Tag Archives: travel

Lonco: El Ex-Callejero

Originally written June – July 2013
A departure from the ocean to tell the story of a land companion found during my three month research stay in Patagonia.

Lonco en ruta
Some days here feel like a combination of Homeward Bound and the Discovery Channel. As I walk along the beach, my newfound companion, a former street dog, and a pack of still independent street dogs race ahead. To my right I hear a powerful splash as a whale breaches near to shore. Closer to shore, a few whales linger in the shallows, their exhalations overpowering the gentle ocean waves.

It happened a few days ago. While I am often followed by a stray dog on my walks through town, none has ever stayed longer than a few blocks, soon off to find a free meal or to meet another stray. Yet one day, as I returned from CENPAT, I found a large, German shepherd mix crying in front of our apartments. Most street dogs are independent, street-savvy creatures. While they enjoy the company of humans, they are equally happy chasing compatriots along the beach and down the streets. Occasionally, a fight breaks out. This abandoned dog bore two fresh wounds on his head, a sign of a recent scrap with another dog. He was skinny, but overall healthy.  He didn’t have the independent cadence of a street dog; instead he seemed lost and confused. Likely dropped off here with well wishes from an owner whose house he outgrew, or perhaps strayed too far from home, unable to find the route back.

Lonco en la playa
At first, I thought he would leave, like the other dogs. Find some other street to call his own, or take to the beach. But the next morning, I found him sleeping in front of our small set of houses. He seemed at a loss of what to do and, in turn, began to follow the neighbor’s dog and me around town. I tried to discourage him, tell him to leave, but when he chased the car I was in down several blocks as we tried to go to an asado, I knew it was too late. The following day, as I left for a scuba diving trip, he chased the boat into the water, crying from the beach. When I returned four hours later, I found him resting in front of the scuba shop. Ya esta… he was my new dog.

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For a few weeks he didn’t have a name and his collar was  a red lanyard lent to me by my neighbor. She recommended I adopt him and, when I asked how that was possible, she put the lanyard securely around his neck and told me he was now my dog. They say Argentina es un pais generoso, and I suppose it really is – never have I seen the acquirement of a dog happen so easily (or affordably). Even the veterinarian visits were affordable – U$S 20 for his vaccinations and U$S 50 to neuter him. This may explain why I am still in a state of shock after a $300 “routine checkup” and vaccine at the local veterinarian in New York…

One evening, as I was conducting interviews in the hostel down the street from my home and the dog was waiting outside, an elderly couple asked me if I had named him yet. They began to discuss Mapuche words as possible names and recommended Lonco, the name of the tribal chieftain. I let the name sit on my tongue for a few more days before finally deciding that it was perfect – a name from the region, a name evoking leadership and power, a name similar to lindo and loco, my two most frequently used adjectives for the calm-natured, but easily upset, Lonco.

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Over the next few months, Lonco became my steadfast companion. We would run along the beach, eat empanadas by the rambla, and spend evenings drinking with my neighbor and her dog Isabella. When I left for Puerto Piramides, my neighbor would watch after him. Upon my return, Lonco was sure to tell me how upset he was at being left (although my neighbor assured me he enjoyed his afternoons with Isabella and meat scraps from the local butcher). Tourists would ask me for directions and I began to feel more integrated into my small house and community.

So when it came time to leave my newfound home and local family, I decided to bring a piece of home back to the states with me. A quick trip to the vet for a travel certificate, signed by the SENASA office in Puerto Madryn, and 12 pesos per kilo at the airport brought Lonco with me to Buenos Aires. From there, we obtained an international travel certificate from another local vet, certified by SENASA in San Isidro and the Ezeiza Airport, spent a few hours of photocopies and verification at the American Airlines check-in, paid $175, and arrived to JFK in New York City on August 22. Just in time for my 90-day visa to expire.

