Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Big Eclipse - Part 5: Totality

As we approach second contact (the start of totality), things start happening pretty quickly.  One phenomenon to look for a minute or 2 before totality is the shadow bands.  These are very subtle wavy bands of alternating light and shadow similar to ripples seen on the bottom of a swimming pool on a sunny day.  The best way to look for them is to put a white sheet or large (several square feet) piece of white paper on the ground.  It's unclear exactly what causes this, but it's thought to be an effect of the very thin sliver of the sun's surface causing a diffraction effect.  Photos and a good explanation can be found here.


Baily's Beads
As totality finally approaches, you may start to see the corona appear on the side of the sun away from the last spot of bright light.  The corona is part of the sun's outer atmosphere and is always present but is much too faint to see in the glare of the sun's surface.  Only when the surface is covered as during an eclipse can you see this faint wispy part of the sun.  On the side where the sun's surface is still visible, you will begin to see alternating dark and bright areas instead of a smooth bright crescent.  This is caused by the mountains and valleys on the edge of the moon blocking parts of the sun (mountains), while other parts are still visible through the valleys.  These are known as "Baily's Beads".  I should remind you that you should still be using your eye protection at this point since some small part of the sun's surface is still visible.  However, you can take the filter off of your camera if you want to photograph Baily's Beads and the Diamond Ring.  Just don't look directly through the view finder of an SLR camera yet.

The Diamond Ring
The corona, combined with the last piece of the sun's bright surface comprises the so-called "diamond ring" effect, which occurs immediately before totality.  The last glimpse of the surface is the diamond, and the corona forms the ring.  Again, it's OK to quickly glance up to see the corona and diamond ring, but don't look directly at the diamond.

Finally, the last bit of the sun's surface disappears behind the moon and you will see the corona completely surrounding the dark moon.  It is now perfectly safe to stare at the eclipse without eye protection.  Now is also a great time to use binoculars to study the eclipse without the need for filters.  However, you must keep track of the time so you aren't looking through binoculars when totality ends.  For safety, I generally stop using binoculars at least 30 seconds before the predicted end of totality for my location.

Now is the time to enjoy the beauty of the corona.  Is it round or elongated?  Does it seem evenly illuminated or are there streaks and streamers?  While using binoculars, look for red prominences along the very edge of the moon.  These are streams of hot glowing gas that rise off the surface of the sun.  During the 1991 eclipse, the prominences were so large that it was possible to see them even without binoculars.  Also take time to look around you during totality.  It's twilight that doesn't seem quite right.  The horizon in every direction looks like sunset.  Also look for planets in the sky.  Venus and Jupiter should be quite easy to see, and you may catch Mars and Mercury too, if you know where to look.

All too quickly the moon will move off the surface of the sun, resulting in a second diamond ring.  The whole thing will then play out in reverse, starting with the diamond ring, then Baily's Beads, the shadow bands, and the moon slowly leaving the sun.  Be sure to put the solar filter back on your camera at this point, and of course use appropriate eye protection for the remaining parts of the eclipse.

My next blog entry will discuss some pointers if you want to take pictures during the eclipse.  However, my best piece of advice for photographing your first total eclipse is this: don't do it.  There will be many, many pictures available on the internet after the eclipse, but only your eyes can register the grandeur that will stay with you for the rest of your life.  This is a relatively short eclipse (at most 2.5 minutes, and considerably less depending on where you are), so you should spend most of your time just using your eyes and binoculars.




Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Big Eclipse - Part 4: What to Expect

Composite of March 2016 eclipse by Justin Ng, www.justinngphoto.com
This post will start to cover what you can expect on eclipse day itself.  It's going to be a very exciting day, and parts of it will fly by so fast you may miss things if you don't know to look for them.  I'll cover the partial phases in this post, and then the moments right before totality and totality itself in the next one.

First, it helps to remember and visualize what's actually happening here.  The moon orbits the earth in approximately the same plane as the earth and sun.  That means that every 29 and a half days the moon gets between the earth and sun.  However, the moon's orbital plane isn't exactly the same as the earth and sun so usually rather than getting right in front of the sun, it is slightly above or below the sun so we don't see a solar eclipse every month, we just get a new moon.  However, every once in a while, new moon occurs at those points in its orbit that do fall exactly between the sun and the earth, and we get a solar eclipse.  The next very cool fact is that even through the sun is much, much larger than the moon, it is also much further away.  In fact, the size of the moon and size of the sun and their distances from the earth just happen to work out so that the moon appears to be exactly the same size as the sun when viewed from earth.  Actually, depending on where the moon is in its orbit, it may appear slightly larger or slightly smaller, hence annular eclipses vs. total eclipses.  As soon as you get your safe solar filter, go outside and look at the sun through it.  It is the same size as the full moon!  Cool, huh?

