In honor of Earth Day 2022, I’ll tell the story of the most amazing encounters I’ve ever had with wildlife. Interestingly, they all happened on the same trip to Australia that my former husband Bill and I took 20 years ago, in December 2002.
Our first stop was in Melbourne to visit a friend of Bill’s named Ian (not his real name). Like Bill, Ian was also an ExxonMobil employee, and the company had transferred him and his wife to Houston on temporary assignment for 3 years into Bill’s group, where they became fast friends. After they returned home to Australia, we had an open invitation to visit.
We had dinner that first night with Ian and his wife and spent the evening catching up. The next day, Ian was going to take us out on a sightseeing excursion to the southern coast of Australia with several stops in between. Bill and I really had no idea what was on the agenda, and just let Ian take the lead. One of the odd things I spotted him loading into his vehicle was what looked like a 5-pound bag of sunflower seeds in the shell. But when I said “Ian, what the hell…?” he just winked at me and jumped into the driver’s seat.
After traveling about an hour from their home, Ian suddenly pulled off onto the side of the road. We were in the country, surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and clearly he’d spotted something that we missed. He told us, “Get out of the car quietly and don’t slam the doors.”
Off to our right, just a few feet from the road and maybe 6 feet up in a tree, there was not only a koala, but a mama koala and her baby. Then we saw the most precious thing take place. The baby quickly scrambled in fright behind the mama, and the mama put a protective arm around the baby. But the baby was still curious—and it peeked around mom’s arm at us, and I got this photo. Amazingly, they didn’t run off or up the tree; they just looked at us until we got back in the car and drove off.
Talk about elation! We were as close as if we’d been in a zoo, only this was out in the wild! You can see in this second photo with Ian standing there for perspective, just how close we were. The mama was protective but not overly alarmed. My only regret was that I didn’t have my better camera with me. This was early days in the era of digital cameras—I had one, but they were expensive. Mine didn’t have a separate zoom lens to catch the superfine details.
We continued southwest down the highway for a while, until Ian pulled off in a little state park. We all got out of the car near some picnic tables. Then he pulled that sack of sunflower seeds out of the back, and gave me that wink again. I still didn’t know what he was up to. He threw a few handfuls of the seed onto the ground and said, “Just wait.”
The most drop-dead gorgeous birds started to show up. Bright pink with white heads. Bright red and blue that looked like parrots. Bright green parrots. Ian would hold seed out in his hand and they would LAND ON HIS HAND to eat it. He said, “Try it. They won’t hurt you.”
Both Bill and I were pretty squeamish about this, but we gave it a go. What a bizarre feeling! It was like these birds were almost tame. And the more seed we held out, the more birds showed up. They landed on our hands, our arms, our shoulders, our HEADS. eeeeEEEEEE that was weird!!! Yet they were the gentlest birds; they didn’t creep me out like our typical Gulf Coast seagulls or pigeons did, screeching scarily over our heads, swooping down to get the food, and shitting everywhere. They just landed gently, pecked at the seed for a while, and fluttered off.
Clearly in this state park, these birds were used to being fed bird seed, and they were, in fact, almost tame. The birds were pink galahs (a type of cockatoo), lorikeets, and lories. I had no experience with (almost) tame birds before and it really won me over. To be able to handle a bird that lived in the wild was such an amazing thing to me. And the stunning colors just knocked me out.
It was this experience, plus our subsequent trip up to the Daintree Rainforest in northern Queensland, the oldest rainforest in the world (and part of the “Wet Tropics of Queensland” World Heritage Site) with a fantastic diversity of animal and bird life, that pushed me over the edge: I was a bird lover and bird watcher from that day forward.