Lonco en Buenos Aires

It was a long journey, from the flat coast of Patagonia to the humid tropics of Buenos Aires to the mountainous terrain of upstate New York, but it fits the nomadic, street dog lifestyle Lonco and I have become accustomed to.  For now, we will take a break and pass the days in the forests and mountains of upstate New York, dreaming of the day we return to the beaches and desert landscape of Puerto Madryn, and to the sound of whales exhaling along the beach as we run with sand in between our toes. 

Lonco en Nueva York
Special thanks to:

My dad, for watching Lonco while I am at Yale and unable to keep him in my apartment.

Milagros, my wonderful neighbor, for keeping a watchful eye on Lonco during my overnight stays in Puerto Piramides

Jackie, for offering her home to Lonco and me and helping me get Lonco fully certified and ready to internationally travel during my three days in Buenos Aires.

Miguel, for helping with transportation of Lonco and his extra large kennel in Puerto Madryn.

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Where the Whales Lie: El Doradillo, Argentina

Today, I felt adventurous. After nearly two weeks in Puerto Madryn, exploring the city, meeting the people, searching for tourists to interview, I wanted a day away. I wanted an adventure.

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Three years ago, when I first came here, a friend and I walked, and then hitchhiked, to a site called El Doradillo. The site is about 18 km from town and open to the public, unlike other protected areas, which charge an entrance fee. This protected series of beaches surround an inshore area where the Southern Right Whales can breed and nurture their young in peace. The rocky beach drops off suddenly, allowing the whales to venture close to the shore. Sometimes, they are almost close enough to touch.

The sun usually rises by 9hs, followed by the slow opening of the stores throughout the town. The season is still quiet, as there won’t be large numbers of tourists until the end of June or mid July. Both the stores, and I, anxiously await their arrival so that our work can begin. As a result, many stores catering to tourists barely open by 10hs.

After acquiring a local bike rental, I set off at 10:30 for El Doradillo. The path begins easy – a paved sidewalk along the beach. I can already see the whales splashing in the surf. People stop to photograph them, but I continue onwards, knowing they will be much closer at my destination.

Soon, the road turns to dirt and I must follow a detour to another path of ripio. The wind blows hard against my bicycle, which does its best to withstand the changing landscape beneath and forceful winds. Occasionally, a car passes by, obscuring all. I press onwards, hoping to avoid any unfortunate collisions.

The landscape never changes. To my left, shrubbery and a plateau. The smell of cattle as I pass a farm. To my right, beyond the shrubbery, the blue ocean. I can occasionally see a spray of water as a whale exhales.

Punta Fletcha

I approach the first entrance of El Doradillo, but the perfect viewing site is still a few miles away. I push forward to Punta Fletcha, an elevated viewpoint. Here, looking straight down into the water, you can see the whales as they pass by below. You can hear their powerful breaths. The area is full of them.

Ballenato

I meet another young woman, also traveling by bike. Finally, a visitor I can interview! In this epoca baja, visitors are few and far between, making my work challenging. We finish our interview, discuss the wildlife, and I continue to Playa Las Canteras.

Southern Right Whale playing by El Doradillo

When I arrive, I know I’ve arrived to the right place. A beach of black, smooth pebbles drops off into the sea, as a group of five whales splashed around in the shallows. A few visitors stand on the beach, watching the spectacle. Powerful blasts of air and water accompany the gentle roll of waves. The whales are nearly close enough to touch. Many locals, and Argentine nationals, often opt to visit this site rather than pay the entrance fee and trip expenses to go to Puerto Piramides for a whale watching boat excursion. The proximity of the whales, and the low cost to see them as such, is an experience unknown in most other parts of the world, and one of the many unique facets of the Peninsula Valdes World Heritage Site.

