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“Thar She Blows”- a Whale’s Tale

The waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park are abounding with wildlife.  A recent whale watching expedition gave the Havasi Wilderness Foundation the opportunity to interact with some of the 27 species of whales from the family cetacean who call the Channel Islands their home.

Somewhere around 26 miles from the Santa Barbara coastline, calls of “thar she blows”, a popular expression among whalers that is used to sound out the appearance of a nearby whale, could be heard from a choir of young children abroad the Condor Express. Spinning around to secure a spot on the starboard side (a nautical term that signifies the right side of the boat), I could see the short geyser of water that jetted from a whale’s spout.  As we readied our cameras, three humpback whales took turns surfacing for air. The sea around the whales was alive with movement. While dolphins and sea lions could be seen jumping enthusiastically out of the water nearby, the whales themselves were not as easy to see. Their large backsides surfaced long enough for a spout of water to shoot into the air before they bobbed beneath the sea again.

Humpback Coming up for Air. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Humpback Coming up for Air. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi


Cetaceans are a diverse grouping of carnivorous aquatic mammals that are widely distributed through the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.  The family includes dolphins, porpoises, beluga, and whales, and is separated into two groups: toothed and baleen whales.  As their name suggests, toothed whales (or odontocetes) have teeth which they use to trap their food. Examples of toothed whales include the great white whale (most famously depicted in Herman Melville’s 1981 biopic Moby Dick), the sperm whale, and dolphins. Dolphins can be found swimming deep in the channel as well as in areas around surfers close to the California shoreline. They are some of the friendlier toothed whales and are renowned for their intelligence, curiosity, and complex communication style. Their sophisticated communication capabilities have been described to sound a lot like a whistle which allows them to exchange information with other members of their pod.

Common Dolphins. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Common Dolphins. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi


The baleen whale (or mysticetes) derives its name from the thick stringy layers of baleen that attach to the whale’s gum line. Baleen is made of keratin (the same substance that human fingernails and hair are made of). Unlike toothed whales, who use sonar to track down food and capture prey with their teeth, the baleen whale vacuums gallons of water from the sea and relies on the straw-like baleen to filter fish and krill from the mouthfuls of water that they ingest.  Austin MacRae, a naturalist from the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps and our guide for the day, explained to us that in one gulp, a large baleen whale can swallow enough water to fill a medium-sized swimming pool! As I absorbed this information, I wondered aloud, how do whales carry and then expel such great amounts of water?  Austin provided the answer: ventral pleats.  Similar to a pelican’s pouch, the ventral pleats that line the abdomen of baleen whales, expand and contract like giant accordions. In one movement, they help push hundreds of gallons of water over the tongue and out of the whale’s mouth. During the expulsion of water, hundreds of small fish and plankton become trapped inside of the baleen where a whale can swallow them whole.

Humpback Whale. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Humpback Whale. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi


The boat rocked violently in a moody sea as we continued watching the three humpback whales. Known for their particularly large pectoral fins, humpbacks often use the technique of pectoral fin slapping (commonly referred to as “pec slapping”) to attract the attention of the opposite sex during mating season. When slapped against the ocean’s surface, their fins produce a spectacle of booming sounds and massive waves. Though we did not witness any pectoral slapping on our trip, we were amazed to see one of the more high-spirited humpbacks lift its tail high out of the water and smack the surface of the sea. As its tail plunged back into the dark ocean, Austin explained to us that like the human fingerprint, the humpback’s tail fin (called a fluke) is unique to each whale. Currently, researchers use high definition photography to capture images of flukes and add them to a database managed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). These images help identify individual humpbacks, monitor their health, and track their whereabouts. This tracking system is significant because, according to NOAA, Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to sub-polar latitudes and occasionally shipping channels, fisheries, and aquaculture may demolish humpback whale congregation areas.

