Bouncing emeralds glimmer amongst the shadows of fallen foliage. The sun is filtered through the leaves above, but enough light floats through the jungle to gleam off of their poisonous clear-coat.
I’m told not to touch. I’m told their poison can kill, but I know better. With no cuts on my hand, I lift the colorful froglet off the ground on a stiff brown leaf. The guide I’m with is surprised to see the animal hold still. Its delicate throat throbs rapidly as it breathes the humid rainforest mist. I also breathe rapidly, excited to meet my poison jewel.
My dad and I boarded a small boat in Juneau, Alaska. I was happy to take the glacier tour, but my ideal trip would have ended with a photo of a bear basking on the forest banks. Spoiler alert: I did not meet a bear.
I met Captain Larry, who steered us through beautiful scenery while telling us about his old boat as it slid across the cold, crystal water.
In addition to scenery, the purpose of this trip was to see whales in their natural habitat. Sometimes, a lucky tourist will see a whale breach the surface, but of course, such encounters were not guaranteed. A puff of mist from a whale would be amazing to see, but the magic of that interaction is left mostly to the imagination, considering the creature remains a mystery under the surface of the dark water. While the idea excited me, it took me some time to truly understand how important it would be for me find wild whales— at very least, for the sake of an inspiring blog post.
A tool is an instrument used in some activity. I’ve always associated tool-use with primates, due to our opposable thumbs. Tool-use is often arrogantly associated with mental superiority, sometimes justifiably so. Many of us think an animal needs to be dexterous to use tools, and smart enough to rationalize the need for a tool. After I boarded that boat, my perspective on “intelligent tool use” reached a new level.
Snowy mountains set the backdrop. Captain Larry pointed out a flock of cloud-white gulls hovering over a spot of water. He said, “Focus on that spot under the birds.”
Seconds later, two massive humpback whales erupted from the water like smooth mountains defying gravity. Their heads and at least a third of their bodies rose into the air. After they crashed into the water, and after I finished applauding like a trained circus monkey (I was pretty excited), we noticed a pattern. About five minutes would go by before the gulls began flocking over one spot of water. From the air, they could see the whales congregating. A minute after the birds began hovering, one, two, and sometimes three whales would explode out of the water with their mouths wide open— one almost swallowed a gull. They were hunting fish together, which is why the birds expressed so much interest in the whale’s strategy.
Imagine a ripe mango at the top of an impossibly tall tree. For a primate like myself, I’d look for a rock or a stick to knock the fruit down. That level of resourcefulness is seen as a sign of intelligence, but imagine a realm where I could simply create a concentrated laser beam of oxygen and shoot it directly at the fruit to knock it from it’s branch.
That’s essentially what I witnessed from the whales. They were partaking in a rare phenomenon called “bubble net feeding.” It’s a learned behavior found in certain pods of whales, indicating that it is taught from elders to young in certain families rather than being instinctive. Whales in other parts of the ocean know nothing about this.
Here’s how bubble net feeding works: The members of the pod spread across the sea floor until they find a school of herring. They then coordinate a group attack by blowing bubbles and swimming in circles below/ around the herring. The fish are afraid of the wall of bubbles floating up from the depths, so they swim the opposite direction. But guess what’s there? A bubble wall from another whale! The humpbacks close their bubble circle as the frightened school of fish panic in a tight ball with nowhere to go. The whales then take turns swimming up, through the circle of millions of bubbles, with their mouths wide open to scoop the fish.
Imagine the complex thought required to coordinate such a project. Imagine the first whales who developed the trick. They needed to communicate each step of the process and train their team to execute — remember, this is learned behavior. Not instinct.
Captain Paul Watson wrote an amazing essay on cetacean brains, arguing that they are the most intelligent beings on planet Earth (cetacean= whales & dolphins). Most people think humans are the most intelligent animals, but as a human, consider what “we” lack. Think about our wars. We kill our own species over resources, egos, and religion. It seems primitive, no? How many people have we had to exploit in order to arrive where we are today?
