We were gearing up in a deserted car park when it became apparent the water was choppier than I would’ve liked. It wasn’t too concerning though. I was knee deep preparing for an upcoming expedition, so testing gear every day was critical. A day missed in the ocean would be a huge setback, and it would take more than some choppy water to keep me on land.
Rockingham is about 40 km south of Perth, known for its shipwrecks, dive trails and of course, Point Peron. Point Peron is a wide open, vast dive site, and one of our best in WA (in my humble opinion). While in the shallows, you’ll be exclusively in search of leafy sea dragons, indigenous to these parts only, and quite the spectacle. But getting a bit deeper to the back reef area is where the magic truly happens. You’ll find intricate cave systems, giant plant-covered swim throughs, fish of all kinds and a colony of sea lions that love to play with your fins.
These largely misunderstood behemoths are spotted up and down the WA coastline, especially among surfers. And sadly, there are the occasional run-ins that have completely freaked out the Aussies in this area. According to The Western Australian and SharkSmart statistics, which are recorded by Australia’s government, “WA is seeing a trend of increasing shark bite incidents reported, with the yearly average from 1990 to 2000 being 1.5; 2001 to 2009 being four and 2010-2020 being six.” But don’t let their bad rep fool you. It’s important to note just how unlikely it is that you’d ever actually be attacked, even if you were to encounter one of these apex predators. In fact, statistically speaking, you’re more likely to get hit by a car.
I hadn’t personally experienced a single encounter in four years of diving at this pristine location. I didn’t think twice about it as I put on my new expedition-ready gear and entered from the shoreline. And with that, we did our standard checks, like any good dive buddy pair, and set out.
And so the tour began, with a shore entry filled with slippery rocks. Even with the wind, we still had a solid 10m of visibility and no drastic current by any means. As we swam through tiny holes and crevasses, this untouched underwater world began revealing its secrets to us. Tiny creatures popping their heads out to get a closer look—from the blue swimmer crab and rock lobsters to full schools of old wife fish that are only found in Australia and New Zealand. The plant life was alive and vibrant, sporting shades of purple, yellow, pink, vibrant greens and deep reds. The truly alien spectacles and peace down here are just some of the many reasons I love diving.
Now, for anyone who spends even a little bit of time in the ocean, you know how rapidly the tides can change. Mother nature is an unpredictable force, and it doesn't wait for anyone. In this case, she had decided we had overstayed our welcome in a rather dramatic fashion. In the blink of an eye—conditions went from good to mediocre, and then from mediocre to bad. The chop had turned into a full blown SWELL. And that swell turned into a current, dragging us far in one direction to only then spit us back out from where we came. The conditions were getting so rough at this point that it was becoming hard to even swim.
The trek back to shore was taking far longer than either of us would've liked. Movement was slow and steady. As trained rescue divers, we knew to remain as close to one another as we could, checking in on one another as frequently as possible. Our beautiful seaweed forest turned to silt, and we realized we were hovering over sand. With nothing protecting or surrounding us, we were officially in the open ocean. And next thing I knew, I was completely alone.
Being alone in the ocean is one thing. But being alone in great white infested waters, in bad conditions, is another. This is where, no matter what kind of diver you are, no matter how much training you have, there's going to be a moment of pure unadulterated fear. As I look up, down, left and right ... I spot nothing but the vastness. With none of the conventional visual cues that we’re used to on land, like landmarks or horizon lines, divers can often lose the points of reference that help maintain their sense of direction and orientation. And this is precisely what was happening to me. I was lost.
I tried to keep my cool and followed typical protocol for this situation. I searched my surroundings for my buddy for one minute before slowly and calmly ascending. While your survival instinct is telling you to climb as fast as you can, any diver knows how dangerous that can be. It can result in decompression sickness, which can quite literally kill you. And dying in this already stressful situation would certainly not help my buddy in this predicament, that’s for sure. So I gradually made my ascent and just kept saying my favorite line in my head, “cool, cool, cool.”
While suspended for what felt like the longest minute of my life, the visibility had become so bad I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face. The water was literally turning shades of green. But while I couldn't see anything, my senses of touch and hearing managed to kick into overdrive. I could hear the clicking of the sea all around me—shells, crabs, crays. I could feel light brushing happening around me, which I presumed was a standard school of fish—but in the terrible conditions, I couldn't actually say for certain. My skin started to crawl, realizing the distinct possibility that one of these swimmers could very well be a great white.
The minute of searching passed, and no buddy. I finally managed to surface only to realize that I am far, far away from the shoreline. Far enough that it's going to be one hell of a swim, but fortunately close enough that I can even see it. Keeping myself calm with rhythmic breathing, I do all the safety checks possible: I'm good on air, I know my way home, my compass is set, there's an exit plan. Now I’m only worried for the safety and whereabouts of my long-lost buddy. Fortunately, she’s an even more seasoned diver than me, and I hope she’s safely executing her own plan to the shore … As long as something ELSE hadn't gotten in the way.
I start my surface searching while keeping my air source in my mouth. The swell is so big at this point that I’d be swallowing and inhaling loads of seawater without it. That's when I spot a bobbing head, moving synchronously with the waves. She must have been out there for a while, and I just wasn’t able to spot her until now in these conditions. I flag her down, our eyes lock, and set off to the beach. In moments like this, you cannot swim fast—you need to swim smart. We can't go back underwater because of the lack of visibility, so we’re left to the surface.
