• Emmy Ciabattoni

A Pedacito of Swimming With A Wild Dolphin in Australia

Updated: May 19, 2021

I dove the Great Barrier Reef around three hundred times and saw a dolphin only once. I was considered unbelievably lucky. We’d always see them from the boat; they’d ride along the wake or breach into corkscrew spins out in the distance. But I’d never imagined that I’d come face-to-face with one in the wild.

I dove the Great Barrier Reef around 300 times
I dove the Great Barrier Reef around 300 times

Working as the hostess of the Kangaroo Explorer on the Great Barrier Reef, I dove anywhere from one to three times per day: usually in the morning if I woke up early enough, in the middle of the day during my break, and after dinner for a night dive. Between managing room allocations, collecting payments, preparing the dining room for meals, supervising volunteers, and completing all of my other administrative duties, I got in the water as much as possible. At least once per day.


As a qualified divemaster, I also occasionally guided divers. One day we were stock full of 30+ passengers and I was assigned to a German man named Mati; he came all the way from Europe to see the Great Barrier Reef and wholeheartedly believed that this would be the trip of his life. I felt the pressure to show him everything he wanted to see. You don’t always see things while diving; it depends on where you’re at, the wildlife’s daily agenda, etc. At least he had a couple of days on the boat…

Divemasters were hired to see things other divers don't get to see in Australia
Divemasters were hired to see things other divers don't get to see in Australia

Dive clients hired divemasters to increase their chances of seeing what they wanted to see; these guides can navigate underwater, are accustomed to the local area, and can usually find hiding animals.


Anyways, I was nervous to take Mati out. I wanted him to see everything, but the waters had been quiet recently. As the other clients started jumping off the deck, Mati and I did our buddy checks and hopped in as well; but we didn’t follow the group, I was sure that they’d scare away the marine life. We had a separate navigation plan.


We descended and headed in the opposite direction of the crowd. Mati looked confused at first, but we soon descended upon the ledge of a coral reef wall; he was soon distracted by orange, blue, and white architectural structures. We slid over the ledge and down the wall; we looked up at the underwater cliff towering above us. And then we started seeing everything.

Butterfly fish swimming in swarms off the coast of Australia
Butterfly fish swimming in swarms off the coast of Australia

A fluorescent green sea turtle glided along the side of the wall! A meter-long grouper dodged us! Little Nemos tended to their coral homes. Butterflyfish swam in swarms. An eel poked his gaping-mouthed head out from his den. And below, a white tip reef shark slithered through the grounds. All of a sudden, it was time to ascend. I signaled ‘up’ to Mati, we made our three-minute safety stop, and then surfaced. He beamed from ear to ear.


It was the most incredible dive I’ve ever experienced.


The next morning, my eyes just began to crease open when a huge body jolted towards me in my bunk. What the… It landed right on top of me, squishing my insides. God. It was just my friend Alex, another divemaster. “Do you want to go for a dive?” he asked while dogpiled on top of me. I grabbed my phone from beneath my pillow to check the time; it was 5:30 am. With a full boat, I was up until 11 pm the previous night organizing the bills, rooms, and headcount lists.

Grabbing some lunch on the boat off the Great Barrier Reef
Grabbing some lunch on the boat off the Great Barrier Reef

Not really… “Mati wants to dive with you,” Alex said. Shit. It was a mix of fear and excitement. No dive could compare to the last, but I wasn’t sure that he’d understand. I didn’t want the pressure of letting him down. Also, I was getting sick. My sinuses were stuffed and my ear ached; definite signs to stay out of the water. Ahhhh I don’t think so… I began, but Alex interrupted. “There’s no one else! He needs you!”


Fine, I grumbled.


I was under the hull of the boat swimming toward the tail with Mati following close behind. I didn’t have an elaborate plan for our dive, and I was already regretting agreeing to this; my ear screeched louder the further we descended, and it was drilling into my head. I didn’t want Mati to have to cancel out on the dive, so I hung in there knowing there’d be no diving for me for the rest of the day. Eventually, the ringing stopped.

Taking a little underwater break while diving in the Great Barrier Reef
Taking a little underwater break while diving in the Great Barrier Reef

The water was beautiful, as always, but a little dreary. The water was deeper, darker, with fewer colors. Out in the distance, I thought I saw a large figure. We didn’t see too many oversized creatures underwater; the biggest were white tip reef sharks. I assumed it was some kind of shark, but I’d find out. It was swimming directly towards us.


Eventually, the black shadow became grey, and then greyer, and then light grey—it stopped right in front of us. It was a dolphin. His beady black eyes looked right into my soul. He just sat there, floating upright, for a few seconds, staring. As Mati and I exchanged glances and threw shakas, it bolted away.


Wow. The dive had been made.


We swam around somewhat aimlessly after that because no other animal encounter could compare. Just floating, soaking in the moment, I saw yet another strange figure in the deep. And again, it was coming straight towards us. The head was some kind of rectangle shape. Although the species had never been recorded in our area, and it was usually thinner across the middle, I guessed a Hammerhead shark because I was utterly stumped. I’d never seen anything like it before. A pregnant Hammerhead? I thought. It was a strange enough day already. At this point, anything could happen...


It was the dolphin! This time, with a sea cucumber in his mouth. A sea cucumber looks like a big, purple underwater caterpillar. The dolphin stared at us with a mouthful. Then he dropped the cucumber and let it float down, to the sand; once it hit the bottom, he jolted away to grab it. His bottle-nose beak-like mouth picked it up and brought it back to us.


With the cucumber in his mouth, he stared at us again. We were speechless. Mati and I exchanged bewildered glances. The dolphin threw the cucumber in the air and batted it around with his nose. Again, he looked at us. It was like he wanted to play. After a couple more shows, our dolphin friend swam far, far away, into the deep.

I was so happy to see the dolphin in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef
I was so happy to see the dolphin in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef
 

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