Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Running with the Big Animals
I have been all over the world diving with some of the most incredible animals on the planet. But today, I had the best diving experience I have ever had. Without any tanks. Which is the exact reason why it was so special.
Having just completed my freediving lessons, I was eager to try out my new skills. Somehow Mother Nature knew and delivered the perfect day which was all the encouragement Mark needed to get us out on the ocean.
Our goal? Swim with whatever the sea offered.
First up, a group of friendly Common Bottlenose dolphins – many with calves so young, it looked like they had just been born within the past few weeks. Time and time again, we dropped off the boat and dove down into their world, with the freedom to enter it for as long as our lungs would allow. The dolphins proudly showed us their new additions as they playfully dove between us.
Then, we met the sharks. Our first stop? The Raggies’ hood to see how the youngsters were doing finding mates. Free-diving to Raggies Cave was peaceful and easy though only days earlier it had required me to strap a heavy cylinder on my back. And the Ragged Tooth Sharks – a particularly skittish bunch – never let air guzzlers get too close. However, without the noise and disruption of tanks, the Raggies were quite hospitable and hung out closely to us. Being on their terms made them comfortable enough to share their personal space and I got the opportunity to get in tight with my new friends.
Next up was the Blacktip pack who just admitted several new members to their club: the Dusky sharks. The blacktips were so close that I frequently bumped into them while ascending or descending – much to their dismay. But it was the Duskies that I found absolutely enchanting. They are the type of sharks that stay in the outskirts of a crowd, never confident enough to check you out eye to eye. With your back turned, they would slowly enter your private space lurking over one of your shoulders only to dart away as soon as you turned and locked your eyes with theirs. However, on this particular day without any tank, I met a very different shark. These duskies were fearless and quite curious. They would circle me a few times slowly decreasing the radius of their circles until finally, they would swim right up to my nose, stop a few inches from my face and hang there until we were able to mentally connect and exchange salutations.
I was already high with excitement as we started to head back into shore. Little did I know the days’ highlight was still in store for me.
This time of year, the humpbacks come through Aliwal, on their way down from Mozambique after giving birth to take their calves to Antarctica with them. They pick up an escort here to make the long journey with them and in return for protection, the escort is given the chance to mate with the indebted female. The whales had been thick the last several days, but on a mission, so it is difficult to get a chance to enjoy anything more than a slap of the tail and an occasional breach.
I figured today was no different, so when Mark cried whale, I dove into the water assuming I might see a quick flash of a white belly. It was a hectic mad dash in the water as Mark kept yelling directions to us. As I lifted my head, I could see a pod of whales just beyond my reach and at some point, decided I was never going to catch them. That is when Mark enthusiastically shouted for me to dive – the whales were headed straight towards me.
Forgetting everything I was taught, I dove down and peered into the blue. Suddenly two whales materialized just a few meters in front of me. As I swam forward, a third whale entered my peripheral vision and I realized this was mom and a calf. It was an absolutely gorgeous sight – a mother humpback and her baby peacefully gliding past me. Knowing the mother would be nervous if I was too close, I stood my ground and just enjoyed from a distance. My heart stopped as I experienced an encounter I had only dreamed of. I could have never imagined this was possible. A whale shark, maybe. A whale? No way.
I must have glanced down to get my bearings because as I looked up, I found myself literally inches away from a huge eye and barnacles. Imagine my surprise to realize that I was about to bump head first into a humpback whale. I had not seen the escort and suddenly, he was right next to me letting me know that I could look but not touch. I immediately realized I was way too close to such a powerful creature and began backing up as quickly as I could remembering the stories I had heard about their powerful fins. By the time the whale’s pectoral fin came near me, I was far enough away to be out of danger, but close enough to get a strong, warning swipe across my fin. Wishing I could have shared the moment with someone, I turned to find Paul had materialized behind me, catching the swipe on camera. (Not that I needed it… the experience itself was seared into my mind. I will never forget it for as long as I live.)
Jubilant, I broke the surface and basked in the spectacular glory of the sea with Paul. Freediving that day, combined with Mother Nature, just gave me the most amazing gift I will ever receive.
I may never put a tank on again…