We turn our backs to shore, and start kicking our way, flipping around every now and again to observe what's below us. It’s while traveling back to shore that I find I’m experiencing the chills and my stomach is brutally churning. But it’s not from fear of our circumstances, it’s something else completely out of my control. I feel that knot in my stomach rising to my throat and I know what’s coming. It's my dreaded sea sickness. And just when I thought we were almost out of this…
I didn't take my sea sickness tablets because I didn't anticipate THIS current scenario. When this happens to me [which frankly is often] it's such an overwhelming bodily reaction, there's nothing to be done other than to release. Vomit is inevitable. And I have a very calculated decision to make. All while sick to my stomach.
If I take my air source out, and vomit cleanly into the open ocean, I have the potential of drowning. But vomiting into my brand new Scubapro reg would hurt my soul. I mean…C’mon it was a brand new regulator! But unfortunately, I had to accept that this was a much safer decision. And just like that, there she blew… hot chunks.
I’m now feeling exhausted and obviously completely sea sick. But the idea of drowning while covered in a bath of my own vomit - well, it seemed like a less than ideal way of dying. So, I decided it wouldn’t have to end like this, and my survival instincts kicked in full throttle. I'm now PUSHING my way through the sea, and giving mother nature all I've got to stay with her. “Swim, swim, swim, vomit,” seems to be the cadence of my trek to shore. I finally lock eyes with my buddy, and I can see a look of horror on her face as she observes my unbecoming condition.
I don't remember how long it took us to get back to shore. I don't remember how long I laid on the beach, utterly gassed. I don't remember taking my gear off, or packing it back up in my car. And I certainly don't remember cleaning the puke out of my regulator. And I have no idea if there were shark fins following us at any stage of this journey. It was all a blur given the circumstances. But what I do remember are the thoughts that ran through my head during that wild experience.
I couldn't help but think how thankful I was for the countless hours spent properly training for scuba. I thought about how critical it is to never dive alone—even if you are beyond skilled. And, I thought about the unwieldy power of nature. I was spared this time, or maybe I spared myself. But I might not be so lucky next. When enough is enough ... you’d best respect and listen.
“Nope. Absolutely not. I’m not going,” our dive guide named Sam said after hearing our plan. He was an important member of the community and knew his way around land and sea—having decades of diving experience under his belt. Even He wasn’t down for what we were proposing.
“Why not dude? We have to! We only live once!” My crew sang, in what felt like perfect harmony. Minus Sam, of course. There were three of us: myself (the navigator & untangler), Marla (in charge of content capture) and Tessa (focused on depth). We each had assigned roles for this dive because it was just that gnarly—or so the rumors said.
Earlier that week we had made our way up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to the town of Monterey, California. It’s a sleepy seaside town south of San Francisco, mostly used as a stop along the PCH road trip to Los Angeles. You might also recognize it from HBO’s Big Little Lies. But besides the murder and mischief portrayed there, it’s actually also known for some of the best diving in the USA. And there was one spot in particular we wanted to check out.
Being this was no ordinary dive spot, we first needed to make friends with the locals to figure out exactly how we’d make it there. That's when we met Sam. Booking a guided dive around some of the more chill sites in Monterey, he took us out to look for sea lions, mola mola, and the fattest jellies we had ever seen. And just like that, we became fast friends. We watched sea lions eat the fins off tiny mola molas, we froze to death in ripped 7mm wetsuits in 54°F (12°C) water, and we had a lot of laughs.
Sam, now our best friend, was our Monterey guardian angel. He was perched atop our right shoulder, telling us that we definitely should NOT go to Monastery Beach. But Sam didn't realize that it was actually ME, perched atop the group’s left shoulder.
Why was Sam so concerned about our plan? It’s because Monastery Beach is considered pretty dangerous for any and all divers for about a dozen reasons. To put it most simply, it’s the perfect storm of circumstances that make for highly unpredictable diving. First, the beach is located on the edge of a deep submarine canyon, which makes for powerful underwater currents, both unpredictable and difficult to anticipate. Second, the waves break close to the shore, making it challenging for divers to safely enter and exit the water. Third, the beach is exposed to the open ocean, which means that all these conditions can change rapidly and without much warning. Ok cool, so let’s go!
The real prize of this dive though is the kelp, believe it or not. It was in fact the whole reason we were there in the first place. Marla and I were sent on an expedition to seek out seaweed and kelp for a business we were working with. The startup had figured out how to replace single-use plastic using the more ocean and climate-friendly alternative: seaweed. Now, all we had to do was get into the water and capture content of California seaweed and kelp in its natural habitat. But there was a big problem with swimming among the fronds. The aforementioned chaotic ocean conditions—paired with century old, dark, dense and thick kelp forests—was a perfect recipe for tangling and capturing unsuspecting divers.
You might be thinking to yourself at this point, “Kelp? Of everything you’ve told us about this dive…You’re most worried about kelp?” Well, that’s because it can grow up to 53 meters, making it one of the largest and fastest growing plants in the world. Hence kelp being no joke and one of mother nature’s wonders to not mess with.
We read up. We did our research. We went every day for a week to check the conditions. We failed to get better wetsuits for the California winter and agreed to suffer through diving with holes together. And on our last day in Monterey, we gave a good old fashion "fuck it" and decided it was time to seize the day.
