Victoria Butterfly Gardens

I had been wanting to go to the Victoria Butterfly Gardens for awhile now but we never seemed to have enough time when visiting the Island. This trip we factored in a bit of extra time and put it in the schedule. I’m glad we did.

We caught a morning ferry over to Swartz Bay and arrived at Butterfly Gardens not long after they opened. The building seems quite small from the outside, but inside it contains quite a lot. Just past the admission counter we explored the newly opened (January 2017) Insectarium. This area houses a collection of unusual looking and interesting insects. I was fascinated by the leaf cutter ant colony and seriously could have watched them working for hours.

Leaf Cutter Ants

Some of the other insects were camouflaged pretty well.

After moving slowly through the insectarium we entered the tropical Rain Forest area which houses the butterflies. I immediately noticed how hot and humid it was. I’d definitely recommend wearing layers when visiting. The change in temperature may cause your camera (or glasses) to fog up but there an anti-fog station right by the door to help visitors deal with this.

The Gardens were smaller in area than I expected, but they are large enough to spend time meandering around or even to just sit and watch the butterflies fluttering by.

Susannah just chilling with the butterflies

The educational component of the Gardens is really good and there’s plenty of interesting info to read while you walk through.

Signs tell you to watch where you put your feet and it’s good advice. I almost stepped on this pretty little guy.

Tailed Jay

They have 70 different species of butterfly. Me and my macro lens had a lot of fun!

Tiger (or Golden) Helicon
Brown Clipper
Giant Owl Butterfly
Mexican Sister

The Gardens has a variety of lush tropical vegetation and there is a waterfall at one end which runs into a pond. The pond contains fish and ducks and two resident flamingoes. There are also tortoises, parrots, frogs, iguana, and geckoes. All of the animals there are rescues, donations or adoptions.

Flamingo

Red Footed Tortoises

Victoria Butterfly Gardens is located in Brentwood, about 15 minutes drive from the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal or 30 minutes from Downtown Victoria. It’s only about 5 minutes from Butchart Gardens so it would be great to do both in one visit.  I would suggest allowing about 1-1.5 hours for the Butterfly Gardens and Insectarium, depending on how fascinated you are by small things.

The ticket prices may seem a little high for the size of the space, but no other place on the island offers the same experience and parking is free, so factor that in. I definitely felt it well worth a visit and if I were local I’d consider an annual pass which is just under the price of two visits.

Fright Nights at Playland

It’s Halloween time again. That means it’s also time for the spooktacular Fright Nights at Playland! With 20 rides (5 more than last year), 8 haunted houses, live shows and an ensemble of roving actors, it’s a full evening of freakish entertainment.

2016 was our very first Fright Nights experience. Check out our POV video below.


Susannah and I had Rapid Passes which gave us expedited access to each of the haunted houses and 5 of the most popular rides at Playland (The Beast, Hellevator, Atmosfear, Music Express, and the Wooden Roller Coaster). It was very crowded so it was awesome to be able to by-pass the long lineups. With almost no wait time we were able to get on all 5 rides, plus The Corkscrew, Hell’s Gate, and Crazy Beach Party, as well as see all the haunted houses.

The rides were awesome and by the end of the evening we were pretty hoarse from shrieking – in fun and fear.  The Beast is touted as Canada’s most extreme pendulum ride, and it really was extreme! We sat in the outward facing seats and held on for dear life! We were actually shaking from the adrenaline rush when we got off the ride. The Wooden Roller Coaster was bone-rattling fun and we enjoyed it much more than we were expecting. Built in 1958 this famous ride can only be described as an oldie but a goodie. After the ride, check out the photos taken on the second drop – the range of facial expressions is good for a laugh (I looked ridiculous!). Another favourite was Atmosfear which is a giant 360-degree swing 218 feet up in the sky. Oddly enough, being so high wasn’t scary and the views of the city were incredible, making this ride very enjoyable.

The Haunted Houses were fun. Keeper’s Doll Factory and the Haunted Mansion were my personal favourites but Fear was pretty good too. With the variety of houses, there’s pretty much something for everyone on the spectrum of fear. This year a new house, The Bloodshed, has been added.

