Scenes from Jamaica (2014)

In 2014 my wife and I had the opportunity for a short visit to Jamaica during its steamy, and sometimes stormy, late summer. The island is too large to explore in just a long weekend, and without a car mobility was limited. However, we squeezed a lot into three days, focusing on areas near our hotel. Images here come from the north coast of Jamaica, specifically the area around Ocho Rios, and some of the interior region, including a visit to the famous Blue Mountains. I hope this SceneSet gives you a feel for some of the incredible beauty of one of the gems of the Caribbean.
Caribbean Abstraction  Layers of clouds, shadows and natural variations in sea color combine to create this abstract scene taken while flying over the beautiful Caribbean Sea. Rest or Recreation?  One of the scenes that greeted us in the late afternoon upon arrival at the resort where we stayed: a beautiful beach to sunbathe on, crystal turquoise waters to frolic in, and recreation options galore. Whether you wanted to unwind or find something active to do, the options were all there. The Early Fishermen Gets the View  Photographers and fishermen (and women!) are among the few crazy enough to be up before the sun is. My reward was this view of a fishing boat dwarfed by the ever-present off-shore thunderstorm clouds, with the warm tones of sunrise beginning behind them. My hope for the fishermen is that they got something more tangible for their efforts. Intensity  The sunrise on our first morning was especially intense, blasting the sky with dramatic orange hues. Pick Any Chair  In addition to being able to enjoy the warm glow of the early sun on the palm trees, being up at 6 am also means you have your choice of lounge chair. I did actually see a few people on the beach at this hour, but most were walking or jogging, not lounging. Ocho Rios Panorama from Mystic Mountain  We unashamedly hit some of the popular tourist attractions near where we were staying -- after all, many are popular for a reason! One was a place called Mystic Mountain, which offers a variety of activities, including a chair lift ride up the mountain, bobsledding, ziplines and a refreshing pool with a slide right at the very top.  This panorama was taken from the deck where you enter the slide above the pool, about as high as visitors can go without getting in trouble. :) It shows the resort town of Ocho Rios (the long dock is for cruise ships) and a fine view down Jamaica's north-central coast.
Red Mimosa Flowers  The small garden at the top of Mystic Mountain is largely ignored by most of its visitors in favor of more exciting pursuits, but we appreciated its colorful offerings. This frilly mimosa plant reminded me of those toys made from optical fibers with a light bulb in the base. Jamaican Pride  A panorama looking west down the north coast from Mystic Mountain, featuring the distinctive Jamaican flag. The long white rectangle visible near the coast just below the center of the picture is the resort complex where we stayed. Reptilian Closeup  A separate small garden at Mystic Mountain features an area where hummingbirds dart about in the sunshine, while reptiles chill out in the shade. Despite several valiant attempts, none of my hummingbird pictures came out well enough for me to feel they were worth showing to the public. (I did not have the right equipment with me, which didn't help.) However, I did get a decent shot of this little guy.  I believe this is an anole, possibly  Anolis grahami , also called Graham's anole, or (appropriately enough) the Jamaican anole. Globe Amaranth  There was a beautiful globe amaranth plant growing in the Mystic Mountain garden, and I liked the way these two intensely purple flowers stood out. The scientific name of this plant is  Gomphrena globosa , and yes, I realize you were just dying to know this. Sailing Free  One small white sailboat has the waters of the Caribbean all to itself on a lovely afternoon. This image was actually taken while in motion going down the Mystic Mountain chair lift. Dunn's River Falls  Arguably the single most popular tourist attraction in all of Jamaica, Dunn's River Falls is a place for both witnessing beauty and having fun. Fed by natural springs, the water cascades down natural staircase-like features from a height of about 200 feet to reach the Caribbean Sea. Tourists, led by guides, start at the beach and wind their way up the falls, holding hands for greater stability. The volume of water is substantial, making the travel somewhere between exhilirating and terrifying, depending on your definition of "adventure". :)  Even if you don't want to walk up the falls, you can still enjoy their beauty from numerous observation points; this was my favorite, with several terraces of the falls framed by decorative ginger plants.