With not a soul in sight at Monastery Beach, we kitted up, freezing our asses off, and began charting our dive plan. We realized that if we swam straight out from where we parked, the kelp forests were going to give us everything we needed and wanted. We actually didn't even have to go that far. But regardless of where we go or how far out, we still had to get INTO the sea from the shore—first and foremost—which would prove to be the real challenge of our day. The beach was covered in little, sharp rocks, so if you got pulled back onto the beach, it was going to hurt really bad. The sandbank also dropped down aggressively, and it was a steeeeeep way down. And the waves … they were huge and it wasn’t even that “big” of a day. We needed to wait for a break and sprint to get in. Otherwise, we'd be getting tossed and pummeled with all of our gear on us. And once we got in, we had to immediately adjust our buoyancy so we didn't sink to the bottom and chill at 40m. In this instance, that would be very uncool.
With my compass set, we stood on the rocky beach, mask on and regulators in, waiting for our big break. Suddenly, the set died down and off we went ... running into the sea. We attempted to swim as fast as we could past the break line, but there she came. A big whopper wave that clobbered us head on. Disoriented and tumbling a bit, the three of us eventually managed to pass through. Although a little shook, we survived level one of the Monastery dive video game we were living in real time.
We checked and secured our buoyancy, and finally reached the notorious, crazy steep drop off. Managing not to sink into the winter’s ocean, we’d passed level two! Off we descended into the jungle of Monastery. It went from bright sunshine to dark very quickly as we entered this enchanted forest. Rockfish, lingcod, garibaldi and sheephead fish swarmed us, but the kelp … the kelp, was better than I could’ve dreamt! Big, tall, thick and canopying at the top. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had underwater. I could feel the cold water penetrating my skin through the rips and tears in my old wetsuit, and my body temp was slowly approaching “cold overload” as I like to call it. We stuck together, executing our various roles on the team in tandem. Marla stopped every so often to take the shots we were out there for, while I opened up pathways for us to explore by gently moving the dense kelp.
We encountered a family of sea lions. They were playful and fun, navigating us through the kelp, as if to show us the way. At this point, I studied my compass, only to realize that we were going way off my chartered course. The sea lions were pulling us further and further, and the kelp was becoming a bit too dense for comfort. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach telling me to stop. I gathered the group and we agreed it was time to turn back. We were good on air, but all very cold and cautious with every turn. At the end of the day, diving means knowing your limits, and we all had firmly hit ours.
As we turned around, the fresh path the sea lions had cleared for us was fully gone. We were IN the kelp, literally. The last thing I wanted to do was cut our way out of the forest. But as the navigator, my job was to untangle us and bring us home in the safest and most practical way. But as the three of us moved through the kelp, it felt like the sea was actually granting us passage. As if realizing we weren't there to hurt it, but just to observe. Once we got the hang of it, pushing our way out wasn’t all that difficult and it ended up being non-invasive to the species.
However, this fleeting moment of relaxation was brought to an end when we realized we’d been tricked by the weightlessness and darkness of the forest. We weren’t exiting it, but rather going deeper under —the exact thing Sam warned us about. Tessa instructed the group to rise slowly. We all realized it was time to get out of here or we’d be taken by this enchanted forest for good. Laser focused on the exit, we moved away from the kelp and managed to get to a safe spot for our ascent. When we finally popped our heads from the water, we checked on the breaking pattern, as THIS—we were told—would be the hardest part of our expedition. We passed level three of the enchanted kelp forest, but now it was time for level four.
Getting back onto the beach required precision. We’d have to either A) wait for the swell to dwindle and make a dash for the shore, or B) ride those sucker waves home. We went with plan B here, as there seemed to be little opportunity for a break in the action. We decided to go simultaneously, but with some space between us in case of a wave toss. After mentally preparing ourselves for what could’ve been the dump of the century, we said our goodbyes and off we went! I spread my limbs out like a starfish to slow my speed, but the waves still ripped me onto the beach, sharp rocks digging into the front of my body and face. Tessa got fully tossed, spun around like she's in a washing machine. And Marla waited in the back, watching our beatings and questioning which option she should choose per our aftermath.
Bleeding from the legs, arms and face, I fully understood why people wouldn’t want to do this on a typical Tuesday. It’s important to acknowledge that what we did was risky, even with our best efforts at safety and preparation. We debriefed after our respective beatings, and talked about our limits, what we did well and what we’ll do better next time. But at the end of the day, I appreciated that we did it because it was truly something special to see that magical forest. Flawless, untouched perfection doesn't come around often. And I know I’ll relish that memory for the rest of my life.
And you know, being told we shouldn’t seek out Monastery Beach … maybe that was the Biggest Little Lie of them all? Ok, I’ll go now.
I made a new friend. This is always the recipe for something insane to happen because I get a ridiculous amount of energy from meeting new people. And in this case, my new friend happened to be a scientist with an impeccable knowledge for coral reefs …
I had driven over 12 hours—along the most beautiful coastline with no human life for kilometers and kilometers—from Perth to a place called Exmouth, Western Australia. This tiny town [population 3,000] is situated on red dirt and bright blue waters and is the gateway to one of earth’s forgotten wonders: The Ningaloo Reef. When you think of Australia’s reefs you are drawn to the east coast’s Great Barrier. But almost never do you hear about this gem of the wild west. And because of that alone, I knew I needed to go see for myself.