First Contact
So, in short, the moon is slowly moving across the sky in its orbit and is about to cross in front of the sun.  You won't be able to see the moon itself in the sky because it's illuminated side is pointed away from us, toward the sun.  But you will be able to see the moon start to pass in front of the sun.  The moment that the edge of the moon is first detectable in front of the sun is called "first contact" and is the beginning of the eclipse.

For the next hour or so, you will see the moon continue to move in front of the sun, blocking out more and more of it.  There are several things to look for during this time, especially as totality approaches.  First, it's going to get darker, but not as much as you might think.  The sun is very bright, and even when some of it is still showing, there will be plenty of light.
It's really important to continue to use your safe solar filter during the entire partial phase of the eclipse.  But now is also the time to look for as many "pinholes" as you can find around you and use them to project images of the crescent sun.  Good places to find pinholes are saltine crackers, your straw hat, and overlapping tree leaves.
Can you see the crescent suns in the lower right of the shadow?
Look at the sun filtering through the leaves of a tree on the ground underneath it.  Can you see overlapping images of the crescent sun?

You may also notice that shadows are a lot sharper and crisper as the sun's crescent gets smaller and smaller.  Because the sun is normally about half a degree on the sky, shadow edges are slightly blurry because light from all parts of the sun pass by the edge of whatever is making the shadow, but as the crescent gets smaller, the shadow edge gets crisper.  Because of this, the quality of the light is also very strange.  Look around you - it's darker but not like a normal twilight.  It's hard to describe, but you'll certainly notice the difference.  The air will get a lot cooler too.

If you have binoculars or a telescope with a safe solar filter, be sure to look for sunspots during the partial phases.  It's fun to watch the edge of the moon move toward the sunspots and "eat" them.

Also, notice how animals around you react to the eclipse.  As it gets darker, birds will return to their roosts and may start singing as they would in the evening.  We've seen porpoises dance in the ship's wake as they do in the morning and evening.

As I mentioned, the partial phase from first contact to totality will last about an hour and 15 minutes.  Use whatever safe viewing method you've chosen to check on the moon's progress every few minutes, especially if there are sunspots.  And take the time to look around and observe your surroundings.  How soon could you tell that something strange was going on if you didn't (safely) look at the sun?

As we are just a few minutes away from totality, the pace picks up and there's a lot to look for.  I'll cover this in my next post.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Big Eclipse - Part 3: What to bring

Like the Boy Scouts, the eclipse chaser's motto is "Be Prepared."  Totality lasts a very short time, at most about 2.5 minutes depending on where you're viewing.  You won't have time to make decisions or wish you had another piece of equipment once the eclipse starts.  So it's important to have a checklist of what to have with you (this post), and a complete, well rehearsed plan for what you're going to do during the eclipse (a future post).


You probably have some of this already, but other specialty items like the solar filters and maybe even binoculars or telescope or camera lenses may need to be purchased in advance.


We've already covered the basic items for safe viewing in the previous post.  You'll need one or more of the following:

  • *Cardboard solar viewing glasses or #14 welders glass for direct viewing
  • Pinhole viewer of some kind such as described in my previous post
  • *Binoculars (both for projecting the partial phase, and direct viewing of totality).
  • Solar filters for binoculars
  • Solar filter for camera lens
  • Solar filter for telescope
* Must-have items in my opinion

In addition, you may want to consider the following additional equipment for viewing and imaging the eclipse.  I'll talk about photography in more detail in an upcoming post.
  • Small (40-80mm) telescope with solar filter
  • Camera with appropriate filter, ideally a DSLR with a 200mm or longer lens.  A focal length of 400 to 500mm is ideal. 
  • Video camera
  • Tripods for the cameras
  • A white sheet or tablecloth for viewing shadow bands (more about this in a future post)
  • Printed timetable of the eclipse customized for your viewing site.  Remember that the different parts of the eclipse happen at different times depending on your location.  Use the NASA map (http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEgoogle/SEgoogle2001/SE2017Aug21Tgoogle.html) and zoom in on your viewing location.  Click on the map at your location and a pop-up will display all the important info for that location.
  • Accurate time source (most cell phones are good enough).
  • Sketchbook.  Some people like to draw what they see during both the partial phases (sunspots) and totality.  
Finally, there are several items you might want to bring to help you stay comfortable during the eclipse.  They include:
  • Chairs or blankets to sit on.  Remember that the eclipse lasts about 2 and a half hours from first contact to last contact.  A reclining lounge chair is a comfy way to view the whole eclipse.
  • Shade (an umbrella or canopy).  
  • A straw hat.  One reason for this is to keep the sun off your head, but the other reason is that straw hats form tons of pinholes for viewing the partial phases of the eclipse.
  • Plenty of water.  Hey, it's August and likely to be hot.  Snackage too.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses (duh).  But remember, it's not safe to look directly at the sun through sunglasses.
That's pretty much all I can think of at the moment, but I'll go back and add things as I think of them.  As always, if you have questions or want advice about equipment, feel free to contact me.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Big Eclipse - Part 2: Viewing Safely

I was going to devote this post to a discussion about what to bring to the eclipse, but I realized that I can't really talk about what to bring until I've discussed viewing safety and the items you'll want to have for that.