Humpback's Tail. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Humpback’s Tail. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Humpback. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

A Spy Hopping Humpback Takes a Look at the Boat. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi


Weighing in at a whopping 150 tons, the blue whale holds the record of the largest mammal on the planet. To sustain such a massive creature, 9000 pounds (4.5 tons) of fish and krill must be consumed each day.  Though we did not encounter any blue whales on our expedition, they can be found feeding in the waters off of the Channel Islands during the summertime before heading to the warmer waters of Mexico to have their babies. Austin shared his thoughts about blue whales with me, explaining:

“I always like to talk about blue whales because they are the biggest and heaviest of animal ever to live on the planet! Bigger than any dinosaur even! The heart of a blue whale is the size of a Volkswagen and so, hypothetically, a child could crawl through its arteries. The tongue of a blue whale is as heavy as a bull elephant and their lungs are as big as a school bus. Essentially, they are gargantuan! They weigh 200+ tons and can reach sizes of up to 110 feet long in the Antarctic Ocean.”

Waters off of the coast of California vary drastically from those in the Arctic Circle. A cold northern current and a warm southern current collide in the waters off of the Southern California coast and create large nutrient pockets. These pockets of dense nourishment act as ideal feeding grounds for whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other marine mammals who use the summer months to build up fat stores (blubber) that they will live off of during the winter.  Like human mammals, whales must maintain a body temperature of 99 ° Fahrenheit (37 ° Celsius). In order to preserve this temperature, they migrate from cooler waters in the summertime to warmer waters in the wintertime.

Sea Lions Take a Break From Eating to Sunbathe. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Sea Lions Take a Break From Eating to Sunbathe. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.


As humans, we rely on our autonomic nervous system to regulate our breath. This allows us to breathe involuntarily, without ever having to think about it. Unlike human beings, humpback whales are conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to breathe at all times- even when they are asleep. To ensure that they remember to surface for air, cetaceans conserve half of their brain function while sleeping. Researchers studying dolphin and whale populations in captivity have noted that dolphins seem to shut down half of their brain and sleep with one eye open (the eye on the opposite side of the resting brain) for a period of around two hours. After two hours, the opposite side of the brain shuts down and the corresponding eye will close.  It is mind-boggling to think of the evolutionary trait that encourages continual consciousness among cetaceans.

Like dolphins, humans have been historically curious about the world that surrounds them. With less than ten percent of the world’s oceans having been explored,  there are still entire ecosystems that remain a mystery to us.  Rather than succumb to a life of uncertainty, it is important to feed your curiosity, get outside, and explore your world!

Until next week,


Interested in whale watching? The Condor Express (Click link to view) is an excellent option for a whale expedition. The leave from the Santa Barbara Harbor and guarantee that you will see whales. If for some reason the captain cannot find any whales during your day trip,  then you can return without a fee to go on an expedition until you do see one. Remember that when you’re exploring, you should take plenty of sun screen, a hat that shades, long-sleeved clothing, and (if you tend to get as queasy as I do) find some Dramamine and bring along a carbonated beverage as this helps sensitive stomachs. Take it from me, you should never go out on a boat without having something in your stomach.  

Anchors up and full steam ahead!

Panama Adventures Part 2: Going Bananas!

From Europe and Asia to the American and African continents, consumers are united by their love of bananas. On a global scale, bananas are the world’s most consumed fruit and the fifth-most traded agricultural product. What’s not to love? Bananas are portable, versatile, and in developing nations they provide much of the nutrition needed to sustain life.  In my home, bananas are a staple. My partner’s mother practices a morning ritual that includes splitting a banana in half, consuming her portion and sharing half with our banana-loving dog, Margot. The mere mention of Margot’s favorite word, “banana”, causes her ears to stand at full attention as she waits for someone to throw a slice or two in her direction.

Recently, I had the pleasure of touring the La Loma cacao farm on Panama’s Isla Bastiemientos. Going in, I expected to learn primarily about the chocolate-making process but was surprised to walk away with a deeper understanding of contemporary bananas and their significance in the formation of the Panamanian cacao trade.

