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Have you ever sung to a dolphin through a snorkel?

Wetsuits, snorkels, and singing with dolphins.

Kaikoura has an abundance of sea life just off the coast, and there's lots of opportunities to view them or even get up close and personal! Last time I was in Kaikoura I went whale watching, wandering with seals, and through the lavender gardens, this time I had the chance to check out some dusky dolphins...

The day started with the van picking us up at 5am. Ouch. After getting kitted up with mask/snorkel, wetsuit, fins, etc we watched an introductory video about the dolphins and safety.

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Dusky dolphins are generally the most acrobatic of the dolphins and luckily hang out near Kaikoura all year long. Encounter Kaikoura has been in business for over 20 years, and they have all sorts of permits specifying and limiting how many people can be in the water with the dolphins and how many tours they can do. They don't feed the dolphins or encourage them in any way.

They have a general idea of where the dolphins will be hanging out and 'socializing' when we head out on the water, but it takes some time to actually find them. Luckily it was a beautiful, relatively calm, day and the scenery was spectacular. Unlike bottlenose dolphins (and my general thoughts on dolphins) these guys don't have specific pods that they stick too, so you never know how many you'll actually see in one area.

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For awhile I was just on deck, watching as everyone else hopped in the water. They told us that we were here to entertain the dolphins. The dolphins didn't have to stick around, they could swim away. There was nothing keeping them there aside from their curiosity, so we had to try to be engaging to keep them around. They suggested diving down, trying to swim with them, (they're so fast though!) and also suggested singing to them. Dolphins live and communicate in a world of sound, so that makes sense. Also it's amazingly entertaining for everyone else around when you try to sing through a snorkel underwater...

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After awhile it was my turn to get in the water. I'm not sure how cold the water actually was, but I'd say it's the coldest water I've ever been swimming in! The visibility wasn't the greatest, so you couldn't always see the dolphins coming, and then all of a sudden, one would swim by! They'd usually do a circle around you to check you out, before continuing on, or sticking around for another circle. They certainly weren't afraid of us, and didn't mind getting real close.

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I didn't know whether to look under the water or above the surface!
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They were so quick of course, I just kind of waved my camera around and hoped I got a picture of one. Compared to the slow swim of the Minke Whales, there was no waiting for these guys to stop for a photo!

I did take two videos that I might as well post, but I'm spinning in circles for the first one, so try not to get dizzy with me! The second one is a little shorter and maybe better. I think I'm talking to the dolphins too, or just making random sounds anyway.

In the end everyone was cold, and some were starting to get seasick so after stopping just to view a large pod of maybe 200 dolphins, we headed back to shore. The jumps and flips always make the dolphins look like they're playing and having fun, and it was neat to be in the water trying to play with them too. I wonder what they thought of us...

Posted by smr1188 17:25 Archived in New Zealand Tagged animals boats ocean wildlife tours new_zealand swimming south_island Comments (3)

Great Barrier Reef + Snorkeling with Whales

"Wake up, whales are here"

There's a lot of different tour companies when it comes to diving the Great Barrier Reef. There's a variety of boats ranging from half day trips to liveaboard multi-day trips with several dives a day, some go to one area, some go to another area, this section of the reef is known for one thing, that section is more popular (does 'more popular' mean over-visited and destroyed?). Some websites advertise that they're more environmentally conscious, while others try to optimize timing (and cost).

If you put too much thought into it, it can become overwhelming very quickly! Although there was a company or two that seemed to have been able to lower the cost and provide more of a budget trip, Anna and I were afraid of what that meant when it came to diving. Too large of a boat with too many people all getting seasick? It was easy to imagine the horror stories we had heard.

So we committed to spending a bit more money in hopes of a better experience. Then I found a company that had a special permit allowing swimmers to be in the water (with snorkel gear) when there were minke whales nearby! Suddenly the question of money didn't seem relevant anymore, how could we turn down the possibility of being in the water with whales?!

We closed our eyes, handed over our credit cards to Deep Sea Divers Den, and let the reality sink in as we booked the trip aboard Taka. We were going diving on the Great Barrier Reef. With whales. Well, with the possibility of seeing whales anyway. We crossed our fingers. Or the Swedish version, we held our thumbs.

