Looking for wildlife is a funny thing. We go to certain corners of the world in hopes of seeing something we’ve only seen in pictures or read about in stories. We steadfastly chase the elusive. And even after we’ve seen it, we want to see it again, over and over. There’s no denying what we want: bears in Alaska, orcas in the Pacific Northwest, monkeys in Costa Rica… I just returned from a cruise in Mexico’s Sea of Cortes, a region known for its wildlife—the “world’s aquarium,” as Jacques Cousteau called it. But I wasn’t there for the wildlife. Sure, I’d hoped to see dolphins, whales, and sea lions, but that wasn’t the point. I went with the attitude that any wildlife encounter—whatever type of animal, no matter how close—would be enough. I was there to vacation with my friend. I was there to travel differently than from my recent highly-scheduled, high-stimuli days in Southeast Asia. I was ready for this marvelously all-inclusive adventure cruise to tell me where and when to go, with more food and booze than I could possibly want.
I’d tried to go incognito rather than admit that I was the sole copywriter for the cruise company. That I wasn’t the person who’d spun detailed stories of the itinerary they’d chosen. That I hadn’t researched and described every type of wildlife that had been promoted to them. That I wasn’t the one who painstakingly written marketing emails of well-worn saddles I’d never touched and bow-riding dolphins I’d never seen. I went incognito not because I wanted to lie (I’m a terrible liar and am surprised I pulled it off for a week) but because I wanted each experience with each person I met to be genuine—to be between them and ‘me the person’ and not ‘me the copywriter.’ I’d hoped that by eliminating one detail about who I was, I could have something real. Genuine connections, ironically wrapped around a secret, were what I sought.
The trip began with a free morning to relax on the boat. A few of us hung out on the bow in the sunshine. I don’t think the crew or guests were on a wildlife-scouting mission; at least I wasn’t. So imagine my surprise when a guide called out “bow-riding dolphins!” That moment was both a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because if someone else had just seen dolphins, that meant they might not be there anymore. But there they were—four coming up on the port side arcing in a formation that seemed too choreographed to be natural. But that’s how nature works, elegant in its primitiveness. And then they kept playing, moving to the starboard side in a rhythm of leaps and slips under the water. It seemed they would keep going. So the guide told us to look through the two portholes on each side. I stuck my head in one. I felt like I could dip right into the sea, the dolphins’ noses cresting up to mine. It was an up close and personal wildlife encounter unlike anything I’d ever experienced. And it was completely by surprise.
When the dolphins finally swam away, I looked around in disbelief at what had happened. The other guests and I smiled and said “I can’t believe that,” “that was so cool.” But I also said, “Wow that was so incredible. Even if we don’t see any more wildlife, I’ll be totally happy. I’m good.” And I was. Relieved almost, that I had already experienced this incredible thing. I didn’t have to look for it anymore. I could spend the week enjoying all the adventure, people, food, drink, and fun I’d come for instead of seeking something I may not find.
But then it happened again. Two days later again on the bow but one floor up. It was a morning we were officially “cruising for critters.” I’d been up since sunrise and seen people out with their binoculars, combing the coves for signs of wildlife. Not me. I’d spent the early hours reading, taking notes on yesterday’s dolphin sighting, and playing James Taylor’s “Mexico” on my phone without headphones when no one was around. As the morning got underway I roamed the ship looking for quiet corners and varied views. I didn’t bring binoculars, just a water bottle and my hat. On the third floor bow I chatted with a friend about travel, ambitions, and careers—honest in my enthusiasm but still not disclosing what I actually did for a living. It was, at the time, the only secret I kept. I leaned over the rail, turned towards him and said, almost in a whisper, “isn’t it wonderful to be off our phones?” He smiled and nodded. As I looked up and into the horizon, I spotted a group of black specs in the distance, birds I assumed. But the specs got bigger and closer until I realized something was actually happening. I was seeing wildlife. I told my friend. He went inside to tell a guide who made an announcement while I shouted down to another friend on the second deck, “dolphins at ten o’clock!” This time I was the wildlife spotter, and I hadn’t even been looking.
My closest wildlife encounter was intentional, I won’t deny. I got up at 7 to eat breakfast so I could snorkel with sea lions at 8:15. There’s no getting around this mission. You can’t expect to see marine mammals without getting in the water. You have to be in it to win it. I suited up and hoped the pups wanted to play, knowing that even if they didn’t, there’s always something to see under the sea. Even on the skiff approach I saw the sea lions scattered across the rocks, proudly arching their backs, noses in the air. So even if there weren’t any swimming, once we got in the water we’d be closer to the ones on the rocks. But as soon as we dropped into the drink, they were everywhere. These giant, gentle creatures wanted to play with us. They torqued their bodies in perfect spins. Twirled and swirled past the rocks with ease and intention. Wove around our legs. Plunged to the sea floor coming up with their big eyes. Nibbled our ears and flippers. It was thrilling and, at times, a little scary. How were they able to circle around us without (or mostly without) touching? Why were there so many? Why us? Why now? And it had all happened—other than putting on a wetsuit and jumping in the water—without looking.
This “not looking” is where it gets tricky, but also explains why I love to travel. I go to places on one quest, and return home having found something else. I went to Alaska to run a 5K and learned to believe in taking chances. I’d gone to Bangkok as the first stop on a tour and learned to believe in what’s meant to be. I’d gone to Laos to understand sadness and learned to believe in love again. And sometimes, mid-learn, I am already fulfilled. On this trip we went whale watching in Magdalena Bay (I know, a very intentional wildlife “seek,” but also a key part of the itinerary). I saw dozens of whales spy hopping, raising their ridged backs above the surface, and tilting their bodies out of the water as if in slow motion. I watched this from a small motorboat that started in the bay and moved into where the calm water meets the Pacific. The closer we got to open water, the more whales we saw. Yet there was a point when I was satisfied. I was tired of sitting on the backless bench. I was sleep-deprived, slightly seasick, windblown, sunbaked, and maybe a little hungover. And so no matter how spectacular the whales, I’d reached my point of diminishing returns. I crawled onto the floor, nestled in the hull of the boat, pulled my windbreaker over my head, and chose to think about the whales I’d seen rather than look for more. The memory was better than the searching.
So how do we balance this looking for something and letting it happen? This waiting and watching or living free from desires and attachments? How do we see and do the things we want without grasping for them? How do we stay happy? I’m convinced it was my attitude of gratitude that actually brought more wildlife. Of course when incredible things happen we want them to be the beginning and not the end. Of course we want more of a good thing. But that longing doesn’t necessarily do any good. And, in my experience, doesn’t necessarily bring more wildlife. That week in the Sea of Cortes I lived a string of direct correlations: the more grateful I was for one experience, the more experiences I continued to have. I’d gasp at a school of fish swirling beneath the navy, night water, and a sea turtle would appear. I’d gasp at the sea turtle, and then a sea lion would come around behind it. I looked into the sky for Orion—the only constellation I can identify—and got lost in milky clusters of light. At times it was almost too much. All that reading about being in the present moment had actually worked. I was happy.
So when the trip was over, even though there would be no more playful dolphins, no more curious sea lions, I had still seen them. It had all still happened. And those experiences would never go away.
Dear friends, how much laughter, beauty, and wonder can one have in a week? I’ve had more than my share. For that, I am grateful to you. I’m so happy you were my wildlife-wilderness-adventure family. And yes, maybe there was a secret wish—a whisper I sent into the waves. But that’s the lovely thing about a whisper. You say it to just one, or even just yourself, and let it go.
You lean into the ocean and smile.