My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “North America”

A Day and a Half in the USA

I’ve spent more hours in American airports than I have spent exploring the country itself. Most of the American stamps in my passport relate to a transit through either LAX or JFK, and I admit to being generally eager to leave this country far behind every time I get there. Unfortunately though, it is one of the main international hubs that has allowed me to explore South America, so I’m sure I’ll be spending more time at their airports in the future. As for visiting the USA, I have spent less than 2 days doing so. The first time was a day trip to Seattle whilst I was visiting Vancouver, and the second was a long lay over in JFK that allowed me to get into Manhattan and have a wander around.

It was a 6-hour round trip from Vancouver meaning an early start and a late return and I was shattered at both border crossings as a result. I am not alone in finding US border crossing staff to be rather hostile and unfriendly, and whilst there were a couple of friendly faces there, the men handling my visa waiver application couldn’t have been more abrupt and rude if they tried. It felt like they were trying to out-compete with each other as to who could be the rudest: not exactly the friendliest welcome to their country. To give them their dues though, this was September 2002, just past the 1-year anniversary of the attacks in New York, and I guess they were baring the faces of a nation going through tough times.

The bus dropped us off high up on the hill at the back of Seattle, somewhere indistinct, and the driver gave us our pick up location for the evening and left us at the side of the road. From my vantage point I could see down towards the sea and harbour, and I knew that that was where I wanted to be. In broad daylight, I picked the nearest street and started to walk down it. Straight away I guessed it was maybe the wrong one as I was watched by a group of young men who were hanging around next to a dumpster, but I continued to walk resolute, showing no indication of mistake or being lost. They left me alone, saying nothing, and I was left wondering at my prejudice.

At the waterfront, I found a city tour bus and tried to get on board. I say tried, because the driver wouldn’t let me on without a pop quiz about my life. On discovering that I was Scottish, he regaled me with his story about how he was convinced he was a distant relative of Bonnie Prince Charlie and that he had sent some of his blood off to Edinburgh University to have his DNA examined for genealogy. I’m not even sure if this is, or was, something that anybody could just pay to do but he was indefatigable and I had to take him at his word just so that he would give me a ticket and let me sit down. We drove along the waterfront, and through the city centre, visiting the stadium and some other places that I don’t remember. I got out at the Seattle Needle and proceeded through the bag search to get up to the top for an amazing view of what is a beautifully located city. Bordered by mountains and sea, it was a fantastic prospect and through the smog I could just make out the peak of Mount Rainier to the south.


Aside from a brief wander through a few streets in downtown Seattle, I spent most of my time at the waterfront in the glorious sunshine. I visited the famous Pike fish market, but it was not a particularly active part of the day and it seemed relatively quiet for what I heard about it. The waterfront itself is made up of many piers which have various buildings and attractions and restaurants on them. I watched an IMAX movie about whales and sunbathed whilst eating ice cream and soaking up the smells. With more time, I’m sure there was a lot more to explore in the city, but I was happy to just wind down for the day, and eventually it was time to find my way back to the bus in the dark. I had to be woken up for the border crossing back into Canada, a much more pleasant experience than the one on the way down.


On my way home from Peru, I had a multi-hour stop over in JFK. This was enough time to hop on a bus into downtown Manhattan and go exploring. The stop was near Grand Central Station, with its grand entrance way within which was a newly wedded couple getting their photographs taken. It was a drizzly day, and after wandering past the famous Waldorf Hotel, and seeing Broadway, we reached the Empire State Building, only half of which was visible below the low cloud. It would have been pointless to go up it, even if we had had the time to do so. Central Park was a welcome break from the noise and chaos of the streets of the city, and even in the rain it was still a busy place to be. It reminded me of St James’ Park in London, the relative tranquility of nature surrounded by an urban jungle, and I enjoyed the time spent wandering aimlessly around here. But time was short, and we headed next in search of Times Square, the polar opposite of the park we had left behind. Here it was all about noise, and lights, and people. Souvenir shops were everywhere, and my senses were overloaded with strange smells, flashing signs, adverts and yellow cabs tooting their horns at other drivers as they snaked through the streets. It was everything I loathe about cities all crammed into a few blocks, and with such tall buildings and the low clouds, it felt almost air-less.


I know a lot of people that both love and rave about NYC, but it was not for me. I have a partner who is very keen to change my opinion on the USA, and is in fact extremely keen to take me to California and Las Vegas, but I think it will be a hard sell. I would love to see some of the National Parks and I would fly to Alaska and Hawaii in a heart beat, but when it comes to smog-filled built up cities with no air and no nature, I think I’ll pass.



