Updates for the New Year!

Hello all!

It’s been a busy few months getting settled back in the U.S. after returning from Tanzania to present my Masters thesis. The biggest travel adventure since I got back has been the cross-country road trip from Boston to Seattle – 3,400 miles of open road (except for Chicago) and countless radio stations along the way. My plan had been to break in a new tent along the way in the Badlands, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks, but alas Congress decided instead that a government shutdown would be more appropriate. This is as far as I got…

Road blocked at Grand Teton National Park during the government shutdown. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Road blocked at Grand Teton National Park during the government shutdown. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Shutdown aside, I got to spend time with friends in Cleveland and Jackson Hole, at my home farm in southwestern Wisconsin, say goodbye to my grandmother and welcome her two-day old great-granddaughter into the family in Minnesota, spend a very stormy night in the Motel 6 in Hot Springs, SD (and for only $39 – who knew such prices still existed in the U.S.??), visit the world’s only corn palace, and indeed break in the new tent at the poorly named Massacre State Park in Idaho. Idaho was my last night on the road before making it to Seattle. Even though I woke to a wet tent, the smell of sagebrush country after the night’s rains left me knowing I would miss the road dearly – even if I was excited to start a more settled life in Seattle. I would miss the autumn colors I left in New England, the sunset storm clouds I outran in South Dakota, the early snow on the mountain passes in Wyoming that my car somehow survived, the late afternoon light hitting the orange rocks in the Wind Rivers, and that intangible feeling of freedom that comes when one is driving the all-American road trip heading out west.

Somewhere, South Dakota. The smell of sunset thunderstorms keeps me pushing through to find covered lodging for the night. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Somewhere, South Dakota. The smell of sunset thunderstorms keeps me pushing through to find covered lodging for the night. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Seattle is just how I left it – a city that somehow seems to have stolen my heart (despite January-March) and left me ready for a whole new set of Pacific Northwest adventures. Although it’s been pretty busy with starting a new job at the University of Washington in the School of Public Health, here’s a few of the photo highlights of the past few months…

© Gemina Garland-Lewis and Tufts Veterinary Magazine

© Gemina Garland-Lewis and Tufts Veterinary Magazine

Last week I received a number of copies of the winter issue of Tufts Veterinary Magazine, who featured the above spread of my images and an article I wrote about my National Geographic Young Explorer Grant on Azorean ex-whalers. It’s been great to see these images in print finally and to be able to keep sharing the stories of these men.

Following the heels of my last post on the short film made with footage I shot this summer in Tanzania for Putney Student Travel – Putney has now released a longer promotional video on their programs in general. It gives a great sense of what a wonderful organization they are (and there’s a few more scenes from Tanzania mixed in!).


And finally, I finished updating my photo website just before the new year. It’s been a long process to make some of the big revisions to it, so it feels great to have it finally up and running. New albums posted from my summer in Tanzania, including my trips with National Geographic Student Expeditions, Putney Student Travel, and my post-thesis getaway to Zanzibar, as well as more images from my NG Young Explorer Grant in the Azores. Please check it out and enjoy! http://geminagarlandlewis.smugmug.com

I’ll leave you with the ABCs of my road journey!





National Geographic News Article

When I visited National Geographic’s headquarters in March to present my work with the Azorean whalers, several conversations were started with various realms of the organization to get the stories and images of these men out. Today one of those conversations finally went live as an NG News piece! Hope you enjoy! 

National Geographic Radio Interview


My most recent radio interview for National Geographic’s radio show “National Geographic Weekend” aired on March 31st. Listen along to some of my stories from the Azores and read the summary of my interview and the other NG radio interviewees from this past weekend!

My Instagram feed has also been picked up by National Geographic’s 125th Anniversary website – scroll down to the bottom of the homepage to see my images and other Explorers’ as well! I’ll be featured on the site for the next few weeks and will be posting new images from my work in the Azores last summer.


One of the sailing crew walks among the whaleboats before the start of the regatta during Semana do Mar in Horta, Faial. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The carbon “fluke print” of whale watching…

Excuse my bad joke in the title, but whales don’t have feet (anymore)!

