I stepped off a turbulent plane flight less than 30 minutes before meeting Dylan, the new Colorado resident eager to show me his state. He led me up a 14,000 foot mountain hike. I like to think I’m in good shape, but the altitude took advantage of my foreign lungs and seized a 50% tax on every breath of oxygen. It was 60 degrees, but I panted like a bulldog in Houston.
Atop the mountain, an unusual bird cried a shrill call. I scanned the sun-dyed horizon but saw nothing. The corner of my eye caught a glimpse of a small, round boulder skipping along the top of other rocks. Not believing in animated rocks, I crept closer for a better look.
A grey, round animal scurried in-between the rocks, stopping only to nibble lichen and to squeak the shrill bird cry I heard earlier. The animal was a Pika, and although it looked like a large hamster, it is not a rodent. The Pika belongs to a separate club of animals, shared only with rabbits and hares. These animals are lagerphones, and Pikas, though they are not endangered, are protected animals. Not considered to be rare, my sight that day certainly was uncommon. I enjoyed the elusive, rock dancing teddy bear on the peak of Mount Evans.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kiwi birds are a bird-to-mammal link
A mammal-like kiwi chick in New Zealand
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.