Diving with Duskys

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.

13115858_10207913337604178_128591611_n
Sea Kayaking with my boys in New Zealand

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.

13162023_10207913329163967_754473912_n

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.

13115609_10207913331444024_2080511490_n
One of our many cold campsites

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.

13150078_10207913336644154_468186749_n
The rain cleared long enough for a couple of photos with my two best friends

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.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 10.38.23 PM

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.

13115533_10207913187640429_2128798044_n
A wild pair swimming in synchronization 

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.”

Dolphin

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.

cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png

Advertisements

Mythical Monotremes

image

After seeing wild cassowaries, my search for Australian wildlife couldn’t have gotten more rewarding. Though after a few weeks, I became greedy…

The Platypus Bush Campground sat the end of a dirt road where no cellphone signal dare go. Our research showed this was a good place to see a wild platypus, though it was a few hours out of our way.

“Ten bucks per person? Online it said seven.” I tried to haggle with the old man wearing a chewed-up leather hat. “We’re just setting up a tent,” I insisted.

“It was seven— but that’s subject to change without notice.” He said with a wink. A literal wink. He sat at the end of a dirt driveway, smoking while reading a book at a rickety wooden table. His half-dingo dog lay by his side, and a wooden block on the table read: OFFICE.

image
“This should have been $7”

It was near sunset and we were miles away from any other camp, so we paid him, but I expected specific details on where to spot a wild platy.

“In what part of the creek do they stay?” I asked. He pointed me toward a calm pool at the end of the rapids, but I had to decode his thick accent.

“So what time should we be there?” I pushed for more engaging directions.

“Between 5:30pm and 5:30am,” he answered, not looking up from his book.

“So for the platypus in this area specifically, what time range is best? When are they most likely to surface?” I was going to get $10 worth of answers. He looked up from his book. His cloudy blue eyes were connected to the hearing aids in his ears by deep wrinkles criss-crossing his tanned face.

“Mother Nature, mate,” he said with a wink, then returned to his book. Again with the wink. I think this guy was a woodland elf or some kind of forest spirit.

I didn’t take his response as rude. It was enlightening. Finding rare creatures wouldn’t mean nearly as much if I had a road map and schedule for each appearance. The cassowaries were a thrill because it took days to find them. So, my friends and I grabbed our snacks and flashlights, then walked down the rapids to a crystal pool surrounded by towering trees.

image

Hours passed. I saw a 3-foot freshwater eel, but no platypus. The duck-billed platypus is the most Pokemon-like animal I’ve searched for. A living fossil, these are one of two egg-laying mammals on the entire planet.

The general evolutionary transition is from fish to amphibians, to reptiles, to birds, to mammals. Dinosaurs differed from reptiles because many were mesothermic and could regulate their own body temperature, essentially prehistoric birds. Reptiles still existed back then— crocodilians to name one group— but they were slow moving and cold-blooded, relatively unchanged today.

The transition from reptile to bird to mammal is an abstract one. While dinosaurs evolved into modern birds, prehistoric reptiles have remained similar and survived, though some are thought to have adapted more mammalian-like qualities.

The platypus has fur and nurses its young, both of which are mammalian traits. It also has scaly feet and a beak. This animal has survived in an isolated pocket of the planet, giving us a glimpse into an era of goofy-looking mixed animals, called “transitional links.” This link is still thriving, and happened to have had three burrows beside the creek next to which I sat.

The sun set, the flying foxes rose with the moon, but there was no chubby beaver duck anywhere in sight. After almost five hours, it was pitch black, aside from the fire flies. We didn’t see a platypus.

image

A couple of weeks later, we went even further off the route to try and see the mythical beast.

Another late night with snakes, bugs and turtles, but no Platys. The fog hovered over the glass water, and each of us knew there was a little, legendary animal vibrating its beak in-between the river stones, scurrying through the bubbles in search of worms. Dylan, one of my travel buddies, even dreamed the night before that he saw four platypus. We all sat on the rocks in silence, envisioning where one would pop up. One never did.

Remember being a kid, imagining what it would look like to finally see the Easter bunny hop over the fence to hide some eggs before vanishing? My parents found me asleep inside a pillow fort every Christmas night— a failed attempt to stay up and catch Santa in the act. Here I am, with two other adult males, resting on river boulders with visions of a platypus dancing in my head.

image

What else in our adult lives inspires that kind of excitement? I’ve never seen a real platypus— not even in a zoo. Such an odd animal, it makes more sense that it wouldn’t exist. But here we are, in search of something elusive. Something we’ll probably go home without seeing, thus, keeping it mythical, and giving our inner child something to stay up late to catch.

cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png

Connecting

The sounds of the Australian rainforest at night are from another world. Leaves constantly rustle and creatures scream in the distance, sounding like robotic toddlers.

