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Category: Travel Tips

The Best of Kota Kinabalu – City Guide

Kota Kinabalu is usually a stop over for travelers who are exploring greater Borneo, but this city is packed with culture, character and charm. Extend your stopover to experience the unassuming…

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Kota Kinabalu is usually a stop over for travelers who are exploring greater Borneo, but this city is packed with culture, character and charm. Extend your stopover to experience the unassuming beauty it has to offer. This comprehensive guide is ideal for newbies to KK and families looking for a short vacation.

To read the digital magazine, head over to: http://bit.ly/kk_goingplaces

For the online version of the guide: http://www.goingplacesmagazine.com/story/city-on-the-move

Note: A quick amendment to one of the points of interests at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa. If you’re planning on catching a glimpse of the orang utans, head over to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park instead. The hotel’s Orang Utan Rehabilitation Programme has successfully come to a close and the great apes no longer roam the nature reserve. The 64-acre nature reserve, however, is still a fantastic place to explore the wild!

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Moscow In 48 Hours

Moscow has long had a reputation as the one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. I was warned by other travellers to make sure that I had a…

Moscow has long had a reputation as the one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. I was warned by other travellers to make sure that I had a big budget and to keep my money safe when exploring the city. What an irony! This reputation could have stemmed from the Cold War where wealthy foreigners inhabited the city and they were charged exorbitant prices and treated like royalty. It doesn’t help that the city boasts the largest number of billionaires in the world – that’s 84 billionaires according to a Forbes report.

But this notion should not shun you from visiting Moscow. The city has so much to offer in terms of history, world iconic buildings such as St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, rich decadent food, spectacular metro (subway) stations, beautiful ballet and a vibrant arts scene. If you’re in for a splurge, dig deep into your pockets and sink into lavish beds at the Four Seasons, St. Regis, Ritz Carlton, the heritage Baltschug Kempinski, or for a family-friendly option, try Mamaison All-Suites. Dotted across the city are other more affordable accommodation options for the budget keepers. Try Petrovka Loft, Mercure Arbat or Ibis Moscow.

When it comes to tucking into a good meal there is no shortage of options. There are 2,750 restaurants dotted all across the city of Moscow and still counting. Make sure you check TripAdvisor for the current top ranking restaurants because competition is tight in the F&B scene. For a full Russian fare, definitely give Pushkin Cafe, Russkie Sezony and Dr. Zhivago a try. You will be enthralled by the grand 18th-century decor and be prepared to be served by waiters dressed in crisp suites and starched white aprons.

Getting around the city can be quite a challenge if you don’t read Russian Cyrillic, especially when using the Metro. So make sure you have some sort of translation app on your phone or stop passers-by on the way. You can also flag down almost any car on the road and, if it is going your way, it will become a taxi – again, that’s if you can speak Russian. The cheapest and most efficient option is to take the metro and the city is very pedestrian friendly.

Now let’s get to it. If you had 48 hours in this dazzling city, here are some suggested must do’s to capture the pulse of Moscow.

(FREE) Walking Tour

Walk tour moscow

Yes, you read it right. It’s free with an option to tip at the end of the tour. Usually, most people tip because these walk tours are highly informative, very engaging and it helps you navigate in a new city. I recommend taking the tour on the day of arrival as I found that incredibly useful especially when it comes to insider tips at the end of the tour about where to eat, shop for souvenirs and things to see.

The Red Square & Kremlin

Red Square

There is no escaping this – the Red Square remains the essential starting point for sightseeing in Moscow. Red Square is an expanse of space bordered by the colourful and charming St Basil’s Cathedral, with its iconic spiral domes; the historical GUM State Department store – where only international luxury brands make it here, the massive Kremlin – the famous seat of Russian rule and the Lenin Mausoleum – where you will have a chance to ‘meet’ the ruler himself in a glass casket.