Ian saved the best for last. About 4 1/2 hours into our trip, we were at what he called “the bottom of the world.” He pulled out onto a car overlook, excited for us to get out with our cameras. We had arrived at the 12 Apostles, a famous outcropping of limestone pillars at the southern edge of the Australian continent, carved by the crashing waves of the Southern Ocean. “Sea stacks,” which is what we three geologists called them, which stubbornly remained standing in defiance against the relentless and deafening waves. There are only eight left now since the famous pillars have been named, but it’s only a matter of time before more will be separated from the mainland.
They were truly a breathtaking sight. It was difficult to get a good vantage point as far as photography goes; I guess the best photos were taken from a helicopter at a place like this. (Personal drones weren’t a thing yet in 2002.)
Even at the car overlook, there was a constant sea spray that pelted our faces and the wind was so harsh that our hair was whipped straight back. We took the short trail that led us down to the beach, but the fierce wind made our eyes water every time we faced into it. Ian said the wind never let up; it was always like this.
“This is it. The end of the road. There is nothing between us and Antarctica. And those are the angriest seas you will ever see.”
It was difficult to even have a conversation outside the car because of the relentless wind, the sea spray, and the waves so loud we could barely hear each other. So, as beautiful as it was, we just couldn’t linger for long. We took a quick few photos and hopped back into the car.
That night we got a hotel room, then drove back to Ian’s house the next day. I’ve always been grateful to him for taking vacation days to show us some of the highlights around his part of the world—things we never would have known about without his insider knowledge. It was an act of kindness I’ve never forgotten.
After our tour of the Daintree Rainforest in Cairns, our next stop was at the fantastic Heron Island Resort, where we stayed for 5 days. In doing my research before we went to Australia, I learned that this resort, which was a 2-hour ferry ride off the east coast of Gladstone, was actually built on the Great Barrier Reef itself (another World Heritage site)—the island was an ancient, exposed part of the reef. You could go snorkeling right off the island’s beaches and you were snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. Or, you could take a boat out to access more spectacular parts of the reef, depending on how adventurous you were. If you were a scuba diver, they could take you out on dive trips.
They also had a plethora of exotic tropical birds that inhabited this island, and giant sea turtles that came ashore to lay their eggs. They really seemed to have something for everyone if you were a nature lover.
The best part was, at that time they allowed no day-trippers. If you weren’t staying overnight at the resort, you weren’t allowed on the island. So it was advertised as a very quiet, noncommercialized experience—no noisy boatloads of shoppers or jet skiers. Indeed, no shopping at all. I liked the sound of that!
All of this added up to a very expensive, exclusive resort. And normally, it would have been out of our price range. But the year we were planning to visit Australia, the Australian dollar was severely depressed in the world markets, reaching its lowest value ever of 47.75 cents per 1 US dollar in April 2001. This meant we had twice as much spending power than we normally would have. So we decided to spring for that Heron Island Resort.
Some other circumstances unexpectedly worked in our favor with that reservation. Our original plan was to go in December 2001, not December 2002. We had to postpone our Australia trip by a year because of some unfortunate circumstances. Bill’s father, who we had moved to a nursing home in Houston, started to go rapidly downhill. Anticipating that the worst might happen, we postponed our planned trip to Australia until the following December, letting them know that we had a family health emergency on our hands. This all happened in the fall of 2001, right after 9/11.
As expected, Bill’s father did pass away just at the time we would have been gone on that trip, so as difficult as it was to make that decision, it was the right one. The following year of dealing with that loss and settling his father’s estate was another trying time for us, but especially for Bill.
When we finally made the trip to Australia the next year, and made good on that reservation to Heron Island Resort, someone must have flagged our account as to why we had to postpone the previous year. As we all got off the boat at the marina, the welcoming committee gathered us in the reception foyer and handed us all champagne flutes. Vacation had begun! They started calling off each couple’s names and leading them off to their rooms.
When they got to our names, we waved and they called us over. “OK, could you wait here for just a second while we deal with all the others?”
We looked questioningly at each other, thinking that was a bit odd, but said “OK.” They literally led everyone else off, and we were the last ones still standing there. Now we were really confused as to what was up.