Dunn's River Falls - Another View  A more intimate view of one of the cascades at Dunn's River Falls, which are composed of travertine, a form of limestone deposited by waters rich in calcium carbonate. Travertine is more typically associated with geothermal features like those in Yellowstone National Park, and the mineral is continuously deposited by the water as it flows over the existing rock. Perhaps this compensates for the erosion caused by thousands of tourists' hands and feet every year!  Dunn's River Falls is one of only a handful of known travertine falls that empty directly into the ocean. Beach by Night  Probably because I am not one for crowds, I find beaches most enjoyable early in the morning and also in the evening. They are just so much more peaceful. Here stars create pinpoints of light over palm trees illuminated by the glow of the (very bright) hotel directly behind me. Tropical Twilight  When you are on vacation in the tropics, you are supposed to take it easy and relax. This is not one of my fortes, however, and so it was that I found myself on a long stretch of beach at 5 am with no company but a few shorebirds (you can actually see one at the edge of the water in the bottom right corner here).  The reward for hauling oneself out of bed so early varies from day to day, but sometimes, as with this morning, the stars align, both literally and figuratively. Here I have captured three boats that were gently rocking in water smoothed out by a long exposure, while above them, the sun begins to paint the sky while still well below the horizon. The bright light above them is a crescent moon, and the small dot to its left is Venus. The white clouds upper left look like noctilucent clouds, but I am not sure it is even possible for them to form at such a low latitude, so their exact nature remains a mystery to me. It could be that they were simply being illuminated by the moon. Tropical Twilight Two  A closer version of the preceding image, Tropical Twilight, taken a couple of minutes later. This one shows less dark sky and more of the boats and the orange and pink hues of the coming dawn. My friend the bird can still be seen here, patiently posing. Sky Dazzle  Palm fronds frame an illuminated sky as the sun rises over the north coast of Jamaica. This is the warmest and most humid time of the year in the Caribbean, and the clouds were painted in shades of gold, orange and pink every morning. Waiting Patiently  While looking east towards the sunrise provides a view of bright and dazzling colors, looking in the opposite direction usually reveals softer pastel shade of pink, purple and blue. It can take some time until these colors really hit their stride, and this coconut palm was happy to wait for them with me.
Grow Your Own Way  Delightfully warped trees grow right out of the sand all over the beach, likely twisted into strange shapes by wind and storms. I find them compelling, with their unique, non-classical beauty, especially when lit up by the golden first light of day. Gnarly  A closeup of the surface of the tree in the preceding image, illuminated with golden, angled early morning light. I found the patterns fascinating. Setting Out  A lone kayaker sets out for a paddle in a small cove where our bus stopped for a break on the way to the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains  We went to the Blue Mountains for a bike tour, which would have been physically challenging if not for the fact that it is deliberately made easier for tourists by being almost entirely downhill. :) The road up into the mountains twisted and turned, and we got to see a lot of Jamaican residents going about their daily business.  For much of the journey this cool double-peaked mountain was visible, as it was in this little glade where we stopped for a meal before heading down. Unfortunately, despite many tries, I have been unable to figure out its name. Blue Mountain Coffee Grows Where?  My wife and I visited another famous coffee-growing area, the Kona region of Hawai'i, in 2010. There we saw enormous groves of coffee trees, sometimes as far as the eyes could see, on flat or gently sloping land. We knew that Jamaica's Blue Mountains were also famous for coffee, but there sure didn't appear to be any wide open areas here for growing it. We figured there must be some flatter areas somewhere, and that's where we'd find the trees.  Wrong! There apparently are no huge groves of Blue Mountain coffee trees. Rather, the coffee is planted and grown on steep hillsides scattered all over the mountains, like the one seen here. The coffee is typically interplanted with other species like bananas, for reasons that we were told but I have forgotten. With each coffee tree so spread out and on such steep ground, all of the work of maintaining the plants and collecting the coffee beans is done slowly and laboriously. So now you know: the high price isn't just because it's famous. Blue Mountain Coffee  So here it is, Blue Mountain Coffee, in all its glory. These cherries (as the fruit are called) are still unripe. They will slowly turn red, and when just the right color, will be picked and the beans inside processed. I've always found it cool how they grow right on the stem in clusters, unlike most fruits.