First and foremost: never look directly at the sun (except during totality).  Don't look at it using your naked eyes, don't look at it through an unfiltered telescope or binoculars, don't look at it through an unfiltered camera.  The sun is no more dangerous to look at during an eclipse than normal, but people are more tempted to do so during an eclipse.  The only exception to this is during those few minutes or seconds of actual totality when the entire surface of the sun is blocked by the moon.  Even a very deep partial eclipse is not safe to look at.

However, the partial phases of a solar eclipse are really interesting too, seeing the outline of the moon creep slowly across the sun's surface.  So what can you do to view it safely?  Fortunately there are many options.  The easiest and safest is to use pinhole projection.  Basically you're building a simple pinhole camera.    Of course anything with small holes will work.  I've seen people use saltine crackers, and I've used my straw hat.

I'd recommend using a cardboard box with one side removed and a pinhole in a piece of foil at one end.  Here's a good link that describes how to build one: http://kitchenpantryscientist.com/tag/pinhole/.

Another safe way to view with slightly better image quality is to use a pair of binoculars to project the image of the sun onto a light colored surface.  Again, do not look through the binoculars.  Leave the lens cap on one side of the binoculars and aim at the sun with the eyepiece pointed at a light colored surface a few feet away.  You may need to adjust the distance between the binoculars and the surface to achieve good focus.


If you want to look directly at the sun, you'll need a safe filter.  Examples of safe filters include #14 welder's glass and aluminized glass or mylar filters specifically designed for solar observing.  Do not use sunglasses, film negatives, smoked glass, or neutral density filters.  Do not use space blankets or other aluminized mylar not specifically manufactured for solar viewing.

Safe solar filters come in several forms.  There are the cardboard "eclipse glasses" for naked eye viewing that are available from many online sources.  I strongly recommend that you buy a few of these regardless of what else you get.  They are relatively inexpensive and it's really cool to see the partial phases of the eclipse directly using those glasses.  Just Google "eclipse glasses" to see your purchasing options.  If you're local, I have quite a few extras that I'm happy to share.

If you want to try photographing the eclipse (the subject of a future post) or viewing through a telescope or binoculars, you'll also need a solar filter that fits snugly over the end of the camera lens, telescope, or binoculars.  There are many suppliers for these filters, but I like Oceanside Photo and Telescope: https://www.optcorp.com/solar-telescopes-ha-filters/white-light-filters-herschel-wedges.html.  Look for a filter that is slightly larger than the outside diameter of your lens or telescope.  You may need to add some foam tape to the inside of the filter for a snug fit.

If you have specific questions or want help choosing a filter, please feel free to contact me.

This is really just a summary, and an excellent article on safe viewing can be found here:  http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEhelp/safety2.html and I'd strongly urge you to read it.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Big Eclipse - Part 1: Where to go

By now you've all probably heard that there's going to be a total solar eclipse visible across the US on August 21st of next year.  The news stories started appearing almost a year ago, and the coverage has been getting more intense every month.  I've actually been looking forward to this eclipse since I first found out about it about 15 years ago.  This is one you definitely don't want to miss; I've seen 2 total solar eclipses (and been clouded out for a third), and they are one of the most amazing spectacles of nature that you'll ever witness.

Because I've been getting so many requests for advice about the eclipse, I thought I'd cover it here in the next 3 or 4 blog posts.  I'll cover topics including where to view, what to bring, how to safely view the eclipse, and what to expect during the eclipse itself.  This particular post will focus on where to view since it's not too early (and may be too late in some cases) to start planning your travel.

Let me first say that unless you happen to live in the narrow (about 60 miles wide) path of totality, you won't see a total eclipse.  Rachel compares a total eclipse to being pregnant.  It's either total or it's not - there so such thing as "mostly total".  Even if you live close to the path of totality, you'll only see a deep partial eclipse which is absolutely, completely, and in every way NOT a total solar eclipse.  If you're even slightly considering not traveling into the path of totality, please contact me so I can talk you out of it.  Please.  So, most of us are going to need to travel.  But where?

