he is genuinely passionate about his work, and knowledgeable about the wildlife he is able to share with others through these tours.

FNF Solar Whisper 06

A “2016 model”, as David put it

Solar Whisper is notable in that they are bat-friendly, highlighting the importance of these threatened “lycra-clad teddy bears of the sky” (as their Facebook aptly describes them) to rainforest health, in a region that far too often demonises them.

FNF Solar Whisper 03

FNF Solar Whisper 01

A python resting in a tree that also contained bats…

As a bonus, the man at the front desk, Martin, was extremely knowledgeable about Australia’s bird-life.  He provided some useful tips that helped me add a few new ones to my Life List.

All in all, Solar Whisper is a must-do.  Very highly recommended.

Facility Spotlight: Monarto Zoo (South Australia)

 

Located in Monarto, South Australia, at 2,700 acres Montarto Zoo is the largest free-range zoo in the world. It is so large that the Adelaide Zoo (also operated by the non-profit Zoos SA) could fit inside the lion habitat with room to spare. They are home to more than 500 animals of 50 species, and have several native Australian species utilising the grounds as well.

FNF Monarto 01

A free-roaming emu near the cafe

FNF Monarto 11

Shoutout to this hyena for providing a reference point as to just how large these habitats are

Quoting their website, Zoos SA exists “to save species from extinction and connect people with nature.” Not only do they support conservation efforts worldwide, they also run a number of successful breeding programs for several endangered species. This includes Mesopotamian Fallow Deer (nearly extinct in the wild), Yellow-Footed Rock Wallabies, and iconic chimpanzees. They are also home to the only breeding hyenas in the Australasian region.

FNF Monarto 9

A snippet of the expansive chimpanzee habitat

FNF Monarto 8

Lots of opportunity for exhibiting natural behaviours!

FNF Monarto 6 copy

Zuri, the second youngest of the resident chimpanzee troupe. That bald patch had regrown when I visited several months later.

To describe the staff, “passionate” is an understatement. They are friendly and overflowing with interesting information about the zoo and its animals. At times they are also refreshingly blunt, saying that instead of killing a rhino and consuming its horn, one may as well eat hair and tonail clippings from off the floor as it is effectively the same thing. Another remarked that the only way to save the rhino is if it is “removed from Africa”.

And indeed…there is an ambitious move to bring 80 Southern White Rhinos from Africa to Australia for the purpose of conservation. Monarto Zoo, putting their money where their mouth is, will house approximately half of them. The zoo is already home to 6, and have had 5 successful births.

FNF Monarto 7 copy

The zoo actively tries to reduce its ecological footprint, utilizing native plants to assist in reducing soil erosion and water consumption, and solar power is used for the fences and gates.

Monarto Zoo has extensive walking trails through the native bushland (and they run birdwatching walks from time to time), or you can travel around the zoo (and through the habitats!) on their network of buses. The buses make regular stops should people wish to visit the observation platforms and/or hear the various keeper talks.

FNF Monarto 3

Outside the lion habitat. You don’t need to tell me twice!

FNF Monarto 5

Lionesses coming in for a treat during a keeper talk

FNF Monarto 10

The staff strive to dispel myths surrounding hyenas as being monsters, such as people assume from movies like The Lion King

There are a few downsides, which I mention so that you may get as much out of your visit to the zoo as possible: one is transportation. If you don’t have a car, busing IS possible but not ideal if you are on a budget and/or have children. The bus from Adelaide to Mount Barker costs less than $5, where you have a 1-hour layover until a LinkSA picks you up and drops you off over an hour after the zoo opens.  I suspect LinkSA charges an arm and a leg for this short hop simply because they can – about $24 round trip. They neglect to mention this on their site, and other routes appeared to cost less when I tried to find the fare in advance. If you have children, this adds up quickly, and that hour long layover likely won’t go over well.

Further, the nifty bus system around the zoo itself has potential to be problematic. When I visited on a weekday during the off-season it was great!  But accidentally going during school holidays (I imagine weekends are similar), we spent more time waiting for an available bus than looking at the animals. Be sure to bring ample water, as you may be stuck in the hot sun for a long time.

FNF Monarto 4

One other moot point I’ll mention: photography can be difficult since many of your photos will be taken through the heavily tinted windows of a bumpy bus. I mention this because my friend became downright cranky at all the shots he lost out on.  While frustrating at times, there are still plenty of opportunities for good shots away from the buses, including of meerkats, yellow-footed rock wallabies, and chimpanzees, all of which are easily accessible by foot from the main hub (also a bonus in case the buses are full as mentioned above).

FNF Monarto 13

Overall, Monarto is definitely worth a visit. They hit all the right marks, and you are bound to learn something interesting, or at the very least, be entertained watching the animals just be themselves in their massive habitats!  The chimpanzees were particularly fascinating.  Be sure to check this zoo out!