It is important to note that wild bananas look nothing like the bananas found in grocery stores today. With thick skins, gooey flesh, and bodies filled with seeds, a wild banana seems anything but appetizing when compared to its breeded counterpart. Though seeded bananas make for easy reproduction in nature, banana farmers discovered that consumers prefer bananas without seeds, and began using the genetic material in plantains to breed a seedless banana variety. On contemporary plantations, bananas propagate (grow) vegetatively and are sterile clones of the previous generation. Like succulents and other vegetative plants, next generation banana growth extends from existing plants through shoots called suckers. As soon as the fruit is harvested from the primary growth, the plant must be pruned back so that the new growth can collect the nutrients and water stored inside of the base of the plant. People often use the word “tree” to describe the structure that bananas grow on, but the plant is actually an herb that produces berry-like fruit– the banana!

Banana Stem. Photo Credit: Lola West

Banana Stem. Photo Credit: Lola West

Prior to the 1950’s, much of the agricultural land in Panama was reserved for growing America’s favorite tropical fruit. Humidity, high temperatures, and a cooling off-shore breeze provide an ideal growing environment for bananas, which thrive in such settings. By 1940, bananas were one of Latin America’s main exports and large-scale banana operations supported the Panamanian islands collectively known as Bocas Del Toro, where I toured the cacao farm. Though the majority of land today is under cacao production, a history rooted in banana growth can be seen peaking out from beneath a canopy of cacao leaves.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Gros Michel variety was the primary banana available on the market. Smaller and sweeter than today’s Cavedish bananas, Gros Michel bananas were the victims of a deadly strain of fungal pathogen known as Fusarium Wilt, or more commonly as the Panama disease. The disease, which produces a fungus that affects the vascular system of host plants, wiped out nearly all banana plantations in Central and South America. Other vulnerable crops include tomatoes, legumes, tobacco, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. When fusarium wilt infects crops that reproduce by seed, the disease is easier to manage. However, when it attacks a crop that is a clone of its parent plant, an entire generation can be destroyed and suffer extinction. As such, Panama’s Gros Michel plantations were barren by the 1960’s. For an economy dependent on the export of its bananas, the Panama disease was a devastating blow. New generations of resistant fruit were developed to replace the diseased Gros Michel crops. However, the still seedless Cavedish banana suffer from the same problem– lack of genetic diversity. Presently, a new strain of fusarium wilt is plaguing banana plantations across the globe and threatening the banana industry once again. As humans use selective breeding to produce more favorable qualities such as large size and ease of growth, offspring have less genetic diversity and thus an increased susceptibility to natural selection.

Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West

Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West

Following the first wave of fusarium wilt, the Panamanian government offered banana growers the opportunity to keep their land in production by cultivating a new crop. Hundreds of free cacao plants were offered to any grower willing to farm them. In the 60’s, Hershey’s Chocolate was king and global tastes favored milk chocolate over the dark, bitter treat that pure cacao helps produce. As artisanal chocolates increase in popularity, international cacao production is in high demand and the Islands of Bocas Del Toro are back on the map!

Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West

Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West

Tune in next week to find out more about the intricacies of cacao production and how pirates used Breadfruit trees to locate buried treasure!

Explore the wonders of your world!

The Gibbon: An Amazing Ape!

As I walk through the gates of the the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center (GCC), I catch a blur of rapid movement in the distance. Heading towards the action, I can just barely make out the long arms and fast moving body of a captive gibbon, swinging speedily from branch to branch within its enclosure.  I had done a bit of research on gibbons before our scheduled tour and learned that gibbons, like the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan, are apes, not monkeys. If ever faced with the question: ape or monkey, you can resolve the query by taking a peak at a primate’s hind quarters. If there is no tail present, then the primate is likely an ape.  With 20 species divided into for genera, gibbons are the most diverse group of any apes. Although all apes are threatened, some of the gibbon species are presently on the brink of extinction.  Facilities like the GCC provide safe and caring environments for some of the rarest group of apes in the Western Hemisphere.


