(The following post was sponsored by LAN Airlines. But, trust us, that’s not what the story’s about!)
It’s been well-established by now that I’m not a fan of big cities.
I’ve certainly been to my fair share over the years– from Lima, New York and Montreal to Johannesburg, London and Rome. But I usually prefer that they be the briefest of stopovers before heading off into the wild.
Cartagena, Colombia is the rare exception to my get-away-from-cities-as-fast-as-possible rule. And I fell in love with it immediately upon arrival.
I developed my lifelong love of the outdoors as a boy. My parents and grandparents took me backpacking in the Appalachian mountains and to our rustic cabin on Lake Hartwell, where I learned to set up camp, fish, start a fire (and cook on it), forage for wild berries and, most importantly, respect the beauty that Mother Nature has to offer.
On Running Wild With Bear Grylls, the British adventurer does the same thing with some of the world’s biggest celebrities. It’s thrilling to watch a nervous Ben Stiller rappelling down a mountain on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, a terrified Tom Arnold conquering his fear of heights by traversing a tree over a 50-foot drop in Oregon, a boyish Zac Efron stoked to see a wild beaver in the Catskills, and the athletic Channing Tatum backflipping off a helicopter into the waters below.
But what makes the show even more interesting is the rare, honest glimpse it offers of these world-renowned stars emotionally overwhelmed by the challenges of pushing themselves to the limit in some of the world’s most beautiful wilderness areas. It’s an inspiring thing to watch, and has apparently inspired Discovery Networks to sign Bear Grylls for a 6-episode series, Breaking Point, in which he’ll help regular people conquer their fears of nature.
I’ve been a big fan of Grylls– a former reservist in the British Special Forces (SAS) who later climbed Mount Everest and crossed the North Atlantic and the Northwest Passage in an inflatable boat– ever since his Man Vs Wild days. He recently spoke to us via cell phone from a little cove off the south coast of England.
We traditionally take a very active role in planning our trip itineraries, doing copious research in our effort to bring you the most unique ecotourism attractions a given destination has to offer. But when we agreed to visit West Sweden, part of the deal was that we had to follow an eco-focused itinerary the local tourism board had planned for us.
It was a little unusual, as we had to do some things we would normally never do (such as spend 3 days in a big city like Gothenburg). But because we hadn’t spent hours researching and planning the trip, we went into the experience with ZERO pre-conceived notions of what would see and do during our time there.
I’m not gonna lie and say that we loved every minute of it: Cities generally make me antsy, and some of the planned activities– like visiting an amusement park– were simply not a good fit for what we do (and so we didn’t do them). But we were constantly surprised by how much we enjoyed exploring the region, and wanted to share 10 particular aspects of West Sweden that we ultimately fell in love with:
Let’s get the obvious out of the way, right from the get-go: Dolphin tours are bad for dolphins.
Organizations such as the Humane Society and World Animal Protection have long condemned captive Swimming With Dolphins programs for their inhumane treatment. As depicted in The Cove, these dolphins are captured in the most horrific cull you can imagine, with those that don’t pass muster immediately slaughtered.
Of the dolphins that do survive, 53% die within the first three months of captivity (causes include chemicals in the water, human infection and stress-related illnesses). Food deprivation is often used to train dolphins to perform tricks, and long-term captivity has been proven to have devastating effects on the mental, physical and emotional well-being of all cetacean species.
Like a lot of travelers, we didn’t fully understand how bad captive cetacean facilities were until a few years ago. I took my daughter to swim with dolphins in the Bahamas in 2006, then Mary and I swam with them in an open-water setting in Curacao in 2009 (just before The Cove was released). But in the years since, we’ve done our best to educate and inform our readers on the subject, including interviewing Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite about the problems with captive cetacean facilities last year.
As an insatiably curious world traveler who rarely visits the same place twice, it’s odd to have the sort of connection that keeps drawing me back to Sanibel Island, Florida over and over again.
I’ve been there at least 15 times since my first visit in the early ’90s. I know the island so well that I can recall its changes over the last two decades– the massive Australian pines that were felled by Hurricane Charley in 2004, the old drawbridge that used to cause long waits when crossing the Causeway from the mainland, and old school businesses (R.I.P. McT’s) that have gradually been replaced with newer, flashier establishments.
When I first started going to Sanibel, I was shocked and amazed to discover that you could usually count on seeing Alligators in the tiny swamp right next to the historic Bailey’s shopping center, which was opened in the late 1800s. You’d most often spot them lurking in the middle of the water, still as statues, their foreboding eyes watching for prey. But occasionally you’d see them right along the bank, less than 20 yards from the movie theater parking lot.
I’ve heard stories of people being caught feeding them, of small dogs snatched from their owners as they walked along the shore, and of gators being moved deeper into the swamp to avoid human contact. I haven’t seen gators in the swamp for years. But I still visit the area every time I’m in Sanibel Island, because you never know where wildlife may turn up.
And so it was that I found myself walking along the fringe of the swamp on a recent evening. I was looking for gators right around sunset when I saw this Turtle surface in the water about 15 yards away. As he stared at me, this big orange Flame Skimmer Dragonfly landed right on his head. I snapped the photo with my 500mm lens, and before I could click the shutter a second time he was gone.
It was a perfect moment of serendipity: Not the Alligator I’d hoped for, but a reminder that Nature adapts to change and brings with it sweet surprises if you keep eyes and mind open. –Bret Love
Our trip to Sanibel Island was hosted by the Lee County Visitors Bureau. But we will never compromise our obligation to our readers. Our opinions remain our own.
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