A day with the dolphins

We were all sitting at the table, sharing food and stories. Fried anchovies, calamari and clams, all fresh from the morning. Each of us telling his Nature stories. Glasses of cold beer, sunset over the gulf, our joy and laughs spreading over other tables. I was having dinner with a production team filming for the next Life series on BBC. Tomorrow, we would spend the day on the water, filming the dusky dolphins. The team had been here for almost 3 weeks now and was leaving soon. One of their crew had left a couple of days ago. One man short, they were looking for an extra pair of eyes. When I offered mine, they gladly accepted.

It was 7am when they engines started and propelled us away from the beach. Under a magnificent sky, the morning air tighten up our faces, our collars zipped up, we drank our coffee and shared a bag of croissants. Although it might sound glamourous, documentaries like this one take years of patience and filming. Certain sequences captured after months and months of waiting, chasing, and hoping. Some, simply never happen when the cameras are rolling. Jonathan Smith and Tom Fritz had been filming the duskies for weeks now, hoping to catch the scene they had come to capture. They had filmed them feeding on small bait ball, filmed them with sea lions, filmed them jumping around, but they had not filmed them feeding on a big ball of anchovies. One day, they found a huge ball, twice the size of the boat, but no dolphins around, no dolphins feeding.

Each day is the same, no matter the weather. By sunrise, you are on the water, and you are not coming back before darkness. One member of the team in on land or in the air, on the look out. You spend so much time looking through binoculars, you start to see things. You spend so much time putting your wet suit on and off, it starts to look more like a fashion rehearsal. As days go by, you invent more and more lucky charms. Perhaps we need to do the dolphin dance tomorrow, with Hawaiian skirts this time! Jokingly, my arrival is seen as a possible sign of good luck, giving me now the responsibility of turning faith around, before I become a sign of bad luck!  The day is superb. The conditions are perfect. If only, just for one moment, this could be “The Day”.

The water had been zipping by for an hour when we spotted a group of dolphins. We were not the only one who had. Flocks of storm-petrels and seagulls were rushing toward them.  Like bees on honey, birds will find dolphins feeding, and in minutes, any flying creatures within miles will be seen flying in the same direction, hoping to take advantage of a free easy meal. I admit it is quite a scene. On each side of the boat, hordes of birds, flying at the same speed as we do. Their squeaking echoing all around. The adrenaline kicks in. The engines are roaring. Thoughts of this being the big one crosses all our mind. Cameras are prepared. Wet suits are put on. Every one is on the stand by. Already, hundreds of birds are at the scene. The frenzy is everywhere. Just as we arrive, as if on cue, the anchovies have all been eaten, and the whole bonanza starts all over again at another location. We put the cameras away, take off the wet suits, and follow the birds to the next spot. This dance goes on all day long, over and over, until the sun sets, 12 hours after our departure.

At one point, I ask if the event has actually been seen or captured on film. I start to have doubts, that perhaps we are chasing something that will never happen. Jonathan laughs. He tells me that it has once for an Imax movie – it took 52 days to finally get it. He also tells me that when it happens, when the big bait ball happens and the dolphins are feeding on it, it lasts for an hour.

I ask Jonathan and Tom some questions. I am curious to know about their background and their motivation. Why they do what they do. Why they spend 3 weeks, 12 hours a day, on the water, waiting for something and still find the energy to laugh and smile as if this was the first day on the job. Are they making a good living? Or working for Nature documentaries means living on bread and butter. Some of their answers surprise me, others don’t.

“You feel that you are part of something bigger. It is a rush. The unexpected, the surprise, the discovery. When the magic happens, there is nothing in the world that matches it, except perhaps the birth of your child.  This is life in its pure form. There is a sense of connection that is hard to explain. As if for one moment, before your eyes, all life, all Universes were connected to this one point in time and space. Including you.” Tom talks about the time he filmed the Bowhead Whales in the Arctic, to be in the presence of such giants, perhaps older than 100 years. He can’t find the words to express what it was like. His eyes are locked somewhere on the horizon. His memories stay secret, unable to find a worthy way to convey them. Jonathan tells me the story  when he filmed the leopard seals in Antarctica. Those apex predators, perfect hunting creatures, would bring penguins to them, like children wanting to share their toys. They would open their mouth, 160 degrees wide at the camera, showing their teeth one inch long.