U Mynt Swe, Eastern Hillock Gibbon. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Currently, the GCC is home to 41 gibbons spanning five different species.  Located in the Santa Clarita Valley, temperatures at the GCC can reach into the hundreds. During our visit, the morning is cool and foggy, and the gibbons who have finished breakfast are eager to interact with us.  Our small group of four is greeted by a cheerful woman who warmly welcomes us. She introduces herself as Gabi Skollar, director of the Gibbon Conservation Center. A native Hungarian, Gabi tells me that she has dedicated the last twelve years of her life to caring for captive gibbons at the GCC. She lives in a tiny transportable home within the encampment; and while her house is smaller than some people’s washrooms, it has been well cared for and is surrounded by a multitude of rocks and succulents that she has collected over the years. Staying onsite allows Gabi to give the gibbons around the clock attention whenever they need it while offering her the unique experience of living among the gibbons.

Our tour continues through the facilities, where Gabi informs us that gibbons are well known for being the “song birds”of the apes. According to her, gibbons sing up to three times a day. Before the information could really sink in, I catch the soprano melody of the first singing gibbon calling out to 40 others. Varied in pitch and tone, gibbon’s songs are unlike anything my ears have ever heard.  Within minutes of entering the GCC, the air is flooded with a choir of low hums and high-pitched chants that build into a symphonic masterpiece, striking the chords of my heart.  Holding back tears, I stand still and allow their music to envelope me. A gibbon’s song is loud and impressive, and, as Gabi articulates, a single song can be heard at a distance of up to two miles away. Gibbons use these songs to mark territories, ward off predators, and to call out to the start of a new day.  Each species of Gibbon has its own unique vocalization, and while partnered males and females of the same species often sing duets, their harmonies are quite different from one another.

Click to View a Video of Gibbon’s Early Morning Song

Marlow the Siamang Gibbon (left) and U Mynt Swe the Eastern Hillock Gibbon (right). Photo credit: Sandor Havasi

Marlow the Siamang Gibbon (left) and U Mynt Swe the Eastern Hillock Gibbon (right). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

For mates, Marlow, a Siamang gibbon, and U Mynt Swe, an Eastern Hoolock gibbon, their species division changes the pitch, tone, and style of their singing. Gabi explains that as two distinct species, Marlow and U Mynt Swe cannot copy one another’s song, and are incapable of vocalizing in the same language, so one can only postulate about whether they understand what the other is saying. this news drums up a pang of sadness within me. I turn to Marlow, who is munching enthusiastically on a large kale leaf, not yet ready to join the other singers. As she finishes her meal, I notice a large, round pocket inflating in her throat.  She locks eyes with U Mynt Swe, who has been singing for the last two minutes, and compliments his high-pitched crooning with her own deep, throaty song.  It is a spine-tingling experience to observe a gibbon’s throat expanding and filling with air before producing a deep humming resonance that sounds a bit like the hum that comes from blowing air into a large empty bottle. Siamang gibbons like Marlow, are the loudest land mammals on earth.  Both male and the female Siamong gibbons have gular sacks, a throat pocket which allows them the greatest range in their song of any gibbon. Other gular sacked gibbons include the Northern White-Cheeked gibbons, whose throat pockets are reserved for the male population only. As we move on to visit the other gibbon species, we discover that when Marlow is tired, she inflates her gular sack and uses it like a pillow. What a wonderfully convenient addition to her anatomical form!

Howard, a Baby Plieated Gibbon. Photo Provided By: Gibbon Conservation Center

Howard, a Baby Plieated Gibbon. Photo Provided By: Gibbon Conservation Center

Though they are bipedal mammals (bipedal means that one has the ability to walk on two feet), gibbons spend the majority of their lives high up in the trees. The anatomical structure of their shoulders and their highly extendable arms help make them some of the world’s best acrobats, and it is not uncommon to see them spinning wildly among the branches.  In their natural habitats, wild gibbons propel themselves through the dense forests of Southern Asia through a process known as brachiating. Brachiating, or the swinging movement from branch to branch, requires elongated arms, curved fingers, and strong, rotating wrists. At GCC, gibbons also brachiate energetically throughout the many branches spread across their spacious enclosures.  Elevated in the trees of the Asia’s many jungles, wild gibbons can move at speeds of up to 35 mph and can be found as high as 200 feet above ground.