The best way to see the wild out here is to car camp, as there’s not much accommodation available, especially during peak season. Typically, there’d be droves of Aussie tourists in these parts this time of year. But because of that funky “thing” that happened in 2020 … this wasn’t the case. I only fully realized the lack of human life around me as I made my way around the tip of Exmouth towards the vast Cape Range National Park.
There was a somewhat post-apocalyptic energy happening in Exxy due to the lack of humanity out here. I also realized there was another element to the foreboding nature of the scene. The town was completely without power, and as a result, looked practically abandoned. But something spectacular had also gone down that I was soon to learn all about, up close and personal.
Diving over an hour outside town center, losing all cell service, I finally arrived at the legendary Turquoise Beach. This place is known for its drift swimming in extremely clear [and of course turquoise] water over Ningaloo’s fringing reef. Fun fact: there are three types of reefs—barrier, atolls and fringing. The fringing kind are very close to shore and are easily accessed just by swimming out to them. They can sometimes be attached to the shoreline or submerged in the shallows if they are considered a back reef.
While taking in one of the most gorgeous [and completely empty] beaches I’ve ever seen from the top of the dune line, another one of my senses was overwhelmed with disgust. The glorious vista was unexpectedly met with one of the foulest odors I’d ever smelled. How could something so beautiful smell so bad!? That’s when I noticed there are quite literally THOUSANDS of stunning, colorful tropical fish dead, washed up on the sand. They say scent is closely tied to the memory centers of our brains—and I don’t think I could ever forget the smell of these dead fish if I tried.
But that’s also when I noticed I was no longer alone in this stinky paradise. I spotted a woman who looked nearly my age, if not a bit older, about 100 meters away. She was sporting some high-tech looking equipment, wearing thick rubber coveralls and sturdy muck boots. She was intensely focused on what he was doing—eyes to the ground, examining the deceased. Naturally, I approached her to spark my usual line of deep questioning, but she beat me to it, as if I was the first person she’d seen in days … which I came to find out was true. And that’s when we became best friends.
Her name was Justine, and she was a coral scientist and expert from the Great Barrier here for a few weeks to study the scene. She explained that there was an early and extreme coral spawning event [something I had read about in books and only dreamed of seeing one day.] But why all the dead fish?
So, let’s talk about coral spawning. This is an annual happening where all the coral on a reef synchronize their mating patterns. Yep, that’s right. These animals release their eggs and sperm all at the same time over a few days beneath the light of the full moon. The location and species of coral will determine when exactly this happens, so it’s not always the easiest to PLAN and see. Unless, you’re me in this particular moment, given I just stumbled upon it by chance. Win!
Now, back to that fish graveyard. Justine hypothesized that the spawn slicks were so intense this year, that they’d managed to drift all the way to the shore. This cut off the fishes’ oxygen supply and unfortunately asphyxiated them. To make matters worse, the combination of low tides, minimal swells and unusually hotter than hot weather made conditions even worse for these special fish—as the currents and waves typically would disperse the coral larvae out to sea, preventing something like this from happening.
While the abundance of coral sex happening [for an already threatened species] was a great thing to behold, the inadvertent fish genocide was less so. Especially since it was partially caused by [you guessed it] climate change. We are seeing these weird “freak events” all over, manifesting in many different [and mostly alarming] forms. After about an hour going back and forth discussing the pros and cons of this particular freakshow, Justine asked me the last question I could’ve expected: “Do you want to see if we can catch some of the spawning action, up close?”
Coral spawning only happens at night, so Justine and I agreed to meet at sunset to prepare. She gave me the “coordinates” on a map [where we were going, there were no addresses] and said it was going to be a late, long, hectic night. Which I was obviously down for to minimize time spent car camping. She told me to bring my freedive gear and get ready to feel “disgusting.” DISGUSTING? Wasn’t totally sure what she meant by that, but I presumed it had something to do with the aforementioned slicks—aka, coral jizz and eggs. Another moment of thinking, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
In the meantime, Justine asked me if I wanted to see the event from the sky. Again, clueless as to what this could possibly mean, she pointed me in the direction of a landing strip where spotter planes will search for marine life from above. I was meant to ask for Chris, and see if he’d be ok taking me out for a flight. Absolutely pumped, and still with no cell service, I follow Justine’s paper map and finger point, and get on my way.
Yet again, another person really excited to see human life, Chris seems even more pumped than me to get in the air. Relishing in this good luck, I strap my GoPro to the wing of the spotter and off we go. Flying over Exxy’s cape, and what was once the ocean floor, we make our way to the turquoise. That’s when the abundant brownish/red slicks of spawn clutching close to the shoreline came into our line of sight—exactly the story Justine had laid out about the cause of fish death.
After the flight of my life, it was time to make my way back to our coordinated spawn-seeking location. When I finally found Justine, we threw on our lightest wetsuits, fins and masks letting the sun set around us in the middle of nowhere. All the while, Justine was staring at me, confused. “Where’s your hood?” she asked. I didn’t understand why I’d need a hood in 30 degree celsius water, and told her I was without one. That’s when her face went blank. It wouldn’t take long for me to realize how screwed I was gonna be without that stupid hood.
So there I was. In the complete darkness, plunging into slick sea water, not knowing what exactly to expect and lacking the necessary equipment. We were off to a perfect start!