NASA has a wonderful interactive Google map showing the path of totality here: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEgoogle/SEgoogle2001/SE2017Aug21Tgoogle.html  As you can see, it stretches across the US from Oregon through the midwest, and leaving in South Carolina.  It passes over some major cities such as Salem, OR, Idaho Falls, ID, Jackson and Casper, WY, Kansas City (barely), Columbia, MO, Nashville, TN, and Charleston, SC.  The other important point to note about this map is that the closer you are to the centerline (the red line on the map), the longer the eclipse will be.  The 2 blue lines show the limits of totality, but if you're right near that blue line, you may only see a few seconds of totality as opposed to around 2 minutes at the center.  So as you think about a location, choose one close to the centerline if possible.

Weather is also a consideration.  Fortunately August is generally pretty good weather-wise across most of the path of totality.  But of course some places are better than others.  A good set of maps and charts describing historical cloud cover for August can be found here: http://www.eclipse2017.org/2017/weather/2017_clouds.htm  For those in Oregon, Salem actually isn't bad, while the coast is riskier (but it would be amazing to watch from the beach).  Of course these are only averages, and the weather on the actual eclipse day could be anything.

Your next decision is whether or not you want to try and stay somewhere overnight or just drive on the day of the eclipse.  In Oregon, the eclipse starts around 9am, with totality about 10:20 am.  If you live close to the centerline, this gives you plenty of time to drive to your location, watch the eclipse, and drive home the same day.  This means no overnight accommodations are needed, and you can change your destination at the last minute in case of local clouds at your chosen spot.  However, if you plan to view more than a few hours from home, you'll probably need to travel the day before and stay overnight.  Unfortunately many (most?) hotels and campgrounds along the centerline are already booked.  But that doesn't mean you can't try.  You can also try to book lodging an hour or 2 away from centerline and drive to your viewing site that morning.  But if you do plan to stay overnight somewhere, start making arrangements now.

OK, you've decided approximately where you're going to be.  But where, exactly, are you going to view from?  Fortunately the sun will be fairly high in the sky for everyone in the US, so you won't need to find a place with good views to the horizon. I recommend a nice grassy park somewhere, but anywhere will work.  We watched an annular eclipse from the balcony of a motel a few years ago.  The entire eclipse from beginning to end lasts a little over 2 hours, so if you're going to watch the whole thing, be sure to pick someplace that you can stay around that long.  We have also found it really great to view with a crowd, especially if some of them have telescopes fitted with a solar filter.  Check with science museums and astronomy clubs in your area to see where they are having viewing parties. But be aware that organized events like this are likely to be very, very crowded.  Again, a public park might just be perfect.

In my next blog, I'll discuss what you might want to bring to the eclipse.  Some items like solar glasses are a must and may be in short supply, so you'll want to order some soon.  In the mean time, if you have questions, post them here and I'll try and answer them.

If you're local and would like to find out more about what it's like to see a total solar eclipse, we have a great video (on VHS!) made during the 1991 eclipse in Mexico that really does a great job of communicating the excitement of a total eclipse.  This was my first successful solar eclipse, although we viewed it from a ship off of Mazatlan.  If you have a VHS player, you're welcome to borrow it.




Sunday, January 26, 2014

Adventures in Bread

OK, it's been a long time since I've updated this blog, but that doesn't mean I haven't been cooking, eating, and drinking wine.  Just a little too busy to keep up the blog.  A couple of months ago I decided that it was time to become a better bread baker, mostly as a result of reading Michael Pollan's latest book, Cooked.  In it, he chronicles the amazing process of transformation that is cooking, using as metaphor the 4 ancient elements: earth, fire, air, and water.  In his section on Air, he sets out to bake the perfect loaf of bread, and it inspired me to redouble my efforts.

Several years ago my mother in law gave me a book by Peter Reinhart (aka Brother Juniper) called Crust and Crumb.  It was a fascinating book, but seemed to involve more time and effort than I was willing to put in.  However, after going back to it, I decided that it wasn't so bad, and I would give it a shot.  He has since written several more bread books including his latest, Artisan Breads Every Day, which takes a lot of the principles he's developed over that past several years and distilled them into an easier overnight method that retains most of the benefits of his long pre-ferments in the previous books.

Since I'm already about 3 months into the journey, I'll summarize my progress so far in this post, and then try to keep up more detailed posts as I go along.  This is really driven by my need to take notes of what I've done for myself, but if anyone else finds it of interest, so much the better!

In November, I wanted to set down a baseline for my bread.  For a little over a year, my best effort with every day lean (French) bread used a recipe from Brian and Clare and Big Table Farm.  It's essentially a no-knead overnight bread that produces pretty good results.  So, I made a batch in November and it turned out pretty well.  I gave most of it to co-workers, and they seemed to enjoy it.

Here are the next batches that I made (as best as I can remember them) and my notes:

Dec 7th: Baked French Bread I from Crust and Crumb.  I made 3 loaves - 2 batards and one shaped in an oblong proofing basket.  I baked them on the pizza stone, and baked the 2 batards together, and then the other one.  The crumb was light and airy, and the crust was nice too.  I think it was better than the Big Table recipe (but takes much longer).  Our oven seems to run slow, so I had to increase baking time.