All in the Family: Javan Gibbons

While exploring GCC, I cannot help but notice that gibbons act a lot like humans. From their movements and posture to their facial expressions and behavior, the resemblance at times is uncanny. This shouldn’t really surprise me, as the Chimpanzee, another ape, has recently been revealed as the closest mammal (genetically speaking) to humans. As we approach the Javan gibbon enclosure, Gabi tells me a story that further affirms my position. After raising five children together, the staff at GCC noticed that mates, Shelby (male) and Chole (female), were spending time on opposite sides of their enclosure, with little to no interaction between them. Having grown apart, GCC staff believed it best to separate Shelby and Chloe and offer them the opportunity to find new mates. Though gibbons are monogamous, meaning they live with one partner at a time, they are not limited to one partner in a lifetime. Hoping to find Shelby a new and exciting partner, staff members introduced him to Khusus, a Javan gibbon just a few paces away from the place that Shelby and Chole once called home. Khusus, who had a son from a previous paring, is actually Chloe’s cousin, so when Shelby revealed his interests in Chloe’s cousin, he kept things pretty close to home. Ever the gentleman, Shelby adopted Khusus’ son, and together, the couple had two children of their own.  Following the birth of their second offspring, GCC staff detected that the energy levels of Khusus and an ageing Shelby were quite dissimilar. Shelby was removed from their shared enclosure and given time to allow his progressive arthritis and diabetes to be regulated.  He is now being cared for near the Center’s main office, where his conditions are monitored, while Khusus is raising their children.  To me, their story seems like the kind of thing you would find on a television soap opera.

Gibbons are amongst the scarcest primates in the wild and many of their species are on the verge of extinction. With only 25 individuals left, the Hainan gibbon is one of the rarest mammals in the entire world.  Currently, the biggest threats to gibbons in the wild include deforestation, escalating change in the climate worldwide, and poaching for pet trade, food, and medicinal purposes in Vietnam and China.

Northern White-Cheeked Gibbon. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Northern White-Cheeked Gibbon. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

How the Gibbon Conservation Center Makes a Difference

According to Gabi, the GCC uses their knowledge and experience to improve the lives of captive gibbons by assisting and advising zoos and rescue centers in better captive management. They offer consultation, caregiver training, and enclosure design and construction services free of charge, to zoos, and gibbon rescue centers throughout the world.

Each year, they provide educational tours for veterinarians, anthropology students, graduate students, K-12 school children, scout troops, and animal lovers of all ages. Additionally, the GCC encourages noninvasive behavioral studies to increase public knowledge and understanding of gibbons, both captive and wild. The GCC also works with its international partners to maintain healthy stable bloodlines for five endangered gibbon species. The northern white-cheeked gibbons are down to less than 1,000 in the wild. Thankfully, they are a part of the GCC’s successful captive breeding program, so the work is being done to help rehabilitate dwindling populations.

What You Can Do

Understanding these magical creatures whose habitat is threatened by deforestation and human activity is imperative. Learn more about gibbons by visiting and if you are ever in the Southern California region, set up a tour.

Tours & Events

PUBLIC TOURS: The Gibbon Conservation Center is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday morning from 9:30 a.m. to noon (except for rainy days and holidays). No reservations are required. A tour is given at 10:00 in the morning. Admission: $15 (adults); $12 (Teens and Students); $10 (seniors); $5 (children 6-12); $0 (Children under 5). Checks, cash, and credit cards are accepted. No need to Book for the Public Tours! Just come and enjoy! See you at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

PRIVATE TOURS: Private tours can be arranged for any day of the week, in advance, for a minimum charge of $120 (covering 8 people). For information and scheduling, contact us directly. See contact information below.