You can easily spend more than half a day in the Kremlin – within its walls are enormous palace complexes, old cathedrals and a house of just for armoury, bedazzling jewels, carriages and thrones. The ticket prices vary, get your ticket at the ticket office on site and it opens at 9am. The Kremlin is closed on Thursdays.

Moscow night

You need to see the Red Square by day and by night. The lights from the GUM department store, the evening glow from the museum, the illuminated St. Basil’s Cathedral and clock towers in the Kremlin is a wonderland after night fall. If there is one attraction in Moscow worth seeing twice, it is Red Square. Head there again when it’s dark to see the evening glow on St Basil’s and the GUM department store.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

St Basils

Although it’s often seen as part of the Red Square, the beautiful cathedral has garnered a name for itself and is known as the unofficial icon of Moscow. The Cathedral’s full name is the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat – thankfully Ivan the Terrible who commissioned the building of the cathedral shorted it to St. Basil. Named after a holy hermit who lived on the streets, Ivan the Terrible seemed to have found a liking for him. Legend has it that after the architect finished building the cathedral his eyes were gouged upon the strict command of Ivan the Terrible because the ruler did not want him to build another cathedral as beautiful as this.

Contrary to popular belief, St. Basil’s Cathedral is not just one church, instead it is a cluster of nine churches sitting on one foundation. The interior of the church is not airy and spacious, instead it is narrow and winding. Get tickets and explore the interiors of the church while appreciating the view of the Red Square from the many small odd-shaped windows.

GUM Department Store

GUM

Even if you don’t purchase anything from here, it is still worth a stroll. The high domed ceiling and open bridges connecting the floors are an exquisite example of pre-revolution architecture. If your legs give way after a full day of exploring, this is a great place to chill and have a cuppa. You have to try the famous ice cream here. I heard from a local that the ice cream sold at GUM dates back to the Soviet era where children could be seen walking out of the departmental store with a cone in hand.

Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi

The historical Bolshoi theatre is home to some of the best ballet shows such as Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Romeo & Juliet. Book in advance if you want to catch a show here. There are standing tickets available and ticket counters open two hours before the actual show, but be sure to stand in line early as tickets get snapped up pretty quickly.

Gorky Park

Gorky Park

The Central Park of Moscow, this green lung has a small man-made ‘beach’, lakes to paddle in, playgrounds and carousels for children. There are also fountains, skateboarding ramps, running trails along the Moscow River and plenty of space to bask. On weekends and on weekdays, Gorky is packed and you’d never go hungry with plenty of food stalls to choose from – corn, sandwiches, hot dogs, ice cream, you name it. Be sure to also check out the latest funky Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

Explore the Metro

Moscow-metro

Moscow’s metro is no ordinary subway, not just because some stations were dug deep to serve as bomb shelters (the escalators are incredibly steep), but because the metro stations are in itself a work of art. It is said that the metro stations were designed with intricate carvings, elaborate hanging lamps and etched with paintings as a channel for art to commoners who otherwise had no access to the elite world. Notable metros include; Komsomolskaya, Taganskaya and Prospekt Mira.

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Travel Guide: The BEST Of Siem Reap

There is so much to see in Siem Reap and this little province is bursting out of its seams with eateries, pubs, boutiques, markets and entertainment aplenty. Of course, you…

Siem Reap Travel Guide
There is so much to see in Siem Reap and this little province is bursting out of its seams with eateries, pubs, boutiques, markets and entertainment aplenty. Of course, you can’t avoid the fact that the magnificent ancient Angkor Wat sits at the very center of this booming province making it an essential destination when you travel Cambodia.

I have to admit, every time I make a trip to Siem Reap I’m bubbling with excitement – it’s that sense of familiarity – going back to favourite restaurants and massage spas, coupled with the sense of curiosity – trying out that new cafe or staying at the new hotel that keeps the anticipation stirring. I live three-hours away from Siem Reap, in the lovely countryside province called Battambang. While I absolutely love the laid back, friendly, local lifestyle here, I’m ever ready to play tour guide when it comes to bringing visitors to Siem Reap.