Although their motivation is beyond financial, surprisingly enough, the nature documentary industry pays well today. A lot more than in the past and a lot more than other similar industries. Success like the Blue Planet series have proved their value. Planet Earth became the most watched show on Discovery channel.

We talked about today’s documentaries versus the early days of Cousteau and Attenborough. About Institutions like BBC that has succeeded over the years to commission and publish educational material of great quality. Jonathan mentions how important the mission statement is. Per instance, BBC’s mission is to “Inform, Educate and Entertain. It aims at sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning and stimulating creativity and cultural excellence”. Notice that entertain is last, not first. Which is actually the opposite of most others in the industry.

As with everybody I meet who works with Nature, family plays an important role. They support financially or simply nurture the passion seen in their child, telling him or her, that what is important, is to do something they love, whatever it is – music, painting, art, traveling or working with animal . Children don’t have the wisdom, the foresight to see the bigger picture and it is to the parents to recognize what that passion is and guide it, support it.

One day, Tom rented a boat and took his family out for a little expedition on the waters of Florida. At some point, his son pulled his father’s shirt and innocently asked him if they were in the Wild. Amused by the question, Tom looked around, then look at his child and said yes. His answer could have been that little green creatures did live on Mars, the result was the same. The little boy had just stepped into a fantasy world. The mangroves, the water, the birds, the fish, all suddenly became subjects of fascination. In his head, the little boy was seeing for the first time what his father saw every time he went to work. Tom was mesmerized at the joy on his son’s face, simply by being in the Wild. Beside connecting with Nature, moments like these are priceless. There are no bigger rewards than to see your child’s happiness from sharing what you do for living.

We didn’t capture the golden sequence that day. As we ride back, I don’t feel any frustration, or disappointment from anyone on the boat. Of course Jonathan and Tom anxiously dream about it, but at the end of the day, to be in the water with the dolphins, to have them swim around, to have them look at you and squeak, it is hard not to be content.

That evening, as we are all sitting at the table, sharing an exquisite asado, glasses of cold beer, fresh timber burning in the fireplace, our joy and laughs spreading over other tables, no one would trade this moment. Jonathan announces that he will be going to Tobago after, to film flying fish spawning, something he has been waiting for 2 years. We can’t help but feel a bit jealous, but we still raise our glass to him and for a moment, as we look at each other, we feel bonded, united by our love for Nature.

The Almighty

I have always loved thunderstorms. I remember spending many hours, sitting on the front porch, my eyes staring at those giants passing by, unleashing armies of droplets, like millions of tiny soldiers. Canons firing lightnings, opening safe passage for the cavalry. Winds knocking down any who dared to resist. The sound of the thunder spreading over miles and miles. I would always count the seconds the moment I would see a flash, strategically, in my mind, following the progress of the battalion. One, two, three, four, five, bang! The storm is one mile away to the north! Send the troops! Nature has always been a companion in my imaginary world, never failing to deliver countless days of play.

The day had been calm and sunny. But the evening was to be another story. The blue sky was being invaded by a front of dark grey clouds. They looked like fire spreading over a ceiling. Magically engulfing every blue particle until there was no more. Visible curtains of rain, forming high, almost impenetrable walls, advancing over land. Their lighter shade of grey in contrast with the thick black sky. Lightnings splitting the air, cracking the earth, the loud noise tumbling across all over.  Flashes from beyond, illuminating every edges of this monster. No General could ever match the power and effectiveness of the invasion.  People running from the beach, taking cover. Doors and windows shut. Dogs barking. Within minutes, the entire town was taken prisoner and was showed no mercy. Power was cut.  Streets were flooded. We retreated waiving the white flag in hope of salvation from our defiance.

Slowly, the gloom passed, leaving behind trails of destruction. We were safe.

I smiled. From behind my lens, I was having too much fun, my script was perfect.

El Rey de las Ballenas

Saturday night, I am watching a documentary called “El Rey de las Ballenas” (The Whale King). It was produced by MC4 Grenoble, a French company, in 1987 and is about Mariano Van Gelderen, a man born in Bahia Blanca in 1945.