Fright Nights at Playland is great fun for young and old. The Rapid Passes were awesome to have and we’d highly recommend them if you are short on time or (like us) hate lining up for things. This year Fright Nights runs on select dates from October 6-31. Check out the calendar here.

Go. Have Fun. Be Scared.

The RCMP Musical Ride

RCMP Musical Ride

The RCMP Musical Ride is coming to town!

The RCMP Musical Ride consists of a troop of 32 riders and 32 beautiful black Hanoverian horses. Together they perform drills and precise formations set to music. It’s a great show of Canadian culture and also history – the drills and use of lances date back to the late 1800s. The show even includes a cavalry style “charge” which is a crowd pleaser.

RCMP Musical Ride

The Musical Ride is touring across Canada in celebration of Canada’s 150th  birthday. They are visiting all ten Provinces and one Territory. This week you can catch them in Burnaby at Swangard Stadium on August 18, and in Vancouver at the PNE on August 19, 20, 22 and 23. On August 21 they’ll be in Maple Ridge at the Maple Ridge AG Association grounds.

RCMP Musical Ride
We saw them a couple of years ago and just loved the beautiful horses with their sleek black coats contrasting with the red serge of the riders.

If you are wanting to do something a little different, check out this entertaining, family-friendly event. The full schedule can be found here.

Dark Table

Recently we went to Dark Table for dinner. We had heard of Dark Table but this was our first time to try it out.

The Dark Table experience is like no other in Vancouver. Upon arrival, we were shown to the outdoor lounge (it’s cold in winter so dress warmly) and given menus. After making our selections we were introduced to our server, Dustin, who took us inside. There is absolutely no light in the dining room so we were led to our table single file, hands on shoulders. The servers are all blind or sight impaired so when you pass through the doors of Dark Table you are entering a world of darkness similar to theirs. With Dustin as our guide and helper, we felt totally safe. This is huge for me as I hate walking in darkness. I remember the first time Susannah and I went camping and we walked down the camp road late at night to get to the bathrooms and I was completely freaked out by the surrounding blackness.

We were guided past several tables and then turned to the left to reach ours. Once seated, Dustin explained how the dinner service would work and then left us. It felt a bit weird sitting opposite each other in complete darkness. We could hear other people but had no idea how near or far away they were. Susannah and I slowly explored our surroundings with our hands to see how big the table was and what was on it.  Dustin returned and served the wine that we had ordered. I was quite worried about knocking my stemmed wine glass over but the tables are quite spacious with nothing superfluous on them so it was pretty easy to find a safe spot for my glass that I could locate again.

We had ordered the three-course (no-meat) dining experience. Our “surprise” starter arrived and placed in front of us. I soon learned how hard it is to pick up a mouthful of food from a bowl when you can’t see. I think my first three forkfuls came up empty. I’m a big “Hell’s Kitchen” fan and I love the “taste it, make it” sections where contestants have to identify elements of a dish then recreate it. I have a bit of a super-nose so I thought I’d be better at identifying what I was eating but it turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I could easily pick things like tomato, cucumber, eggplant, but then there was a grain that I struggled to identify. I thought it was couscous or quinoa but it turned out to be bulgar wheat.

Susannah and I ordered different main courses – I ordered the vegetarian surprise and Susannah ordered the prawn risotto. We were able to sample each other’s dishes by carefully pushing our plates toward the center of the table. Susannah’s risotto was nice and the prawns were perfectly cooked but my “surprise” dish was disappointing. It wasn’t so much a case of not being able to identify elements of the dish, but more that it didn’t really have much flavor. Still, it was fun to try to identify the components of each dish.

The dessert was lovely and we both got a good handle on what it was.

Overall I’d say the food was a bit underwhelming.  It’s true that some of the appeal of dining-out comes from the food’s presentation. By removing the ability to tease the palate visually, the experience relies on texture and flavour. The depth of flavour was missing from the menu at Dark Table so the food was a bit bland.