Whales have the largest brains of any animal, and as Captain Watson explains in his essay, an arguably more intricate brain structure than our own. How would you survive if I dropped you off on an abandoned island? You might remember some boy/girl scout skills, but how resourceful and adaptable could you be long-term? What if there were no resources with which to build a fire or weapons? Humans have inherited a lot, but in terms of brain structure, whales and dolphins may have us beat.
Cetaceans use sonar, and are capable of hearing up to 20 times the amount of information that we can. They have lobe structures in their brain rivaling that of humans in regard to speech and communication. Cetaceans also have an enlarged limbic lobe. In humans, the limbic system corresponds with emotional behavior and memories.
Another interesting difference between these sensitive submarines and us is the cingulate gyrus, of which humans only have one. Orcas have an enlarged cingulate gyrus, made up of three separate lobes. In addition to large size, the structural design implies an extreme capability of emotional expression. Some people are less socially developed than most cetaceans.
Another interesting factor in cetacean brains are spindle cells, which are associated with the limbic system’s processing of social interactions and empathy. These were once thought to be unique to great apes, but have been found in whales and dolphins. Even cooler— we now know that the spindle cells in killer whales are larger than those found in the human brain. So, we lose that “mine’s bigger” argument.
Cetaceans are thought to have a more unified perception without separate senses, hence using an acoustic (sonar) sense that seems to be at one with their vision (I.E. seeing sounds). This is the stuff of dreams, people!
Considering how interested we are in dragons and aliens, why aren’t people obsessed with these singing super-tanks of the ocean? They speak a language, they mourn their dead, and they have built in compasses and radar systems. (Captain Watson states that because of their capability for sonar, a dolphin can see a tumor inside another dolphin).
Some scholars argue that these creatures should be classified as non-human persons, considering they have an intellectual complexity and emotional depth that without question outranks many humans.
Perhaps their advanced perceptive skills explain why so many ship-wrecked humans have been rescued by dolphins? I admit, before seeing these animals hunting in the wild, I was less enthusiastic than I am now. If you aren’t able to book a trip to Alaska, simply read Captain Paul Watson’s essay and let me know what you think in the comments!
There’s something about falling asleep in your own dried sweat with mud-stained ankles that makes you feel invincible— as if your skin is an organic armor, and no matter how dirty, scratched or bruised it gets, the essence of “you” is always safe, wrapped up in your fleshy blanket.
After a week exploring the humid city of Chaing Mai, my volunteer group headed into the mountains to visit one of planet earth’s most famous beasts. Night time in the mountains, which we spent in bamboo huts under the stars, was fairly cool. We had plenty of opportunities to fall asleep in our own dried sweat.
“Arrowan doesn’t like to be touched when eating. We think he has bad memories from his entertainment days,” said the man named Yo, who served as our tour guide/ life guru/ my role model. He was describing the young, energetic male that lives with the free-roaming, all-female group of rescued elephants.
We trekked through the forests in search of the herd. It’s impressive how quietly such large animals can sneak up on you. Four massive, modern mastodons galloped out of thick air to meet us, their ears flapping excitedly. Before beginning our journey, we had rolled some salty tamarind balls. The elephants could smell the treats from the other side of the mountain. They raided us for the snacks and we loved every second of it.
I try to write only about wild animal encounters. Though these elephants were once used for tourist entertainment, they now live a semi-wild life thanks to the Journey to Freedom project. They roam freely around the mountain ranges, while money from volunteer groups like H.E.A.T. Abroad goes to paying for each elephant to have their own “mahout,” (a man who cares for the elephants). Rather than leasing the elephants out to an abusive tourist industry, the men now make a good living watching the elephants and keeping them out of farmlands.
I could go in-depth about how amazing the program is, but for those details, you’ll have to check out a blog overseen by my good friend and travel writer Josh Andrews at heatabroad.org. My blog, however, is about the poetic storytelling of animal encounters, so for those of you who have not had the chance to be fondled by the bristly hairs of an delightfully intrusive elephant trunk, let me try and paint this picture for you.
