Oh, and there is the mask. As you lie spread-eagled on the surface like an untidy piece of seaweed, there is one thing you must not forget - ‘Try not to smile!’
Below you and into a turquoise distance there may be ‘tree tops’ of coral like Cedars of Lebanon, isolated sea whips resembling fantastical poplars waving gently and rhythmically with the ebb and flow, wafting sea fans like richly embroidered filigree screens obscuring shadowy gliding figures behind – and all in psychedelic colours to delight.
But resist the temptation... set your face firm and stern!
On my first sighting of the underwater world of a coral reef I was naive – a biologist familiar with text book fish and museum specimens. I had never touched a snorkel – I remembered them as something vaguely resembling a shower tube with a caged ping pong ball at one end – with a warning it could cause drowning. My world had had no digital photography or Sir David Attenborough’s natural histories... in fact no television.
Faced with the gorgeous reality in 1973, I smiled incessantly – at every fish that looked at me.
My mask contorted accordingly. Spluttering and coughing, with vision made hazy through a mounting level of sea in front of salt smarting eyes I had to keep surfacing. Which is why I recommend you keep a straight face and get a well fitting mask (with prescription lenses if needed) if this is to be your means of having close-up encounters with truly wild animals. The sea is the place where creatures remain largely unafraid of humans and even seek to meet with us.
From these undignified beginnings I progressed to circumnavigating an island in the Maldives, swimming through its habitats: coral rubble - the home of tiny juveniles of the reef; ‘coral gardens’ where tight-packed shimmering shoals of fish drifted and surprise reef sharks dashed; along the busy drop-off ‘highway’ outside the reef protecting the island; and into the unearthly quiet of the pale turquoise lagoon. Along the way there were glimpses of little vignettes and domestic dramas as if flying over city streets peering in apartment windows.
It was a kaleidoscope of familiar activities – cohabitation and communal living, partnership and mutual dependence, stealth, fake identities, deception, aggression and courtship.
As a young swimmer sharing the sea of Eastern Australia with sharks, I had been brought up to avoid deep water, certainly dark blue water... open sea out of sight of land was unthinkable. Eventually, as an ‘over 50’, at the invitation of wild Atlantic Spotted Dolphins I jumped overboard into dark blue open sea.
Anticipation was replaced by apprehension... and then terror as I jammed my mask tight ready to leap off solid boat down through the wavering peaks of blue towards flickering pieces of mosaic images below. We lumbering land beings joined in with dolphin games on successive days, never ceasing to marvel at their speed, stamina, manoeuvrability, skin texture, bright piercing eyes and continuous socialising.
One step further on the deep and ‘bigger than a human’ theme, as I faced ‘three score years and ten’ I dropped into a cloudy blue murk of plankton to swim alongside the biggest fish in the sea – a sharp gasp, not a smile, was appropriate to the serene, slow motion, gliding power of the whaleshark.
A dry alternative kit to enable wild encounters with animals going about their business are binoculars – the lighter, smaller and more powerful, the better. With these on a boat or the time and patience to wait or tread quietly on beaches or rocky shores, there are whole worlds waiting to be seen and understood – I have seen multitudes of sea birds, sea lions, seals, turtles nesting and their hatchlings racing to the sea, and up close the crabs and creatures of rock pools.
Above the sand are strandings – jellyfish, sadly even porpoises, dolphins and whales allowing an unusually close-up view of their detail.
More commonly, the sand is dotted with beautifully architectured empty shells while below the sand, there are the small animals which made them - with strange lifestyles and stranger structures to realise their ambitions. And there are land animals that visit the shores to scrounge a meal – otters, mongoose, black bears, kangaroos, lizards and ordinary but breathtakingly clever crows...
Wild encounters are always unpredictable; they cannot be planned... one can only increase one’s chances – be in the right place in the breeding season, at hatching time, or simply sit it out and strike lucky. It always happens when you least expect it... a bit like falling in love...
Illustrations for this article are on www.wildencountersthebook.com
By Nicolette Scourse, Author and illustrator of ‘Wild Encounters – Try Not To Smile’
EDITOR: Please see a biography of Nicolette here. All photos and illustrations copyright Nicolette Scourse.