I’ve had a pretty action-packed week spent on three different islands, but I’d like to share a conversation I had with Serge Viallelle, the Frenchman who started the whale-watching industry here in the Azores in the late 1980s. He arrived in 1987, the year the last whale was killed on the island of Pico (the last whaling factory in Pico closed in 1984, but a whale was taken out of protest in 1987). He was a wandering sailor, with no tie to the Azores other than that the woman he loved (his current wife) is from the islands.

He knew nothing about whales when he arrived, let alone setting up a business around taking people to see them. His first year he had 56 clients, most of whom he tricked into going by using what he calls the “John technique,” where he would approach an incoming bus to Lajes (where he is based from) and ask people if they were Mr. and Mrs. John. Of course he knew they would say they weren’t, and then he would lament about how he was looking for them because he was supposed to take them to see the whales. This would pique people’s interest and they would ask if he could take them to see the whales as well. So it began. Now he has over 7,000 clients a year.

The view from outside my house in Horta of Pico across the channel. Sunrise before catching the ferry to São Jorge. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

We had a very interesting conversation in general because the timing of his arrival at the end of whaling mixed with his involvement in whale watching is really the perfect combination to express how things were changing at that time. One of the men who worked as a vigia (lookout) for whaling also worked for him for many many years, and it was the old whalers who taught him everything he knows about whales and their behavior. It was also these old men that laughed at him when he said he was going to get people to pay to see a whale – for them “paying to see a whale was the same as paying to see a potato,” it was just something so normal they couldn’t imagine anyone would spend money for it. At the end of our talk we got to talking about his business though, and it led to some very interesting points…

Serge spoke about believing that the main purpose of his company was not to see whales, but to use seeing them to send a greater message about the environment and climate change – about “things that are bigger than dolphins and whales.” He spoke about wanting to keep smaller boats because he thinks the only good thing to come out of these trips was to educate people, and that you can’t have the same intimacy on a larger boat.

Gone huntin’. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The hard part of his philosophy for those that grew up in the “save the whales” era was this: whaling was more sustainable than whale-watching (I’m speaking ONLY for the Azores here). He said they use about 200 liters of fuel (~50 gallons) for each boat every trip, not even counting the footprint of people having to fly from far away to get here or the food and other goods that have to be shipped in. He told me that at the peak of whaling, 80% of the population of Lajes was involved in whaling somehow or another – truly a local enterprise. If you’re wondering how killing a whale could be more sustainable than looking at one, the answer lies both in the truly small-scale industry that was Azorean whaling, but also in challenging some preconceived environmentalist ideas.

I have had conversations with people throughout the years who think that it is more important to save a single species than to do our best to preserve a climate in which all things currently existing depend on to survive. Serge and I were in agreement that it means nothing to “save the whales” if we cannot educate people about (and begin to change!) the larger issues at stake. In the beginning of whale watching he always said, if you have to shoot a whale, a camera is better than a harpoon – “now,” he says, “I don’t know.”

Looking out for dolphins and whales from the bow. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I understand that marketing charismatic megafauna as poster children for environmental campaigns is easier than larger-scale issues, but I think it’s steered a lot of our thinking (and our funding) down a dangerous path. We can throw all our efforts into saving the polar bears, but if current use of fossil fuel continues there’s not that much we can do about their habitat preservation. We become attached to saving the cute and fuzzy, unable to conceive of the geologic time scale wherein 99.99% of everything that has ever lived has gone extinct.

Serge’s briefing before whale watching trips is the only one I’ve encountered around the world that touches so heavily on overarching environmental issues – making people question how they travel, what they buy, how they eat, where they throw their cigarette butts and how much waste they produce along the way. I think the idea of ecotourism has skyrocketed in recent years and, unfortunately, well-intending people are becoming the new problem that faces fragile environments and ecosystems. Without education, I think it is probably very true that we are causing more harm than good with whale watching.