Because a lot of the spawning had already happened, we were in search of a specific species that hadn't released its goods yet [coral species know how to avoid cross-pollination during these big events.] The “mating” act itself would resemble an underwater, white, orange, red and yellow snowstorm upon release. And then, the egg/sperm bundles were meant to rise to the surface when fertilization begins. This is what we were searching for.
The water was shallow enough to pop our heads out, but deep enough to require swimming. With such limited light, we couldn’t go far from each other, as we are cruising one torch each. The water felt warm, thick and creamy as we submerged. I used my light to start duck diving onto the reef. And with each descent, there were millions of little worm creatures spiraling around us in a frenzy. The worms seemed to be here to feed on the slicks. We swam through this chaotic dance of critters before it finally became clear why I should’ve brought the hood.
I never thought I’d say these words but, after the sensation of earworms subsided a bit, I continued on my sexy coral search. My torch had died after being out there for too long, which meant Justine and I had to tether to one another. And finally, right when we were about to throw in the towel, we got to see one release! It was spectacular, and exactly how Justine had described it. A coral eruption if you will. We watched plankton, small fish and rays feed on the coral, all while the worms continued to swarm our heads. I was thrilled to say I had the unique and totally random pleasure of seeing one species let its legacy live on.
As we got onto shore, I once again was reminded of my dire circumstances: I don’t have a place to shower. I come to find out neither does Justine, given she was only in town for a few weeks, and she too was car camping. Because of the dead fish scenario, she was posted up close by in order to observe at all hours. We resorted to our only option: water jugs in the backseat of our cars.
As we washed mother earth’s eggs and sperm off ourselves [and while I attempted to get the residual worms out of my ears], we celebrated this shared ocean moment that would last us a lifetime. That night was truly the most uncomfortable attempt at sleep of my adult life. It wasn’t until the next morning that I had to break-and-enter into a hotel, using their outdoor shower for another memory of pure bliss. Never thought I could love a warm shower more.
When you think of visiting Fiji, you probably envision those picturesque bamboo villas elevated on stilts over water. Or reality TV shows where demented singles are locked away in a mansion to fulfill their most lascivious desires. Or a potential location for an opulent season 3 of White Lotus.
You see those advertisements calling you to Fiji saying things like, “Paradise awaits, now running this special for $99 round trip” to lure travelers to come visit. That was the vision I had in my mind when I started tracking this resort-dive destination. Oh, and that someone was SURELY going to try and set up my dive kit for me here…
What I didn’t know was there are 330 islands that make up the nation, with one third being totally un-inhabited. Over 1.3 million square kms of the South Pacific Ocean, Fiji is a vast place with so much to encounter. Across this series of islands are traditions, cultures, dive sites you can only explore if you somehow manage to make your way to one of the most remote parts of the South Pacific.
Back to those ads. They show you a tourist’s paradise—an easy, carefree, relaxed experience. But if you get to the bowels, the depths, the guts of Fiji, there’s a whole other side wanting to come out and crawl all over you. That was the Fiji I was going to see, even though I had no idea of it quite yet.
I made three stops on this expedition: The Lagoon, Rainbow Reef and last but not least, Nadi’s finest hospital bed.
There are three islands that make up the lagoon—Yanuca, Davui and Beqa. 30km of barrier reef protect this lagoon and on the islands are lush jungle as far as the eye can see. I went to meet up with researchers stationed at Pacific Harbor and learn a bit more about what they were studying there: bull sharks. I was going to see the last remaining native Fiji bull sharks left and learn firsthand about this apex predator up close and personal. Literally.
Bull sharks are fast, agile and aggressive. They’ll eat pretty much anything in their way. So, naturally, I sign my life away on a consent form and descend 30m into open waters where bull sharks are being tagged for research. Cool cool cool.
I was meant to remain horizontally still and perch behind submerged rock formations. This would let the sharks pass in front of my face as I witnessed the researchers gather samples. A wave of discomfort swept over me as I was told we should expect up to 40 sharks in the water with us. It became clear to me that this many sharks could mean only one thing: they were going to either chum the water or feed them directly.
The wild is meant to be observed, not to be tampered with. But the issue when conducting research like this is that we need to get just a bit closer than we would otherwise. There are methods and ways to do this effectively without disrupting nature. But the practices here that I was about to experience were different. The sharks KNEW we were coming when they heard the boat’s engine. We descended into the water and there were already tons of them waiting … PATIENTLY.
I can at least say I left the experience with some pretty awesome footage on the GoPro and a newfound ability to stay extremely still. But I also left with some confusion surrounding the ecological ethics here. Should these sharks be fed to maintain the indigenous and dwindling population? Or should nature be left to its own devices to regulate as it does? While the shark’s endangered status is partly due to human activity in the first place, maybe it is our prerogative to clean up the mess we’ve made. However, something about the anticipated feeding time off that boat just felt unnerving to me.
I drove close to three hours from The Lagoon to the nearest airport, hopped on a spotter plane that flew dangerously low for some epic views and made my way to the magical Taveuni island. This island is actually a volcano that is known for its plantlife, which is why it's called “The Garden Island of Fiji.” With 75% of the 20,000 on the island being Fijians, they are working predominantly in either agriculture or tourism.