He arrived in Puerto Piramides at the beginning of the 70′s and started the first tourist whale watching in 1973, onboard his little boat. The man is bigger than life. In fact, watching him you can’t help but feel that trapped under his skin resides an old whale soul. His physique more agile, more at ease in the water, than on land. He doesn’t hide it either. He often used the forklift from the tracker that pulled his boat out of the water to lift himself out of his boat.

He talks about the whales with passion, with love. His hands gracefully describing their dance, the way they move. He talks to them. He swims with them. He learns from them. And he teaches with them. He became a pioneer on the practice of whale watching, giving conferences all over the world. Most importantly, he taught thousands and thousands of people about the whales and the respect for Nature.

From the beginning of the century, people started to come to the peninsula for 2 reasons: salt and kill seals and sea lions – their fat was used for machinery and in lights. Afraid of venturing on the water, whales were spared. But the carnage led on the land almost drove the sea lions to extinction. They would raid beaches, armed with sticks with nails and crush their skulls. Mariano remembers those days with irony. The peninsula was known to no one when the animals were killed. It is only today, now that we care for them and show their beauty to the world, that the peninsula has become a major destination, sustaining thousands of jobs.

His most precious wish, his dream, is revealed in a touching scene, with his daughter, his voice whispering: “Como te quiero chiquita, como me gustaria que el dia de manana quieras a las ballenas como yo quiero a estos animales y quieras la naturaleza que es tan importante“ (Oh my little child, the love I have for you. I only wish that tomorrow you love the whales as much as I do. To love Nature is so important).

That night, I fell asleep to the sound of whales, thankful to people like Mariano, who spent theirs lives reconnecting our relationship with Nature.

The next morning, I took my kayak and paddled to the sea lion colony. The memories of that evening with them still fresh, I wondered if they would grant me with the same playfulness. I also wanted to be reminded that those days of killing were over.

Early Wild Encounters

The air was fresh and clean. The forest was beautiful – different shades of red, orange, and yellow – on the ground as well as up in the trees. Fall in the Northeast is always spectacular. The leaves transform the wood into a magical mosaic of colors. Even as they fall, they retain their vivid pigments and create a thick colorful carpet that crisps under every footstep. We had been walking for a couple of hours, our eyes and ears, carefully tuned to the sounds of Nature, hoping to perhaps see deer, or partridge. My uncle had decided to stop. As we sat on a log, he whispered to me that animals are always there, we might not see them, but they see us. Curiosity is something that animals also posses. If you stop, stay still for moment, not making a noise, your reverse the dynamic and become the one looked for.

Shortly after his words, two partridges peeked from behind a tree, staring at us. Their curiosity gaining strength, they slowly walked out from their previously perfect camouflaged spot, their heads moving up and down, right to left, trying to size us and wonder who we were. I was amazed and fascinated. I was only a little boy.

I don’t know why I can remember this story has if it had happened yesterday, a simple walk in the forest, 25 years ago. But I do, and I have applied the lesson learned that day every time I am in Nature, whether scuba diving, mountain biking, or simply walking – Stop and they will come to you.

We never know what children will remember as they grow up. It is always fascinating to hear someone talk about a smell, an image, a feeling, a word, they remember when they were young and transformed the way they see the world.

That is why it is so important for parents to create opportunities for children to experience, live, and feel Nature. There is nothing more beautiful than to witness the eyes of a child experiencing the Wild for the first time. There is nothing more rewarding than to see adults become children again as they experience their first Wild Encounter.

Yesterday, two parents took their children out on the water. Neither them, or the children, had experience, and although it would have been easier to get on one of those tourist motor boat, they decided to go kayaking. After a little crash course, off we went. I was only tagging along to take some pictures but soon was reminded of the importance of what was happening. It doesn’t take much to create a sense of adventure. Simply do something you normally don’t and you will soon feel like Captain Kirk saying: “To boldly go where no one has gone before!”

We had just left the beach and already every splash, every shadow was a source of excitement. When that first sea lion appeared, it is as if the world had stopped and a door to a new one had opened. A world where there was no television, no video games, no cell phones, but filled with wonders and richness, where Man is part of Nature, connected to it, born from it.

