The boat rocks gently, engines off as the ten or so passengers stare intently at the surrounding water. Cameras are poised, ready to snap the moment when the prey emerges. Suddenly there’s a shout: “Eleven o’clock! There’s two of them!” For those quick enough, the reward is a fleeting glimpse of a snout or a tail before the calm clear waters return once again. As for the photos? Yet another group of undistinguished water shots will fill another few memory cards.
If you’ve ever been out spotting marine mammals, this scenario probably has a familiar ring to it. In the last twelve months I’ve had two remarkably similar experiences: first attempting to see the elusive Irrawaddy river dolphins in northern Cambodia, and more recently when we went out off the coast of Belize to catch sight of the manatees who make their home in the warm coastal waters.
The photos I have included here are my best from two futile photographic sessions. The others on the boats didn’t fare much better, and I suspect this is the case in most of these expeditions. I have another such set of pictures in print from a whale sighting off the coast of Peru, but I’ll spare you further pointlessness; you get the idea.
So why are these trips so popular when the sighting of these shy and uncooperative animals is such a difficult task? We certainly were none the wiser about the size, shape or appearance of a manatee or pink river dolphin as a result of these hours spent bobbing hopefully on the water. We came home and researched these creatures to learn far more than our nature spotting tours could have taught us.
I have now resolved that should I find myself on such a boat in the future the camera will stay in its case. It’s much easier to enjoy a momentary sighting of a nose or a tail without having to position a camera at the same time. And the effort of snapping the pictures is, well, you can see its dubious value.
Yet will I go on another such trip? Yes, I probably will. There’s a certain wonder to being so close to such rare creatures and letting them float and circle curiously around you for a moment. That they are so rare makes their sighting, however short, something of a coup. I’m glad I’ve seen these endangered animals with my own eyes, and perhaps the fact that these sightings have encouraged us to learn more about them later is reason enough to have seen them; even if the photographs do little more than remind us that we were there.