Contact Information for the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center

Physical address: 19100 Esguerra Road, Santa Clarita, CA 91390

Mailing address: PO Box 800249, Santa Clarita, CA 91380

Direct line: 661-296-2737

E-mail address:

Our Group in Front of Gabi's Beautiful Home (from left to right: Jeannette Ban, Hwee Tin Ban, Marilyn Fordney, Gabi Skollar, Lola West (rear)). Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi.

Our Group in Front of Gabi’s Beautiful Home (from left to right: Jeannette Ban, Hwee Tin Ban, Marilyn Fordney, Gabi Skollar, Lola West (rear)). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.


Big Fish, Small Beak

A silvery light shimmered in the distance, and as I turned my head towards it, I encountered the arched neck of a slender Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret is a medium-sized bird with an impressive wingspan, and though the morning sky at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands was shrouded in fog, one could easily make out the white-feathered frame of its magnificent body and the brilliance of its yellow feet. Sandor Havasi and I approached the bird quietly, hoping to capture the moment on film and further investigate the origin of the shimmer. Standing just twenty feet from the Snowy Egret, we watched as the light bounced off of the silver scales of a flat-bodied fish (see image below).

Snowy Egret. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Though the Snowy Egret is very similar in form to its larger cousin, the Great Egret, their hunting styles could not be more different. Great Egrets patiently perch on one foot while stalking their prey, preparing to strike with a single fluid movement. The more animated Snowy Egret, who uses its bright yellow feet to stir up surrounding waters and herd tiny aquatic animals, can be seen continuously plunging its head in the water. On this particular occasion, a few shakes of the foot secured a fish larger than our Egret friend could swallow. I observed a frustrated Egret who repeatedly tossed the fish up in the air, like a spinning coin, and strained to force the meal down the length of its narrow beak. In the end, the fish was too great a match for the Egret and the elegant bird stalked bitterly away from the rocky shoreline where his abandoned meal lay.

The Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California are teeming with wildlife, including some of the most spectacular avian species I have ever seen.  In addition to the Snowy Egret mentioned above, we saw Great Blue Herons; who look a lot like small airplanes when their wings are fully extended, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets; who, along with the Snowy Egret, are relatives of the Heron,

and several Caspian Terns who allowed us to photograph them while they were hunting for food.

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret "fishing" with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret “fishing” with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Walking through the neatly-carved paths cut from the bluff’s dense shrubbery, I was amazed by the number of birds, lizards, and small animals that call Bolsa Chica their home. Sandor and I spent close to four hours exploring the wetlands, and as we turned to leave he asked, “How many species do you think you saw today.” My honest response was somewhere near ten, but as he recounted each bird, lizard, squirrel, and rabbit, the number quickly surmounted twenty.  The sheer knowledge that such biodiversity exists in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands has inspired me to look to the skies and the grounds and pay closer attention to what I see.  While some of you may have the chance to see Bolsa Chica in your lifetimes, many of our readers are spread across the world, and will not have the opportunity to get there. The truth is that you do not need to travel to a wetland to connect with nature, because the wild is happening all around us. The connectedness that I experienced when exploring my local watershed, can be shared by everyone, no matter their global location.  We, at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, urge you to get outside and explore the world. Peel your eyes away from the phones, laptops, and tablets that have your attention throughout the day, and instead, open your eyes to the wildlife around you. Pull out those headphones or earbuds and listen to the sounds of the wild- it is, after all, a soundtrack that is 4.54 billion years in the making.

In the wake of accelerated environmental changes, nations around the globe are participating in movements that encourage worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Equipped with the knowledge that the safety and conservation of the human environment is a major issue, which affects the welfare of global inhabitants and economic growth throughout the world, the United Nations designated the 5th of June as World Environment Day. To celebrate this day, individuals were invited to get outside, connect with nature, and explore the world around them. This year’s theme for World Environment Day 2017 was “Connecting People to Nature,” and the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is proud to share this message with the world.

This year, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation spent World Environment Day exploring the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California.