A shiny black skink warming up this morning

Last night, we drove through a cloud on the top of Lamington Mountain. The cloud was flashing with lightening, as it was a thunderstorm, so we had to set up our tent in a public bathroom.

Avoiding the rain by spending the night in a public shower stall

After living wherever can pop up a tent, I feel connected in a way I’ve never felt. The highway and its zooming cars outside my nylon wall transform into calming ocean waves lulling me to sleep.

Wild brush possum

image
This morning, I stopped in my tracks to smell a flower, something I can’t remember doing at home. That got me thinking- if I wasn’t in Australia, would I have done that? What if I moved here and Australia became my home. Would I get numb to it all and stop smelling flowers after a while?

I’m lying in a park, writing this on Arlie Beach. The Palm leaves above me clap in the breeze, the kookaburras laugh, and the lorikeet parrots scream. A couple of pink galah cockatoos even perched above us a little earlier, making robot noises before flying away.

Sulfur crested cockatoo flying above

Kookaburra

Lorikeets overrun every park on the east coast

Making friends with a cockatoo

My breath is taken away with the breeze, floating with the gulls.
I want to soak in how much “better” this place is than anything I could find at home, but I keep correcting myself. This is new, and different, but not better (aside from the temperature- the weather is definitely better).

image

Unique crested doves and rosella parrots come very close

image

My point is, wherever we are, we need to connect with what’s around us. If there is a park near you, make time to explore it. If you’re wearing shoes, remove them, and feel the grass. Any place can feel like home if you can connect.

As much as I’m loving my travels, I still miss my nature spots back home, especially the San Marcos river in Texas.

Love where you are, wherever you are.

cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png

Dueling Dimorphodons

To be successful in life is to wake up every morning without the aid of an alarm clock. That is all I’d require for life to be considered luxurious. -Ian Smith

Some of my travel group learning about the different bromeliads of the forest
Some of my travel group learning about the different bromeliads of the forest

I usually wouldn’t attend anything starting at 6am, but I promised myself that I’d grasp every opportunity available as I boarded the plane for my first study abroad trip to Costa Rica. A few days before the trip ended, our head coordinator announced a special sunrise yoga class in the rainforest, beginning at 6am. I said I’d do it, knowing I’d probably just sleep in and just act really bummed for missing it. My roommate Daniel made sure that didn’t happen, as he did not want to be the only boy at the event. I’m glad he woke me because otherwise, I would have been jerked from my slumber by the alarm on my IronMan sport watch. That high-pitched “beep” would ring in my ears every morning— as if a rogue mouse set off an alarm after breaking out of its tiny holding cell.

Me with my roommate, Daniel
Me with my roommate, Daniel.

Daniel and I, barely awake, stumbled to a clearing surrounded by trees and tropical flowers. We were dwarfed by the lush Arenal Volcano directly in front of us— famous for its hot springs, which we later visited. At this point, everyone quietly greeted each other. We hadn’t been outside longer than five minutes and I’d seen more types of humming birds than I thought existed.

The volcano leaked steam while the bromeliads around us collected dew from the morning mist. I inhaled a breath while the orchestra of a tropical morning danced in my lungs.

The view during our hilltop yoga
The view during our hilltop yoga

We went through an hour of intense yoga- more of a workout than I would have liked. It grew as the sun rose higher. We finished our yoga hour with the “corpse” pose, which is essentially lying still to feel your heart pump.

Though my eyes were supposed to stay shut, I felt the sun vanish behind my eyelids, so I cheated and opened an eye. Storm clouds rolled over the top of the volcano. Our coordinator was coaching us on how to breathe while in corpse pose, and we could hear her excitement as a light mist fell onto us from above. “Let the rainforest cleanse you as it washes away your negativity,” was the ad-libbed line that has stuck with me through the years.