Around this time I was also trying to get a native yeast starter going, but failed after 3 attempts.  I still need to try this again, and it seems that Brother Juniper has updated information about this in his latest book, indicating the need to add some acid to the starter.  We'll see.

Next up was an attempt at some whole grain breads.  As Micheal Pollan says, "The whiter the bread, the sooner you're dead"!

Dec 30th: I went all out and made 2 different breads - Everyday 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread, and 100% Whole Wheat Hearth Bread, both from Artisan Breads Every Day.  These are very wet doughs, and use his new "Stretch and Fold" method rather than traditional kneading.  The results were spectacular for the sandwich bread, and not too bad for the hearth loaf.  The problem is that while the whole wheat bread is better for you, it just doesn't work with pasta or other things where you've gotten used to white French bread.  That said, the hearth bread was really quite good.

I was also able to use my new food slicer to make perfect sandwich slices out of the sandwich bread!  There's nothing to note here, other than that I hope the next batch turns out as well as the first.  I used the dark metal loaf pans and followed the directions.  For the sugar option, I used plain old granulated sugar.  Rachel and I agree that this is the best WW sandwich bread we've found so far.

Next up was an attempt to make a better french loaf using the overnight method...

Jan 25th: Made Classic French Bread from Artisan Breads Every Day.  This is a dryer dough, and Brother Juniper says that this requires a "light but firm touch" whatever that means.  It uses traditional kneading rather than stretch and fold.  I made 4 small batards and baked them all together on the stone.  They ended up being somewhat underdone and the taste wasn't all that interesting.  Also, the crumb was tight and even - not something you want in a rustic bread.  All in all, not as good as the previous effort.

I also made rye sandwich bread using a recipe from the Smitten Kitchen website: http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2010/01/new-york-deli-rye-bread  It uses an interesting sponge pre-ferment where you add the rest of the dry ingredients on top of the sponge.  I used dark whole grain rye flour from Bob's Red Mill instead of the standard light rye that the recipe calls for.  I used honey instead of malt.  It was a beautiful loaf, and it tastes pretty good.  Again, I fear that it is slightly underdone, but maybe not.  I ended up slicing it and freezing it all for pastrami sandwiches (using home made pastrami that I just finished today!).  I'll report back on the rye bread after we've had a chance to make sandwiches out of it.

Jan 26th: Made Lean Bread from Artisan Breads Every Day.  This is another wet overnight dough using the stretch and fold method.  Again, I made 4 smaller batards and again baked them all together on the stone, and again the center was underdone.  Rachel pointed out that the problem is likely that they are just too close together.  Given that the side crusts are not golden brown and delicious, I think she may be right.  The top crust is certainly as done as I'd like it, so next time I'll just bake 2 at a time (or get a bigger stone!).  That said, this bread is delicious and has a larger more uneven crumb.  This is the best so far.  I also left it in the fridge for about 20 hours rather than 12, and I think that helped with the flavor development as well.

Ah, one other thing: pizza crust.  I'm looking for a) the perfect pizza crust, and b) a whole wheat version that isn't awful.  On the second point, I tried this recipe: http://www.tablespoon.com/recipes/100-whole-wheat-pizza-crust/a1b4fa8d-1f67-4955-8fe7-96649a7186e7 and was quite happy with the results.  For whole wheat, it wasn't bad.  Maybe next time I should try it with about half white flour...

So, that gets us up to date.  Lessons learned so far:

  • Don't be afraid to get a deep brown crust
  • Don't crowd the loaves on the stone.  Bake in smaller batches if needed.
  • The whole wheat sandwich loaf is a winner.
  • Remove the parchment paper from between the stone and the bread when you turn it.  I suspect that it's causing the underside of the bread to burn a bit.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hawaii Cruise - Day

Today started early when the room service steward knocked on the door 15 minutes early. Fortunately we were already awake and I answered the door and brought in my breakfast. I had decided to order breakfast in the room to save time since we had to be ashore at 8:15 to catch our tour. I had ordered "Mueslix"' thinking that it was the Kellog's cereal. It was actually Swedish Muesli that had been soaking overnight. It was good, but not quite what I had expected. Rachel had gone up to the Lido to get breakfast and then on to her morning stretch class.

The advantage to staying in the room is that I get to see us pull into port, which I always enjoy. Today we are in Nawiliwili on the island of Kauai. This was yet another huge contrast with yesterday's docking in Honolulu. Instead of urban sprawl, we pulled into a small harbor surrounded by mountains covered in lush green. It is a spectacular place!

