Fortuitous encounters

When heading out to explore nature, there are odds that things do not turn out the way one desires. There are also chances that they turn out better than one could hope for. This is something that adds a thrill to excursions. I felt these to my advantage on some of my animal encounters.

I arrived in Malapascua Island in The Philippines at 12:15 one day at the end of July. Time was short so I asked my resort on the next scuba dive even before I checked in to my room. There was one available at 13:30. I signed up for it, dumped my belongings in my room, changed and grabbed lunch prior to the trip, despite the fact that I had slept very poorly and was inadequately rested.

I met with my dive guide, Jo, and fellow divers at the dive briefing. We were headed to a site called Manta Point. “Maybe we’ll see manta”, joked Jo. He then listed a bunch of creatures that we were more likely to see – nudibranchs, octopi and a few types of fish.

We boarded our dive boat, kitted up and jumped in to the water at the site. We descended to the bottom in a few minutes. Almost immediately upon getting there, Jo spotted something and pointed. Soon everyone was looking in one direction. I followed suit. The visibility was not good, but we saw something huge moving less than ten metres away. It made multiple passes; it was a gigantic manta ray with a wing-span of 5-6 metres. We watched in awe as the creature swam increasingly closer and gave us many different angles to view it from. It left after a few minutes.

“FOB” (fresh off the boat) in Malapascua, I had already had my best dive sighting and witnessed something that many others had not seen in many dives in that area over years of diving. Another diver on the same trip had gone deep, down to 45 metres. He had missed this fantastic encounter. The previous manta-sighting had been in April, a dive guide told me later.

Uncertainty is the nature of animal sightings. I had gone scuba diving earlier in the year at Lombok, Indonesia. The divers on the boat had split into two groups. My group had descended first. We were fortunate to see a school of bumphead parrotfish as we went down. At the bottom we swam with a turtle and saw a mantis shrimp and a monstrously big moray eel. I narrated my sightings to a diver from the other group once back on the boat. “I don’t believe you!” he said with mock disbelief. He had missed them all.

I have not always been the lucky one who got to see everything. I did a river safari in Sabah in Malaysia years ago along the Kinabatangan river. We had stayed in log cabins that had no front wall for two nights. There were merely mattresses surrounded by mosquito nets inside the “hut” that was merely sides and a roof. We had gone trekking the previous night, wearing trekking boots or thick galoshes to walk the mud, seeing sleeping birds and creatures of the night.

We cruised the river on a boat the next day. Someone shouted “Crocodile!” It was Ali, an American with whom I had spent the previous dinner discussing serious geopolitics. “That’s when things get REAL”, he said, “when you see that crocodile pop its head out of the water”. He got very animated. “Who wants to put their hand in the water?”, he joked. The rest of us quietly seethed.

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