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It had been three years since my last visit here, but two things had not changed: the proximity of the whales and the quantity of gulls harassing them. As I sat on the beach, I watched as kelp gulls swarmed the southern right whale, sometimes diving down to bite off skin. Their parasite-like behavior is the result of opportunistic feeding evolution and an over-population spurred by poor waste management. Only controversial and complex solutions have been put forward, from improving waste management to culling the gulls through targeted hunting of the “attacker gulls.” Despite over ten years of discussion and awareness of the problem (although many locals and visitors still deny that these gulls are causing any real harm), very little has been done to address the gull pest problem.

As the whales and visitors disperse, and the sun slowly sinks into the horizon, I begin my uphill journey back to Puerto Madryn.

El Doradillo

South of the Equator: Galapagos Day 6

Day 6: Cousin Rock

Sunrise South of the Equator

Our diving in paradise quickly came to an end, and we started the journey south. Crossing the equator, we awoke to a different world. Restful marine iguanas and alert Galapagos penguins shared the sun spread across the rocky side of the island. In the shallow waters, illuminated by the sun, we could see hundreds of sea turtles seeking that sacred warmth.

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The Dive masters recommended a heavier wetsuit – our days of tropical diving in the Galapagos were at an end. Bracing ourselves with hoods, gloves, and 7mm suits, we jumped into the icy waters.

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The world had changed. Yellow hard corals stood out amongst a desolate landscape. The colors were duller and the animals were scarcer. Clinging to an anchor, a few sea horses. ‘Hopping’ through the sand, hardly distinct in color, a batfish.

Mola mola

And then a dark shadow. Obscuring the sun rays, we looked to see the quickly retreating form of a mola mola. In this low visibility, and with its speed, I found that, unlike the whale sharks, catching up with these large, bony fish would be a waste of precious air. Fortunately, with patience, we continued to see these huge, and incredibly strange, creatures. Occasionally one would pause, turning on his side with his mouth towards the surface, in hopes of attracting fish to participate in this “cleaning station”.

Galapagos Penguin & Iguana

As we neared the island, a quick flash of movement passed us. And then another. Black and white. These little penguins were too fast to capture in camera, much less within the limits of our human vision.

Flightless Cormorant

Another flightless bird also investigated our strange group of bubble-breathing humans. The flightless cormorant, a special variety of a common marine bird which has lost its ability to fly in an attempt to venture the seas among penguins and fish.

Blue-footed booby
Although not endemic, the well-known Blue-footed Booby is another symbol of the Galapagos Islands. We found them decorating the island rocks as we took a short tour in one of the zodiacs, catching our first “top-side” glimpses of marine wildlife such as seabirds.

Mexican Horned Shark

Certainly, the loss of warm waters was made up for by the strange assortment of creatures here, many endemic to the Galapagos Islands.

Seastar

A Paradise: The Galapagos Day 5

Originally Written October 2012

Day 5: Wolf Island, Shark Cove and Landslide 

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How do you describe paradise? How can you accurately describe a fleet of eagle rays gliding in perfect formation, as schools of hammerhead sharks pass overhead and a turtle accompanies you?

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How can you begin to imagine the sensation of diving alongside a mammoth whale shark, following her into the vast blue, your air supply depleting as your tired legs and lungs gasp for air, only to find yourself surrounded by nothing more than schools of fish and pure emptiness? How do you describe such an immense amount of biodiversity filling your field of vision?

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What does it mean to playfully roll about in the surf, with Galapagos fur seals as your companions? Their large eyes holding a curiosity equal only to your own.

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Here, even the fish hold their own vanity in showing off their bright hues and fantastic displays of fins and scales. Like dancers of the sea, they are.

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The clear, blue water allowed us to see for meters in any direction, allowing us to accompany as many as 12 whale sharks on a single dive. Throughout the dives, the incessant chatter of dolphins distracted our ever-searching eyes, hopeful for the sight of any kind of macrofauna. Our search was not in vain, as we were rewarded with a show of marine life that put the most impressive aquariums and marine collections to shame. As pods of dolphins played overhead, and even below, a constant stream of hammerhead sharks could be seen in almost any direction. The friendliest Galapagos Sea Turtles also made an appearance, gently gliding alongside our cameras for some photographs before departing into the currents.