When, Smart Travel Asia contacted me to write a guide for Siem Reap, I was thrilled! The link below will lead you to a comprehensive guide to the province’s BEST. So pass the word around to anyone you know who’s planning a visit to Siem Reap – read it before you arrive, it’ll help you make the most of your visit.

P/s: If you have a few more days to spare, take a bus or a cruise to Battambang. I assure you, the people, ancient temples and old French buildings will make for a charming stopover.

Go to Smart Travel Asiahttp://www.smarttravelasia.com/angkor.htm for the full travel guide.
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Trans-Mongolian Rail Adventure: Beijing To Ulaanbaatar

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the…

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the sack, we headed to the train station. It was chaotic – mad crowds at every turn, trolley bags knocking on my ankles, people elbowing at my side in a hurried puff, the air was still and incredibly humid. We had to find the station’s entrance, but all signs were in Chinese. Then we spotted a queue with some Western travelers in the line. We promptly asked if they were heading to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia capital and they said, “Yes”.

The line steadily snaked in going through security and then into a large waiting hall. It dawned on me that this is IT! We are really getting on a train starting our Trans-Mongolian railroad adventure! One sure sign was seeing other western travelers with their huge backpacks and hiking boots on – the look of rugged travelers ready to embark on a great adventure.

TransMongolian7The gates opened and there before us, the familiar green train with the famous red star on its side. I’ve seen this train in pictures after many months of researching prior to the trip. We were on the right track. I looked around and saw people taking selfies. There was a tangible mutual excitement that lingered in the air – an anticipation that was almost forceful enough to push the train along with a chugga-chugga.

TransMongolian8Our train attendant was a stalky, middle-aged friendly chap. He checked our tickets and waved us in. This was the first overnight train of many to come as we were headed west straight to Moscow in the next few weeks. New to the whole train scene, we got into our cabin of four, with two bunk beds on each side, a small table next to the window and enough for two adults to stand side by side.

TransMongolian9We stored our luggages under the bottom bunk bed and stowed away our small backpack. Surprisingly, although the cabin may seem small at first sight, after keeping our bags, there was enough room to sit comfortably, even with legs outstretched. Every space and fixture in the cabin has been thoughtfully positioned – we had hooks for small towels, hangers for clothes, a little rack for phones or small items and in each carriage had two power sockets and a samovar for hot water anytime of the day. It’s especially convenient for making instant noodles and coffee.

TransMongolian10TransMongolian11TransMongolian3Since we bought second-class tickets, our carriage did not have air-conditioning. And the worst part was that the windows in our cabin was faulty so it couldn’t be opened. The small fan helped with circulation, but since it was summer – it got a bit hot and stuffy in the afternoon. We would escape to the first-class carriages (two beds per cabin with a cushy seating space) to enjoy some cool air. But as soon as we received stern stares from the train attendant, we exited promptly. We did this several times until the afternoon heat simmered down.

One of the best things of train travel is meeting new friends. Stuck in a small space, we’re forced to forge new friendships. We shared our cabin with Samantha, a young British girl who was also headed for Mongolia and she was going to spend a month in the country before moving onto South Korea. We exchanged travel stories and shared umpteen snacks.

TransMongolian5Not long after we departed, our train attendant (each carriage has one attendant) knocked on our doors and gave us clean bed sheets and duvet covers. Then he gave us two red and green tickets for lunch and dinner – we couldn’t contain our excitement! No where in the ticket did it say lunch and dinner was provided. We did not catch this information on any of the guides we have read – so it was a pleasant surprise.

What we found out after the whole TransSiberian experience was that Chinese trains offered the best food. Who can fault a Chinese cook with a belly sticking out and a towel around his neck? There was a fully equipped kitchen in the dining carriage and the wok was fired up at full steam. We had rice and celery chicken for lunch and rice and meatballs for dinner. Sadly we were too enthused with the food to take any pictures. It didn’t stay long on our plates.