The animal we’ve been flocking to for over one hundred years, either with a harpoon or a camera in hand. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

If you’re in search of a good read on the topic of climate change, this article that came out in Rolling Stone last week is actually really fantastic. I definitely suggest you check it out.

On a lighter note, things are gearing up for the Semana do Mar (Sea Week) celebrations that are about to start here. Food and beer tents are going up everywhere, mics are being tested for the endless concerts, and I’m preparing for a very busy next few days! Fingers crossed I’ll be in the boat carrying Senhora da Guia, patron saint of whalers, during the festival for her on Sunday. Lots more to come soon! But for now, CHEESE:

I don’t always talk about sad things like killing whales! I eat cheese too! This piece of São Jorge cheese was bigger than my hand. Served with fig jam, yum. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

What a week…

Hello all!

Since I last left you it’s been a bit of a roller coaster, both in great and scary ways. On the upside, I’ve had five interviews with whalers this week, visited several old whaling ports and vigias, and had some really interesting discussions with the people I’m working with here. On the scary side, my computer crashed Tuesday morning and was at the computer hospital (i.e. the one person on the island who knows anything about fixing Macs) for two and a half days before coming back to me healthy again.

Rui explores the remnants of a vigia (whale watching post) at Capelinhos that was destroyed during the 1957-58 eruption of the volcano

I have a blog post waiting to go up on the Nat Geo site that I don’t want to copy too much of here, but I want to touch upon something that I’ve found really interesting this week. I’ve been speaking with the whalers about whether or not they’d like to go whaling again if they could and what they think about whaling in today’s world. The conversations that have ensued are making me want to ensure that there are always people in my life who will challenge me and my beliefs, even if I’m 84.

When I hear these men talking about how the Azores should still be whaling, it’s clear to me that there’s no real sense of how badly commercial whaling (of which the Azores contributed to, but in such a minute way) decimated global whale stocks, or that with current technology the products we sought from whales have no market anymore. One whaler, Luís Matos, said that it wasn’t fair that some countries were allowed to hunt whales and Portugal wasn’t.

Luís Matos, 83, outside his house after our conversation about whaling’s past and future

Rui, my friend and translator here, and I agree that it is not our place during interviews like these to challenge these men, who are being incredibly kind to let us into their homes, photograph them, and talk for hours about sometimes very intense parts of their life (e.g. Luís Matos’ father dying in port after returning from a whaling trip). Rui tried a polite interjection as this point, however, saying that the countries still hunting whales used them for food (which Azoreans never did). This point didn’t seem to phase Senhor Matos, and we continued on with our talk. I know there is a time, a place, a person, that’s right for having hard discussions that challenge our viewpoints and that my time here is none of those, but it still makes me think that when I’m old I want somebody in my life who will always tell me the hard truth about things…

I’ve also gained more and more respect this week for the work that whalers did in both the physical and emotional sense – it must have really been brutal. But they seem to have loved it above anything else. A visit to the old “harbor” in Salão, an important whaling village on Faial, had me thinking “these guys were crazy!” The harbor is but a mere pile of rocks arranged in such a way that there’s a bit of shelter, followed by a giant steep climb up a cliff. Even if I felt compelled to whale, I can’t imagine having to do it out of this port. Which of course leads me back to what I find one of the defining factors of whaling here: machismo. From pretty much any angle you look at it, these men were hardcore – and knew it.

Luís Jorge Borges, 77, and José Edvino da Silveira, 70, are still hardcore.

I’ve also discovered that some of that immunity I built up during the Watson to watching whales die (on film) has dissipated, which means I’m a little more nauseated now but also feeling glad to know that when we harden against things it doesn’t have to be forever.

The “harbor” at Salão, amazingly one of the most sheltered places on the north coast of the island. The whaleboats would come in on the right and in the old days the whale would be processed on the rocks in the water. Note the giant hill leading up the cliff.