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What we saw at Wolf Island during a day of diving goes beyond any expectations, or even dreams, of what we hoped to see.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 25 m / 80′

Dive Time: 60 min

Visibility: 8 – 12 m

Temperature: 22 – 24 C

Diving Paradise: The Florida Keys

Since I became certified, maybe even before, the talk of the town, the prime dive destination for the entire Gulf of Mexico, was the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. How could I spend an entire summer in Florida without seeing it? And so began the eight hour long journey, via my antiquated Volvo, to explore it.

Florida Keys: Key Largo, FL

Dive Charter: Quiescence Diving Services, Inc. 

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary covers the length of the Florida Keys, protecting 2,900 square nautical miles of coral reefs, mangroves, and sea grass beds. The reef is the world’s third largest barrier reef.

The sanctuary is a prime example of multiple use management. This means that some sites are open to recreational fishing, snorkeling, and SCUBA diving, while other areas are closed off completely. Some areas, for example, may be open for indirect uses, such as snorkeling and diving, while others are open to direct uses such as spearfishing and recreational fishing.

In 1960, long before the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park was established as the world’s first underwater park. This designation set a precedent for protecting key areas along the Florida Keys, such as the 1975 designation of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary and the 1981 designation of the Looe Key national Marine Sanctuary. Finally, in 1990, after signs of deterioration and growing human threats became apparent, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was established to protect the entire region, incorporating the two previously designated sanctuaries.

By designating the area as a national marine sanctuary, it is protected from oil exploration and development, excessive or large shipping traffic, anchoring, and other extractive activities (coral collecting, certain types of fishing, fishing in certain areas, fish collection, etc.).

Unlike the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, the Florida Keys has shallow water reefs. Most of the dive sites are less than 35′ in depth, which is great for visibility and important coral growth. Unfortunately, this also means that storms and other weather events can significantly impact your diving experience.

When I arrived on Friday, I received a call from the dive resort informing me that all weekend dive trips had been cancelled due to weather. Driving across the bridge, I could see white caps on the waves and knew that conditions could be rough further out from show.

Nonetheless, I called another dive charter in Key Largo and booked myself for a day of diving.

Brain coral and Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus)

On Saturday morning, the dive charter, Quiescence Diving Services, was the epitome of responsibility. Due to the 6-8′ waves, no snorkeler was allowed onboard. All divers were informed, multiple times, that the conditions would be challenging at best. Insistent, I boarded their small vessel with five other divers (max occupancy of six divers per boat). The captain skillfully took us out into the ocean, with waves rising as high as the boat at times. He assisted each diver with putting on his or her equipment… and then we back-rolled into the sea.

Despite the strong surge, pushing us forward and backwards, the visibility was perfect, allowing the sun to shine down and highlight the colorful corals. Browsing through the photographs above, one can see that the site is dominated by soft corals – sea fans and sea whips. The corals swayed gently back and forth with the sage, like trees swaying in the wind.

Hard corals, like the brain coral, also covered the site, providing the strong and stable support necessary for reefs. Hard corals, also known as stony corals or hexacorals, are the primary reef building corals. They build reefs through the secretion of calcium carbonate “skeletons”, which, once the coral ages and dies, provides a solid foundation for continued reef building and growth.

Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata)

The Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), pictured above, is a prime example of a reef building coral. In the photograph, the vibrant orange branches of Elkhorn are growing on top of and branching from the purple-gray hued skeleton of previous Elkhorn coral.

Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis)

Elkhorn coral and Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) are two of the most important reef building corals, and also two of the most endangered. Even though both corals are hard corals, they form via a delicate branching structure, which can easily become broken from passing, careless divers, or from natural events such as hurricanes. Coral bleaching and disease also threaten these species. 