We went ashore and quickly found the sign for today's tour: the Zipline Adventure Iki Mua. We had done ziplines in Mexico on our last cruise, and we certainly didn't believe that this could even come close to that. So, rather than compare the 2, we both decided that they were different, and that we were determined to have a great time on this one. There were 12 people on this tour, including a very nice couple from Austin - Paula and Parker (it was Paula's 60th birthday), and a couple of Rondas. They both thought it funny that there were 2 Rondas, and each assumed that the other had an "h" in her name, but neither did. After loading us into a 15 passenger van, we headed up the road to the Kipu Ranch, It had, of course, been a sugar plantation, but was now a cattle ranch. The short drive to the ranch was beautiful, and Rachel and I agreed that we'll come back and spend more time on Kauai in the future.

After getting outfitted with helmets and harnesses, we took a short walk to the first zipline. In Puerto Vallarta, we had only a waist/seat harness, but today they added a shoulder harness for reasons that will become clear.

Cory, one of the guides, gave us the safety briefing at the first line. He told us that he really, really needed our full attention, as he was about to push us off a cliff! In Mexico, thee ziplines were a double rope, while here they were a single cable. We were given gloves in Mexico and could control our speed by pulling down on the top rope. Here, we were further from the cable and told not to touch it - just enjoy the ride. And, we did. It was a fairly short zip over a canyon, and we landed up a hill on the other side. We then hiked back up to do the same line again. This was actually kind of nice since you knew what to expect the second time and could relax and enjoy it a bit more. It was a blast!

We then moved on to the "Zippel", a cross between a zipline and a rappel. After rappelling down some steep stairs, we were suspended by the zip line, and were able to control our speed to the bottom using the rappel line. It was OK, but I prefer real rappelling down a cliff face. The final zip was a tandem line with a lot of slack so that you shot down the first side, and then up the second side. You'd then slide back and forth a couple of times and come to rest at the lowest point. It was here that the guides would push a very tall orchard ladder up to you, and unhook you so that you can climb down. Because there was no actual landing, they encouraged us to fly inverted (hence the full harness). I did it the first time and it was great. The second time, I shot video as I went down (Rachel went next to me on the other line). I stayed upright, but got great footage or Rachel flying upside down.

After this, we got out of our gear and made the short (but very bumpy) ride back to the ship. We got back around 11:30, and had our usual sit-down lunch in the dinning room. We ate with a very nice older couple from Wisconsin. The husband had some memory problems, and his wife had ordered for him. She told him what he was getting, but every time the food arrived, he'd ask "did I order this?" She took very good care of him, and they were fun to eat with.

After lunch we got off again and walked over to Nawiliwili Park. We walked out to the end of the breakwater across from the ship and enjoyed the view. Just as we were getting read to leave, a huge tour bus pulled up and people started getting off. We were getting ready to walk back when both Mama and Aunt Merna got off the bus! There were on a quick 5 minute photo stop. We chatted briefly and took their picture with the ship in the background. They re-boarded their bus, and we walked over toward the beach. We sat and watched the surfers for a while. We also enjoyed watching a small catamaran sailing around. Finally, the cat joined the surfers, and caught a wave into the shore - it looked like quite a ride!

Finally, we walked to the shopping area and bought a couple of souvenirs before heading back to the ship. It was great to get out and walk for a while.

The ship departed slightly early, so Rachel and I got to watch us sail out of the harbor from our vantage point on deck 9 forward,We passed by the breakwater and past a couple of picturesque lighthouses before heading for a clear horizon. How I love the feeling of setting out onto the open ocean!

At dinner, they were serving liver and onions, so Rachel ordered that and ate it all. It's one of the few foods that she really likes that I don't, so she has it whenever she gets the chance. I had a tasty bit of haddock - the fish as been consistently great so far. The 4 of us shared a delicious bottle of Conundrum - a Napa Valley white wine blend.

After dinner we went topside to enjoy the amazing clear skies. The crescent moon was sinking in the west, shining on the water. The problem was that the wind was blowing at about 35 mph, so we didn't stay long. After a quick trip back to our cabin to recover from the wind in our hair, we parked ourselves in the Crow's lounge to listen to Chris for about an hour and a half. He was great, as usual. At about 10:00 we went to hear a virtuoso harmonica performance. It was Bernie Fields backed by the Halcats (6 piece stage band). I thought he was magnificent, but Rachel had to leave in the middle because she couldn't stand it. Oh well.

After the show I enjoyed the stars for a few minutes more from our verandah before retiring. Tomorrow is our last port of call, so this may be my last blog post until the end of the trip since we're going away from our home (free) internet. Radio silence will probably last until Saturday. Tune in then for more...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hawaii Cruise - day 7

Almost at the halfway mark! Today we woke up early again and watched us come into Honolulu on the island of Oahu. What a contrast with Hilo - instead of green hills and low buildings, the Honolulu skyline is marked by skyscrapers and settlements cascading down the hillside as if the houses flowed from a fissure on the hillside above the city. We docked next to the Aloha Tower right in downtown. Our tour didn't leave until 10:00, so we had a nice leisurely breakfast in the main dinning room before disembarking.

