Forever

"Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers.  The mind can never break off from the journey."
-- Pat Conroy


It’s difficult for me to fathom that 7 years has elapsed since I upheaved my life in the U.S.A. and relocated to Australia.  Seven years was, numerically, quite some time ago, especially considering how much has occurred globally – and personally – in that time frame.  However, to me the milestone feels only slightly stale.  I can still picture the backyard where I’d hang laundry to dry while the Kookaburras cackled.  Suddenly, some sense triggers an onslaught of memories.  The smell of Bounce dryer sheets instantly brings me back to my hire car [and home] in Puerto Rico.  My mouth salivates and I can almost taste the warm pear atop the melted Pecorino pizza in Siena.
Yet, some memories have slipped into the void, and only by rereading my journal, reviewing photographs, or speaking with my mother, are they yanked to the forefront of my mind.  My trek through Western Australia – specifically Monkey Mia – is the exception. I am positive I will never forget the week spent at the marine reserve.  Despite the paradisical landscape, wildlife, isolation, sunsets, and relaxing pace of Monkey Mia, the dolphins were the true reason for my trans-Pacific voyage.  I present you with my best captured moments!


* CONFIDENCE.  If I inhabited the world’s largest sea grass population – and the myriad life teeming within it, like the enormous Thaaka a.k.a. Tiger Shark I saw underneath my catamaran – I would be terrified to swim out of hiding into the open water.  However, dolphins are truthfully everywhere you look in Monkey Mia.  They must know their strength and trust in it.  According to a DPaW a.k.a. Department of Parks and Wildlife ranger, minutes after being attacked by a shark, India – a rascal male dolphin – paraded up and down the shore during a feeding, effectively showing off his gnarly battle wound.

I watched a similar showdown with Puck and a determined female pelican, Rogue.  She frequently delayed the feeding of the dolphins by trying to snag their Yellowtail. One morning in particular, ruffian Rogue hectored the first and second dolphin to receive a fish.  Now the third – and last – feeding of the day, she lingered in the water.

I pulled a slimy Yellowtail from the bucket, handing it to an older couple already shin-deep in the Indian Ocean.  As they bent over, offering the snack to Puck, I saw splashes and a mess of feathers in the periphery, in addition to the collective yelp from the onlookers and the the man chosen from the crowd crossly asking “What the…?”

The kerfuffle started and finished in a blink.  From my vantage, there was no fuss at all because my eyes were focused on Puck.  Despite Rogue’s grayish-blue feet dangling underwater and her invading Puck’s space, Puck was unfazed.  She was a 38 year-old woman; mother to 8 calves (though some perished), and would never be intimidated by a bird.  Even during the melee, amidst the mess of animal parts (a bird beak, dead fish, human arm, and dolphin rostrum) Puck wasn’t startled.  Quite the contrary; she was so stealth I never saw her dart for the Yellowtail at the water’s surface.  With barely any effort exerted, she captured the fish in [what felt like] the nick of time.  Immediately pursuant to the chaos she casually swam around, knowing she could outwait pesky Rogue.


* EYES.  There’s not much better than gazing into the eyes of another living soul, be it your child, your dog, your lover or a wild animal.  Only monkeys and dolphins can recognize their reflection – an attribute previously reserved for the supreme species homo sapien – so I wondered what Puck was thinking as she looked me over.  It’s impossible to limn what it feels like to be at peace with, but study, another animal driven solely by curiosity and weighted by respect (at least on my end), but it was a visceral affinity.

I felt the same, harmonious connection one lazy afternoon with Nicky.  She rocked up around 14:00, Monkey Mia's beach mostly deserted by that hour. While Missel was preoccupied nearby in the tranquil, deeper water, Nicky approached the shore.  The atmosphere was peaceful and still from the intense, midday heat and lack of tourists.  The only sound came from the lapping of subdued waves and the swish of water from Nicky's occasional movement.  For twenty minutes she hung out, idly bobbing in the ocean as she studied me and I, in turn, sat in the wet sand, mesmerized by her.


* PROWESS.  We already know life in Shark Bay is increasingly tough and 40% of calves in the area do not make it to age three.  Shark Bay is also the only place in the galaxy where dolphins have been consistently observed using tools.  The mammals pad their beaks with sea sponges from the ocean floor to protect themselves against razor-like coral as they snare smaller organisms. 

Surprise – who taught daughter Shock her remarkable skills – is the best of the best when it comes to foraging for a spiny fish that hides in sea grass.  Few dolphins in the UNESCO World Heritage Site are masterful enough to catch Flatfish.  Presumably, the numerous hardships have bred this subspecies of the Common Bottlenose Dolphin to excel at other tasks.


* INTELLIGENCE.  Cetaceans are capable of aurally receiving over 20 times the amount of information as humans, so their brains too must supersede ours in order to process all that data.  They associate their own anatomy with that of another species and follow recipes.  For me, the grandest display of irrabugas’ a.k.a. dolphins’ cognitive supremacy happened when Piccolo baited a tourist into thinking he controlled a feeding, but there were other prime examples.

The Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins of Monkey Mia were provisioned 3 fish per feeding (always commencing before noon).  Though the dialogue changed, the marine reserve staff’s spiel always included some Delphinidae facts and preparations for the feeding encounters.  After the offering of every third fish, we – the vollies – immediately rinsed our buckets in the Indian Ocean “as a signal” to Puck, Piccolo, Surprise, Shock and Nicky that no more fish would be extended.

