Time + Tragedy

"There's nothing wrong with loving who you are, she said, 'cause He made you perfect babe
So hold your head up girl and you'll go far
Listen to me when I say:
I'm beautiful in my way 'cause God makes no mistakes
I'm on the right track baby, I was born this way

Don't hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you're set...

I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive...
I'm on the right track baby, I was born to be brave"

--Lady Gaga

Four days after Mom & I set foot on Australian soil, we rolled into Monkey Mia Nature Reserve just before dawn.  About 900 kilometers north of Perth, situated at the tip of one of two spindly peninsulas extending abnormally from Western Australia, world-famous Shark Bay's main draw is the permanent families of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins.  These mammals were the single reason for Mom's & my anti-podean pilgrimage.

Despite the chill in the air on that drab morning, the waters of Monkey Mia (pronounced "My-uh") Nature Reserve were flat.  Mom immediately spotted dorsal fins that continually reappeared by a moored catamaran.  This was an auspicious sign: four dolphins were awake and near.
Eventually the staff invited the 157 eager visitors onto the beach and within 30 minutes, one solitary dolphin  slowly ventured into the feeding area.  Its eyes remained underwater but the white tip of its beak bobbed above the surface.  The dorsal fin looked wholesome save a divot halfway down.As if a silent alarm was sounded, dolphins abound!  8 dorsal fins swirled as 4 more joined the congregation at the shore.  Glossy, gray body parts sporadically emerged from the sea.  However, only 5 specific dolphins (Nicky, Puck, Piccolo, Surprise + Shock) out of the roughly 65 that frequent Shark Bay were able to be fed through DPaW's a.k.a. Department of Parks and Wildlife program. These particular families have resided here since the 1960s. Despite four generations of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins occupying the region, there has never been competition for sustenance between the ladies (the population is mostly females with/without calves, since males tend to be more nomadic & live in smaller numbers).  The others mulled about, or swam away, totally unconcerned as their brethren feasted on the catch-of-the-day.
                     When my mother & I initially offered ourselves for work with DPaW in Monkey Mia, we weren't overjoyed at the prospect of gutting fish, mopping floors and scrubbing windows for 5.5 hours a day.  Yet, we knew it aided the program and, therefore, benefitted the dolphins so we were willing to suck it up & do grunt-work on our holiday a.k.a. vacation.
As I stood on the beach admiring Nicky, Puck, Surprise & friends (the term used to identify non-feeding dolphins), three young vollies a.k.a. volunteers  -- including a thin blonde with a big smile and poufy hair -- with blue DPaW shirts marched through the sand and into the water carrying large silver buckets.  I was completely taken aback -- in a good way -- upon realizing that part of volunteering meant I could be in the water, right next to the dolphins!  From the second they entered the sea, I wanted to extend my time at Monkey Mia.

Ripe with anticipation, early the next morning Mom & I donned the light blue DPaW polo.  Throughout our week's stay at Monkey Mia, neither of us cared which dolphin we fed.  We were elated to simply steal a glimpse into their world.  In fairness, the vollies diplomatically rotated feeds, so my first day, first dolphin was the juvenile Shock.

Shock was as mesmerizing to watch as any other dolphin that inhabited Shark Bay, but I never warmed up to her.  Or -- more likely -- she never warmed up to me & kept her distance. I couldn't gauge her personality well because I never observed her acting cheeky a.k.a. ornery by begging (like Puck did one day) or stealing other dolphins' fish (like Nicky notoriously did).  Historically, Shock did not refuse fish like other dolphins.  When she arrived in The Dolphin Experience Area she meant business and dutifully ate her two Yellowtail.

In contrast, Surprise was the rumored fan favorite.  She usually rubbed her body against the rangers & vollies' shins. I had been warned that she could melt even a frozen heart.  On my second day working at the Monkey Mia Nature Reserve, I drew Surprise's name for the first time.  I felt excited because my mother babbled on about her the day before because she was so touchy.  I was more than ready for some dolphin love.
Much to my surprise (no pun intended),Surprise acted very aloof in terms of physical and emotional presence. She swam around so much, almost impatiently. At one point I thought she might lose all interest and leave mid-feeding.  No rubbing against my legs.  She never offered eye contact.  None of the emotional output that I yearned for.  The whole event felt detached.

I questioned "Why was everyone so enamored with Surprise?" Then, I recalled a ranger's journal entry "Surprise in a bad mood today" and instantly felt like a schmuck for hoping for the pomp from her. She wasn't a trained animal, she was a wild dolphin whose playground was the entire Indian Ocean.  I have plenty of days when I'm in a foul mood & Surprise -- along with the other girls -- are no different than humans, in that they feel a range of emotions.

The subsequent morning Surprise returned to the shore in better spirits, according to the staff.  This time she caressed me with her stiff fin and, as predicted, I turned into a puddle of love.  But I fell more in love with her as I began to hear about her upbringing.  Surprise partially earned her name by haphazardly appearing in Monkey Mia [often at the bow of ships] & because no research has discovered her bloodline.  Likewise, her birthdate is unknown. Researchers hypothesized she was a hybrid of Indo-Pacific and Common Bottlenose due to her dissimilar size, rostrum and spotting.  Perhaps due to this lack of establishment in the region or those physical nuances, Surprise was a victim of bullying for a few years when she first wandered into the dolphin feeding zone.  Even worse, at the beginning of 2015, when the nature reserve was inundated with visitors and understaffed, tourists created such a commotion in the shallows that Surprise's calf, Bairda (pronounced "Bar-duh"), became distracted.  Amidst the confusion from the humans' splashing, he was separated from Surprise and devoured by a shark. My heart felt ripped open from the retelling and anguish was written over the faces of the other vollies listening, but my eyes welled with tears when the ranger finished, "Bairda means 'goodbye and see ya again' in Aboriginal."

From that moment forward I wanted to drown Surprise in my love. I wanted to dive into the ocean, wrap her in my arms, and do whatever it was she liked -- in the way I would rub behind my puppy's ears & coo "pretty girl."  More than anything I wished I could reciprocate her magnanimity and show her that I could relate; that I could sympathize; that she was loved; that she would heal.  Since learning of her recent maternal loss, I wondered if that was the reasoning behind her expressiveness? I surmised she craved affection because she was bullied by the Puck family.  One of the staff informed me that Surprise morphed into a loner after losing Baby Bairda.  While she typically waited patiently for her three, daily Yellowtail, towards the end of my week volunteering I realized she swam away from the beach solo & rarely rejoined a pod.
And that lone dolphin that left me awestruck that first morning at Monkey Mia? That was Surprise. She was the epitome of heartbreak, strength & something far more powerful than the 2.  What transforms any house into a home, from four walls into a place of comfort? Love.  Surprise was more than an Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin.  She was the reason the rangers & vollies invested so much time into policing the waters of Shark Bay. She was one of the reasons the Australian people and government ratified legislation for Shark Bay to become a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surprise was truly Monkey Mia -- Mia being the Aboriginal word for home.