World Elephant Day – 10 Fun Elephant Facts

Due to the field of work I’m in, I am OFTEN asked “what’s your favorite animal?” I always say , “It depends which one I’m standing in front of!” If I’m standing in front of an elephant, it’s an elephant. If I’m standing in front of a manatee, it’s a manatee. It’s simultaneously that simple and that difficult! Turns out, you don’t NEED to decide, and sometimes there are reasons you happen to love two seemingly unrelated animals. I’ve decided to share 10 Fun Elephant Facts in celebration of World Elephant Day, starting with a fact that explains my love of both Sirenia (manatees) and Pachyderms (elephants).

Can you see the resemblance?

1. Elephants are related to manatees
If you take a hard look you’ll see that manatees and elephants have almost-identical toenails. Manatees have a semi-prehensile lip used to tear at greens, like an elephant with their trunk. They both also have what’s called “marching molars”, teeth that rotate and replace themselves!
2. Elephants have around 150,000 muscle units in their trunk
What an incredible muscular system!
3. Those tusks on their side of their trunk are actually teeth!
Technically, those tusks are large incisors.
4. There are three different species of elephant
The species are the African Savannah elephant, the African Forest (or bush) elephant and the Asian elephant.
5. They create their own sunscreen!
By rolling around in mud or throwing mud or sand on themselves they protect their thick skin from the sun’s rays.
6. Their communication is complex.
Not only do elephants vocalize and make the sounds we’re used to like trumpeting, but they can also communicate through sounds that create vibrations in the ground, which they may detect through their feet
7. Speaking of feet – Elephants walk almost silently!
Even the largest elephants, up to 13,000 lbs. can be hard to hear coming. Due to their anatomy, not only are they practically walking on tip-toe at all times, they also have soft padded feet. (Next time you’re wearing slippers, tip-toe around and see if anyone hears you coming.)
8. Elephants are warded off by capsaicin
Elephants’ ability to be silent means they can easily wander through farmland at night. One neat innovation being used to ward off elephants from trampling crops is using capsaicin as a deterrent, since they are very sensitive to the smell & feeling. While that might sound cruel, think about the alternatives. Farmers who have lost their entire crops to elephants will look the other way when poachers come.
9. Elephants hate bees!
Another project being used to ward of elephants from crops is bee hives!
10. Around 90% of African elephants have been wiped out in the past century – largely due to the ivory trade.

To learn more, watch my video:

Some of the clips in the above video come from The Elephant Cafe in Zambia. If you enjoyed reading these 10 Elephant Fun Facts, be sure to read my blog on The Elephant Cafe and why it’s an incredible example of sustainable eco-tourism.

A Truly WILD Honeymoon – Galápagos 2017

2017 was a big year. I graduated from grad school (Go Bulls!), held down two internships, got married, and TRAVELED TO THE GALÁPAGOS on honeymoon. What. a. whirlwind.

I say “I”, but of course the marriage and honeymoon was actually a “we” thing, and boy oh boy did WE have fun in The Galápagos! We started the trip with a flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador where we crashed for the night before meeting up with our National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions tour group the next morning. After a quick flight from Guayaquil to The Galápagos Islands, we were in one of the most picturesque places in the world.

Get on Board!

We were quickly whisked away to the National Geographic Islander, the boat that we would call home and provide transportation overnight as we went island hopping for one incredible week.

We visited the islands of: San Cristobol, Española, Floreana, Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Santiago, Genovesa, and Baltra. Each one of them had its own special characteristics that made them unique.

Like most visitors to the Galápagos, I was VERY interested in getting as many photos as possible of the wildlife. From the sea lions, to the boobies, to the marine iguanas…I wanted to see it ALL! And in fact, we did! Even flamingos! (The one animal we didn’t see that was on my list was the flightless cormorant, but that’s because we didn’t visit the islands they are endemic to.)

Back on Land

But wildlife wasn’t the ONLY thing to see in the Galápagos! We visited a coffee farm, “Post Office Point”, and a local school. We also walked through a lava tunnel!

After all of the incredible experiences on the National Geographic Islander, we decided to stay a few extra days on Santa Cruz in the city of Puerto Ayora.

Dive, Dive, Dive

These extra days on Santa Cruz were so we could go DIVING! Where better to dive than the Galápagos, I ask you?!

We went diving with SCUBA Iguana at Gordon Rocks in hopes of finding hammerhead sharks! While we didn’t see any hammerheads, we DID have the most incredible dives. There is nothing that can compare with the feeling of being surrounded by what feels like a wall of fish.

After a day of off-gassing on the island, re-visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station for the—oh, I don’t know—millionth? time, we packed up our gear and started the journey back home.