Boulder star coral (Montastraea annularis)

Boulder star coral (Montastraea annularis) is another important reef building coral, due to the massive and solid structure it creates. It is easily recognizable by its “star shaped” coral polyps. Although it is one of the most abundant reef building corals, it is listed as Endangered by the IUCN and is threatened by coral disease and bleaching, damage from humans and natural events, and over-grazing by Stoplight Parrotfish.

Stoplight parrotfish initial phase (Sparisoma viride)

Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) are colorful, large, and distinctive reef fishes, and one of my favorite! The Stoplight Parrotfish appears above in its initial phase, with dominant red and black/grey colors. As it ages, it becomes shades of green and blue. Parrotfish can be found in reefs grazing on the coral and algae, making them both important but potentially threatening herbivores. Parrotfish may over-graze coral, leading to its destruction, or graze on algae, which allows coral to flourish in its place.

The reefs revealed other important indicators of a healthy and safe coral reef ecosystem.

IMG_1780Endangered Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus)

The Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) is listed as Endangered by the IUCN due to heavy overfishing over the years. I have never seen one alive, so this was a really exciting find! He did not seem to enjoy being photographed, but I managed to snap this shot before he disappeared into the reef, dark stripes fading to blend the entire fish into the sand.

Foureye Butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus)

Butterflyfish are considered another important biological indicator for reef health. Foureye Butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus) are a common species found throughout tropical waters. Although their diet is varied, some butterflyfish feed specifically on coral, using their narrow mouth to gently nip the polyps, without significantly damaging the entire coral. When a reef is not healthy, and, consequently, coral becomes less abundant, it is suspected that butterflyfish whose diet primarily consists of coral will also become less abundant. Those remaining, on the other hand, will become more territorial and display such signs of aggression.

Adult Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus)

This trip further marked my first sighting of an adult Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus), a fish named for its hoglike behavior and it pokes around in the substrate with its snout in search of a meal. They are a colorful species, with a range of patterns and colors. Generally, a darker patch covering the forehead distinguishes the males from the females. Hogfish are actually a type of wrasse and are targeted by recreational fishermen and spear divers due to their large size. Although there are limits on the size of the fish and type of gear used, Hogfish are listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. In the unprotected waters near Tampa, juvenile species were common but I never once saw an adult. I thought it interesting that my first sighting of a full grown adult occurred in the protected Florida Keys waters.

Broken Staghorn Coral (Acropora Cervicornis)

Despite the challenging conditions, eight foot waves and a strong surge, the overall dive experience was enjoyable. For the first time, I could visualize the significance of the Elkhorn and Staghorn corals as reef builders, I could understand both from papers and from experience the appearance of a functioning, healthy reef. Alternatively, I could also see that, while activities such as diving financially support an industry that protects fragile and ecologically important sites, it also causes damages. As I explored the reef, careful not to inadvertently damage any reef while attempting to capture its beauty in a photograph, I discovered areas littered in the shattered fragments of hard corals. Although the true cause of such destruction could not be determined, it represented the potential consequences of careless diving and other adverse human impacts. The slow growth of hard corals has led to the critically endangered status now placed upon Elkhorn and Staghorn corals, as researchers struggle to find ways to rebuild and maintain these corals. Hurricanes, overgrazing from parrotfish, and coral disease are just some of the natural threats these corals face, in addition to the impacts of fishing gear and careless divers.

French reef

Despite these apparent threats, the reefs were undoubtedly some of the healthiest I have observed in the Gulf, perhaps only rivaled by the protected deepwater reefs of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Although sanctuary status cannot protect from all harm, especially not ocean wide effects such as pollution and warming waters, it certainly helps to some degree, to allow reefs to flourish and yet still be explored by curious divers and snorkelers.