We then anxiously counted down the days while we made our way up the rest of the coast towards Cairns. We'd booked the trip almost a month away so that we had better chances of seeing some Minke Whales, since their migration through the Great Barrier Reef is June-August.

So. Fast forward a month of waiting and we were finally on the boat! The trip started in the evening of the first day, with motoring out away from Cairns and towards the Outer Reef and Ribbon Reefs where we'd be doing most of our diving. The crew gave us the rundown of the plan, the boat we were on, and the schedule for each of the days. We'd be aiming to do 5 dives a day, for 3 (very full) days to get as much diving in as possible. We were on the boat a total of 4 nights, but only 3 full days.

Each day we'd wake up to a schedule written up on the whiteboard that looked something like this.

Wake up call
Dive
Breakfast
Dive
Dive
Lunch
Dive
Dinner
Night Dive

It was a pretty flexible schedule allowing for if whales showed up or if weather conditions changed.

They also gave us the minke whale talk, explaining how there was a good chance we'd see them, but they couldn't guarantee it. When a whale is spotted, they'll get another crew member in the water right away, and then if the whale sticks around and is seen again, they'll make the announcement and we can all get suited up into wetsuits and snorkel gear and get in the water with as little splash as possible. We were then required to hold onto the rope that was out, ideally spaced out along it, and try not to move as much as possible. The whales would be curious, but more skeptical is someone is flailing and splashing their fins about.

We all went to bed that first night super excited about the possibilities of what we'd see over the next couple days and yet, not quite ready for that 6am wake up call (or at least I wasn't).

When the wake up call came, it came with the phrase "Wake up. Whales are here." Repeated as they knocked on all our doors.

Wait. What? They're here? No..they're just trying to get us up. That's clever. But maybe. Whales are here?

Although I didn't hurry, I didn't exactly take my time rolling out of bed, throwing on the bathing suit and stuffing contacts in my eyes before heading upstairs. And sure enough, half the people were already in the water, the other half still struggling and hopping about trying to get wetsuits on and masks fitted. The sun wasn't even above the horizon yet, but the whales were here!

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There were three whales swimming around us. They'd pass by and then circle back to get another look. It was an incredible feeling to see these guys swim by, and then because they wanted to, swim by again. They stuck around for over an hour, and eventually we were ready for breakfast (and getting cold from just floating) and got out of the water; I'm sure they would have stayed a lot longer if we'd stayed in the water with them.

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Minke whales are one of the smallest whales in the baleen whale family, but they can still be up to 35' long. Small for a whale, but still giant when you see them swim by just a few meters away!

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After the first whale encounter we were all required to fill out survey information sheets that described our experiences, how many whales we saw, how close they were, any specific behavior we saw, etc. Taka (Deep Sea Diver's Den) is able to have a permit for us to be in the water with the whales under the condition that we are helping 'research' and 'gather data' for the whales, since so little is known about minke whales. Although I didn't really trust my judgment in being able to say the whale was '3' meters away, I certainly did the best I could and was willing to submit any pictures I took of the whales for the researchers to try to identify them based on their coloring.

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Some whales were just curious and would swim back and forth, checking us out. One time we were joined by this playful whale that was just having some fun being a whale...

The rest of the trip blurred together of putting wetsuits on and taking wetsuits off, only to put them back on again, diving and whales. I was also doing my Advanced Open Water Certification which meant getting together with other students and discussing the lessons, taking quizzes, and doing specific skills while on the dives to show that we've mastered 'peak performance buoyancy' or 'navigation'. We also did a deep dive where we went down to 90 feet (similar to Adrenaline's Dive).

Anna and I were able to dive together some when I wasn't doing skill dives, which was neat too. We saw turtles, moray eels, cuttlefish, puffer fish, and clown fish. And of course so many other fish that I didn't recognize having never swam with them before.

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We also did a couple of night dives as well. Not quite as scary as I thought, but I still wasn't a huge fan of it. Perhaps that's because the first night that we did it, our group ended up getting split up some when someone wasn't paying attention, so then the rest of the dive was just stressful in trying to keep track of everyone and then it's hard to relax and look for lobsters and sharks. The second night we did a 'shark dive' where our plan was to (intentionally) try to find some sharks. No such luck. But I was ok with that; I'd rather see them when it's daylight instead of when they're hunting at night. Other groups seemed to have lots of luck with the night dives, coming back with all sorts of stories of creatures they saw (or fish they saw get eaten). So perhaps I was just always pointing my flashlight in the wrong direction.