Back at the shop, everyone was still talking about that moment when a sea lion passed under the kayak, when another poked his head out of the water, when a cormorant flew by, or when a penguin appeared. Those moments are the ones that will be remembered forever. Each will have their own version of what happened that day, and together, their memories will spread through friends and family, making this little adventure eternal.

The goal is not to make every child become a Jacques Cousteau or a David Attenborough, but simply to plant that seed of awareness, to create a connection.  Once a child has been touched, he or she will never see the world in the same way.

Choked

I was reading Jon Bowermaster’s entry from his blog “Notes from Antarctica” writing about garbage resolution and witnessing the sad impact our lifestyle has at some of the most remote places in the world. While out shooting at Punta Norte the other day, I noticed this female sea lion that had a wire around her neck. She must have swam through a while ago. The wire already cutting deep her throat. How much did she have left to live? What would happen to her cub, just born a few weeks ago? Did this male knew her faith as he watched over her?

Now looking at the picture, I can’t help but notice the drama of the image. Her devotion to him, even as her fate is sealed.

It is in those moments that you really understand how our lives really intertwine with theirs. I was not just a few miles from a busy port, where chances of running into garbage is frequent. I was in a National Park, a Unesco World Heritage. A place supposedly protected.

Connection

It happens every time. I am not sure how and why but I always know when it does. As I am sitting on the beach, just a couple of feet away from the seals, I sense that my presence is no longer a threat and from there, a connection, a communication is established. They observe me. I observe them. They make a move and wait. I make a move and wait. There is no longer them and me, but Us. We are all part of the same world, we share this beach, this ocean, the air. Our existence is bound to each other, to this Planet. Our goal is the same, to survive, to live.

I start to notice little behaviors, details that had so far escaped my attention. I start to recognize distinct dynamics between each of them. Somehow their body language seems no longer alien to me. They stare at me with their big black eyes. For a moment, I feel like I am having a conversation with them.

Later that day, after walking to another location, I was about to leave when a fox came out of the bush. After walking by a couple of times, he laid down not far from me and waited. I knelt down and slowly moved closer. He yawned. I took the hint that he wanted me to get closer. So I did. I inched myself forward, every time taking new photos, not knowing when he would get up and leave. I was about six feet from him. He would look everywhere then blink at me. After a couple of minutes, he got up and walked away. Just before disappearing, he turned and looked at me once more. I stayed down on the ground for a while, baffled of what had just happened. No need to wonder who was the observer, that Fox had come to me, pose and left.

Nature always surprises me. This encounter with the Fox reminded me of a dive at the Channel Islands in California. I was swimming in the kelp forest and I knew there was a seal somewhere. He kept showing his little face from time to time. As if he was playing hide and seek with me. Always remembering my walk in the forest 25 years ago, I stopped and kneeled on the bottom and waited. No more than 5 minutes had passed when I felt my fins pulled behind me. The little seal was there trying to get my attention. For 30 minutes we played. He would disappear. I would try to find him. I would stop, he would come back.

I never know when those magical moments will happen. In fact, it can be months, sometime years, but they are the reason why I do what I do.

Beyond the Sunset

The unexpected. The surprise. Time and space coming together to create a moment of bliss.

I had spent the entire day working in front of the computer – editing, uploading, writing. The night before our plans to go watch the sunset on the water had been spoiled by the wind, and by the end of the afternoon, the thought of a late outing seemed dim. I walked back to the office, and there, Pablo announced that a couple wanted to go kayaking and asked if I wanted to come. I was tired and hungry, but the idea of being on the water, to feel the rocking of the waves, to let Nature rejuvenate my depleted energy, my eyes lit up and my head nodded up and down.