The women on the island were the best. They told dirty jokes, played pranks on me, and treated me like a sister. They wanted me to come out and party with them every night. I sadly had to decline their invitations, as I was rooted from long dive days. They called me lame, which was fair enough. Turning down a party invitation is always kind of lame … especially when living on a tropical island.
Home to the one-and-only Rainbow Reef, diving is the thing to do around here. For seven days, I embarked on 23 back-to-back, mind-blowing dives in the soft coral capital of the world. From macro scouting, to pilot whale tracking, to walls of white coral running all the way down to 65m, to incredible color variety in the corals, this place is heaven on earth for us divers. The water was flat and flawless, with 30-40m visibility every day. I couldn’t get enough. Even though the diving left a lasting impression, something else did a better job making its mark on me.
I was bitten so many times by mosquitos, that I ended up in a local hospital on yet another near-death bed.
After those seven perfect days out on Rainbow Reef, I started to feel weird during my last dive. Really weird. My local besties told me I looked pale and horrible (thanks friends), and what followed was dizziness, fever and extreme fatigue. With zero WiFi or cell reception on the island, there was no Dr. Google happening here.
I stumbled to my hut and rolled into bed, hoping I could ride it out. After about what seemed like an eternity, my fever was raging, I’m throwing up and yep, I’m gonna say it because it’s an integral part of this story: I shit myself. The first time I can say that’s happened in the whole of my adulthood. A blended laugh/cry session riddled with extreme concern at this point, I realize it’s probably time to go to the hospital. As I practically crawl out of my hut, my local friends support me on my long trek back to Nadi for some hospital time. And they tell me it’s been a full 24 hours since I last left my room.
The flight from Taveuni to Nadi was 1.5 hours. Then, a kind taxi driver took me to the hospital and waited for me to make sure I was ok. Fearing another “accident” might occur in front of other human beings, I’m clenching every part of my body for dear life—shifting from profusely sweating or freezing cold depending on the moment—laugh/crying all the while.
So the prognosis in the end? I was ultimately told that I had come down with a good old fashion case of the Dengue Fever. The proof to them was in the mosquito bites spread all over my legs, which the doc said “happens all the time here.” They also told me the Dengue would run its course in 5-7 days. I never could’ve anticipated that my expedition would end like that. After all the cars, boats, flights, hikes, treks to get around, I thought for sure a transit accident or diving mishap was more likely to knock me out. But no, it’s always the bugs with me! It was the god damned bugs…
So if you don’t mind living fully on “island time" with lengthy and hectic transportation to get from place to place, Fiji is a good stop for your dive bucket list. If you want to see some of the most incredible soft coral in the world, make your way to Tavenui. The Lagoon probably is not for the faint of heart—pending your opinions on shark feeding. But if this story can lend a single piece of advice, make sure you take the time to connect with the locals if you find yourself in Fiji.
Despite my grim encounters along the way, I’ve got to say, my time spent with them was definitely one of the highlights of the entire journey. They will show you uncharted territories, bring you into their inviting culture, and crack a very dirty joke with you. Most importantly though, they might save your life if shit (literally) hits the fan!
I’ve grown to accept a hard lesson when it comes to adventure traveling: for all the glorious vistas you’ll see and experiences you’ll have, you’re also going to find yourself deeply uncomfortable more often than you’d expect. Plain and simple, it can be seriously stressful. But somehow, a lot of the most memorable and impactful moments we’ve had out exploring have come from all the things that seem to go wrong along the way. The things we never would have planned for. And learning to embrace that upheaval is actually the most critical (and life-changing) part of traveling the world.
When we decided to hike the legendary Cape to Cape, I had no idea it was going to nearly kill us. On the bright side, near-death experiences in the wild such as these gets you thinking about the bigger picture. And on this occasion, it made me realize that the only person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with was the guy by my side.
Adam and I agreed we wanted to start hiking more. Given we were in the thick of a global pandemic, we were limited to hiking destinations. So, we landed on the Cape to Cape trail—130 km of pristine wilderness that follows Southwestern Australia’s rugged coastline from remote towns of Augusta to Dunsboroug. We read so much literature about this hike and by-and-large it was said to be easy. Perfect, as Adam and I are both more water-aficionados as opposed to those die-hard rock people.
We made a few crucial mistakes right off the bat. We got a little overzealous with the hiking gear, overstuffing our already oversized bags. We didn’t spend a single day training, as we figured our water fitness would translate fine on land. Not to mention, wrapping up the last of my work calls as we were setting foot on the trail probably wasn’t the best idea either. It caused me to forget a critical piece of equipment: our offline map. However, none of this really came to light until a few hours into the hike.
Starting from the southernmost point, Augusta, the terrain began to gradually change from trodden dirt paths to a more raw, rock-climbing experience. To top things off, as we scaled rocks with packs almost as big as us on our backs, we had massive WA waves crashing a little too close for comfort. I figure it’s only a matter of time before the trail transitions back to its former state of “trodden”. But two hours pass before I really begin to embrace our situation for what it really is.
We had missed a critical turn that would have kept us on a more manageable path, and not this extreme terrain nestled between cliffs and sea. We also realize that the Cape to Cape is not trail-marked the deeper you go, so we’re on our own in the wild with this one. After some arduous backtracking to the VERY BEGINNING, we make our way onto the real trail. Oh but rest assured, our problems are only just beginning.