The experience though was something else. I’m not sure if “enjoyed” is the right word, perhaps “appreciated” is better. It was definitely worth going to challenge ourselves and to gain more of an understanding of others.  I would recommend it if you’ve never been before.

If you’ve been to Dark Table, let us know your experience in the comments below.

The Orpheum Theatre

This week I was lucky enough to go on a self-guided tour of one of Vancouver’s most magnificent buildings, the Orpheum Theatre. Built in 1927 the Orpheum originally hosted vaudeville acts and showed Hollywood silent movies. The theatre’s decor is opulent, with grand staircases, gold leaf, crystal chandeliers and detailed walls and ceilings.

It’s a photographer’s dream location!

Before I say more about the tour, take a look for yourself. Here is a quick video I shot while walking through the theatre.


See? Did I not say it’s magnificent?!

The tours run 3 times a day on Tuesdays, Wednesday’s and Saturdays. I went on a very quiet Tuesday and it was almost like having the whole venue to myself. The tours are for one hour and are self-guided which means you can take your time – be sure to stop for photographs! Theatre staff members are around to assist and answer any questions.

The history and stories of the Orpheum are very interesting.  It was at one time Canada’s largest and most opulent theatre. It still houses its original Wurlitzer organ. The Wurlitzer is the last one in Canada still in its original location and working. Staff told me it’s worth over a million dollars today!

The Mighty Wurlitzer
Wurlitzer detail

Tony Heinsbergen, the artist who painted the iconic ceiling mural in 1975-6, was also involved in decorating the Orpheum before it’s original opening in 1927.

The ceiling mural was painted by Tony Heinsbergen in 1975-6
Details of the domed ceiling

There are 145 crystal chandeliers in the Orpheum.

The detailing in the walls and panels is incredible.

In 1973 Famous Players decided to convert the Orpheum into a multiplex movie theatre. A “Save the Orpheum” public protest and a fundraising campaign was launched.

The moving picture projector

In 1974, the City of Vancouver bought the theatre for $7.1 million. It underwent restoration in the mid-seventies and was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1979. The theatre is now home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

The Orpheum is an amazing venue and well worth a visit. Whether you are a local or a visitor to Vancouver, put this iconic Theatre on your must-see list. You won’t be disappointed.

Thoughts on losing a best Furry Friend

We’ve been very lucky. I know that. We have had the most beautiful, loving, entertaining black cats in the world. Until recently, when we lost one, and my heart was broken.

Rudi (left) and Whitey (right)

Rewind to 2005

Free to a good home: Susannah found our two cats listed on Craigslist. The ad described them as large, black and friendly; indoor boys who would love to be out. They were about 14 months old, neutered and up to date on all shots. We had just moved to a slightly unkempt, pet-friendly, heritage townhouse in East Van and we were looking for some furry friends to share it with so we arranged to meet them.  Right away both cats came over to inspect us and let us pet them. This was unusual for one of them their owner said. For her, I think that sealed the deal. She dropped them off to us a few days later and they were ours!

They came pre-named as White Spot and Runti (the runt of the litter). We wanted to rename them but White Spot had a certain ring to it and we couldn’t find anything with the same tone, so it kind of stuck. Whitey for short. Runti became Rudi.

Rudi hid under the sofa for about a week, sneaking out to eat or to do his business when we weren’t around. Whitey was friendlier and after a very short time he appeared at the top of the stairs to say hello. Rudi eventually followed and we quickly became a happy foursome.

After a couple of weeks, we let the boys outside. They had new collars with ID tags and we had begun rattling a metal cookie tin with kibble inside at meal times so we hoped they would associate that sound with home. They did and we could open the door, rattle the tin and see our two boys run down the street towards us. Although they would roam, they always came home for food and cuddles.

Just a small kitten at heart

These cats were awesome! They were the size of dogs, very confident, friendly to all, and very affectionate to us. They followed us everywhere. If we were going for a walk we’d have to run down the street in order to leave them behind. They were curious, adventurous and provided hours of entertainment.

In the 12 years since we got the cats, we have lived in 5 different spaces. Each move has been stressful but each time we have all settled in and made the space our home. Through ups and downs, it’s all been ok as we’ve been a unit of 4.