Time to go Home

Eventually we made our way back to the States. This trip to the Galápagos was one of those that takes your brain a few days to register, but provides a lifetime full of memories. From the barking sound of the sea lions, to the tenacity of the boobies, to the immersive underwater world, I can honestly say that our lives were changed by this trip—in the best possible way.

If you’re looking for more dive stories, be sure to check out this post about the Great Barrier Reef and our trip with Spirit of Freedom.

The Elephant Cafe: A Wildlife Encounter Review

One year ago I had the pleasure of visiting The Elephant Cafe in Livingstone, Zambia. You can watch my YouTube video review or read about my experience here on this blog.

Both the video and the blog post include 5 tips on sourcing out reputable wildlife tourism spots, like The Elephant Cafe. The sixth bonus tip: TRUST YOUR GUT!

As you might expect, The Elephant Cafe is struggling at this time due to COVID-19. You can donate to their cause, for both elephants and the trainers, here.

“Thank you for your donation!”

Clearwater Marine Aquarium & Eco-Tourism

Permanent sea turtle resident at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

According to a YouGov poll, nearly a quarter of Americans became more opposed to zoos and aquariums between 2007 and 2017. I, personally, would have liked to see the results from 2007-2012, as 2013 marks the premier date of Blackfish, the documentary surrounding Seaworld and its relationship with Orcas in human care. But, perhaps another blog on that another time.

Now, if you’ve come here for a Seaworld/animals-in-captivity bashing fest, you’re in the wrong place. I am a firm believer in what AZA-accredited Zoos and Aquariums do to protect & preserve species. I think many others are, too. In fact, the same YouGov poll reports that 79% of people said the main reason Zoos & Aquariums should exist is to either: rescue/rehabilitate/release animals, educate the public, or protect animals from going extinct. Some of the best facilities manage to do all three. One of these facilities is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, in Clearwater, FL.

While I didn’t mention this in the blog post- this is still SUPER neat. Aquaponics in action at the Aquarium and on display for the public to see. They even feed the lettuce to some of their sea turtles!

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) a few times in the last 5 years, and have only seen it continue to grow for the better. What started off as a rescue/rehab/release & education operation soon became bigger than they probably ever imagined with the filming of ‘Dolphin Tale’. If you aren’t familiar with the title of the movie you’re likely still familiar with the story of Winter, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin with the prosthetic tail (or fluke).

According to WTSP, “The year before the original ‘Dolphin Tale’ came out, attendance at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was under 78,000. The year after, it was 750,000.” That’s a 862% increase in attendance in ONE YEAR! Not only did the facility have to adapt to hold more people eager to meet Winter and her other animal-celebrity friends, it also had to adapt to hold more animals. Because in the world of rescue, rehab, release, sometimes the last step is harder than we’d hope (no dolphin-celebrity pun intended.)

Often times, rehabilitated animals suffer injuries too severe to be released back into the wild. This holds true with several of the Aquarium’s dolphin, sea turtle, and otter patients. This is what makes this Aquarium different from so many others. Their website itself says “Not Your Typical Aquarium” and they couldn’t be more right. This is still very clearly a rescue/rehab/release facility, first and foremost. They are currently undergoing a huge renovation, which will include tripling the amount of space for rescue dolphins and adding more space for other non-releasable animals. This renovation will also be expanding guest areas for those who want to support their mission by visiting.

A snapshot of just some of the construction going on!

And I do encourage you to visit. You won’t be awe-struck by whale sharks swimming overhead, but you will know that you are supporting a facility who prioritizes the rescue/rehabilitate/release of animals, educating the public, and doing their part to prevent the extinction of critically endangered species like sea turtles. So, if you find yourself in that 25% of people who are more opposed to zoos & aquariums in the last ten years, I encourage you to visit this facility. It epitomizes what other AZA-accredited facilities are also doing to help species.

For another take on sustainable/eco-tourism be sure to read my blog about the Elephant Cafe in Zambia.

Eat. Sleep. Dive. Repeat.

It was a lifestyle…for a few days, at least. And it was wonderful. In September of 2018 my husband and I traveled “down under” for his top-of-the-bucket-list trip. We started with a land-based tour from Brisbane up to Cains (two words I didn’t pronounce right until we got out there) and ended on a liveaboard dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef.

Map of the route we took with Intrepid Travel.

We fed kangaroos, we held koalas, and saw some of the most stunning Aussie views from the Whitsundays, but nothing held up to the adventure we had on Spirit of Freedom’s 4-day Coral Sea trip on the Great Barrier Reef.