Finally, the concierge turned to us. “OK. You can come with me. You’ve been upgraded.”
Our eyebrows went up and we looked at each other, surprised. We didn’t know what that meant. Even though the US dollar was strong, all we reserved was a regular room, not a more expensive beach-front room or anything like that. We weren’t sure where she was leading us, so we just silently followed behind her with our bags.
To our great surprise, they had upgraded us to a full beach house, with king-size bed, separate living area, refrigerator, bar setup, patio, outdoor furniture, and boardwalk leading out to the beach!
After she confirmed to our shocked faces that there would be no additional charge for this luxurious upgrade, we were fairly dumbfounded. Why would they do such a thing? She shrugged and said, “All I know is there was some note on your reservation about you having to cancel from last year. If I were you, I’d just take it and smile.”
And smile we did. It was one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. I put that down as another act of kindness we experienced on that trip.
Heron Island did not disappoint for me. It was a true haven for nature lovers. We took a guided tour of the island on the first full day, where we were introduced to the diversity of tropical bird and animal life on the island. One of the indelible memories for me was the beach where we saw giant Green Turtles coming ashore, ready to auger out holes to lay their eggs in the sand. They taught us the proper protocol for how close to get to the turtles, to always stay low and quiet, to never touch them or interfere with them in any way, no use of lights or flash photography, and where to stand when photographing.
After that tour, one morning I got up at about 6 a.m. and went back to that beach by myself, hoping to catch it isolated and get some good photo ops. This time I grabbed my 35-mm camera that had a separate zoom lens so I could stay a good distance away from the turtles and still get shots. I was in luck! A big sea turtle was still there (they come ashore the night before) and had already made good progress on a hole for her eggs. These are the pics I got that magical morning.
I spent about 2 hours watching her finish her hole, lay her eggs, then fill the hole and turn to leave. She looked exhausted as she started to drag herself back out to sea. Other than the seagull, I was the only one there. What a privilege to see something like this for myself!
We could take guided tours every day on the island, and one specialty tour had to do with the tropical birds of Heron Island. I jumped at the chance to do that one, but Bill demurred. He was starting to have his “fill of birds,” as he put it. I guess I was getting more enamored with this new hobby than he was, but I loved the tour and raved about what I saw afterward.
Our other activity was snorkeling, and lots of it. We not only could snorkel right off the beaches, as I said earlier, but we took a boat tour out to the edge of the reef where it made a sharp dropoff into deeper waters. There the water was much colder but we also saw much more diverse sea life of corals and large fish. I wished I’d been better prepared with an underwater camera at the time.
One of my best memories is just a visual I hope I can paint for you; I have no photograph. While snorkeling off the beach by myself one afternoon, I came upon a school of bright yellow fish, must have been several hundred of them. Tiny things, they couldn’t have been much more than an inch or two long. And they were floating largely in place, hovering in and out of a bright orange coral with long fingers that stretched out in all directions. This school of fish drifted forward and backward, in and out of this delicate living coral with the rhythm of the tide. With my ears under water all I could hear was that muffled sound of the water swishing back and forth, and watching these yellow fish drift back and forth in that orange coral. It had a meditative effect.
That’s my favorite visual imagery. 20 years later, I still carry it with me every time I need one, to calm me down. To slow my pulse, to slow my breathing, to redirect my blood flow. When I’m in the dentist chair. When I’m in the machine, getting an MRI or a CT scan. When I’m getting a migraine and need to call upon my biofeedback training. Or just whenever life gets too …. Too anything.
My hope for you on this Earth Day is that you also have enduring images you carry with you, that remind you that this Earth is worth protecting and preserving.
Next stop on my bucket list? Sooner or later, by hook or by crook, this girl is going to the Galapagos Islands!
I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my favorite wildlife and nature stories. If you have some of your own, please leave them in the Comments section below. If you have a story you’d like to submit to GAIL’S STORY blog, please peruse my Submit page for submission requirements, and let’s talk!