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.
I landed in Australia with a list of specific wildlife found only on this continent. I also had a willingness to get as dirty, wet, bruised and tired as it would take to get a glimpse— a glimpse recorded uniquely in my memory, not to be experienced the same by any other human for the rest of time.
At the top of my list was the endangered cassowary. The second largest bird on the planet, the cassowary is included in a group of prehistoric birds called “ratites.” There are only 1,200 left in the wild, lurking deep in the rainforests of Northern Australia. It is rarely seen— even by locals born and raised in the area.
Travellers said that most sightings take place in the ancient Daintree rainforest, so we traveled further North (out of our way) to scratch the creature off my list. Sunrise to sunset, we explored the forest only to leave disappointed (though I did swim with a rare freshwater pipefish in one of the forest ponds, and saw some BIG monitor lizards).
The next day, a woman at the supermarket said we should drive South toward Etty Bay. Sightings were still rare, but a specific family unit of cassowaries had been seen raiding campsites near a beach recently.
Obviously, a few days later, there we were— standing outside of a campsite where the forest meets the beach. Within 30 minutes, I sprinted barefoot toward some movement. A juvenile male was bobbing between some trees, deciding if he should venture onto the beach. He was small— almost five feet tall, with some brown feathers left over from being a chick.
My day was made. He was weary, but did not mind me getting close. The way he walked was straight out of the Jurassic era, leaving large, clawed footprints in the sand.
I followed him toward the campsite, then when he disappeared in the jungle, I went for a walk to look through my pictures. I came across a blue tent, and my jaw hit the grass below. An adult female cassowary (larger than adult males) sat comfortably, eating a watermelon some campers had left unattended. Just sitting, her head was up to my chest. Bright yellow eyes blinked between long, black lashes. You could hear the power of her beak tearing into the rind. Her thick neck transitioned from light powder blue to a deep royal blue, then to red.
After she finished, she stood up. I suddenly remembered all of the documentaries about cassowary attacks. Zookeepers often need shields just to enter enclosures with hand-raised cassowaries. This one was wild.
Her claws were thick and black— built for swift sprinting or disembowelling an opponent, whichever she preferred. She had a fossil-hard horn on her head, raising her height up to my chin.
She walked toward me. I remained calm, though eager. She seemed to appreciate that, as she strolled beside me down the beach toward the jungle. I got really close— closer than I should have. After a few minutes, she straightened her neck, stood up straight and looked me in the eye. Then, as silently as the first one I saw, she disappeared into the foliage.
Maybe I got too close and she was warning me, or maybe she thought I was as abstract as I thought she was. Either way, my number one animal had been seen, and the experience, and photos, will stay with me forever.