In other news, Márcia and I bought five kinds of cheese when grocery shopping yesterday, which I mention solely because most people would find that indulgent, but I’m happy to report I live with someone who sees this as just as much a necessity as I do. Coming up, this week should be another exciting one. Monday I’m headed to São Jorge, one of the islands I haven’t been to, to interview some of the whalers there. I’ll also have my first visit this trip to Lajes do Pico later this week, arguably one of the most important whaling towns in the area on the island of Pico. And for now I leave you with the awesome view of Horta from Monte da Guia!

Running up Monte da Guia for a shot of sunset over Horta

Baleia! Baleia!

Back in the days of whaling, cries of “Baleia! Baleia!” rang out when a whale was encountered. Here we still follow the sightings of the vigias (lookouts) on the cliffs and move like hell towards where they’ve spotted whales. After going out on a whale-watching trip this weekend I think the only thing that’s changed is the instrument with which we shoot the whales. Tourists poised with cameras hang off the boats as much as they can to inch closer to that perfect shot (which a sperm whale rarely ever gives you). The boats move in herds towards any whale that is around and if you see them far off on the horizon you can almost imagine that they are the whaling canoes coming out for the hunt.

It is clear that the whale-watching industry has expanded since I was last here, and since it seems like the whales themselves aren’t keeping up, the ratio of boats to whales is getting pretty high. I was on one of six boats surrounding one whale, and it came as no surprise to me that the whale kept swimming away from us, never resting long enough to prepare for that sought-after big dive that gives the tourists the shot of the flukes they’ve come for. At one point there were enough whales that we were able to split the boats into smaller groups, which allowed us a little more time with a mother and calf nearby who had a perfectly synchronized dive to the deep together. Even though I think sperm whales are some of the most boring (they come to the surface to breathe for about eight minutes and then dive down again, often for over an hour), there’s still something pretty magical about that moment when you see their flukes and get a sense of how big these creatures really are.

Boats surround a lone male sperm whale near Calheta de Nesquim, Pico.

Norberto, the friend who invited Márcia (the friend/colleague I’m living with) and I out, may not be the first person to have started whale-watching on the islands but is arguably the most well-known. It’s his hair, really. The pink Che Guevara shirt he was wearing that day was also pretty awesome. He invited us to dinner at his house on Pico (the island across the channel) after our whale-watching adventure and then to the festivities in Madalena, another town on Pico, for the Festas de Santa Maria Madalena. Summer in the Azores brings some huge party every weekend with the various towns celebrating their chosen saint.

Hydrangeas bloom outside a cafe in São Caetano, Pico, where we had dinner at Norberto’s house


After dinner we piled in the boat and took off for Madalena, leaving trails of light behind us as we cut through the bioluminescent algae in the water. The lights in the water seemed to mirror the stars in the sky, with a full view of Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper, and Scorpio. At one point Pico’s volcano seemed to be spewing the Milky Way, which made for a pretty magical ride. We were in the boat for over half an hour, only to run out of gas within a quarter mile of our destination. After drifting for a while, a friend came out to tow us in, and after procuring some gas we went to enjoy the concert – a seemingly fairly popular band from the mainland.

The last song of the night (well, before the DJ starts their set at 2am) at the Festas de Santa Maria Madalena


One thing that always strikes me here (and from what I can tell is fairly common in southern Europe) is how late young children and elderly people are out and about here. We arrived in Madalena after midnight and it was packed with people of all ages. I was beginning to think that Portuguese people were genetically programmed to stay up later, but maybe it’s just that they have years of practice at it. 

I try to emulate Norberto’s fantastic hair! My beard needs work…

In other news, I’ve had two very exciting discoveries this week (though not very grand in the scheme of things): 1) Márcia’s good friend has opened a tea house since I was last here that has 95 kinds of tea. NINETY-FIVE. I’m in heaven. 2). I found local bee pollen at the one major grocery store here, so now I don’t have to go without for the summer :-).

I’m lining up a few more interviews for this week so hopefully I should have more news soon! I’ll leave you with a shot of the harbor in Horta – there’s a tradition of people leaving paintings on the walls before they go out to sea to so they don’t encounter bad weather, which always makes for lots of fun things to look at…

A couple explores the paintings left by sailors over the years in the Horta harbor