There have been many adventures along the way.

Whitey once got stuck on a neighbour’s roof and had to be rescued. He also got trapped in our landlord’s storage basement below our house – we could hear him meowing pitifully through the floorboards. In one apartment he snuggled into an open chest of drawers where we kept blankets and lovely warm fabrics and got stuck inside the chest. Eventually, we had to take the back off the chest to rescue him. Silly kitty.

Whitey’s encounter with a baby crow. He was a great hunter but this unafraid and demanding crow was interesting to him.
The Mighty Whitey

One winter Whitey went missing. We were very worried. We made posters and distributed them everywhere. We cried and cried but refused to give up and for three weeks we wandered the neighbourhood in ever increasing circles, rattling the tin and calling for him. I’m pretty sure people thought we were mad. Then early one morning we opened the door, and there he was – a super skinny version of himself, but our Whitey was home!

Whitey would sleep between us with his head on a pillow and snore away!

Rudi also disappeared once. Only for 3 nights, but it was enough to make us go out searching. He turned up at 3 am yelling at the door. Susannah rushed downstairs and let him in and he collapsed exhaustedly on the floor. He was covered in dirt and his tail was a little bent. It is still crooked but we’ll never know what happened.

Talk about 9 lives!

In 2013 we moved to a really nice apartment in East Van with a lovely patio. It’s sunny and comfortable with lots of spots a cat might like. The boys became indoor cats again. They settled here well and as they were aging and slowing down a bit, we felt it much safer for them to be inside.

The cats sat on the mat

Our unit of 4 continued on. Then suddenly, a few weeks ago Whitey started dropping weight. It was quite rapid but the weather had improved and he had quickly dropped winter weight the year before so we weren’t too worried. But then he stopped eating. He appeared at mealtimes, looked at his food and then walked away. We tried to tempt him with treats and delicious smells which worked for a couple of days. After that, he refused food entirely and went and lay in a space in the wardrobe. Always a social cat, this was unusual so we made an appointment with our vet.

The vet couldn’t see anything immediately wrong. Whitey was alert, social, and didn’t seem to be in obvious distress. He did react a little when she felt his belly so she decided to do some blood tests. The results came back the next day. Whitey had pancreatitis and fatty liver disease. In order to assess his case, the vet recommended an ultrasound. We booked him in. As he was still not eating and drinking they hooked him up to a fluid IV so he wouldn’t get too dehydrated. In the evening we went to collect him and were told that he had a tumour which had started on his spleen and had now spread to his pancreas and liver. The vet had given him painkillers which she said seemed to make him more comfortable. We opted to have the tumour tested before deciding the next move and took Whitey home.

We hoped that he might respond to encouragement to eat if he was in less pain but unfortunately he immediately retreated back to the wardrobe. He would let us pet him and he would try to eat and drink, but only a nibble or a small lick of water – not a sustainable amount. He looked awful. His eyes were glazed and distant and he’d lost his spunk.

The next day there was no improvement and we began to talk about the “what ifs”. We agreed that the aim was to keep him as comfortable as possible. This conversation was very hard.  We were only just beginning to realise that we might lose him.

That evening Susannah administered his pain medication while I was on the patio. Whitey heard us talking and looked up. I waved his brush at him and he responded by coming out to the patio to say hello. I brushed him lightly for awhile then stroked him gently. He stayed very close to us for about an hour or so and then once again retreated to the wardrobe. We felt hope that he had rallied a little.

Whitey visits one last time

The next morning we got a call from the vet with the worst news. Whitey’s tumour was cancerous and as it had spread to two other organs it was not operable. She said we could try medications to shrink the tumour and to increase his appetite but Susannah and I both knew that it would be merely postponing the inevitable. For what quality of life? Whitey had become a wardrobe-cat, drugged up on pain meds. That was just not him. We tearfully made the decision to euthanize him and took him in for one last trip to the vets.