Birds of a Feather

On May 25, 2017­, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation had the great pleasure of speaking at the Ventura County Bird Club’s monthly meeting. As we walked through the doors of the Ventura Moose Lodge, we met a friendly Cockatoo who greeted us with quick “Hello.”  A regal looking Blue-and-yellow Macaw, an African Grey Parrot, and another lively black-and-white Cockatoo rounded out the list of birds in attendance. While happy squawks and avian chatter filled the air, attendees signed raffle tickets for a chance to win packaged walnuts, a bird swing, or one of two large wooden ladders that were sprawled out on a table at the front of the room. Some birds clung to their humans and nibbled at their necks, as others paced around the folding tables searching for vegetable scraps and putting on a show for anyone who would watch.

Mr. Havasi took the stage to present on three of Southern California’s prime bird watching spots: Lotusland, Lake Casitas, and Bolsa Chica.  Audience members and our new bird friends listened attentively as he described his encounters with avian wildlife populations locally and globally.


Located in the hills of Montecito, Lotusland was founded by the renowned Polish opera singer and socialite, Madame Ganna Walska, in 1941.  It took the Walska family over 43 years to turn Lotusland into one of the ten best gardens in the world. Today, the Lotusland estate grounds contain several distinct gardens that incorporate bromeliads, succulents, butterflies, ferns, Japanese flowers and orchards into their landscape design. Lotusland’s diverse landscape makes it an ideal habitat for several astonishing birds, including the Anna’s Hummingbird and the House Finch pictured below.

Anna's Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Anna’s Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

 House Finch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

House Finch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi



Just north of Ventura, Lake Casitas was once a sizeable reservoir that formed following the damming of several branches of the Ventura River. The long-standing California drought has significantly affected water levels and though last years rains were significant, the lake is close to the lowest it has been in decades. In spite of the drought, the riparian habitat where the freshwater marsh and reservoir meet, still supports birds like the Great Egret, the American Wigeon, and the Great Blue Heron (pictured below) as well as a number of other faunae. The land surrounding the reservoir is privately owned and if developed, many of these majestic creatures would find themselves without a home.

American Wigeons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

American Wigeons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi


In Huntington Beach, California, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands are known as a central migratory stop and nesting grounds for many avian species. In fact, nearly half of the birds discovered in the U.S. have been seen in the Huntington Beach area over the past decade. This impressive offering of birds could possibly be attributed to the distinctive moisture level of the surrounding wetlands, which are fed by an ocean and a river so that water is abundant all year long. On past trips to Bolsa Chica, we have encountered such majestic birds as the Black-Necked Stilt, the Black Skimmer, the Long-Billed Curlew, and the Surf Scoter (pictured below). As more people buy homes in the area, shrinking habitats force wild animals into smaller areas which allow predators like coyotes, foxes, and hawks, to find the birds easily.

Black-Necked Stilt. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black-Necked Stilt. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black Skimmer. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black Skimmer. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Long-Billed Curlew. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Long-Billed Curlew. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Surf Scoter. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Surf Scoter. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi


As an indicator species, birds offer humans insight into the overall health of our planet. Though the number of birds seen at Lotusland, Lake Casitas, and Bolsa Chica is impressive, the global loss of wild bird populations remains an imperative environmental concern. Human activity and development have driven many bird populations to the brink of extinction. While wildlife protection agencies have been diligently working to rehabilitate these populations, it is still essential to understand how our actions impact ecosystems. By exploring your local marshlands, lakes, and beaches, you not only have the opportunity to discover the amazing birds that call these environments home but also have the power to make sure that their habitats are protected!

Join us at the Ventura Moose Lodge, 10269 Telephone Road, Ventura, CA on June 29th at 7:00 PM as Marilyn Fordney and Alex Havasi of the Havasi Wilderness Foundation share stories about the wildlife that they encountered on their journey around the world, a National Geographic trip!


Wilderness Journal with Sandor Havasi: Ground Squirrels of Arizona

On an early morning in Cottonwood, Arizona, I decided to take a short walk outside of the town. As I walked along a steep slope, I was startled by a  high pitch sound which cleaved the quiet morning air. It only took a matter of moments for me to discover the source of this strange sound. It was simply a ground squirrel mother. She was letting out a warning shriek. Warning her family about the approaching danger—me.

groundsquirrelsFrom the “front porch” of their tunnel, I could count a total of 5 family members. This ground squirrel family was also enjoying the morning, taking sunbaths in the first rays of sunlight.

