I admit it — I’m spoiled. And the Florida Keys are to blame. These islands have rewarded me, a scuba diver for 20-plus years, with numerous fortunate encounters with wild marine life that occasionally intertwines with human life here.
Front-row seats to view giant whale sharks, leaping dolphins, sea turtles being returned to the ocean after recovering from illness or injury? Yes, I am spoiled.
Recently, I had an enviable opportunity to give back — give my time, myself and my energy — as an in-water volunteer for the Marine Mammal Conservancy’s efforts to save three female pilot whales. The whales are recovering in Key Largo after surviving a mass stranding on May 5 in the Lower Keys shallows.
The four hours I spent helping those whales were some of the most precious of my life.
I joined a group of 20-plus volunteers at MMC for the 8 a.m. “shift” after a briefing about the whales’ condition, how to properly place our hands on their delicate dorsal and pectoral fins, and their expected behaviors.
Rarely seen by humans, pilot whales are deep divers, unfamiliar with shallow water — and with humans supporting them to make sure the blowholes they use to breathe are free of saltwater.
As we waited to enter the shallow pen, chatter among the group was hushed yet excited and full of positive energy. I wondered what personal motivation had brought us all together on this morning.
Quickly it became clear that everyone’s intention was the same, and unselfish — pure healing.
Some spent their week’s vacation doing several shifts. A woman who splits her time between Boca Raton, Fla., and California heard about the volunteer opportunity through the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and joined because she loves the Keys.
Hannah, a student in Miami, took time away from her job performing hearing tests on infants to be in the Keys. She admitted she was afraid of the water — but had been so inspired by the whales that she helped make “Please Volunteer” flyers to post around Miami, and displayed them on her car that she parked “in crazy ways” at the beach and elsewhere so people would notice them.
Evans Raveneau, who stood beside me helping support the smallest of the female whales, said he’d recently lost his corporate job and was looking for a new direction, re-evaluating his purpose in life.
He was deeply moved from the first time we held the whale. “This is unbelievable,” he said, near tears.
No matter where we were from, our experience was equally memorable. As soon as you feel a pilot whale draw a full breath and its body shudder beneath your fingertips, it’s magical.
The whales’ musculature is pure power, with a presence and awareness in every fiber. My practice with Reiki energy makes me more attuned and sensitive of its abilities — but regardless, the amount of force that these whales use for propulsion is unmistakable.
As veterinarians and staff drew blood, applied antibiotics, tested respiration, heart rate and hearing, we held the whales firmly yet steady and calm. For the first time in my life, I saw a pilot whale eat from a tube, fart underwater and take a poop. Twice.
And I watched as the still-weaning youngster we cared for stretched and bent her tail to play “footsie” with her neighbor — just for the touch and reassurance that another of her kind was close by.
I recommend that everyone, scuba diver or not, take a moment and pay it forward. Give of yourself unselfishly to help another living thing survive, if only for a flicker in time. Reap the rewards of volunteering — they are huge.
To learn more about the Marine Mammal Conservancy’s efforts, and to volunteer your time, visit www.marinemammalconservancy.org.