Today's shore excursion was the Atlantis submarine. We had done this once before in the Caribbean and were looking forward to it again. After standing in line in the terminal building, we boarded a trolly to head toward the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort. This is where one catches the shuttle boat out to the sub.

A few thoughts before continuing, however. First, Honolulu doesn't hold a candle to the big island. It's a big city with bad traffic and a real tourist feel to it. There's an ABC store on every corner (cheap souvenirs), and no real authenticity to it. This is the second time we've been here, and I really tried to like it the first time, but it's just not for me. Second, the next time we're in Hawaii, whether on a cruise or just on vacation, I think it makes sense to just rent a car and drive out of the city to see that parts of the island that interest us, rather than taking the shore excursions. Finally, I'm sitting on our verandah at about 8:45 writing this, and there's loud pounding music from the party happening on the dock. Perhaps I'm just old...

OK, back to our day. We arrived at the Hilton and walked out to the pier where the sub tours leave from (or "from which the sub tours leave" if you want to be grammatically correct). We had to wait about 15 minutes for the boat to arrive, but it was warm and (mostly) sunny and we were surrounded by clear water, so it wasn't too bad. They loaded up 2 subs worth of people on the boat and we took the 10 minute ride out to where we'd meet the subs. After we arrived at the drop zone, we were told to watch for a burst of bubbles on the surface. This would indicate where the sub was going to come up. Sure enough, Rachel saw it, and about a minute later the larger of the 2 subs surfaced. Our boat pulled alongside and the passengers got off the sub and onto the boat, and the next group moved from the boat to the sub. we got to see the sub go down and then waited for the next sub to surface. After the same routine, we boarded our sub. One of the crew members said that he often tells reluctant passengers that there are a lot more airplanes at the bottom of the sea than there are subs up in the air, so everything was going to be fine.

The seats on the sub are arranged in 2 rows, back to back down the length of the sub so that each person is facing a window on the side of the sub. After everyone was loaded, the crew closed the hatches and we went down. Our first stop was at about 50 feet where we saw many small fish, sea urchins and some coral. We then headed further down the slope to deeper waters. The sub company had sunk 2 ships and 2 airplanes as artificial reefs, as well as several other structures to attract coral and other sea creatures. Sure enough, the vast majority of sea critters that we saw were near these structures. We saw lots of small fish, but also saw parrot fish, a black tip shark, a spotted manta ray, 2 huge sea turtles, a school of barracuda, and a moray eel. We went down to over 100 feet, and it was much darker and bluer down there. They had given us a guide to help us identify the fish we saw, and the native Hawaiian fish had a red start next to them. However, once we got to about 30 feet, the stars looked black because all of the red light had been filtered out.

We remained down for nearly an hour, and then surfaced after the big sub had swapped its passengers again. It was a short boat ride back to the Hilton, and then a longer trolly ride through traffic back to the ship. We re-boarded about 1:30, and after a quick stop in our room grabbed a quick lunch on the Lido. We had planned to get back off the ship and walk around a bit, but we decided to just stay on board and relax. Rachel went up to the gym around 4:14, and I went to visit Mama and Aunt Merna for a while. That had been to lunch with one of my mom's former students and then went for a short drive around town.

We elected to stay on board for dinner, and the dinning room was quite empty. Lots of people ate in town, and I suspect that lots of folks were at the big Luau on the Lido deck. Our usual tablemates were not there, and one poor woman was the only person at her table, so she joined us.

After dinner, Rachel and I went ashore briefly to walk around the shops, but really didn't see anything worth a second look. We got back on the ship in time to see a beautiful crescent moon sinking into the harbor, and then caught the last 15 minutes of Chris playing guitar on the Lido deck before heading to Hooters for some wings.

We were tired from our day so we decided to retire early. I was going to read for a while, but ended up falling asleep. About 10:30 I woke up briefly and heard the loud music outside, so I knew that we hadn't left port yet. Later a awoke briefly to silence and the gentle rocking of the ship - at sea again! Tomorrow: Kauai.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Hawaii Cruise - Day 6

Yes, I skipped day 5. We just got too busy for me to blog, but I may go back and fill it in later. Today was our first port of call in Hilo on the big island. We were both up early as we approached the island, and it was fairly clear so we could see the huge gentle curve of Mauna Kea in the distance. We also were pleased to see a good strong AT&T cell signal after 4 days of radio silence. We had brought along our Clear hotspot in hopes of getting good Internet access also. There was still no signal as we approached Hilo, however.