I was lost in thought as I admired these active and family oriented animals. Continue Reading →

Only You: Being Aware of Fire Hazards Entering Fire-season

fire damage

Fire damage from the Topanga Fire

Recently, there have been many news stories popping up about wildfires and with the California drought still being an issue we wanted to take this opportunity to focus in on ways you can practically be aware of wildfires and areas that could be prone to wildfires near you! In fact over the past year (2015) 58,916 human-caused fires (also known as preventable fires) burned over 2,000,000 acres of land! That is a lot of acreage that is impacted, animals that have lost their homes, and people who have been displaced by the damage. . . But we can reduce this number by listening to our favorite bear! Continue Reading →

Our View at the Conejo View!

Such exciting news for us at Havasi; our year has started off with a bang! We were featured in the Conejo View Winter edition in their business profile feature. The Conejo View is a quarterly business magazine and directory published by the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce. One of the major goals of the Conejo View is to “advance the educational, civic, economic and cultural interests of the City of Thousand Oaks, the City of Westlake Village, the City of Agoura Hills and the surrounding area.” It is exciting to be recognized by a group that values many of the things that Sandor, Marilyn and the rest of us with Havasi Wilderness Foundation are equally excited about. index2

Sandor and Marilyn have been hard at work since 2008 with Havasi Wilderness Foundation and it has been an incredibly rewarding journey for us all. Their dedication to “heightening awareness and the appreciation of the natural environment by educating the general public about the importance of protecting and preserving natural ecosystems” has made the Havasi Wilderness Foundation a very special place.

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Wilderness Journal: International Journey to Braunschweig, Germany


Amazing fall trees in Germany

I just spent the past week recuperating from jet lag but I wanted to share some of my international nature observations! I spent about a week in a relatively urban/suburban German town and really was able to see so many animals and plants thriving in an urban setting. Everywhere I looked there were cobbled streets with grasses and dandelions or other green things sprouting up. And then there were the trees! Germany is so much greener and full of trees than California. There were big tough trunks and large deciduous trees that were beginning to shake off their leaves. I was in heaven, it was finally fall! Not just the time of the year for fall, but the fall weather was in full swing. It took my breath away, both literally and figuratively. The dry cold wind blowing was enough to make you gasp for breath, but added to the fall beauty. The crisp breezes caught and tugged at the clinging yellow and orange leaves, tossing them into the gray sky and onto the gray road. It was a refreshing break from the excessively hot and humid fall we have had in California this year, which has felt more like summer than fall.

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The Cheapest Eco-tourism Trip Ever: Wet-lands

Great Egret with Lizard

Great Egret with a tasty snack at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Many times when we think about incredible wildlife or biodiversity we think about exotic places. If only we could go there if only we could visit places that are in the travel magazines and National Geographic and get to see those amazing animals ourselves. But one of the greatest and most diverse ecosystems in the world today exists very close to us. In fact we don’t have to hop on a plane or pay that much to get there. All we have to do is pay attention. Wetlands are known today as an incredible home for many different kinds of animals.

And even though the Bolsa Chica Wetlands is just down the street from me. . . it may not be for you and honestly, there are little “wetlands” far nearer than that. Now not all wetlands are the same, but wherever there is wetness, moisture, or water there is life.
Water provides a basic need for all living things from little tiny animals you see under a magnifying glass or microscope, to larvae of different insects, microorganisms, algae, to animals you can see with your naked eye–amphibians, fish, birds and all the larger animals that come to the water sources to drink: house-cats, dogs, sparrows, hawks, deer, mountain lions, coyotes, rabbits, wasps–and these are just to name a few (and a few more typical of Southern California). But wherever there is water there is overcrowding, amazing biodiversity, and large amounts of animals living next to, on top of and inside of one another.

Continue Reading →