How can travelers help orcas and humpbacks?

In today’s newsletter, the best U.S. sunrises and sunsets; Stonehenge under repair; a bicyclist paradise … and the joy of a living root bridge.

This article is an adaptation of our weekly Travel newsletter that was originally sent out on September 17, 2021. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.

By George Stone, TRAVEL Executive Editor

Earlier this year, National Geographic took a deep dive into the hidden world of whale culture in a story illustrated by Brian Skerry’s amazing images of belugas, orcas, humpbacks, and other cetaceans. (Pictured above, the Nat Geo Explorer captures a mother humpback and calf off Vava’u, Tonga.)

“Whales’ alliances, their intricate conversations, and how they attract mates or care for their young seem eerily familiar. The mysteries we’re unraveling beneath the waves reveal creatures a lot like us,” writes Craig Welch, describing how scientists now suspect many whale species share cultural traditions, much as humans do.

Last weekend, Nat Geo’s Secrets of the Whales documentary series nabbed an Emmy with all the finesse of a killer whale hunting a herring. But the series, which shows how majestic and complex whales are, also surfaces existential challenges to these cetaceans. Which led us to ask how travelers can help conservation efforts to support whale populations.

Turns out that recent regulations in Canada, which aim to save orcas and humpbacks, could point the way toward more sustainable whale tourism. There are restrictions, of course—all boats must stay farther from the mammals than before and some activities, including snorkeling with humpbacks, are banned—but one of the gifts of travel is to learn how we can preserve what we find so inspiring.

“The problems of diminishing whale population numbers and increasing threats have moved the Canadian government to strengthen its regulations protecting whales and other cetaceans in recent years,” writes Johanna Read, calling out threats that include rising ocean temperatures, food supply shortages, and increased water traffic.

About 30 whale species live in Canadian waters, some of them endangered. (Above, Explorer Paul Nicklen captures a pod of beluga whales off the coast of Baffin Island, Nunavet.) “Before the new regulations went into effect, whale watching boats across Canada were usually respectful of the animals, though some edged in close to give customers photo ops. Now, the only legal close encounters are if whales surprise a boat captain and it’s not safe to move away,” Read writes.

Whale watching operators have increasingly kept the public aware and interested in protecting marine wildlife. “We are the eyes and ears [of] the world, sharing observations and raising the alarm where whales are being harassed or abused,” says Mike Reimer, owner of Churchill Wild, a whale watching company in Hudson Bay.

So far it’s difficult to measure the extent to which Canada’s protections are helping whales, but a sense of positivity prevails. Travelers can help not just in Canadian waters but around the world by treading lightly—or beluga aquagliding gracefully, as we suggest—and protecting wildlife and habitats above and below the waterline.

P.S. If you want to learn more about the secret culture of killer whales, tune into this episode of our podcast, Overheard at National Geographic.

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INSTAGRAM OF THE DAY

Instead of concrete: Photographer Prasenjeet Yadav didn’t have a quick description for the feeling of walking across his first jing kieng jri, or living root bridge, in Meghalaya, India. “No, it did not feel like crossing a concrete bridge. No, it did not feel like climbing a tree. Instead, it felt like a fairy tale come to life,” says Yadav, who is also a Nat Geo Explorer. In a place where concrete bridges are unlikely to survive even a few decades because of earthquakes, landslides, and floods, these bridges grow stronger, more robust, and resilient with age. Studies suggest that a single rubber tree (Ficus elastica) can potentially support up to a few hundred living species including birds, insects, sometimes mammals, and vegetation like moss. Here are surreal photos of India’s living root bridges.

SEE THEM

TODAY IN A MINUTE

The big wheel in U.S. cycling: Minneapolis, already one of America’s most bike-friendly cities, is known for a 5.5-mile former railyard corridor called the Greenway, a crosstown commuter bike path with easy access to parks, shops, and restaurants. Now it’s radically expanding its bike routes to make cycling more accessible and inclusive, Nat Geo reports. (Pictured above, cyclists on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis.)

COVID at the National Zoo: Six lions and three tigers at the Washington, D.C., zoo have tested positive, zoo officials said Friday. They are awaiting confirmation tests on African lions, a Sumatran tiger, and two Amur tigers, the Washington Post reports. COVID has struck many U.S. zoos, including in Atlanta and San Diego, as the virus is often passed along by asymptomatic humans. Many have now received a vaccine made specifically for animals, Natasha Daly reports.

Under repair: For the first time in decades, Stonehenge is getting spruced up. Laser scans show holes and cracks in the British landmark, whose stones date some 4,500 years. One of the world’s most famous monuments, Stonehenge last was repaired in the 1950s and ’60s, Reuters reports.

Put it in writing: Are you committed to leaving places better than you found them? More destinations are asking travelers to promise–in writing–to be better tourists, CNN reports. The Icelandic Pledge was first, targeting sustainability, dangerous photo-ops, and illegal off-roading. New Zealand has the Tiaki Promise, Hawaii just issued the Pono Pledge, and Palau asks visitors at customs to sign the Palau Pledge.

France bans unvaccinated U.S. tourists: The European country is the latest to tighten restrictions for American travelers, USA Today reports. A government decree bumped the U.S. and Israel from the country’s “green” list down to “orange,” effectively banning unvaccinated visitors.

Stand clear: When subway doors close, jingles warn riders to pay attention. Listen to different ones from around the world in this interactive piece from the New York Times.

THE BIG TAKEAWAY

Where glaciers still reign: Glaciers may be melting around the world, but they still make up more than a quarter of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (pictured above). Make no mistake: There are retreats and thinning among Its 1,045 glaciers, which include seven active tidewater glaciers calving into ocean waters. In better news, the park also has seen a resurgence in the humpback whale population, Jon Waterman reports for Nat Geo.

Subscriber exclusive: What the world would look like if all the ice melted

SEE THE PHOTOS

IN A FEW WORDS

LAST GLIMPSE

Golden hour: Where are the best sunrises and sunsets in America’s public lands? Acadia? The Badlands? Joshua Tree? Yes, yes, and yes, according to this latest Nat Geo photographic compilation. (Pictured above, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Acadia National Park.)

CATCH THE SUN 

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard and Monica Williams, and Heather Kim selected the photographs. If you’re willing to share, could you let us know where your favorite sunrise or sunset is? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com.

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