I slipped in my kayak and pushed myself off the beach. The sun would set soon and the sky was already turning into a deep shade of blue. The water had this mystic look, a black shiny liquid. Thousands of shadows and reflections on the surface creating a metallic mosaic. A thick orange line on the horizon, separating two worlds – a contrast of realities.  We paddled out, almost with a feeling of never coming back. Each stroke pulling us closer to the unknown. The world around us was alive, changing every second. Cliffs and rocks ahead of us black by the absence of reflective light. Cliffs and rocks behind us burning from the Sun. Deep dark shades enhancing every edges. From the distance, I saw several pointy noses popping out, flippers splashing the water – a group of sea lions. Unable to see under the surface, there whereabouts remained secret. Only revealed to us every time their shiny fur came out, or their heads magically bursting up, like a periscope from a submarine. As we got closer to the colony, their number grew. On the shore, legions of little cubs, intrigued by us, not old enough yet to venture to waters, their curiosity evident with their whiskers up in the air, sniffing at us.

We stayed there. Cradled by the waves. I tried to film underwater, blindly, not knowing whether there was enough light, or even if I was filming anything. We were surrounded and we surrendered. Basking in this magical eden, not a word was said. Almost with regrets, we decided to go back. Looking behind us every few minutes, wondering if that door would ever close. I was in my head, contemplative. My arms moving the paddle without me being aware of it. Nothing could ever be more perfect than this moment. How fortunate was I. How grateful I was. The sea lions stayed with us, swimming along side my kayak for what seemed like eternity. Companions sharing this moment, escorting me out, after being their guest, privileged by their hospitality.

After passing the last bay, I turned once more. I was not prepared for such beauty. Up at the top of the cliff, behind the lighthouse, incandescent clouds, vibrant shades of colors, perfectly cutting the contour of the old building. I tell the others. We turn our kayaks around and face this unbelievable sight. None of us find the will to interrupt this moment.

Against the Wind

We were suppose to leave that evening. The plan was to kayak a couple of hours, pass Puerto Pardelas, and camp before Punta Alt. There, a small cave, up in the mountain, would provide us with a good campsite, and a beautiful scenery. From there, we would paddle for 3 days, hopefully cross the entrance of Golfo Nuevo and make it to Punta Cracker. Perhaps see some dolphins on the way. Although it was a good plan, Lady Nature had something else in her mind.

I am always a bit worried whenever I set out. Will I have something to write about.  Will the pictures be good? Will the videos be ok for editing? Will I have interesting material, or will I come back with nothing? Will I find my theme for the day? For the trip? As it turns out, with some faith and patience, Nature always delivers. It may not be what was expected. It might be something totally different. But there is always a story line, you just have to let it come to you.

Along with Pablo, Diego and myself, Sandro was joining us on this trip. He is Pablo’s long time kayak partner. Together, they have been paddling the waters of the Peninsula for years. Sandro, as I discovered, is the type of paddler that makes kayaking look effortless. Steady, with great technique and years of experience, he cuts through the wind and through the waves like a steamship, never hinting any signs of fatigue or forcing a stroke. One rhythm, tic tac, tic tac, like a metronome. Whether the wind is blowing at 30 miles an hour, or the surface is like a mirror, you won’t notice any difference. Pablo was telling me that he had once paddled for 11 hours straight, never stopping even once for the normal human needs.

The kayaks were packed and ready. We all stood on the beach staring at the sky, then staring at the weather forecast Pablo was holding. The wind was blowing from the north pretty hard and it would do all night long. Out in the middle of the gulf, huge cumulus clouds rose up like a gigantic towers. Although the wind would push us in the right direction, our campsite would be exposed to the fury of what was looking inevitable – a stormy night. The rest of the forecast didn’t look promising either. The wind would change direction the day after, heading south, increasing in the afternoon, reaching 25 miles per hour. This meant that we would paddle pretty much the 3 days with head wind. The chances of crossing to the other side now were close to nothing.  We decided to hold off our departure and leave the next morning. That night, we dined listening to the wind howling and blowing sand from the dunes, hitting the windows like a swarm of bees from a Hitchcock movie. Out on the open, flashes from the lightnings illuminating the clouds giving us a glimpse of what hell could look like.

The morning showed no signs at all of what had taken place the night before. The sky was cloudless and the water smooth like leather. As the tide was rising, we carried our kayaks to the water, pushed ourselves off the beach and paddled out. We knew those conditions were just temporary, but we couldn’t stop ourselves believing perhaps that the forecast was wrong and that the next 3 days would be an easy ride.

