As nature lovers, one of the things we enjoy most about travel is seeing animals in their natural environment. These animal encounters are some of the best memories we have of the journeys we’ve taken. The marvels of the natural world abound above and beneath the sea. Below, in no particular order, are our top animal encounters with ocean-dwelling creatures.
1. Octopus: Moorea
After spending a week on the lovely island of Moorea in French Polynesia we were getting in our last bit of snorkeling and swimming in the crystal waters offshore. We found a nice walk-in snorkeling spot with many boulders holding small coral colonies. Each had its resident fish using the small coral block for cover. One sort of funny but mostly disturbing spotting was another man’s “sea snake.” I swam around and BAM, there it was in all its glory! After turning my back on him and continuing to enjoy this immense aquarium, Tamara got my attention by pointing vigorously. She had spotted something, but what? We swam closer as the octopus moved from one boulder to another, changed colors for camouflage, and sat still. Since octopi usually stay hidden in cracks and crevices, we felt really lucky to have seen this movement in open water from so close up. Seeing the wave-like color change before our eyes was truly special, too.
2. Manta: Indonesia
SCUBA diving is probably our favorite activity, so it’s natural that one animal encounter on this list would have occurred during a dive. We had been diving in Indonesia for a week on Gili Air when we decided to head further east to the island of Flores, the jumping off point for Komodo National Park. Both the land and the ocean are protected here so naturally we were excited. We dove with Bajo Dive Club, a recommended outfit, and had seen some breathtaking sea life. Our second dive of the day was at Manta Point, a spot where these giants often come to clean themselves along the shallow sandy bottom as well as feed from the current easily bringing food to them. We were told that the current was strong but well worth the effort. When diving with a lot of current it’s easiest to stay close to the bottom or reef and not out in open water. Picture six divers struggling against the current and trying to keep as close to the sea floor as possible, all the while trying to keep eyes open for these giants. Diving is supposed to be relaxing but this was a workout! More than once I stopped kicking and grabbed a rock along the bottom to take a quick break to catch my breath. So after 30 minutes of this goes by with not a manta spotted, we were starting to run low on air due to the effort of the dive. Then it happened! A manta! It was huge, maybe 9-10 feet across. It appeared from the edge of visibility heading toward us. Gliding, what seemed like effortlessly though the water, it almost seemed alien. If I had to guess, not one of the divers took their eyes off of the manta until it was out of sight. I say guess because I certainly didn’t look away. I probably forgot to breathe during the experience; it was an awesome animal encounter for sure. Seeing colorful fish, or even sharks is always great while diving but seeing an animal that is so different in form from nearly all other swimmers in the ocean was truly special.
3. Sperm Whale: New Zealand
This animal encounter was made possible through good luck while on a whale-watching boat launched from Kaikoura on New Zealand’s South Island. This was a paid tour with several other passengers, normally not our cup of tea, but since we don’t own a boat or have any relevant training, this was going to be our best chance at seeing these magnificent giants. As it turns out, there were several in the area. The captain of our boat was in contact with other captains, and they seemed to be working together to spot the animals. One thing we had on our side is that a sperm whale sits at the surface for up to 10 minutes in order to recharge for another one of its deep dives. On the negative, the whale could be under the surface for up to 40 minutes or so! We were lucky enough to spot up to six sperm whales as well as a playful juvenile humpback.
4. Orcas: Anacortes, Washington
Another cetacean encounter launched from the harbor in Anacortes, Washington. This time we were hoping to spot the wolves of the sea, orcas, aka killer whales. This area of the northwestern United States is known for having a resident pod as well as often hosting a few migrant pods. During the boat ride the captain and naturalists of Island Adventures did a great job of the educational part while we motored out. We learned that these different pods had their own culture, diets and even different languages. This area is also where Seaworld (booo!) collected some of its first killer whales in the 1960s. Interestingly we were informed that the killer whales have not been spotted in the cove where their relatives were corralled and captured since. Makes you think doesn’t it? How intelligent are these creatures to pass down vital information from generation to generation? That is clearly not just instinct. During our voyage we enjoyed see several whales and dolphins. The killer whales were curious about the boat, and came to check us out, even doing some spy-hopping, rising up almost vertically to peek above the surface and see what was going on.
5. Bull Shark: Venezuela
Diving around the archipelago of Los Roques is always a treat. This National Park lies about 90 miles north of Caracas and 100 miles east of Bonaire and is the oldest and largest Marine Reserve in the Caribbean. Tamara has been lucky enough to have been diving there numerous times, and raves about the quantity and diversity of sea life. On one immersion, a small group of four or five divers was investigating the small caves below Salt Cay. There was some motion to the ocean as the sea rushed in and out of the caves, and it was difficult to stay in one spot. The divers were to enter, take a look around, and come right back out, since you don’t have long to stay at deeper depths. The cave was somewhat narrow, and divers stayed single file. The dive master was a friend, and when T saw him motion to get closer to the wall, she knew there was a good reason. Toward the back of the cave was a medium-sized bull shark swimming toward the cave entrance. Clearly he was on his way out, and the divers definitely didn’t want him to feel crowded or trapped. He glided by within a foot or two, and on out of the cave, a beautiful creature. As exciting as this animal encounter was though, it was a relief when it was over.