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary – Koala Encounter

Unfortunately, due to weather, we were unable to head out to Osprey Reef (known for sharks) and had to stay a bit closer to land. While I’d have loved to witness the sight of sharks circling overhead, any disappointment I felt was quickly forgotten as soon as we got in the water.

And we got in the water faster than you can say “P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney”. It was advertised that we would do up to 15 dives in 4 days…and we did (minus one, for us personally…darn ears!) We quickly adapted to the liveabord lifestyle, which, as you might have deduced from the title was “eat, sleep, dive, repeat.” Our daily schedule was typically as follows:

  1. First breakfast & dive briefing
  2. Dive #1
  3. Second breakfast (yes, like a hobbit)
  4. Dive #2
  5. Lunch
  6. Dive #3
  7. Snack
  8. Dive #4
  9. Dinner
  10. Night dive (twice!)
  11. Sleep

We also got to visit “Cod Hole” known for its giant potato cod congregation. After we went off and explored the area a bit we did come back to where the potato cod were hanging out and had some great one-on-one interactions with these beautiful giant fish. What personalities! (Fish don’t get enough credit…perhaps there will be a blog about that, too, soon.)

Swimming with Potato Cod, a relative of the Goliath Grouper we’re typically used to seeing on our dives.

I could go on forever about the friendly white-tip reef sharks visiting us on our night dives, the phytoplankton we saw bioluminesce (is that a word? I’m making it one, now), and the abundance of macro-life in and around the “bommies”. I could also go on forever about how wonderful the crew of Spirit of Freedom was. They were so attentive, so talented, and made us feel right at home the entire time. It was like diving with friends who 100% had your back the entire time, and happened to put your fins on for you with their “finderella” service. The food was amazing, the crew attentive, and the dives incredible. If you’ve ever thought about taking the leap and doing a liveaboard my recommendation is…DO IT! If you can do it on the Great Barrier Reef…even better!

Of course, a liveboard is not for someone brand new to diving. We had our advanced certification before getting on this boat, and around 30 dives under our belt. You can read about my first dive experience here.

Some of the crew/guests pre-dive on Spirit of Freedom.

*Side note- these thoughts/opinions are completely my own and I was not encouraged or paid by Spirit of Freedom to write this blog. They really just were that good!*

First Dive Experience – SCUBA Diving

Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Sounds so scientific. So cold. And it is, when you think about it. All that gear, all that math involved in the training (15ft/5 meters is forever engrained in my brain…but to be honest the atmospheres of pressure- not so much.) But most of us aren’t scientific or technical divers. Most of us are SCUBA diving simply for the enjoyment of it. Once you hit that water nothing about it seems scientific or cold, but maybe still scary the first few times.

My now-husband, boyfriend at the time, and I were getting ready to go on a trip to Costa Rica. There was a chance we may be able to dive on this trip, and I had never tried it before. For good reason…I was pretty scared. I had seen that episode of House with the guy on the plane, I knew what the “bends” was. And I wasn’t in. Until he convinced me to try it in a pool.

Seemed like a safe place to try it…so I did. I honestly don’t remember much of the entire experience. “Blacked out” is too strong a term, but there was definitely a combination of excitement and nerves that kept me from developing any memory of the situation. After that session, SCUBA diving wasn’t so bad! Maybe I should get certified…

Fast forward a few years, and we moved to a state with year-round diving opportunities, I worked in the marine science field, and at that point…how. could. I. even. without being certified. So we did it — our open water certification. Day 1: half-day in the pool, half-day in the Spring at Blue Grotto.

This was my first time diving outside of a pool and we descended deeper and deeper, past the point of feeling comfortable, particularly when he gestured to us to come down further and into a cave-like system. Like good buddies, my husband and I looked at each other and gestured “noooope” before hovering where we were. The instructor got the message. It was one way to get figuratively (and kind of literally…) thrown into the deep end, and I was hooked.

The next day, for the second part of our SCUBA diving certification, we hopped on a charter. This was an overwhelming experience. It still is, to this day, even with 50+ dives logged and time spent on a liveaboard. The dive boat experience is a unique one. One I recommend. (More on that here.) But a rough one for a new diver. My second day diving, I could hardly remember how to put my gear together but the captain, crew, and instructor helped and away we went. Oh. My Gosh. Game changer. THE FISH! It was very Ferris Bueller, “How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?”…how could I be expected to focus on my skills when the fish were all around?! (“Schooling” pun unintended, but will remain.)