The procedure was made bearable by the staff at the Vancouver Veterinary Hospital who were very understanding and let us have whatever time we needed with Whitey, both before and after. Dr. Cheung explained every step and was very gentle. Whitey did not suffer. He was not scared. He just put his tired head down and went to sleep. Our unit of 4 was broken.

I have cried pretty much every day since he died. At first it was the pain of losing him and the guilt of having made the decision to end his life. Even though I know we made the right decision for him, to end his pain, I still questioned myself. Could he have recovered? Did we move too quickly?

I work a lot from home so I have always had the cats around me, keeping me company or “supervising” activities. In part that’s what makes it so hard. Firstly there were the everyday things. Cuddles in bed with only one cat, not two. Packing up the second food bowl and the blanket he used to lie on. Seeing movement out of the corner of my eye and thinking it was him. Then there were the unexpected things. I shared an elevator ride with a couple in my building last week. We chatted about the weather etc and just as we reached our floor one of them said: “By the way, what are your cats’ names?” I replied “White Spot and Rudi but unfortunately, White Spot passed away this week”. Then I burst into tears and hurriedly retreated to my apartment. Unexpected. Wasn’t prepared for that. Too raw.

Rudi is having a tough time. He’s always been with his brother. Sometimes they wrestled and fought, sometimes they napped together. They were never far from each other. Rudi has been a little limpet, staying very close to me, both giving and requiring a little extra love and reassurance. He is confused.

We’ll adapt. People do. Animals do. Over time we will become a seamless unit of 3. But it will take time. Whitey was a big cat, both in stature and in love. I believe that the last night on the patio was his way of saying goodbye. White Spot was a smart cat, a thinking cat, who spoke very little but communicated in volumes. He knew he was loved and he knew we would never do anything to hurt him. To have that trust and love from an animal is a special thing and it should be honoured.

We are lucky. We had a wonderful cat named White Spot to share part of life’s journey with.

Kayaking at Bowen Island

A few years ago Susannah and I decided to get away from the city for awhile so we moved to Bowen Island. We found an amazing house on the West Side of the Island, not far from Bowen Bay. In the Fall, not long after we moved, I had a medical procedure for back problems and at the same time, I came off some pretty hardcore prescription pain medicine. Our location on the Island was very quiet and peaceful, so it was a great place to recover and recuperate. We went for long walks in the forest, enjoyed watching deer hanging out in the backyard and saw the most amazing sunsets at the beach. After 6 months, we reluctantly decided it was time to move back to the City, so in the Spring our Island adventure came to an end.

One thing we never had a chance to do while on Bowen was kayak, so after we moved back to Vancouver we decided to revisit on a day trip. For my birthday we went back to Bowen Island and across to Bowen Bay. After launching we had to choose to paddle left or right. We headed to the right with the intention of sticking to the coastline but then we heard something amazing.

Across the water, floated a sound of deep exhalation. And again. We looked over the water and spotted a dorsal fin of and Orca as it surfaced. Then another. Then another. We changed our course and headed towards Pasley Island. There appeared to be 3-4 Killer Whales swimming not too far off the Coast.

We were very careful not to get too close (all images here are taken with a long zoom lens). Canadian law states that any vessel should stay 100m away from whales. We paddled to about that distance and then stopped to observe. It was hard to tell where they were going to surface and for awhile they seemed to be heading West but then an Orca surfaced unexpectedly close to us. So close in fact that Susannah had to reverse paddle to retain a respectable distance between us and them.


Orca tailslapping

The sound they made when surfacing to exhale was amazing. Watching them was incredible. There was one large male whose huge dorsal fin was quite intimidating.


We quietly watched them for about an hour before they headed out into open water and we paddled back to the beach.

After a bit of a rest and some “OMG” debriefing time we ventured out again and to the left. This time we were treated to some cool bird life.

Belted Kingfisher (female)



We returned to the beach to watch the sunset and then headed down to Snug Cove to grab some food before catching the ferry home.

An experience like this is totally random and lucky (we could have paddled left and not seen them at all!) and I am incredibly grateful for receiving it. It was a magical day and definitely a birthday to remember.