Adam notices his shoe sole is peeling off. After asking 100x if he wants to turn back, we decide to push forward. We’ve got a poorly taped up right shoe, four hours of hiking rock shards under our belt, a useless digital map, and a wide-eyed sense of “adventure” keeping us going. As we continue, we see two hikers—the first human life we’ve seen since being out there. They look beaten, soulless, gutted. And in an ominous tone of foreshadowing, like some kind of bridge troll, one of them tells us:
“You truly have no idea. What’s next is brutal…”
As we progress, the path starts to move. Perhaps more aggressively in my mind due to the delirium setting in as we were now rationing water. Within a single stretch, we encountered a gigantic 2m long lizard, swarming groups of horse flies, and of course, the Southwest’s infamous brown snake—the Gwardar. The name means "go the long way around" in an Aboriginal language, as this snake is the most venomous.
The scenery went from being legendary to a little too repetitive and a little too vast. As we left a shaded, wooded area, we ended up on sinking, soft sand—each step pulling our feet a little deeper into the muck. The sun was blazing and there was not a trail-sign in sight. We start to realize if we do not get to our designated camp area by night, we will run out of fresh drinking water [our purifiers won’t work with ocean water] and we won’t be eating any food, as everything requires that drinking water to prepare.
But as things started to get a bit more dire, it revealed what I can only describe as our respective “survival modes.” This is the persona one takes on when thrown into a real crisis. It also reveals a person’s “true character” when faced with potentially life-threatening danger. But if that’s the case, then I’d have to say my true character in these types of situations is far from helpful.
I started to laugh. Laughing and fully owning the chaos. Running with it as if it really was the end. I guess I take solace in a sense of humor during an absurd [albeit life-threatening] situation? However, to counter my insanity during the peril, Adam went into full hero mode. He managed to think quickly, pragmatically and ultimately got us out of the trouble I surely got us into [like suggesting we do this in the first place with little to no planning or foresight.] While Adam really was keeping his shit together and coming up with some serious survival solutions—we weren’t out of the quicksand quite yet.
As the sun set, we managed to find a semi-sheltered section on the open stretch of raw beach and pitched our tent. As seasoned campers, we knew this was one of the worst places for us, as camping out in the open like this, exposed to the Indian ocean, meant we were in for some pretty fierce overnight winds. With such limited water left, we’re forced to suck on the last remaining apple core to keep us hydrated. Nom!
Despite the truly psychotic and demonic night winds, I managed to sleep. Fun fact: I can sleep through anything, at any time, in any situation. Adam, not so much, as he was quite literally holding down the fort with every gust. When the winds finally subsided, we found something else had managed to fill its void. As one sound died down, a new one emerged … buzzing. Looking at the tent roof and sides, we realized that our entire site was covered, top to bottom, with bugs. The worst kind. Giant Aussie mosquitos.
I chose to take one for the team here [given Adam pretty much stayed up all night keeping the tent intact.] I said I’d sacrifice my body, mind and soul to exit the tent first and let those suckers at me. In a matter of minutes, my entire body was covered with bugs gnawing at me. Letting them have their way with me, we ultimately managed to pack up the site and start making a move on … though much slower than the day before due to our weakened states and spirits.
An hour into our second day’s hike, we finally spotted something promising. Something glistening in the distance, sun beaming off of it as if to say “LOOK HERE!”
It was a sign. And I don’t mean a metaphorical or spiritual sign. A LITERAL sign. And the first sign we had seen in 24 hours. It was the campsite we were meant to have stopped at overnight. An hour longer and we would have made it. Cool cool cool.
Getting to the campsite meant drinking water. It took 30 minutes to purify, in that time Adam’s shoes ripped into two pieces—the shoe on his foot and the sole in his hand. My legs were giving out underneath me and my body was covered in stinging red bumps. It was time to make some smart decisions.
Now, I’m not a big fan of cutting an adventure short, or abandoning any mission I’ve set out to complete. But in this case, it was time to swallow our pride and call a spade a spade. We were ill prepared, out of shape, overpacked, and not survival ready for the unforgiving Australian coastline. We walked another two hours to the closest main road, and waited what felt like an eternity for a passing car to pick us up based on our pro-hitch hiking efforts. Sitting in silence, covered in huge bug bites topped off with sandy dirt, we made our way back down to Augusta to pick up our car and drive home.
With a little bit of cell reception now, we came to find we had trekked a total of 14.5km in less than 48 hours. Our ten day trip turned into one. Fail. Epic fail.
While the Cape to Cape was probably the most unsuccessful and perilous hike of my life, I can’t say it was a total loss. If anything, I left that adventure with a fortified sense of appreciation and love for my now husband. I can honestly say that without him, I’d probably be a rotting corpse on a beach somewhere on the coast of Western Australia. I took away one critical lesson that we now bring on every expedition: mother nature is a force, and if you want to be out there with her, come as prepared as possible. You will never know what curve balls she’ll throw your way, but you best be as ready as you can be.
So there I was, getting absolutely beaten by some tremendous waves.
Getting tossed and pummeled underwater, swallowing and inhaling gratuitous amounts of ocean, and all while flailing around like there were no bones in my body. My limbs bashed against the seafloor as I wondered if and how I’d be allowed to resurface again.