Just before entering the breakwater, a small pilot boat dropped off a harbor pilot who literally jumped onto a ladder on the side of our ship to board. About 20 minutes later we were docked. Fortunatly the ship rotated about 100 degrees before docking and we went from no internet signal to full, so we were back online!

The port in Hilo is a few miles from downtown and is quite industrial. We had booked an 8:30 tour, so we were among the first off the ship. As we were waiting in the terminal building, we noticed that several people ( including myself) were gently swaying back and forth as if the ground were still rolling slowly.

We met our tour guide, Kana, who appeared to be an old hippie with a pony tail, wearing shorts, white socks and black shoes. Fortunately, he turned out to be a great guide. There were 12 of us, and we loaded up into a small bus and he drove us around to some of his favorite spots around Hilo while giving us a running commentary about history, culture and architecture. For example, did you know that most older homes in Hilo have outer walls which are only the thickness of the boards? The window frames are thicker than the walls, so they stick out like little boxes, and the plumbing runs along the outside of the house since there is no space inside the walls.

Our first stop was along a narrow road in the hills above Hilo where we took a short walk along the road to an old concrete bridge. Our first waterfall was visible from the bridge. It's amazing how green and lush everything is - like home only warmer! We then loaded back into the van and stopped at Rainbow Falls. The sun angle didn't really allow us to see the rainbow, but we did come down the trail to the side of the falls and saw some wonderful Banyan trees. After a little more driving around, we took a rest stop at the Boiling Pots. No, they don't really boil, but supposedly the rushing water looks like it's boiling (no, it didn't to us). However, it was time for snacks, and we had the choice of several interesting fruit drinks (green tea, coconut water with pineapple, passion fruit, etc.). Kana also found some bananas and guavas in the park and let us try them. The bananas were about half the size of what we get in the stores, and tasted a bit more intense, but not terribly different. The guava was wonderful and juicy.

Our next stop was the Kaumana caves. This is a long (several mile) lava tube system. It reminded us a lot of the lava tubes that we explore in central Oregon and Northern California, except that it was much wetter. There were also these amazing long roots coming through the cave roof and hanging down to the floor. These are from whatever plants are the first to colonize new lava flows. Sadly, we only went in about 100 feet, and didn't get into anything close to full darkness. We thought that maybe someone should offer a 2 hour cave exploration tour with knee pads, helmets, etc. We'd be there. On the other hand, how many people would come to Hawaii to spend several hours underground?

Our final stop was a black sand cove on the other side of the ship from Hilo. These was actually very little beach to speak of, but a very nice sheltered cove with lots of lava rocks and some coral. After Rachel went in swimming, she finally talked me into braving the cold water. It actually got much warmer as one swam out of the shallows and into slightly deeper water. Alas, after only a while it was time to get out, dry off, and head back to the van. Overall, it was not the tour we were expecting, but was a lot of fun anyway. I guess we were expecting more hiking and wilderness, but we ended up with a great tour of the Hilo area.

After a quick lunch back on the ship, we boarded the shuttle for Hilo Hattie's - the landmark shopping experience in Hawaii where I got a couple more aloha shirts. We also stopped at Walgreen's for a few forgotten items. Interestingly, both Hilo Hattie's and the Walmart across the street have free shuttles from the ship. Hilo Hattie's is a 15 passenger van while Walmart's is a 50 passenger bus. Since there were at least 35 people already in line for the Hilo Hattie shuttle, we thought we'd cross the street and try our luck with the bigger Walmart bus. However, after spending a few minutes in that line, we opted to take a taxi driver up on his offer to take 5 of us back to the ship for $2 each. Money well spent!

Dinner was in the Pinnacle Grill for Le Cirque night for the 4 of us. This is where they recreate parts of the menu from the famous Le Cirque restaurant in New York. They do this once a week in the Pinnacle, and it usually sells out, although we saw a few empty tables. The food was incredible. The highlight of my meal was an amazing deconstructed Cesar salad: whole leaves of Romaine lettuce with a basic Cesar dressing topped with anchovies, served with a round 3 inch diameter crouton topped with a barely cooked poached egg. Marvelous! We also had an amazing deep and rich butternut squash soup served with huckleberries. The deep rich roasted flavor of the squash was accented by just a bit of maple syrup. We also had the wine pairing which consisted of a glass of prosecco, Chardonnay, and Merlot served with the various courses. We all just rolled back to our cabins after dinner.

But wait, we weren't done yet. J Neal, the magician that we'd seen a couple of times earlier was going to do his full show. We attended the 10:00 performance and were not disappointed. He did a lot of sleight of hand tricks, and was just masterful. Some tricks were done to music, while others were done with very engaging patter. Sadly, he's getting off the ship tomorrow, but we enjoyed all 4 times we saw him in various capacities.

After the show we decided to call it a night. Tomorrow is Honolulu, although we do get to sleep in a bit.