TransMongolian12Eight hours down, 20 hours to go! We’ve explored different carriages, visited the loo several times, read a few stories to Seth, finished a few chapters in our books and popped way too many raisins and nuts. Surprisingly, we were not bored (yet). The novelty of sitting on the train still gripped us. I kept taking out my phone to capture the ever-changing scenery. The train meandered past valleys with towering mountains on both sides, farmers were seen herding cattle and sheep in wide open plains, we saw modest Chinese homes with unmistakable a-framed tiled roofs clustered in small communities and we tunnelled through mountains – and each time we did, the cabin was pitch black. Seth’s favourite was going through tunnels. He would exclaim, “Mommy, where are you?” with hands outstretched, “Daddy, are you there?” groping in the dark. He would snicker as soon as we exited the tunnel.

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Changing Bogies At The Chinese-Mongolian Border

Whether you’re a regular train passenger or not, one of the more unusual experiences happens at the Chinese-Mongolian border – Erlian. Here, the train’s bogies (wheels) have to be changed due to the different track gauges used by Mongolia and China railway networks.

We arrived at 940pm at Erlian, immigration officers entered our carriage to carry out customs and immigration checks. They take our passports and ask us to verbally state our names while looking at us with a steady glare. We were given a choice to remain on the train or alight at the station. Once you get off the train, chances are you will not return until after the bogies have been changed – the whole process took about two hours. Terence went down to get some snacks and ended up waiting. At the station there are proper toilets, an ATM machine and some shops for drinks and snacks. Most people alighted, but I stayed since Seth was fast asleep and I had secretly wanted to see how the bogies were changed.

Our train wheeled into a shaded platform where each carriage was raised, one at a time during the bogie change. Toilets on the carriage were locked and electricity was shut down. The bogies are then removed and new ones are replaced. Every time an existing bogie was removed from a carriage the entire train would shake violently. There was a lot of banging and knocking involved too! At some point I thought Seth would wake up crying because of the loud clanking but he slept through, even snoring at some point.

After an hour and more of ground shaking activity, the carriages are lowered back onto the track and we headed back to the station to pick up the other passengers. It was another 30 minutes wait before we got our passports back and then we finally bid goodbye to China.

An hour into the ride and just as we were about to settle in for some slumber, we arrived at Zamyn Uud the Mongolian border. Our jarring cabin lights flicked on, a smart looking lady officer with strong perfume and brightly coloured nails motioned for our passports. We handed it over and she stamped our customs declaration forms. The wait continued – another two hours on a stationary train waiting for our passports to be cleared. Alas at 315am, about six hours since Erlian’s border crossing, the officers returned to the train and handed back our passports. Our train chugged away into no man’s land and we sank straight into bed.

Good Morning Mongolia!

The air was cool and arid, our cabin door was still shut but outside I could hear children from the other cabin exchanging notes on Mongolia, “Dad, can we ride a horse? Do they have camels too?” “What do people in Mongolia eat?” “They look like Chinese, but they are not.” I chuckled under my sheets and thought, what an amazing country Mongolia is – even children are genuinely curious about her.

TransMongolian14The scenery had changed dramatically. I saw horses galloping afar, random gers dotted in the field, and we even passed some grazing camels. The morning has broken and the skies were the brightest blue with stark white clouds and the occasional majestic eagle circling the sky.

TransMongolian6TransMongolian2We made our way to the dining carriage to grab some breakfast and I was completely spell bound when I opened the carriage door. The dining carriage must have been changed at one of the border crossings and I was now staring at a Mongolian-furnished dining hall. Wooden furnishings of Mongolian instruments, bow and arrow and other hunting paraphernalia. Faces of ancient gods were part of the fixtures too. I could tell that every person who walked in for the first time was equally surprised. They had that “Wow” look on their faces, almost gawking in disbelief. We had some hot goulash and buns for breakfast and immediately missed the great Chinese food the day before.