When the tide changed, along with it came a new set of rules. The promised wind was delivered. Like adding coal to a train, it gained speed. Soon enough, we were battling 8 foot waves and gusts of 30 knots. Our sunglasses became crusted with salt – all those droplets blown in our face every time our bow hit a wave. Right after Punta Alt, we pulled on the beach and reassessed. We decided to head back. We would camp at that cave and spend the rest of the day hiking. For the next hour, we paddled, gusts of wind pushing us like a stampede. Sometimes, I felt like I was being rushed out by a group of mad security.  With our kayaks secured, and our gear at the cave, we all stared at a sea of white caps and headed for a hike.

Trails of Guanacos, hares and foxes crossing our own, we walked through canyons where walls were made of fossilized shells. Our eyes scanning for historical treasures – a fossil of petrified wood, chipped stones reminiscent of when the natives lived those lands. I felt like walking the corridors of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Behind a dune, hidden by a tall sand bush, the wind had blown away the sand covering the remains of a dead Tehuelche, perhaps 300 or 400 years old. The place was filled with history. Back at our cave, we contemplated the valley in front of us as the sun set and a dimmed rainbow briefly came to life. With our imagination fresh from our discoveries, we were soon looking back in time and saw a tribe a natives crossing the land.

There was no relief the next day. The wind was still blowing strong. Not as hard though. We armed ourselves with patience and paddled our way.

The beach after Punta Alt is long and is a place where many juvenile whale carcasses are found. Bones taken by people, the skin is what is left, even after 6 months. Of all the baby whales born in the golf, ten percent don’t make it. Most of time, they end up here, on this beach, blown by the winds and currents. In the water, a couple of penguins, schools of fish surfing the water and from time to time, a curious wandering sea lion poking his head out would remind us that life still exist.  After a couple of hours, we found this place with some good little surf. There is always time for surf and for sure we took it. For a moment, there was no more wind, no more current, there were just nice little waves to ride.

We stopped at Punta Cormorans. Although we could go for more, there was no good camping site within reaching distance. We settled once more to stop early and go for a hike. But before, with the tide going down, the same fish that we had seen surfing earlier, get often caught trapped in little ponds. Stories go that some people are even able to catch them with their bare hands. With little strategy, we posted ourselves between the open sea – freedom, and the pond – the cage. We looked like bears, sitting atop a fall, waiting for the salmons to jump right into their mouths. Except, in this case, it was more a bunch of tired kayakers with barely any patience left. After unsuccessfully chasing 10 of them and seeing them sprint their way to freedom, we gave up.

The hike this time, had a total different feeling. On the beach, amongst the usual suspects – crab shells, bones of dead birds, fish left overs – hundreds and hundreds of garbage – fish bins used by boats, nets, sandals, plastic bottles, glass bottles, tubes, hats, and the number one garbage found in Nature, the eternal white plastic bag. For a moment, I felt like we were the only survivors on a desolate planet. Those … things, on the beach were what was left from a once flourishing population. Our hike became a search for the most unusual artifact – a boomerang, a plastic red toy truck, glue sticks. On our way back to the camp, we headed for the cliffs, leaving the desolation behind. Away from the reach of water, a sense of wilderness came back, tracks of animals, fresh and old. We found an old Tehuelche settlement, chipped stones, a piece from an old plate used to grind herbs and cereals. Not far, the polished rock used as a crusher.

That evening, as the sun set in an intense gold curtain, a fox passed on the beach, stopping once to look at us. Meeting of strangers in a strange land. At night, tucked in my sleeping back, the sky was impressively beautiful. There were more stars than usual.  It seems like they were everywhere. The Milky Way was bright, a clear white streak crossing a sea of millions and millions of white shining dots. How amazing, that in the course of one day, some many opposites come in conflict with each other – life and death, ugly and beauty, easy and difficult.

Magically, the next morning, the wind changed direction once more. This time, it was blowing from the north, coincidentally the same direction as our way back home. We took a deep breath and went for it.

As if Lady Nature was playing with us, two hours before our arrival, the wind dropped and the surface became smooth again. Exactly the same conditions we had on our departure 3 days earlier. It was hard not to laugh about it as we glided back to shore.