We took our own kayaks but there are rental kayaks available at Snug Cove. Bown Island Sea Kayaking offers lessons, rentals and guided tours from April till October. Have a go – I’m sure you’ll love it!

Star Trails and Olympus Live Composite

The Perseid Meteor Shower happens every year from mid-July as the Earth passes through the debris trail of the Swift-Tuttle comet. The last meteor shower was visible between August 7-12 with peak viewing on the night of August 11. We decided to head up Burnaby Mountain to check it out. So did half of Vancouver and it was really crowded when we arrived at about 12:30am. Luckily many people were already packing up to leave and within 45 minutes the area had emptied out considerably.

It was too cloudy for perfect meteor viewing so instead of trying to capture meteors I decided to try out the live composite function on my Olympus O-MD E-M5II and to capture some star trails.

Live Composite is extremely cool. Essentially in this mode the camera takes a series of photos and stacks them in-camera to create one image. With each successive shot, only new light is added to the original image which prevents overexposure in the brightest part of the picture. You can see the image developing on the LCD screen as it happens which means you can stop the process when the image reaches a point that you are happy with it.

The image below took about 15 minutes to capture and is a stack of about 80 or so images.

Stacked images to create star trails – Olympus O-MD E-M5II

The orange glow on the left and right are clouds. The totems were lit by the headlights of cars as they circled around to leave the mountain. Ordinarily, any kind of random uncontrolled light is not desirable in this kind of image but in this case, I was happy with the side light painting the totems as it gave them colour and texture and gave the image depth. This was my second attempt at this shot. My first effort is below and is an example of what can go wrong.

Shot ruined by flashlight
Shot ruined by flashlight

Remember I said each shot added new light to the image? When the man in red stood up in my shot and waved his flashlight around his light was added to the photo. It was dark and he was just trying to find his way back to his car, but it was a little frustrating as the shot was already over 10 minutes into creation. A really cool feature of the Olympus Live Composite mode is that I could see this as soon as it happened, abandon the shot and start over.

For my second, more successful try, I recomposed a little higher to avoid people wandering through the shot and kept my fingers on the cable release just in case. I am pretty happy with the final image.

The following night we went to further away from Vancouver to Porteau Cove Provincial Park to try again. We hoped to get further away from the City lights and light pollution. While we did see a few meteors I decided to have another go with Live Composite. This time, I did not compose with a foreground element in the image, opting instead for the horizon line. Porteau Cove is extremely dark and has really good star visibility which resulted in a much denser set of trails. This shot is about 150 images stacked together and took about 25 minutes to create. Look closely and you can see a couple of meteors as they streak in a different direction to the star trails.

Star Trails over the horizon at Porteau Cove

Due to the extreme darkness, it is difficult to use autofocus so I manually set the focus to infinity. I shot all these images on the Olympus O-MD E-M5II with the Olympus 17mm 1.8 lens. This lens has focus markers which make it easier to set to a certain focus distance.  If you have a lens without distance markers or without a hard stop at infinity you could find infinity focus during the daytime and add a piece of tape or use a permanent marker to mark the exact spot on the barrel of your lens.

Stacking photos for star trails can be done manually in Photoshop or by using software such as StarStax, but what I absolutely love about the Olympus Live Composite mode is, well, it’s live. It saves time, does a great job and also creates an ORF, an Olympus raw file, which means you can edit for colour, contrast etc afterward. This feature is nothing short of awesome and is just one of many reasons I love my micro four thirds camera.

To use Live Composite mode for star trails you will need a stable tripod. I’d also recommend a cable release or remote trigger so you don’t nudge the camera when starting or stopping the shot. You’ll need a wide-angle lens with a wide aperture of at least 2.8. The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm 1.8 is a great little lens for this purpose, but I would also like to try out the 12mm f2 or a fisheye. I set my exposure for each shot to 10 seconds which kept the stars sharp, but this will vary depending on how dark it is and what you are trying to achieve. Try a few single exposures first to get your settings. Then, get creative and watch your image as it appears!

Summer is coming and with it will be warmer temperatures and clearer nights. I can’t wait to get out and try this again to see what I can create with Live Composite.