When I finally washed ashore, I couldn’t believe my first interaction with the great Western Australian Indian Ocean was so painful and terrifying. This was one of the most aggressive, gnarly, hard core ocean stretches in the world—and it just spit me out as if to reject my ambitious attempt to be the ocean-faring woman I’d always aspired to become…
Perth is a one-of-its-kind regional city in Western Australia (WA)—an Australian state that’s nearly half the size of the continental USA. With harsh deserts to the north, dense Karri forests to the south, and a massive coastline containing one of the most beautiful reef systems, WA truly has it all. While these beaches have some of the most coveted surf destinations out there, they’re also some of the most feared. Not only for the crushing thick waves, but for the swarms of bull, tiger and great white sharks that call this slice of ocean their home.
I had been traveling for close to two years, leaving my homebase in NYC to see what our big, bad world had to offer. I touched down to Bali, Indonesia for a month of what was supposed to be solo traveling, but I kept meeting people from a far-off land called Perth. It almost seemed like Bali was to Perthians as the Jersey Shore was to New Yorkers, because I kept finding these Aussies EVERYWHERE. And when I interacted with them, they couldn't help but talk about their home with either extreme admiration or disdain. Sounds true of any place, right? But these narratives hit different for me.
When I’d ask about how the Perth locals would spend their days, I’d hear about time spent scuba diving, surfing, freediving, spearfishing and kite surfing. But from another set of locals, I’d hear about how they avoid the ocean at all costs due to its high concentration of lethal marine life and torrential winds that rip through the city starting everyday at 2pm. I’d hear how they’d prefer the indoors to avoid the blazing sun and how they consider the amazing tropical birds and kangaroos that live alongside them largely as “pests.” All in all, both sides of the story sounded beyond intriguing to me—like a world unknown. After all, my frame of reference was slightly … less than exotic (I was living quite literally in Manhattan’s concrete jungle, also known as the Financial District, at the time).
I posted up in a town called Scarbrough, the premiere surf beach about 20 minutes away from a very lackluster city center. You don’t move to WA for its metropolis. You are there to be living in and under the picture-perfect Indian Ocean. Of the five oceans, it's the third largest, making up about 20% of the water on earth and is notorious for its extreme power.
My experience as a swimmer was non-existent. I’d never stepped foot on a surfboard in my life. And I’d spent the large majority of my twenties staring blindly at computer screens while ripping shots at night (to compensate for the lost screen time). But with fate calling me, I thought “why not? Let’s go out there and tackle these waves.” I contacted the local surf school, got a few lessons on the calmest, cruisiest days, and borrowed an ancient overused surfboard twice the size of me.
My instructor said I was “off the hook” which apparently meant I was doing well out there. Filled with an immense sense of hubris, I was having visions of becoming the next Carissa Moore and dreaming of a Ripcurl sponsorship taking me around the world. And so, I went out to buy my very own surfboard—a 7” foamie called “The Chopstick.” Slim, sleek, and not really a beginner board at all. But, it fit in my car, so that was all that mattered.
With all my beginner's confidence (or rather ignorance), I accidentally went out to one of the hardest breaks WA has to offer and subsequently received that beating that I mentioned earlier. But, getting your ass kicked really gets a girl thinking.
While bleeding from the hands and knees—I laid on the sand thinking there were two options. One: This is the first and last time I ever try this. Those Perthians in Bali who said to stay far, far away from this ocean were right. Or two: Let this be a firm lesson. A lesson that now is the time to study, observe and patiently work towards mastering the ocean.
On that terrifying day where the ocean bested me, I had an epiphany. I chose to embrace a full lifestyle change and take a childhood obsession and make it my reality. Before I can even remember, I had a deep love for the ocean—specifically its wild and bizarre creatures. I’d carried around an encyclopedia of fish species and shared fun facts with anyone who’d listen for a bulk of my early years. But, as time went on, that obsession became a distant dream and I did what most East Coasters do: succumb to society's pressures and hit the corporate grind. But, from May 2019 to present day, I decided to commit my heart and soul to learning everything I could about this largely unknown and mysterious blue wonder. A blue wonder that I now have the privilege to call my second home, spending just as much time on land as I do in the sea.
I wanted to learn how to hold my breath for long periods of time underwater, so next time I got sucked down, I’d be prepared. I wanted to learn how to read the ocean to better understand when conditions were too rough or just right for the surf. I wanted to learn to become a more competent swimmer, and overall embrace a stronger sense of athleticism in the water. But above all else, I started yearning to explore.
I realized beyond just co-existing with the ocean, I wanted to learn from and get to know the people who’d already mastered it. Those who had built their careers, passions and purpose all around the ocean. This newfound drive both overwhelmed and excited me—and it was a feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time. It was perhaps the complete antithesis of the corporate hamster wheel I’d been futilely spinning on for far too long. Tapping back into that childhood passion that fueled my existence in its most innocent state.
As I’m cleaning the blood and sand off my ripped wetsuit, a group of quintessential Aussie surfers approached me. They asked if I was ok after seeing my epic wipeout on a break far too advanced for a “grom” like me. Realizing they think I’m 13-years old, and they all witnessed the failure of the century, I try playing it cool. Using my standard “get out of jail free card,” I told them I was a recent transplant from the city that never sleeps in my first week aboard.
That’s when one of them said a line I’ll never forget—”Go out there every day and soon enough the waves will be all yours. You’re a long way from home. Welcome to life on the edges of earth, mate.”