General Site Conditions

Dive Site: French Reef

Date: 21 July 2012

Max depth: 41′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 25′

Dive Site: French Reef – “The Christmas Tree”

Date: 21 July 2012

Max depth: 35′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 15-20′

Dive Site: Hard Bottom Cave

Date: 21 July 2012

Max depth: 43′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 25′

Gulf Diving: Saint Pete Artificial Reef

Unlike its tropical neighbor, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico is not known as a prime diving site. Most divers shun its unpredictable weather, its poor visibility, and its dead zones. Diving in the Gulf brings to thought images of oil rigs, pollution, algae overgrowth. And it’s true that these environmental threats persist throughout the region, but they have yet to dampen the amazing array of marine biodiversity found throughout its waters.

I have discussed the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary at length in my previous entries, so I would like to highlight some local diving sites that promise adventure and an impressive array of life to those who visit.

Saint Petersburg, Florida

Dive Charter: Blue Water Explorers

During the summer, I visited the Saint Pete Artificial Reef twice with Blue Water Explorers and the Canterbury Venture Crew. The purpose of our trips was to document the different types of species and habitat we observed at the site.

Saint Pete Artificial Reef is an expansive site that includes a handful of military tanks, a barge, and other rubble and pilings. On a good day, divers will encounter goliath grouper and schools of fish. Unfortunately for us, the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debbie was lingering. The entire month after the tropical storm, which stayed in the Saint Petersburg area for several days, visibility throughout the area in dive sites shallower than 40 feet was dramatically reduced.

Despite the challenging conditions, the entire group found an interesting array of life amongst the rubble, the tanks, and even in the sandy areas.

Starfish and black urchins, both a type of echinoderm, covered the site, serving as indicators of a healthy marine environment. Starfish function through an internal hydraulic water vascular system, which aids in movement and capture of prey. However, this system pumps un-filtered water throughout the starfish’s body, making the creature vulnerable to water pollution. Despite their seemingly sedentary state, starfish are actually voracious predators that can have a major impact on the benthic community. They primarily feed on mollusks, using their powerful limbs to force open the shells of clams and oysters.


This large starfish, over a foot in width from the tip of one leg to the other, could be seen moving relatively quickly across the benthic floor. It appears that the bristles extending from each leg assisted in its speedy locomotion. I observed this starfish in two different sites along the Gulf coast of Florida, but have yet to discover its exact species name.

Fragile corals and sea whips decorated the site, adding to the colorful display of sponges and fishes.

The most abundant and curious creatures appeared to be these small hawkfish. Based on their appearance, they seem related to the Redspotted Hawkfish (Amblycirrhitus pinos). Hanging suspended, one finger gently placed on a rock and the other hand gripping my camera, these fish would quickly approach me… sometimes even nipping my finger! Despite their curiosity, their quick movements allowed them to evade most of my photographs.

As I waited, perched on a piece of the wreckage that formed the base of the reef, a Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) swam by, grazing on the benthos covering the site. Sheepshead are a popular target for recreational fishermen, but there is currently no management strategy in place to monitor their population.

Most of the above photographs were taken during our second trip to the Saint Pete Artificial Reef, on July 25. Although visibility was poor, we were able to see a variety of life through a concerted and thoughtful effort to look at the small nooks and crannies of the reef and the edges of the structure.

During our first dive trip to the site, on July 13, visibility was significantly reduced, being a mere two to three weeks after Tropical Storm Debbie. At this time, it was late in the summer, which meant warmer water and subsequent signs of coral bleaching on the hard corals at the site. Compared to the previous photographs, the water in the above image is a darker green. Using my flash due to the lack of light, I created backscatter in the top portion of the photograph, highlighting the density of particles in the water. Warming ocean waters are also associated with increased algae production and growth, which may overgrow sites that lack the grazing herbivores to control it.

Nonetheless, this site still appears relatively healthy, with an abundance of encrusting and other types of sponges covering the site and tropical fish swimming all around.

 General Site Conditions

Trip #1, 13 July 2012

Max depth: 35′

Temperature: 81 F

Visibility: 3 – 5′

Trip #2, 25 July 2012

Max depth: 36′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 5 – 10′