Blue Mountain Waterfall  At the conclusion of the Blue Mountain bicycle ride, tourists are encouraged to take a refreshing dip in this waterfall and pool. I normally wimp out of these sorts of things, but figured hey, I'm in Jamaica, when will I get to do this again? So I used the small changing area and got into my swimsuit (which we were advised to bring) and took the plunge. The water was.. well, let's say "refreshing" -- it felt pretty cold in contrast to the warm, sticky tropical air. With the help of a guide, I even went under the falls (which were "even more refreshing").  The biggest challenge of the falls proved to be getting a nice shot of it, with so many tourists around and my tripod back at the hotel. I improvised on a guard rail and I think it came out pretty well. Once again, my one regret was not asking any of the locals the actual name of the fall... Waterboy  A young boy frolics in the surf near dusk as pink light from a huge thundercloud behind him is reflected on the shoreline. Ripples of Light  Another day, another morning on the beach at 5 am when I was supposed to be sleeping. :) You may recognize that boat from other shots in this set; unfortunately I didn't have any way of driving to other places at sunrise, and it was parked right out there every morning, so I tried to work with it in as many interesting ways as I could come up with.   In addition to the pretty orange glow on the horizon this morning, several faint shafts of light illuminated the air above the low clouds, spreading across the sky like ripples for a brief moment. Towering Silhouettes  The thunderstorms that are constantly brewing in the Caribbean in September pretty much guarantee that you won't see that first bit of the sun peek over the water... but they also guarantee some spectacular skies as the sun lights up the clouds. Chair for One  Looks pretty relaxing, doesn't it? Jamaican Coastal Panorama  On our third full day we hired a private guide to take us into the interior of the island, to some of the less "touristy" spots that most visitors don't get to see. We didn't quite get around as much of the island as I had hoped, but did explore some interesting places that are usually the domain only of the residents.  This is a panorama of the north coast of Jamaica taken from a vantage point well known to locals; you can see how high up we were by how much of the sea is visible. The puffy clouds were ordered for the occasion and arrived just in time. :)
Difficult Terrain  A wide panorama showing some of the small, bumpy hills that comprise much of the interior of Jamaica, with the dirt road we were traveling visible on the right. It was a beautiful day, and the clouds were kind to me, as you can see. The small black specks you may notice are birds, possibly vultures, several of which were circling the entire time we were in the area (but fortunately, not over us!) Sweet View  Much of the interior of Jamaica is mountainous, but not all, and there are large areas of rolling hills and valleys where agriculture flourishes in the warm, abundantly wet climate. Our guide took us up a hill and showed us this view, which to an untrained northerner's eye might look like it shows vast fields of corn. This wouldn't be a terrible guess, as corn is grown in tropical regions, but what you are actually seeing here is a sugar cane plantation, part of a massive operation on the island. Sugar Country  The edge of one of the sugar cane fields; the plants are very tall, reaching well over my height of about 6 feet. This composition appealed to me with the canes on the left, the diagonal mountainside, and the two trees and road leading onward on the right. Island Interior  Another of the beautiful green valleys lined with bumpy hilltops that criss-cross the northern interior of the island of Jamaica. I enjoyed the deeply-lobed tropical plants on the right here. Ocho Rios from Ysassis Lookout Point  We spent a couple of hours of the afternoon of our last day at another nearby tourist location called Coyaba River Garden and Museum. This a mixed attraction, featuring a beautiful tropical garden, fish pond, historical information, a unique waterfall (more on that soon) and also this wonderful lookout over the resort town of Ocho Rios and the Caribbean Sea beyond. Mahoe Falls  Mahoe Falls (pronounced "ma-HOE") is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever encountered and is considered a centerpiece of Coyaba Garden. Like the more famous Dunn's River Falls, it too is made of travertine rock built up slowly by the limestone-rich water that cascades over it. The fall actually has many sections, of which this is the largest and most commonly viewed.  The stairstep-like quality of the falls reminded me greatly of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.
