As we approach 2020, I’m sure we’re all reflecting on a lot of things. Since over the past decade I’ve gone from being 14 to 24, it’s hardly surprising that most notable moments of my life to date have been in the 2010s.
Wildlife encounters are no exception. In the past ten years I’ve completed a Zoology degree, started a Marine Biology masters, travelled, learned to scuba dive, and generally spent a lot of time looking for animals – here’s what I’ve found! (In no particular order):
1. Scuba diving with grey seals in the Farne Islands! Swimming and diving with seals is a bit controversial, as they are powerful predators that can do you a lot of damage. But there’s no doubt that all of my trips to the Farnes, particularly the first in 2015, have been magical experiences that have created an abiding love for these animals, with their grace in the water and their playful nature.
2. Whale watching in Golfo Dulce – although I did go out on a whale watching boat, and saw many whales from a dive boat near Cano Island, the best experiences I had were out on our little work boat when we just happened to encounter two humpback mothers with their calves. It was this incredible, peaceful, quiet time, where all of us were just in complete awe. And when we were underwater for our seagrass surveys, we could even hear them singing! I saw the humpbacks several times when I was in Costa Rica, but the impact never lessened.
3. Diving with bull sharks in the Bat Islands. When I booked a dive with bull sharks, I had no idea of how I was going to react when I actually saw them! But when it came to it, I wasn’t scared at all. It was just quite incredible to watch these amazing animals go about their lives – very different to being with seals or dolphins who want to interact with you, they were happy to let us observe so long as we didn’t get too close. It was very special to see them in their natural habitat, in a protected area with a responsible dive officer, no chumming of the water or anything else that would have made me feel dodgy about the experience.
4. Twice in the past ten years I have been lucky enough to see golden eagles circling above me while hiking in the French Alps (and neither time quick enough to get a good photo)! The awe was a little dampened by worrying that they were sizing up the dog for dinner, but nonetheless they easily make the grade for my top ten encounters.
5. A day in Kruger National Park included many incredible wildlife encounters, but the one which sticks in my mind is having the sheer luck to see a rhino on our way out of the park, just as we were calling it a day. While incredibly bittersweet, there is a certain amazement to having the chance to see an animal that is so critically endangered. I really hope future generations will have the chance to see them too.
6. Working with habituated mongoose groups in South Africa. Not exactly an ‘encounter’, as I hung out with them every day, but it would be a travesty to leave these cheeky little social mammals off my list. I was completely charmed by their strong personalities and tenacity, and they certainly led me around lots of other wildlife – from baboons to giraffes to huge monitor lizards!
7. Releasing baby turtles in Mexico – while I have many thoughts about my teenaged adventures in Mexico, there can be little doubt that releasing my first nest of turtles out into the ocean is the moment that put me on the path I’m still on today, and if only for that reason, these adorable babies make the list.
8. Following bottlenose dolphin groups in Greece. I spent a week volunteering on the Ionian Dolphin Project, and I think I’d live there forever if I could! You can’t deny the charm of dolphins and it was wonderful to take the time to get to know them over the course of a two hour follow, watching them travel, play, and feed.
9. Dolphins get another mention for the time a small pod of common dolphins decided to come and bow ride around our boat on a dive trip around Skomer Island in Wales. It’s always special when animals surprise you that way, and choose to approach you when they wouldn’t have to.
10. Another encounter that makes the list for sheer surprise is visiting a friend’s reserve in South Africa on our way to a party… suddenly she received a call on the radio saying her guides had found the reserve’s cheetah feeding with her two tiny cubs. We all rushed to the game drive vehicle to go have a look, and managed to spend ten minutes watching this incredible mother and her adorable babies tearing into a bloody carcass. While I’ve loved so many experiences where I’ve been on wildlife hikes or organised dives to see animals, the spontaneity of that moment and having an encounter I didn’t see coming at all made it all the more brilliant.
Writing this list has been quite surprising – not just for everything on it but for all the hard decisions I had to make about what to leave off! I’ve been so lucky over the past ten years to have the experiences that I’ve had, and to spend weeks at a time in places like South Africa, Mexico, and Costa Rica, where being surrounded by amazing wildlife is part of your everyday existence. I hope as we move into the 2020s we can protect these ecosystems and animals, and create more incredible wild spaces for both them and us.
Happy New Year!
(some moments it’s hard to believe didn’t make the list)