Every time we interacted with the elephants, we couldn’t ignore how dog-like they were. They indicated their level of joy by fanning us with their huge ears, rather than wagging their tails. Instead of excited howls and happy barks, they expressed their contentment by way of high-pitched “toots,” which sounded exactly like a third-grader trying to imitate a trumpet by pressing their lips together and blowing against their arm.
Just like any other animal, the elephants also had moments of uncertainty and distress. That, my friends, is a sound I will never forget. I’m grateful that I pressed record on my phone at the perfect moment, and captured the low, bass-filled growl that the largest female made when her mahout blocked her from entering a farmer’s strawberry field. You’ve seen Jurassic Park or Jurassic World? The deep growl of the Indomnus Rex is the exact sound elephants make when concerned, and it is bone chilling.
I was pleased to disprove my pre-conceived ideas that elephants were slow and clumsy. In fact, as we followed them through the forest, they were quite hard to keep up with, and could disappear within minutes without a trace. They would get on their knees to adjust their weight and scale steep, muddy cliffs that even I, with my precious human intellect and opposable thumbs, could not climb.
I am always impressed by strong, powerful creatures that want nothing more than to graze in peace with their loved ones. Any of these elephants could have trampled any person in my group at any time. It seems to be consistent among large, strong vegetarians, be it a bull, a rhino, or an elephant, that they rarely use their power to abuse others. There is wisdom among these animals that I hope my species may be perceptive enough to learn.
Once I earned my scuba certification on the Great Barrier Reef, my group and I went on a night dive to watch sharks hunting. It was a creepy concept. Not because we jumped into dark water at night, and not because of the sharks waiting for us 70 feet below. It was creepy only because the boat crew was playing the JAWS theme song on the deck speakers the entire time we geared up into our wetsuits, still damp from the earlier daytime dives.
“Point your torches (flashlights) toward the coral. You’ll see thousands of red eyes shining back at you. Those belong to the shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans that come out at night,” our instructor said before we submerged. “And the yellow eyes — those are the sharks and rays.” I’ll never forget the silhouette of the fat grey reef shark. He circled us, which let me assure you, causes a strange feeling, before disappearing into the foggy, moonlit water. I pointed my waterproof flashlight directly at him until he faded into the distance. The reflection of his yellow eye as he swam away was incredibly haunting.
The day before the night dive was particularly rewarding. I saw a massive green sea turtle, and a white-tip reef shark, who let me swim on his back with my GoPro while taking beautiful footage of his swimming. Tons of colorful tropical fish and exotic coral made the day dives fantastic, like diving in an alien garden.
Still, something about being in the ocean at night and finding my way with a flashlight and glow sticks has a special place in my memory. Diving in the dark with hunting sharks may sound frightening, but it was enchanting. I’m looking forward to my next moonlight dinner with them.
Black water rafting, or diving with wild dolphins? While nearing the end of our travels in New Zealand, my friends and I wanted to splurge on one last adventure. The previous weeks were spent hiking, sea kayaking (photo below), visiting a Kiwi sanctuary, and luging down a mountain (which ended up being a hilarious video). We had planned on ending the trip with black water rafting— riding an inner tube through a series of underground rapids through caves coated with glowworms. However, when we visited a tourist center in whatever town we had stopped in, we found a deal for diving with wild dolphins that made us reconsider our rafting goals.
We took a break to visit the public restroom next door and filled our water jug from the sink (how do you think we afforded all of these adventures? Had to cut costs). It was in the restroom where we finally agreed that swimming with wild dolphins would be more meaningful than rafting, so we reserved three spots on the next boat. Excited, we headed to the woods, set up our tent, and rested for the upcoming journey.
The morning sun rose, but we couldn’t see it. We unzipped our tent expecting to see blue skies and sunrays. Instead, the forest was covered by shadows from dark, ominous clouds, warning that they’d drench us if we tried to do anything fun. The clouds lived up to their promise. New Zealand’s South island had already proven to be bitterly cold. Still we bundled up, packed our tent, and drove to the coastal city of Picton to catch our boat, because you know… non-refundable tickets.