One day while we were travelling to the next spot we were joined by some dolphins. That was just amazing. They must have heard the boat in the distance and came RACING over to join us in front of the bow.

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There was one special dive that we did as a group...this place was known as Cod Hole, home of the very large and somewhat friendly potato cod. We dove down and settled on the bottom in something resembling a circle with one of the instructors in the middle with a bucket of fish for the potato cod.

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I'm not sure why there were no sharks attracted to the chunks of fish that were being thrown through the water for the potato cod, but the instructor went around the circle and fed the fish in front of each of us. The fish didn't seem to care for anything but the food and waited patiently each time for it's snack.

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This fish was HUGE! The video of Anna and the fish shows the scale (no pun intended) of the fish.

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There was an awesome group of people on the boat (luckily it wasn't even full) and we all got along really well, which was amazing. We'd usually end up sitting wherever there was an open seat available so we got to chat with everyone and there wasn't the annoying clique feeling that some large tour groups end up having (noticed that on my Fraser Island tour). We'd swap dive stories or just travel stories, or even stories of home since people were from all over. At the end of each day we were all exhausted though so we didn't really hang out too much before all heading to bed at the end of each day. Everyone looks out for eachother when they're diving, which leads to a sense of closeness on the boat I guess. No one really bragged about wildlife they saw that other people missed out on. Even the loveable “Shark Boys” that managed to see sharks on 90% of their dives were inviting other people to come dive with them and see a shark because they just always saw a shark.

There were a couple other people doing the Advanced Open Water class but luckily it was a small group.

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Towards the end of the trip my ears started to bother me. Nothing major, but I'd certainly irritated it by doing all the diving in quick succession after not diving for a long time. I don't know enough about ears to say what the problem was exactly but just that it felt like I had water in my ear, not quite painful but certainly uncomfortable, and everyone told me I should probably not dive anymore. Only I could make that call and it was a hard decision. I did do one more dive (to complete my Advanced Open Water) but I couldn't enjoy it while worrying about my ears the whole time.

Without a doubt, the highlight on the trip was being able to see the minke whales swim by underwater again and again. And taking a million pictures of them, of course. In the end we ended up seeing 10 whales! In pairs or two or three usually. And they always hung out with us for as long as we were in the water with them, usually over an hour.

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I never expected my Great Barrier Reef diving experience would be centered around minke whales, but I'm so glad I was there when they were migrating through and that it worked out that way! Taka was a great boat to be on, with an enthusiastic staff that loved what they did, which always makes a huge difference.

And now for some more whale pictures if you're not tired of them yet...

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Photo credit to Anna and myself, but since we swapped and shared cameras, I cannot say who's is who's. :)

Posted by smr1188 13:51 Archived in Australia Tagged animals boats diving wildlife australia tours great_barrier_reef whale_watching east_coast Comments (1)

Twilight Racing

"You're wearing raincoats, you should go sailing!"

It was a rainy Wednesday afternoon and we were just walking around Airlie Beach, getting some pancake mix and syrup (real syrup!) for dinner, when we heard the voice behind us.

“Hey, you're wearing raincoats, you should go sailing”

That certainly got my attention. I try to get more information as the guy walks by, but he seems in a hurry and doesn't want to stop, despite being the one who started the conversation. He's pretty vague but mentions a Wednesday evening sailing race where there's sometimes extra space, pulls out his phone and shows us a couple pictures, and a video, then starts to point to a cafe, then changes his mind and just gives us his phone number, saying to text in a half an hour and he'll tell us where to meet. He says it's free, but generally nice if you buy the skipper a beer afterwords. Not a bad deal!

We rush back to the hostel, drop off our bags, and text the guy, “hey, we're in, where should we meet?”

No response.

We decide to walk into town and then text again, “We'd like to join you for sailing, where and when should we meet you?”

Then we get the response, “We'd love for you to go sailing, but you've got the wrong number.” Classic.

We wander around town, on the off chance we'll see him walking around again, and we start getting desperate. Finally, as a last resort I suggest we ask the Yacht Club. We walk in and I don't even know how to ask, “So I heard something about Wednesday night sailing?”
“Oh yes,” the woman replies, “just go sit at that table and I'll see if any of the skippers are still taking people.