Photos couldn't capture the feeling of jungle rain on a sweaty body, so here's me swimming under the La Fortuna waterfall instead
Photos couldn’t capture the feeling of jungle rain on a sweaty body, so here I am swimming under the La Fortuna waterfall instead

That moment was one of the few in my life where things lined up perfectly. As if on cue, the rain cooled us after we finished the most vigorous yoga of our lives. The symbolism was overwhelming. This memory is enhanced not by the flawless setting, but by the unexpected guests who joined us. As raindrops freckled my face, I peeked again just to take everything in. Once more, as if on cue, I saw perfection in motion. A Swainson’s toucan swooped onto the branch of a leafless tree, taller than the others. Everyone was calm, quiet, and experiencing a natural high in its purest form during our jungle rain yoga, but this was the first wild toucan I’d seen, so I squealed and sat up to get a better look. The sky was grey-blue, the rain misting down, and a multi-colored bird just perched above us. We pointed as the toucan bounced around the branches, acting a bit frantic- as if the rain was getting it really excited.

We soon realized he was displaying for another male that swooped onto the branch next to him. Everyone gasped. The show went on as he fluffed his feathers in the rain, pruning in front of his friend. As if my heart needed to pound harder, a third toucan perched atop the tree, prompting the two males to begin jousting with their massive colorful beaks for her attention. This was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had the honor of experiencing. The rain, the bright, yellow chests of the birds against the green trees behind them- I was watching two delicate Dimorphadons duel for a damsel— a behavior the coordinators said they’ve never seen, even while growing up in Costa Rica.

Magic.
This was actually the fourth wild toucan I saw, but it is the same species as the ones in this story.

As an artist, I always appreciate the colors of nature. When I watched wild toucans spar in the rain, my appreciation evolved into teeth-gritting obsession. I’ve never been to an art museum and fallen in love with a piece of art, but there are connoisseurs who do, and who pay tens of thousands of dollars to experience that love. After this experience, I’ve finally been lucky enough to fall in love with a perfect scene, all because I peeked.

Me with some rescued babies at the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Not wild, but still marvelous little creatures.
Me with some rescued babies at the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Not wild, but still marvelous little creatures.cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png

Sun Rays & Stingrays

Staring over the balcony in the middle of the ocean will heal any over-sized ego. Look any direction and you’ll see vast blue waves kissing the immeasurable horizon. Occasionally, a silver sparkle highlights the presence of a school of fish darting near the surface.

I promised myself that if my girlfriend and I last five years, I’d make up for the lackluster anniversaries and birthdays preceding. We agreed to give each other experiences rather than materials, so here we are, on a cruise ship hugging the tip of the peninsula between Progresso and Cozumel, Mexico.

Exploring the city
Exploring the city

I earned my degree in communications, but my goal is to be a professional sunset chaser. As I lean against this balcony with a salty breeze sculpting my hair, the wind catches the undersides of my unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, whipping it in a motion similar to that of the animals I had met underwater a few hours prior.

Pangea iguana

Related to the shark and dangerous in their own way, stingrays are hunted for their meat and hide. For a $60 fee— taxi ride included— we explored a string ray reserve in Cozumel. They had a number of different stingrays— mainly southern stingrays, most rescued from fisherman and other threatening situations. The reserve offered cold drinks and beach-side relaxation, all to be enjoyed after a dive in the fenced-in coral nursery. The fence was large enough to allow native tropical fish to swim through the spaces and investigate the various sections of the coral nursery, but after moments of exploration in the deep area, we realized the fences were for keeping animals in, not out.

Stingrays in all their elegance
Stingrays in all their elegance

Enormous stingrays— ranging in size from two to ten feet— flapped their fins as they flew toward us. They moved like graceful creatures of a dream. Our apprehension faded quickly— these shark cousins came in peace, and as they surrounded us under water, we pet their silky, slimy hide, polished by crystal blue water. Their smiling mouths under their bodies sucked small pieces of squid from our hands as we trembled with excitement.

Riding the ray
Riding the ray

Take a look at the video I took underwater from my GoPro: https://vimeo.com/139417806

Being underwater mystified the experience with muddled sounds, colorful fish, and random bubbles catching glimmers of sunlight. The rays remained serene and glided across the sand, like a squadron of disc-shaped hovercrafts searching for squid from our hands. They really enjoyed squid.

Sergeant major damselfish swarmed us as we dove
Sergeant major damselfish swarmed

The center released the babies in local reefs in an effort to sustain the population of Mexican stingrays in the face of poaching. It’s nice to spend time with an organization that gives back, especially when you get to float in a daydream with magical sand discs.

cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png