Certainly, these ladies did not require a signal.  Though probably a rudimentary skill, I know the females were counting the number of Yellowtail they received. The majority of the time, after the third fish, they were already swimming out to sea.  Sometimes I couldn’t say “see you tomorrow” fast enough.  Furthermore, there was such commotion and a long lull between the second and third fish (thanks to Rogue’s interference) that any other animal – for instance, a dog – would have lost interest and rightfully assumed the treats ceased.  On the contrary, Surprise passively floated in the water.  She knew she had only consumed two fish and one more laid in my pail.



* EXPRESSIVENESS.  DPaW staff at Monkey Mia and dolphin activist Ric O’Barry [in his controversially heart-breaking documentary The Cove] were sure to point out that an irrabuga’s perma-smile cloaks his/her true feelings.  Like when Surprise’s chubby cheeks and underbite masked her surly mood one day.
Other times during my week at Monkey Mia, the Delphinids exhibited happier spirits.  When my mother and I arrived at the beach as tourists, two inquisitive females played with – and eventually ate – a prawn in the shallow water.  One calm afternoon, as I sat in the information kiosk counting boats, my mom had just stepped away when I caught sight of an Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin leaping entirely out of the ocean in a perfect arch.  The pose was so iconic I’d only seen it on posters… until now.

Crossing the continent and proceeding roughly 2781 kilometers a.k.a. 1728 miles, to Viti Levu, Fiji, most people visiting or residing in the eastern half of the island make a day-trip to Takalana Bay in the quiet and remote Dawasamu region.  Though Takalana Bay (the name of the lodge) boasts plenty of highlights, the main attraction – as it was for my mother and me – was to venture to Moon Reef.  An aerial image reveals it looks predominantly like a half moon with the curved cap and tail of a crescent moon.

The tiny reef houses more than 100 Spinner Dolphins, when they return – from whereabouts unknown – to rest. From the tinny a.k.a. small, metal boat the Spinners sported darker streaks of gray, but had dorsals similarly shaped to the Bottlenose genus. At Moon Reef there were Spinner Dolphins aplenty!  Once my vision adjusted to finding them, what I thought was the crests of waves turned out to be their arching bodies everywhere!

Spinner Dolphins are famed for launching themselves out of the sea, barrel rolling at breakneck speed when aroused.  The Fijian captain had been whistling since our arrival at Moon Reef, and midway through my boat tour the group noticed the mammals were becoming frisky. Soon thereafter we cooed as more cetaceans were sighted catapulting into the air!  Finally, we witnessed one complete four revolutions before he/she smacked into the Pacific Ocean. As soon as the excited Spinner finished its show, it was out of the water again, repeating the acrobatic process.


* COMMUNICATION.  While dolphins are on par with humans in a lot of fields, they greatly surpass us with their communication system and many mysteries still revolve around it.  Although their ears are located a bit further down the body than their eyes, they possess impeccable hearing.  Sonic, born in 2010 to Shock, was the focus of international research conducted to learn how echolocation develops in young Delphinids.  Though not a derivative of that project, fascinatingly, scientists know that cetaceans send 3-dimensional images to others via sonar across the miles.  It’s the equivalent of me imagining the Sydney Opera House, then projecting that replica to another human, fathoms away, who would mentally “see” the venue exactly as I did in my mind. 

In so many of my videos you can hear clicking, squealing, and language. I first-hand experienced dolphin chatter while in the water with Nicky and her calf Missel my last time serving as a vollie a.k.a. volunteer for Monkey Mia Marine Reserve. One day of dolphin feedings turned into a fiasco when naughty Rogue interfered multiple times.  Additionally, although I was charged with Nicky’s fish bucket, she refused to leave another vollie’s side. The DPaW staff’s number one priority is to keep these tourist-centered events within a timeframe specifically for the cetacean babies who need to nurse every 20 minutes… but we know no one can control nature.
Initially, Missel patiently socialized around mum as she would any other day they visited the beach.  However, on this occasion – as the holdups amounted – Missel’s behavior changed.  She began swimming forcefully to the feeding position – just under Nicky, behind her left pectoral fin – and emitting two, high-pitched squeals.  As the event dive-bombed past the 20 minute mark, Missel’s unrelenting squeals sounded like hungry wails and broke my heart, but Nicky responded, trying to mollify her daughter.


* AFFECTION.  Eden was most esteemed to one of the Monkey Mia rangers.  Eden – the first child born [in 2003] to refractory Piccolo – eventually surpassed her mother in terms of social networking. She frequents the shoreline, locking eyes with observant visitors. She also displays the broadest range of any of Shark Bay's myriad dolphins, having been spotted as far as Dirk Hartog Island, 90 miles a.k.a. 145 kilometers away as the crow flies.  More importantly, Eden is a magnanimous female who took an orphaned calf under her wing.

Not all the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins in Monkey Mia were as expressive with their tenderness.  However, Thursday, 11 June 2015 was forever etched into my heart when Piccolo both yearned for and offered such warm emotions.  I had never worked with her until the first feeding [that day].  Although I wasn't permitted to initiate contact, she was so darn touchy-feely that we spun in circles in the water, I observing her; her watching me.  Heart already oozing with love, my second feeding was with the ever-affectionate Surprise who softly nuzzled my calf.


In rereading the list I’ve created, I struggle to choose the irrabuga characteristic that was the most meaningful to me.  Was it the dolphins' emotivity because it directly impacted my mood?  Or was it their intelligence, of which I only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg?  For clarity, I posed the question to my mum, who helped me decipher the true reason the trip to Australasia was a dream come true.

It’s not a single attribute, nor cumulative; that is far too narrow a scope.  It’s the fact that Mom & I were blessed to immerse ourselves in their world.  For a fragment of the dolphins’ life – and ours – we swam in the same water, felt their stiff cartilage against our bodies, watched them roostertail for food, traversed the same seagrass meadows, shared their dread of Tiger Sharks, and related on a pure, existential level.

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