Just as I turned my camera from video to stills to capture another image of the blue-ringed octopus as it hunted across the sandy ocean floor, I felt an unfamiliar black nose press strangely flush against my own. For a split second I marvelled, ‘How bizarre that my dive buddy would return from the far end of the pier to press his face so closely to mine!’ Then in a single, heart-pounding instant, my eyes focused on the beady eyes of the massive stingray staring back into mine, our faces inexplicably connected.
I have swum with the giant smooth rays of Port Phillip Bay many times, relaxed as they brushed gently against my much smaller body.
I adore it when ocean critters appear to initiate interaction, perhaps sensing my love, respect and awe, at times even asking for help to free them from some parasite or entanglement, or just gliding past in curious wonder:
Once I had the immense privilege to dive with a gorgeous big, stingless manta ray that simply loved the sensation of my bubbles against its tummy:
But this monstrous dark creature with its enormous wingspan and its nose against my nose seems to say ‘I see you’ve been focussed on something small for a very long time now. Please show me what it is.’
I am generally unphased by the ocean’s wondrous creatures, from sharks to sea snakes and jellies and everything in between. But in this instant I am entirely caught off guard. Uncharacteristically panicked, I bolt as fast as my fins will propel me towards the shore to narrate my disarming encounter to my buddy Geoffrey (aka Great White) as we bob on the surface in the shallows.
But the enormous ray has followed me like an eager puppy, now darting between the pylons, approaching me again and again with no regard for physical boundaries. It circles endlessly, gazing deeply into my camera lens, stopping only once an arm’s length away to indulge in a feast of hidden crab beneath the sand.
Some dives reward patient divers with a brief glimpse of such creatures far off in the misty distance. ‘So what,’ I wonder, ‘has drawn this ray towards me like some sort of irresistible magnet?’ While the creature may simply be playful and curious, perhaps the large, raw scar on the front left of its body is causing pain, and I am seen as some sort of potential physician? Or maybe I have crossed an invisible boundary too close to a nursery of baby rays in the shallows, the devoted parent eye-balling me to declare its protective intent.
Whatever the reason, the ray circles closer and closer, until several times it practically glides beneath me in less than a metre of water. And while I do not sense any hostility (and the ray has no cause to exercise the sort of self defence mechanism that has made its species synonymous with Steve Irwin’s tragic death), it is I who feel the need to exercise self-defensive precaution, sliding my camera rig down my leg as a barrier against the ray’s long barb which is genuinely too close for comfort. It seems to understand that while I am filled with infinite respect, my tolerance for its intense familiarity has reached its reluctant limit, and the pensive creature disappears into the distant blue.
Moments such as these fill me to overflowing with gratitude that I am alive, and with every dive, that gratitude intensifies. Recently I recorded a radio interview (which you can listen to HERE), where I marvelled that of my (now) more than 330 dives, all but one were done with cancerous tumours in my body.
Like this stingray, cancer is fearful and deadly to the minds of many, conjuring nightmarish terror and gut-gripping dread. But as I explained in this interview, I refuse to be consumed by fear. I have stared intensely into the fearsome beast’s beady eye, and while I know it has the potential to destroy me, I choose instead to see all the wonder of the universe in my own small eye, reflected back. Every breath is an intense privilege, and I am utterly in awe of life and feisty stingrays, and every innocuous grain of sand, and every bubble that rises from my lungs through my lips towards Heaven in the purest form of gratitude. Life is truly exquisite and joy floods my soul.
With love, bubbles and absolute bliss,
ps Tank you so much for reading this blog post. While you are here, please check out some more of my ‘scuba vs tumour’ underwater adventures …
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