Moments later we find ourselves on a sailboat! A 43' Hanse, With a mix of trying to help and trying to stay out of the way of the crew (4 guys) we get the sails set and head out of the slip.

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Anna and I are positioned up by the bow, out of the way and moving for ballast, and I'm in charge of skirting the sail when necessary.

It was a gorgeous evening for a sail, the clouds lifted and it was perfect. Beautiful. Luckily, the race was just for fun and didn't count for anything, since we came in last.

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Posted by smr1188 17:42 Archived in Australia Tagged boats australia sailing racing east_coast Comments (2)

Solway Lass

Stinger suits, sails, and sunsets

Another 'must-do' as you travel the East Coast of Australia is go sailing in the Whitsundays. Made up of 74 islands, it's simply gorgeous, and the Southern start of the Great Barrier Reef. Featuring one of the purest, whitest beaches in the world, it's the kind of trip you cross your fingers for full sun!

There are many boats and tours to choose from, day trips to overnight or even two or three night trips, from party boats to hopefully non-party boats. Ansley (another American that I met in New Zealand and have kept in contact with) had recommended Ragamuffin (a 3 day, 2 night trip), as that was the one she'd done and had loved it. It's a 53' Admirals Cup yacht, and it looked awesome. Although I did actually choose this one and reserve it, it ended up being a slow week and there wasn't enough people booked for that boat to sail, and I got switched / upgraded to Solway Lass. Built in Holland in 1902, she's a classic tall ship with lots of history and the tour was for 3 days and 3 nights!

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We boarded after dinner the first night and motored out of the harbour and into the Whitsundays for a couple hours, before anchoring for the night. Obviously rooms and beds are small, since we're on a boat, but luckily we were only 13 people, on a boat with a capacity to sleep 32. This meant it was mostly 2 people to a room of 4, and gave us a little more room than if it'd been packed. The boat itself is 127' including the bow sprit, and 20' beam, two masts and 12 sails (though the most we had set were 3).

Hmm, I can't believe I didn't take any pictures below or of the berths!

Since it was dark when we left the harbour, we were anxious to wake up and see where we were. We woke up to this...

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Our first stop of the day was Whitehaven Beach. The pristine, super white, famous beach I mentioned before. We anchored on the other side of the island and hiked over to the beach. We got to wear these awesome, sexy, stinger suits for the water since it was still stinger season. There are some intense jellyfish (such as the box jellyfish and the irukandji) that you don't want to mess with.

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The clouds and sun alternated, providing us with everything from storm clouds (complete with rain!) to sunshine and blue sky. It was great to see the difference the sun made, all in just a half an hour!

After we'd spent some time at the beach, we headed up to a lookout point. Unfortunately, there were tons of people about and everyone was so focused on 'getting that perfect picture' that no one seemed aware that everyone else was trying to do the same thing. Which led to lots of frustrated people. We were also on a time schedule because of the tides, we had to get back to the beach or we wouldn't be able to get back to the boat!

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That afternoon we set the sails and the sun came out for a lovely afternoon sail. Off the bowsprit was a net you could hang out on, though it wasn't the most comfortable, it was certainly the most awesome place to hang out, and that's where I spent most of my time!

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Our second day was the snorkeling (and diving if you added that extra) day. I'd been very torn with the diving option, it was additional money, but I'd heard really good things about the area (again, from Ansley). I did decide not to dive, and save that for when I'm farther north, and from what everyone who went diving said, I totally made the right call. Apparently there was barely any visibility and they didn't even see many fish.

We did do a bunch of snorkeling and saw tons of fish. The fish were definitely used to people, some boats (including ours) were even feeding them (at least it was “Great Barrier Reef Approved Fish Food”). I was a little disappointed in the state of the coral, it didn't look so good. My guess was it was too popular of a place with all the boats going there and people not used to having fins continually got too close. Our boat didn't even give out fins to swim with, saying most people damage the coral with them.

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That afternoon we went to another snorkeling spot, but this one had less visibility and we didn't really see much. By that point we were also getting cold and a lot of us didn't stay in the water very long.