As much as I love travelling, if not more so, I love whales and dolphins. One of the great things that travelling has allowed me to do is to pursue my dream of seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild. I have seen several species of each in various countries, and for once I’d like to focus more on the photographs and videos I’ve obtained of these glorious creatures. Below is a list of all the cetacean species that I’ve seen in my life. Unfortunately I don’t have photographs for all of them, or indeed have good photographs for all of those that I do have, but I’d just like to share my love of whales and dolphins.


This is the species of dolphin that I have seen the most. They live in many parts of the world’s oceans, and I have seen them off the coast of Scotland, South Africa and New Zealand. They are playful and inquisitive and can be found in varying group sizes. I have autopsied a few that washed ashore in South Africa.



ECUADOR – 2015:




These shy dolphins are normally not very acrobatic but I was lucky enough to catch on video a rare moment when one jumped out the water. They normally hug the coastline, and I saw a few pods of these along the coast whilst in South Africa in 2005.





This is my favourite species of dolphin: I love the hour-glass pattern on their body, which makes them look beautiful. I was lucky enough to see a massive pod of these in the deep ocean water off the coast of South Africa in 2005. Unfortunately, the sea was so rough and they travelled past the boat at such speed that I did not manage to get any photos of them.

SCOTLAND – 2016:

Accompanying a feeding humpback whale and some white-beaked dolphins, it was a pleasure to see this species in the wild again.


New Zealand – 2020:


HECTOR’S DOLPHIN (Cephalorhynchus hectori)

These are one of the smallest species of dolphins, and they are highly endangered. They also live exclusively off the coast of New Zealand, and I have been lucky enough to see them several times across the years that I’ve lived here.


DUSKY DOLPHIN (Lagenorhynchus obscuris)


Unfortunately I was suffering acute sea sickness on the trip that I saw these guys in 2013 (for the full story, read here) so getting a decent photograph went down my priority list.


Thankfully, I was able to witness these agile dolphins in New Zealand waters once again.


HARBOUR PORPOISE (Phocaena sinus)

Whilst on the ferry between North Uist and Skye in 2010, two islands off the west coast of Scotland, the ferry was followed by some porpoises that enjoyed the waves. I was too busy enjoying watching them frolic and play to take any photographs. Since then, I have seen the odd individual on a couple of boat trips off the west coast of Scotland in 2016.


WHITE-BEAKED DOLPHINS (Lagenorhynchus albirostris)

Whilst searching for humpback whales off the west coast of Scotland in 2016, these guys joined in the feeding.


KILLER WHALE (Orcinus Orca)

CANADA – 2002:

I was lucky enough to see 3 super pods of Orca, an estimated 200 animals, off the coast of Vancouver Island in 2002. It was an amazing experience, and they are truly beautiful and mesmerising creatures. I am firmly against the keeping of these creatures in captivity, and it breaks my heart to know the treatment that has been endured by some individuals. The movie Blackfish is a real eye opener to their plight. I can still remember bobbing around on the Pacific Ocean surrounded by Orcas as far as the eye could see. The photographs are the good old fashioned pre-digital kind which require to be scanned onto the computer so they will follow in due course.

ECUADOR – 2015:

I wasn’t expecting it, but I was utterly excited to get a brief sighting of these amazing mammals. Look closely, and I promise there are two dorsal fins there!


COMMON MINKE WHALE (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

I have only ever seen 1 minke whale in the far distance whilst on a boat off the west coast of Scotland in 2006. It was too far away to get a decent picture.


HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae)

The majestic humpack whale is my favourite marine animal, and my favourite species of whale. Again, I have been lucky enough to see them multiple times and they are the species that I’ve seen offshore from the most countries, in both hemispheres. I was even privileged to take part in the autopsy of a humpback whale that washed ashore in South Africa.







ECUADOR – 2015:

This mother and calf were an exciting surprise on a snorkelling trip in the Galapagos Islands.


SCOTLAND – 2016:

It is not that common an occurrence to see humpback whales off the coast of Scotland, but for several weeks, the sightings were very regular indeed.


ICELAND – 2016:

Witnessed on a trip from Husavik, in the north of Iceland, this is the furthest north on the planet that I have been.



I saw so many humpback whales off the Queensland coast whilst heading north from the Gold Coast to Cairns. Of all my humpback sightings, the trip off the coast of Hervey Bay in Queensland was the most amazing experience with multiple whales spotted and several coming so incredibly close to the boat.


SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE (Eubalaena australis)

These strange looking creatures come into sheltered bays to give birth to their calves. This has allowed me to view them several times, and I was witness to several of them in South Africa and whilst in Argentina, I saw a mother with a white calf. I have found them to be very inquisitive whales, and they often seem keen to come near the boat and investigate. On one trip in South Africa, a juvenile bull whale practiced his courtship with the hull of our boat, rolling over and touching his fin to the hull.





More typically seen off the south-west coast of New Zealand, I was utterly blessed to see a mother and calf cruising in a bay off the coast of Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island.