We got back on the boat and that was it. We were certified. Book lessons, video lessons, checkout dives- DONE. Did I feel prepared enough to go out on my own? No way. Did we do it anyway ’cause we had to? Yep. Was it awesome? Double yep. Both my husband and I are pretty risk-adverse people so we never push it too much, always keep an eye on our gauges, and have become pretty proficient divers since then. But there is always that thought in the back of my mind like “…that’s all we had to do to go 60 ft underwater?!”

I became much more confident as we started our advanced certification but that’s a story for another time…

Elephant Cafe – Zambia

I recently had the pleasure of visiting The Elephant Cafe in Zambia. Advertised as “A 5 star Livingstone Restaurant Providing the Ultimate Dining Experience on the banks of the Zambezi”, this spot is so much more than just a culinary experience. There’s no doubt the food was fantastic, but you don’t exactly go to a place called The ELEPHANT Cafe because you’re hoping for some stellar risotto. You go for the elephants.

Before you get to the elephants, however, you have the option to be transported from your accommodation to the Cafe by boat, allowing you to see incredible wildlife from a very special vantage point. The captain of our boat was fantastic and allowed for many stops along the way. Two of these stops ended up providing some of my favorite sights from the whole trip: seeing nesting Maribou stork and watching a giraffe get seemingly lightheaded from standing up too quickly after drinking from the Zambezi River. Once I was finished taking a ridiculous amount of pictures of all those other animals, it was time to see the elephants!

Nesting Maribou Stork

Pulling up to the Cafe, I could hardly control my excitement. I had read everything there was to possibly read about this experience, seen photos & videos from friends who had done it first-hand, and was READY. Elephants have always been my favorite animal (ask me that when I’m staring at a manatee and you may get a different answer- but, ok, we’ll call it a draw) and now I was getting the chance to meet a herd up-close and feed them some snacks.

After meeting the staff and going over the rules, it was time. I was given a bag full of snacks, and chose the elephant I would like to meet first. Each elephant had a dedicated trainer who told us the best way to interact with the individual. It was incredible. I got to feel an elephant’s trunk. I got to put food in its trunk and watch the transfer to its mouth. I got to feel the different personalities of each elephant through their trunks (sounds bizarre, I know!) and how they received their food. The baby (calf) was all over the place, the mature female was very calm and patient, and the bull “Bop” was an insatiable vacuum.

Once the food had run dry (I’m looking at you, Bop) and the sun was going down, it was time for the elephants to go into their barn. Like a well-choreographed ballet, the elephants followed each other into the barn, with a wild hippo as the caboose. (This one hippo apparently comes out of the water each night to join the elephants in their barn, on his own free will). In fact, all of the elephants enter on their own free will, as well.

The Elephant Cafe has trained their elephants using positive reinforcement techniques. This means that if they do what the trainer has asked, the elephant gets a reward. Most often this is in the form of food (because, let’s be real, who isn’t food motivated?!) but can also be in the form of verbal or tactile praise (scratches, anyone?) The elephants never get punished for not doing what the trainer has asked.

Positive reinforcement training is arguably the best way to form a relationship with an animal (think about how you trained your dog – you likely gave a “good boy/girl”, a treat, and pat on the head as they did what you asked.) By using this technique there is a strong sense of trust between the elephant and the trainer, and the results are incredible. All the trainer had to do was ask the elephants to head into the barn and off they went. No physical contact was needed, and the strong bond between trainer and elephant remained.

In a world where photo-sharing apps reign supreme and the phrase “do it for the gram” is all-too-real, it can be hard to wade through all of the different experiences in the tourism industry. There are, unfortunately, some places that do exploit animals to make money in order to provide guests with the “perfect photo”. This is problematic for two reasons: 1- the obvious: exploiting animals. 2- the companies doing it right (without mistreating animals) get lumped into the same category and getting pushed out of existence when perhaps they’re needed the most.

If there is one piece of advice I can give to tourists (and even those discovering new opportunities in the places they call home) it’s: do your research. How do you know you’re visiting a responsible wildlife tourism spot?

  1. Determine if the company uses positive reinforcement training.
  2. Check out any accreditations the company may have.
  3. Read about others’ experiences at the place you’d like to go.
  4. Figure out how many people are allowed to do the interaction a day – generally speaking, the fewer people the better.
  5. Proceed with caution when you see animal interactions advertised as offering the “perfect shot” or “Instagram-worthy”.

I truly believe that positive animal interaction experiences, such as those at The Elephant Cafe, can inspire people to take action to protect species such as the African elephant. If you were wishy-washy about elephants before, didn’t much care for them or know much about them, I have no doubt you’d leave this experience with a new found respect. And where there’s respect there’s potential to protect. And as we journey through this Anthropocene, we’re going to need as many voices as possible for the creatures that have called this planet home for 55 million years.