We changed into our wetsuits and met the diving staff. They said we’d still try to find the dolphins, despite the frigid storm outside. We loaded up on the boat and set sail into the bay, quickly realizing the downside to searching for wild dolphins. They’re wild, with no guarantees that we’d see any, and certainly no guarantee that they’d stick around to swim with us… or that they’d abstain from grabbing our feet and dragging us to the bottom of the ocean for ransom.
I respected the guide company. They would not tolerate feeding the animals to attract them. To keep it a truly wild experience, they emphasized the importance of not interfering with natural behavior. Even in the cold rainstorm, our spirits were high as we sailed out to sea.
Our high spirits lowered as the hours passed. I fell asleep for at least 30 minutes. The sky was cloudy and there were no dolphins in sight. Just rain. It took hours, but we finally found a pod of spunky Dusky dolphins, flipping out of the water as our boat approached. We ran to the deck, preparing to jump in and frolic. How silly we were.
“Sorry folks,” said our instructor in an adorable accent. “These dolphins are displaying, which means they are mating.” I had to respect the call, but it was a bummer. Within 30 minutes, though, we had found another pod, and we finally got the thumbs up to jump into the icy water and interact.
“These are inquisitive creatures, and they are attracted to sound,” the instructor said. “Once you hit the water, begin humming and singing. You’ll have a better chance of one swimming up to you.”
My friends and I jumped into the water, and not only could I not hum, but I couldn’t breathe. Yes, I had a snorkel, but I did not have a tolerance for 60-degree water. I swam against the waves to generate body heat, looking below me into the deep nothingness. Once I caught my breath, I began humming, and eventually, a pair of curious, silver torpedoes gracefully flowed below me. It was actually quite startling— straining my eyes to see something, anything, in the blue depths, when suddenly something big and fast appeared out of nowhere. It seems instinctual, to get a frightening boost of adrenaline when we see that, as if it’s a nod to our prehistoric ancestors who actually were prey animals to larger, faster creatures.
The dolphins were not nearly as interested in me as I was in them, because they swam away after about 10 seconds while I longed for more. One returned, and swam beautiful, uneven loops around me before disappearing again. I could barely follow the close, fast movements with my eyes, but my friend Paul got a great video of the acrobatics with my GoPro. The dolphin had an entire ocean to explore, but it chose to inspect me, top to bottom, before vanishing like an ocean spirit.
There is something transcendental about connecting with a wild animal that wants to interact. I’m not talking about spotting an elusive creature before it sprints away, as special as that is. I’m talking about purposefully throwing yourself into an underwater universe where you don’t belong, and being welcomed by intellectual ambassadors of the ocean. Captain Paul Watson wrote a brilliant essay on cetacean intelligence, referencing a dolphin’s ability to “see into a person’s body, their blood flow, and the workings of the organs.” He wrote that by using echolocation, “a dolphin can see a tumor inside the body of another dolphin. Even more amazing is that emotional states of others can be instantly detected. These are species incapable of deception, whose emotional states are open books to each other.”
Many animals read energy. Humans do, but many of us have lost our touch as modern society distances us from the natural world. I like to think that the dolphins were attracted to my energy, understanding that my curiosity matched theirs. Or maybe I wasn’t interesting at all, hence why the pod didn’t stick around for very long. I’ll never know, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to wonder.
P.S., we were shivering our butts off the entire trip back to land. Once we were wet, we couldn’t go back inside the boat’s cabin. The only redemption was a python-sized, warm water hose on the deck. We passed it around to stick into our wetsuits, and man, was that a treat. It’s the odd things in life that make the best memories.
To see the top of a cloud.
A privilege unique only to the gods, now earned by mankind.
What was a dream for our ancestors is a reality for modern man.
Let’s sit back, enjoy, and fly too close to the sun.