BRYDE’S WHALE (Balaenoptera brydei)


With a similar body shape to Minke whales, these are very shy whales, proving very difficult to find. I managed to see one almost by chance when assisting on a research trip in South Africa 2005. It spent little time at the surface, and moved around so much that I was unable to take any photographs of it.



SPERM WHALE (Physeter macrocephalus)

This is the largest species of whale that I have seen, finally seeing a couple in 2013 both from the air and from the sea off the coast of New Zealand. They remain on the surface only to re-oxygenate their blood prior to long dives down into the depths of the sea in search of food. I loved getting to see all of the whale from the air, but unfortunately, the trip out to sea was the same trip I saw the dusky dolphins, so the experience was rather marred by the sea sickness that I was suffering from.

Oh, Canada!

My best friend K and I had often talked about going to Canada together when we were older. We were both excited at the prospect, but in the end K beat me to it. She left school the year ahead of me and went over there without me. I was insanely jealous, but most importantly, even more determined to go.

I’m generally a shy person. Those who know me well, know that this shyness eases off with extensive acquaintance, until I’m a rather loud, though generally amiable person who likes to talk about myself. But with strangers, I barely utter a peep unless conversation is hauled out of me under great duress. So it came as something of a shock when I announced to my family that I was going to go to Canada on my own. I’d made up my mind and that was it. That up-grade on the flight to Toronto lulled me into a false sense of security, because when I landed at the airport and tried to negotiate my transit to the city centre, I felt exceedingly out of my depth and in fear of the 6 weeks that lay ahead of me before my return flight from Vancouver.

In the ensuing years, I’ve learnt to pack for my travels in a much more organised and frugal manner, minimising not just wasted space, but avoiding those items that really aren’t necessary at all. Ever. In Canada, my backpack was about 24kg. If anything helps to illustrate the enormity of this misjudgement on my part, then I will tell you this: I’m 5’5″, and at that time I weighed 55kg. I was unable to stand up straight with it on my back, and getting it onto my back in the first place was a challenge in itself. One of my biggest ‘giggle-to-myself’ memories of that time in Canada was when I got off the train in the village of Niagara Falls, and sat down next to my backpack on the platform in order to clip the straps round my waist. What ensued was a rather comical vision of me rolling around the platform in circles, unable to thrust my body and its load onto my two little feet. In the end, I required the helping hand of a man who couldn’t stop laughing, to lift me up off the ground.

Toronto was my temporary home for 2 weeks, during which I ate  countless subways and pizza slices thanks to my inability to cook; something which I’ve only just started to master some 9 years later. It was the first place that I got sunburnt, and it still remains to this day the worst sunburn I have ever sustained in my life. Following the obligatory visit up the CN Tower in order to stand on glass thick enough to hold more elephants than you would ever care to see standing on one spot, I headed out to the Toronto islands, wearing mistake number 2: flip flops. Nobody who seriously likes to walk, wears flip flops. By the end of the day wandering around those beautiful islands, my feet resembled an extra in a zombie movie (ie. lots of blood and fluid oozing out of places where they really shouldn’t be oozing out of), and on top of that, I started to feel the effects of my inadequate sun protection. The blisters that formed across my shoulders were like bubble wrap. Large and fluid filled, if you squeezed one, the fluid would rush into the neighbouring one and bulge out in a rather gross fashion. If serving no other purpose, they atleast gave me a topic of conversation when meeting new people. Lesson number 1: use adequate sunscreen and top up regularly!


The aforementioned trip to Niagara Falls led me to witness the first of many ‘wonders’ that I had ogled over in guidebooks. There are many lists of ‘wonders’ these days. Wonders of the ancient world, the new world, the natural world, etc etc. With so much tourism, it doesn’t take much fodder for some new book or journalist to make up a new list of ‘wonders’ in an effort to get people to visit somewhere new ‘before they die!‘ Frankly, I have my own list. It has evolved over the years, changing and adapting to my new found perspective on the world, but at the inexperienced and untravelled age of 19, Niagara Falls was at the top of my list. The tacky commercial quarters leaves a lot to be desired, but if you can shut out the noise and clammer of the 100s of other tourists around you, then the natural beauty still inspires much awe. It is the location where I saw my first racoon, and I remember watching her foraging amongst the rubbish with her babies in tow, when everyone else around me was watching the rather pathetic fireworks display that they insist on doing most nights in an effort to light up the falls after dusk.