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Our third, and final day, involved a bush walk up to a lookout and then an afternoon sail back to the harbour. The weather didn't really cooperate that day and was pretty overcast and rainy. But still such an awesome trip! And of course I felt like I was on a boat still that night and even felt like I was swaying the next day :)

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Posted by smr1188 05:43 Archived in Australia Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches boats ocean beach australia tours sand sailing whitsundays east_coast Comments (1)

Noosa Everglades Canoe & Kayak Camping Safari

Invisible bull sharks and mirror reflections

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Unfortunately, as a backpacker, when you hear something about camping or even kayaking associated the Noosa Everglades, you tend to think of the Gagaju bushcamp. Now I didn't do the bushcamp, so I can't say for sure...but I did hear enough bad reviews and horror stories to steer me far away from it.

Luckily, there is an awesome alternative that's still paddling in the everglades for 3 days! Kanu Kapers! Yes, the Florida Everglades aren't the only everglades, there's one other one here in Australia! It's located on the east coast, just a couple hours north of Brisbane and just outside the relaxed town of Noosa Heads.

Right from the start, Kanu Kapers had awesome customer service, responding to my emails and answering all my questions as I tried to plan a kayak camping trip while travelling. I eventually decided on the 3 Day Kayak trip and convinced a friend of mine that I met in Brisbane to join me. The 3-day package was definitely affordable and included all the camping / paddling gear necessary, from stove and fuel to tent and tarp, from maps to the boat and paddling accessories.

When I reserved the boat, they booked a campsite for me and arranged a free pickup from my Noosa hostel to their headquarters, about a half an hour drive. There we arranged our gear, packed the car, and headed off to the launching point.

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It was amazingly calm and peaceful when we got to Lake Cootharaba, loaded up our kayaks and headed out on the water.

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I couldn't believe how calm the waters were, for what seemed like a big lake. And the reflections were spectacular.

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We made our way across the lake and onto the Noosa River. The navigation was easy with a couple well positioned signs.

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Once we got into the heart of the everglades, the reflections just got better and better.

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We stopped for lunch at Harry's Hut and got destroyed with mosquitoes before we gave up and got back to paddling.

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Once we got to our campsite we set up our tent and explored the area a little. We had a dock, and there were tons of minnows and tadpoles in the water!

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We made ourselves some tea, covered ourselves in bug spray, and watched the sunset and marveled at the reflections. And when the stars came out, they were reflected in the water as well and it was just spectacular. Some things you can't capture on a simple digital camera. It was neat watching the colors change as evening progressed and then into the next morning as well. Where, if possible, the reflections were more intense.

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I couldn't help myself, I just kept taking pictures... There were tons of birds in the area as well, though mostly out of sight. My bird identification by sound is somewhat lacking so I can't really say which birds we heard, but the trees were full of life! Here's a quick video of the sounds (though I'm sure half the birds stopped when I hit 'record'!).

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Finally we got on the water and headed up the river for a mid-day hike up to the Cooloola Sandpatch.

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It was huge! And had gorgeous views of the area...

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We were just as impressed with the reflections when we got back to the water.

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No matter how hard you looked, or at what angle, there was no way to see beneath the surface. Who knows what was swimming below, or how deep the water was. Judging by sticking my paddle in occasionally, it was very deep in parts. There were signs saying to be careful and not to jump in the water, because you can't know how deep it is or if there's submerged logs and whatnot. There was also mention of bull sharks. Bull sharks?! We didn't see any though, and after researching them when I got back afterwards, I'm glad. But we were certainly hoping to see one and on the lookout for them...exclaiming after every splash or fish jump, 'bull shark!'

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Anyway, we headed back to the campsite and enjoyed another sunset.
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The next morning we woke to the sound of this...

...and then went back to sleep.

By the time we packed up camp it'd slowed down to just a little drizzle.
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Undeterred by weather, we continued with our plan and paddled up Kin Kin Creek some, before heading back to the lake and the end of our trip.

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It was SO great to be out on the water and camping. A break from the east coast travel, crazyness, tours, parties, hostels, and general overpopulation of German backpackers. Noosa is a small town that is easily missed by many, but the Noosa Everglades and a paddle with Kanu Kapers shouldn't be missed by anyone! Do this for something different. And for great pictures.

Posted by smr1188 16:31 Tagged lakes boats rivers walking australia kayaking sand east_coast Comments (4)

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