TransMongolian1328 hours after we first boarded the train, we arrived in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The day was incredibly hot, but a new country awaited us. We alighted with our bags and toddler in the sack and was greeted by a cheerful welcome from our hostel host. I love this country already!

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Guilin To Beijing On The High Speed Train

Arriving in Guilin by air, we spent a few days exploring Guilin city and headed to the sleepy town of Yangshuo to have a better view of the beautiful karst…

Arriving in Guilin by air, we spent a few days exploring Guilin city and headed to the sleepy town of Yangshuo to have a better view of the beautiful karst mountains. Then took the high-speed train to Beijing with an estimated time of 10 hours and 30 minutes but eventually stretched to 12 hours due to some technical issues. We bought second class seats (RMB806 / $130 per person) which meant that our train seats can only be reclined a little and there were no pre-booked meals. The seats were more spacious than airline economic seats and the wide windows offered panoramic views of the changing landscape.

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Getting on the train was a feat in itself. We had to take a taxi from our Air BnB apartment and it was raining heavily. A very kind taxi lady stopped for us in the middle of the road and even came down and helped us with our bags. With our very broken and limited Mandarin, we managed to tell her where we wanted to go. At the train station, everything was in Mandarin. We had our tickets at hand and the only thing we could understand were the numbers on the ticket. “1035 (departure time), G422 (train number), 10 (Guessing it’s the carriage number) and 9 (Guessing it’s my seat number). There was a large crowd already at the waiting hall. Minutes later we heard an announcement on the PA system and everyone barged to the entrance. We followed suit, albeit with less haste and no pushing!

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We walked to the platform and saw number markings on the floor and made another guess that the markings meant the carriage number. We got into the train without a glitch and settled down into our designated seats.

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The doors closed and we were on our way. About ten seats in front of us, a ‘private party’ was going on. Chinese men were clanging beer bottles, laughing, chatting and eating pork and noodles with chopsticks over folded tissue paper. I looked around and people were already getting cosy in their seats, curled up with a pillow, others were snacking on cookies and many others were tuned-out and tuned-in to their electronic devices. I even spotted someone doing some yoga stretches.

yogaIMG_0609Throughout the journey, we made 18 stops alighting passengers and picking up new ones. The landscape was predominantly farming land with rolling hills as a backdrop. Block houses dotted in the fields and farmers with hats were bent over busy in the field. The sky was downcast and the clouds were low. A constant drizzle followed us through. Nearing Beijing, we stopped at ‘ghost towns’ with tall building blocks that seemed vacant. It was interesting to people watch when the train stopped, although there wasn’t enough time to leave the train.

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We had lunch and dinner on the train. For RMB40 ($6.50), we had pre-packed trays of rice meals – rice, beef, chicken, potatoes, veggies and Chinese condiments. It wasn’t horrible but it was definitely overpriced. We were so glad we had our own snacks to munch on.

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We filled the hours with reading, reading stories to Seth, walking to and fro different carriages, playing games and eating. We were constantly snacking! Peanuts, dried fruit, biscuits, preserved plums… you name it!

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Overall it was a great experience. We survived 12 hours, travelled 2,135 kilometers on a train with a toddler. A good sign and precursor for the many more train rides to come…!

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Featured on Zafigo: What New Moms Need To Know About Traveling With Baby

Back by popular demand, I decided to expand on my baby travel checklist and share some lessons learnt from my first ever trip with Seth when he was just three months…

zafigologo

Back by popular demand, I decided to expand on my baby travel checklist and share some lessons learnt from my first ever trip with Seth when he was just three months old. I have been talking to some friends who have recently become new moms and they too had a string of questions, similar to when I was about to embark on my first trip.