 

Species Spotlight: Bats

Bats have a bad rap. Whether it be the belief that they are flying rodents, blind and get tangled in your hair, or want to suck your blood, there is no end to stories about them that feed on fear bred from a lack of understanding, and unfortunately the fallout for these ecologically important creatures is huge.

IMG_0104

“But they’ll give you rabies!” people scream, when in reality fewer than 0.5% of bats contract the virus in the first place, and it often kills them.  In Australia there have only been 2 cases of humans contracting Australian Bat Lyssavirus.  More humans die from altercations with household pets than have died from interacting with bats in recorded history (indeed, I often point out that “man’s best friend” frequently attacks people for no reason, yet nobody screams foul). And: any increase in “bat attacks” is due to US continually encroaching in THEIR native habitat.  (note: it is still not recommended you touch a downed one unless vaccinated and qualified to do so)

bradwithbanana FNF

Although I sure wouldn’t want to be that banana.

Bats make up about 20% of all mammal species on earth. They are split into two groups: Fruit-eating megabats, and microbats, which are primarily insectivorous (although some eat fish, frogs, blood, and so forth).  Some scientists believe the two groups may have evolved separately though convergent evolution, although this theory has lost ground in recent years. (although interestingly, the flying fox’s brain is remarkably similar to a lemur’s. And female short-nosed bats are the only non-primate species to perform fellatio during intercourse…)

Ron Jeremy the Bat FNF

Ron has no trouble performing fellatio on himself. Prints available here.

Who likes mosquitoes? Bats are nature’s insecticide, and love them.  A single Little Brown Bat can consume upwards of 1000 mosquitoes per hour, and do so for upwards of 40 years.  There have been several cases where farmers noticed a sharp rise in pest-damage to crops after eliminating a colony of bats from their property, and sought to encourage their return.

A Ghost Bat at the Adelaide Zoo. Ghost Bats are vulnerable to extinction.

A Ghost Bat at the Adelaide Zoo. Ghost Bats are vulnerable to extinction.

Meanwhile, fruit and nectar-loving flying foxes are key pollinators (as it gets stuck to their muzzles as they feed), and seed-dispensers (through their poop), both of which help forests regenerate. Forests that are filled with critters people generally do like a lot more than bats.

Unfortunately, despite being such important and beneficial animals, nearly 1/4 of bat species are threatened with extinction. On top of the usual human-induced culprits such as habitat loss, microbats in North America are now falling prey to a fungal infection called White Nose Syndrome. It has been called “the greatest threat to bats ever seen”, and has caused population declines of upwards of 90%.

white-nose-al-hicks-nydec

Photo credit: Nancy Heaslip, with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Flying Foxes in Australia, meanwhile, keep finding themselves on the receiving end of “relocation” efforts. In 2013 in Charters Towers, Queensland, the local council used smoke, paintballs, high-pressure water hoses, and fireworks to drive 80,000 bats out of town. Acting against (or perhaps because of) the advice of conservationists, they did it during a critical time in the birthing season when infants were too big to fly with their mothers, but to small to fly by themselves, effectively wiping out the next generation. Rescuers were prevented from rescuing downed pups.

baby bat burritos

These bats are believed to have re-settled in Townsville, where they were again forced to relocate. But where do they go when we keep destroying their habitat? Entire colonies are now disappearing (as I heard from a conservationist involved in a count), yet their conservation statuses rarely seem to change.

In a town in New South Wales, residents recently tried to set fire to a colony of bats, stating “reduced quality of living, and damage to property”.  I think the bats could say the same thing about living near humans. Humans encroach on their homes, cut down their forests so they have nowhere to go, and then have the audacity to try and set fire to them while calling the bats a plague? Give me a break!!!!!!!

And it isn’t just in Australia. The Mauritian government recently culled 18,000 endemic Mauritian Flying Foxes — a staggering 20% of the threatened population.

So how can you help bats? Install bat-boxes. If you live in warmer climes, don’t trim dead leaves off palm trees, as these can serve as roosts. Volunteer at or donate to rescue centres and other conservation efforts. But most importantly, inform others of how cool bats can be. During my time volunteering at BatReach Kuranda, I shared the stories of the bats I cared for, and several people sent messages saying they had never realised how amazing bats are. The stigma can so easily be reversed if people just open their minds.

Brad would thank you if you do.

bradsleeping4 FNF

Further reading: To Know Bats is to Love Them

Facility Spotlight: Sea World Gold Coast (Australia)

Facility Spotlight: SeaWorld Gold Coast. (Queensland, Australia)

Visited: August of 2014.

To be clear, Sea World Gold Coast is not affiliated with the American SeaWorld, instead being operated by Village Roadshow. Although my friend had warned me that the place was “kind of bogan”, I was not prepared for how underwhelming it was. Simply put, it was the most boring place I have ever been that had dolphins.