Oncidium Excavatum Orchid  We found some beautiful tropical plants at Coyaba, including this amazing orchid, one of the most intricate I've ever seen. (Thanks to J for help with identification!) Hibiscus Schizopetalus  This beautifully frilly hibiscus, commonly known by various names such as coral hibiscus and fringed rosemallow, reminded me of the most intricate fishing hook one could ever design. Mahoe Falls Cascade  A closeup view of one of the small cascades that is part of the larger section of Mahoe Falls featured earlier in the set, surrounded by more of the beautiful tropical flowering plants that were growing everywhere. It's too bad this photo doesn't capture the soothing sound of the water... Time Alone  Not far from our bustling hotel, a couple enjoys a moment of solitude, soaking in the warm waters of the Caribbean as a tropical sunset lights up the seemingly ever-present thunderstorm clouds over the ocean. Rules are Made to be Broken  As a rule I generally would never make a building like a resort hotel the centerpiece of an image. I'm supposed to be a landscape and nature photographer, right? :) But there's something about nighttime that transforms even the mundane into the magical. The warm lights and long shadows, palm trees and flowers, and reflections from the vacant and quiet swimming pool, combined to make an image I simply couldn't resist. Polar Vortex  I very much enjoy shooting at night, because it is a peaceful time, because I love the stars and other celestial bodies, and because when I started doing it back in 2003 it was something different. Well, thousands do it now, but I won't stop just because of that! I usually do night photography in northern climes, most often in the fall, when skies are dark, and the air is cool and clear. Trying to take photos of the stars in the tropics.. this really was something new for me. It was warm and sticky, and warm camera sensors produce more noise than cool ones. There was also a lot of light pollution from the hotels and resorts behind me. But I had to try, especially in the hopes that I would also capture a lightning strike or two from the thunderstorms offshore.  This was the result.. at least, after some fairly heavy tinkering to get rid of noise and haze. What surprised me immediately when I saw this shot for the first time was that I had captured the swirl of star trails around Polaris, the north star, which is located just left of center in this image. Usually to get Polaris I must aim my camera very high in the sky -- this was the tropical latitude at work here, making Polaris appear far lower than I had anticipated. As you can see, I did also capture some thunderstorms in action. The bright green areas I never figured out, but probably are the result of floodlights from a distant hotel being projected out over the water.
Gradient  Another early morning scene taken from a beach near our resort, while sane people were sleeping. This vertical orientation shot captures the smooth gradient from the deep blue of the night sky through the warm shades of the coming sunrise. The bright object near the top is the waning crescent moon, and below that the bright light of Venus. Pink Fingers  On this particular morning, thunderstorms rolled in as the sun was rising, so I didn't get the flaming orange lightshow I had on previous days. But after waiting patiently, the sun and the large clouds were positioned just right to allow several thin fingers of pink light to break through, heralding another lovely day in Jamaica. Another Fine Day in Jamaica  A simple view of some of the rolling hills and lush vegetation of northern Jamaica, taken from a walkway surrounding our hotel on a lovely morning. Palmorama  A panorama of the beach taken the morning of our day of departure from Jamaica, featuring pretty palm trees and their wonderfully-shaped shadows. It is always warm there, so even by 10 am there are quite a few people on the beach, soaking up the rays and dipping into the clear, soothing water. Cumulonimbus Incus  I will have to ask you all to indulge the weather geek in me for the last two images of this set. :) This was not actually taken in Jamaica, but rather on the flight between Montego Bay and Atlanta. As I've mentioned a few times in this set, thunderstorms are constant in the tropics in late summer, and this was a massive cell over the Carribean that our pilot had to steer around.   Thunderstorms tend to grow in size during the day, rising through air fueled by the heat of the sun. Large ones eventually hit a boundary layer, called the tropopause, which separates two atmospheric layers: the troposphere (closer to earth) and stratosphere (higher up). In most cases, the temperature differential at the tropopause halts further progression of the cloud, and it spreads out along the boundary, forming the classic "anvil" shape you see here. Again, as a guy who loves interesting weather and clouds, it was a rare treat to get a true "bird's eye" view of this one from around 30,000 feet. Rainbow Over Cuba  The anvil cloud in the preceding image was cool, but this I never expected. Another smaller thunderstorm formed over the coast of Cuba as we were flying north, and for a few seconds the sun was at just the right angle to allow me capture this small rainbow formed by its precipitation. This was a fitting conclusion to a fun trip.. and also a good example of why I always try to get the window seat! :)