In the article in Zafigo also has a step-by-step guide on how to set out on your first trip with you bubs. Truth to be told, a lot of it is common sense, but sometimes we just need a bit of reassurance. Now that Seth is two years old and have travelled more than five countries, I can honestly say that it gets easier by the trip and a few things are as rewarding as seeing the world with you child.

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From Zafigo: 

Endless screaming in a confined airplane seat, uncontrollable crying while waiting in line for some cheap burgers because you simply did not have the time to eat, terrible tantrums in the middle of a shopping mall and food stained clothes, the mark of a true parent. All these horror stories are enough to cripple your grand idea of walking out the door with a suitcase packed for a holiday.

I was determined to prove my fears wrong. Read full article…

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Whale Watching Tips

Your first whale watching experience will be an exhilarating one and you want to be prepared for the moment when you see that magnificent creature at sea. The tours usually…

Your first whale watching experience will be an exhilarating one and you want to be prepared for the moment when you see that magnificent creature at sea. The tours usually span from one and a half hours to three hours. But whale sightings only lasts between five to ten minutes once the whale is spotted. Having been on four whale watching trips in New Zealand and Australia, I’ve gathered some tips on how to feel my best while at sea and some additional tips on capturing the best moments on camera so that I can relive that moment again and again.

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  • Anticipate sea sickness. Pop a sea sick pill at least 30 minutes before you head out. This will prevent a lot of mess. Be sure to check if the pill is drowsy or non-drowsy as you don’t want to be nodding off when the whale shows up.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. Very often people will go on their first whale watch trip fearing they might throw up and avoid eating breakfast prior to the trip. Skipping breakfast only results in acid and gas build up which could potentially make you even queasier. I usually take a very light breakfast like a toasts or cereal and avoid any fatty or fried food. Bring along some healthy snacks like nuts or pretzels for munching to stop your stomach acids from building up.
  • Stay hydrated. Bring along a bottle of water with you, especially if you decide to hang out on the open deck to spot dolphins and enjoy the morning sun.
  • Keep warm. It is usually cooler out at sea and even chillier with the ocean breeze. Bring a light jacket with you.
  • Sunblocks and sunnies. Yes, the sun is harsh so don’t skimp on lathering yourself with sun-protection.

While at sea, you want to remember these tips to avoid from feeling queasy:

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  • Stay outside in the open because fresh air helps a lot.
  • Go to the lowest deck and stay towards the rear of the vessel. The closer you are to the water, the less motion is felt.
  • Suck on a sweet or mint – somehow it helps.
  • Keep your eyes on the horizon. Looking at something that is not moving helps the equilibrium.
  • Lookout for dolphins, seals seabirds, flying fishes, albatrosses, whatever you can spot. Keep your mind occupied and off your queasy stomach.

Getting the perfect whale shot!

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  • Rule #1 is, always have your camera ready. Make sure your batteries are charged and your equipment ready.
  • Next, you will need to understand basic whale behaviour. I don’t claim to be a specialist in this, but from my experiences and tips from different skippers, here are some pointers.
  • Keep a lookout and be on a scanning mode. Never fix your eyes on one place. When scanning the water’s surface, lookout for spouts of water coming off the surface.
  • Once you have that initial sighting, keep looking in that direction. You should be able to see a mass above the water’s surface. Depending on how long the whale has surfaced, the sperm whale may do a few things; spout (blow water), breach (belly up) or dive (tail up and back into the deep).
  • Enjoy the moment while the whale is calm and snap away, but don’t take your eyes off the whale as the whale has to dive back into the sea. If you are fortunate, the whale may do a breach, but this is quite rare.
  • Get your camera ready for the dive. Be focused, centered and ready to snap your shot. The tail of the whale is what you want to capture. When the tail is completely out of the water and its underside visible, you will notice patterns on the tail called the fluke print. This is unique to each whale, as fingerprints are to humans.
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