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

But let’s focus on the high points first: The polar bear habitat, which is among the most technologically advanced in the world, was spacious with impressive landscaping and ample enrichment opportunities for the animals. They were swimming, jumping off the “cliffs”, and having what appeared to be a grand old time. Who would have thought that in Australia these threatened arctic animals could have such a good life? Kind of ironic when you consider climate change is killing them.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

FNF SWGC 05

The dolphin habitats are spacious, sandy-bottomed, and fringed with a small beach for a naturalistic look. The park also makes an effort at being educational, with informative signs found throughout, and an interesting narrative during the dolphin show “Imagine” (since replaced with “Affinity”).

FNF SWGC 01

FNF SWGC 06

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Unfortunately, it seemed as though at least some of the dolphins were as bored as I was. While admiring the animals in the Dolphin Nursery, a couple brought their few toys over and placed them on the shore as close to my feet as they could. Having just visited the vastly superior SeaWorld San Diego, where the dolphins can freely interact with visitors as they choose, including having them throw toys, it was not difficult to guess what these fellows wanted.

It was then I realized that there was no staff around at all to answer visitors’ questions, give small scale educational talks, interact with the animals, or any combination thereof — something I frequently see in other facilities.  Eventually, someone did do a walk around the perimeter, which caught the dolphins’ attention, but he completely ignored them.

FNF SW 03

Amity, an Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin

That said, at one point I did see some at a distance engaging in a training session, and the dolphins do seem to have a great relationship with their trainers, but being able to see more of this from a better vantage point would have been nice.  There are no underwater observation areas, either, which go a long way towards helping a person appreciate these amazing marine mammals.

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show "Affinity". Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show “Affinity”. Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

There was a lot of hype for the sea lion feeding, but as the feeding platform was at a distance from the main observation areas, anyone who hadn’t paid for the privilege quickly lost interest.

As for the sea lion show, “Fish Detectives”, it was remarkably similar to the clichéd “whodunit” story that was running at the unaffiliated SeaWorld San Antonio, right down to the animals’ names (one was named Claude instead of Clyde). Couldn’t they have come up with something more original?  Especially considering how cool sea lion naturally are…?  Honestly, I couldn’t even stay for the duration.

FNF SWGC 02

“We’re much better than the shows make us look, I swear”

The small number of rides can only be described as lackluster. I wasn’t expecting something like Dreamworld, but SOMETHING to help kill the lengthy wait times between shows would have been nice. (Although interestingly enough Dreamworld has an excellent and much more interactive zoological area, and are one of the single largest contributors to tiger conservation).

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

I had intended to stay the whole day, but with overly spaced-out shows, absolutely nothing to do in-between, and with some of the animals looking just as bored as I felt, I left early feeling ripped off and far from inspired.  Several people have said I must have visited on a really bad day, and if I go back and have a good one, I will happily update as appropriate.  But as it is, with this being the only facility of its kind in Australia, it is unfortunate that if I didn’t already love marine life, Sea World Gold Coast would not have changed my mind.

Pass.

Tour Review: Dolphin Explorer

Official Tour Site

Where: Port Adelaide, South Australia
Cost: $8/adult, $6/child
Who is it for?: Hungry people, gawkers, children, anyone who is happy with a fleeting glimpse of a dolphin
Who is it not for?: Serious nature lovers and photographers.

Despite the abundance of dolphins in the Port River, including a population known to do “tricks”, there isn’t really anything available for whale or dolphin watching right out of Adelaide itself (although there are options further south at Victor Harbor), so the Dolphin Explorer pretty much has the local monopoly.  My expectations were low as locals had created the impression that it was more of a floating restaurant and/or party boat where seeing dolphins was incidental, but for a mere $8 I gave it a go anyway.

The scenery left something to be desired.

The scenery often left something to be desired.

Floating restaurant aside, the Dolphin Explorer is more of a river cruise than a wildlife tour.  Although you will most likely see cetaceans (a rarity among tours I have discovered — more on that in the future), the boat does not slow down or turn around when dolphins are sighted, so all you get are fleeting glimpses of the animals unless you’re lucky enough to be standing in one of the front corners should a dolphin decide to bow-ride (tip: stand in a front corner).

Dolphin Explorer 5

The bird life was decent, with abundant cormorants (including the slightly less-common Black Faced Cormorant) and terns.

Dolphin Explorer 3
Dolphin Explorer 4

The majority of people on the boat seemed satisfied with the tour, but as a serious nature lover and photographer I felt it could have been better.  Every other cetacean-watching tour I have been on had more maneuverable vessels that would at least slow down to better watch the animals in the unlikely event some actually showed up.  That said, for the price, the Dolphin Explorer does provide an affordable outing for everyone, especially families.  At least you actually see dolphins, so don’t write it off, but don’t go out of your way or expect too much either.

If you are a photographer: due to the nature of this tour, bring a very long telephoto.  I had my 80-400 and found myself wishing I had my 150-600 instead.

Dolphin Explorer 1

UPDATE:  I went on several more tours, both with this operator and their competitor.  Ultimately, duds.  Dolphins were so far away only I made them out through my (this time) 600mm lens.  Most people were too busy stuffing their faces and drinking to care the one time one did come close.  Still do not recommend, unless you’re only there for the food.