By the end of my trip to Canada, I had fallen in love with Alberta and British Columbia. I took the VIA Rail across the continent from Toronto heading west, stopping for a week in Jasper, before finally heading onwards to Vancouver. This train ride is where I learnt how popular the Scottish accent really is. Before the age of 19, the vast majority of my holidays had been in one of my most favourite countries in the world: Scotland. When everyone in that country talks in a similar way to you, it is hard to stand out from the crowd. In Canada, and in many countries since, my Scottish twang has won me all sorts of amusing attention, albeit that everybody outside of Scotland (and suprisingly many people within my current city of residence) thinks I’m Irish. I’m not. I’m Glaswegian. I might not live there anymore, but as far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t sound less Irish if I tried. In fact it has often been noted that my attempts at speaking in an Irish accent don’t sound Irish either. Either way, those 3 days aboard the train from Toronto to Jasper, and the subsequent overnighter from Jasper to Vancouver found me in my element. There is no better way to meet fellow travellers than travelling in the economy class of a sleeper train, where your seat is your bed, and your bed is a barely reclined seat with a standard VIA Rail blanket to snuggle under. The folk I met on that journey made the whole trip worthwhile, and did exactly what a good trip should do: it gave me some amazing memories that still make me smile (and if I’m very honest, in some cases cringe with embarrassment) to this day. Never again will I take the optional tour of the mail carriage…

If you go to one national park in Canada, I’d recommend Jasper. Every other mug will have followed the tourist trail to Banff, and missed out on this gem. It is beautiful, stunning, and yet has a fraction of the tourists that it’s neighbouring park has, leaving you to soak up the sights without feeling like being at a cattle market. I loved Jasper the minute I got off the train. I didn’t however, love the temperature. When I booked my holiday for the end of August, I had only considered the hot weather of Toronto, and hadn’t figured on the cooler weather of the higher altitude in the Rocky Mountains. I visited glaciers, ice bergs, mountain tops and glacial lakes in nothing but a t-shirt and a denim jacket. I spent a lot of that week feeling cold. The local elk population on the other hand were feeling hot. Randy and hot. When it comes to staying in a hostel out in the wilderness, it pays to heed the local warning of staying away from the elks during rutting season. I had booked a trip out to one of the local beauty spots (of which there were many: Maligne Lake, Athabasca falls and the Angel glacier to name but a few), that left early from the high street. I was staying out at the local youth hostel, a 50 minute hike from town. I set off early in the morning in order to be there for the 9am departure, and was lost in my own thoughts, hiking along the side of the highway, when a thunderous noise was followed by a fully grown female elk bursting through the trees just about 100 yards in front of me with a bull elk in hot pursuit. Startled, I quickened my pace, only for the female to change her direction and head straight towards me. My heart leapt into my mouth as I had visions of the bull charging me down in a fit of testosterone-induced rage. At 8.30am on what was supposed to be just another day on holiday, I found myself speed walking along the verge of the main highway with a bull elk to my left and a female elk to my right. By the time anybody else appeared in the vicinity, both elk had returned to their woodland lairs on opposite sides of the road. It was a close encounter that was both mesmerising and downright frightful at the same time. Within that week, I also saw a moose with her calf, several deer, and all sorts of other furry critters at various altitudes. I also came out in top-to-toe hives following a bite from a rather ornate species of mosquito. Jasper became the first of a very very long list of places I want to go back to.


On the western coast of southern British Columbia lies one of my favourite cities in the world: Vancouver. How can a city that is bordered by mountains, trees and an ocean as well as having a ‘Death by Chocolate’ restaurant, not be on anybody’s list of great cities? 1598 West Broadway, that’s all I’m saying! As I sit here today, I have crossed the longest and the second longest suspension bridges in the world. The latter is in South Africa, and the former is in North Vancouver (at the time of writing this is the case, anyway). My all-time highlight of this stay, and indeed of the whole trip, was getting to spend time doing love number 2: watching wildlife. Splashing out on a float-plane to Victoria on Vancouver Island, I suffered my 2nd worst sunburn (though worst facial sunburn) by bobbing about on the Pacific Ocean on a RIB watching scores of Orcas or Killer whales swimming around us. 3 superpods of about 60 whales each to be precise. 2hrs of brimming joy as these imposing creatures swam around and past us on their daily quest for food. I was so naive at 19, or maybe it was more a lack of common sense, but somehow I never fathomed in advance that when the sun is shining in a cloud free sky, it reflects off the sea and is even more capable of turning a normally fair-skinned lassie into a fresh-cooked lobster. I didn’t even need to open my mouth to attract attention that day.


Suffice to say, after 6 weeks, I didn’t want to leave. I’d hiked, I’d biked, I’d flown, I’d floated, and I’d choo-chooed. I’d seen elk, moose, whales, deer, racoons, and many more creatures. I’d got sunburnt, and covered in hives, and I met so many funny and/or weird people that all add to the memories. I came home with 24 rolls of film (digital cameras were still fairly new, expensive and a novelty at that time), and it cost over £200 to develop them. I bored my family and friends with the stories for months, and it became the starting point for what has now become my trademark phrase: ‘I’ve been travelling solo since I was 19…’

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: