Piopiotahi: Day 14 – The Day the Mountains Cracked

Storm front in Milford Sound

A storm front rolls in over Mount Philipps, Sinbad Gully and Mitre Peak in Milford Sound.

Day 14 in Milford Sound – 1 November 2014

The sky is a featureless grey backdrop, a blank canvas for what has yet to come. The birds have fallen silent and the air is completely still. The calm surface of Milford Sound reflects a mirror image of its iconic mountain peaks as dark, ominous clouds build to the west, high over the Tasman Sea. Lightning flashes in the distance and a low rumble reverberates through the length of the fjord. An unusually warm breeze passes over me and shivers zing down my spine. As the storm front crosses over the towering mountains, swirling white clouds spill over the ridge lines and roll down the steep cliff sides. Mother Nature is letting her hair down. She’s about to put on a show.

The wind begins to gust, pushing its way violently through the mountains. They have become a massive wind tunnel and the calm sea is soon whipped into an anxious, white-capped froth. The gusts visibly move across the surface of the fjord, transforming its colour and texture into something angry yet alluring.

Stormy Milford Sound

The normally glass-like surface of the fjord transforms into an angry sea. In the distance, Stirling Falls doubles in size as the rainfall makes its way to the ocean.

Once the rain begins, it’s only a matter of time. Within an hour hundreds of waterfalls begin to stream down the mountainsides in every direction. They form along the highest cliffs, their white bands snaking their way down the steep walls to connect with the fjord below. Some waterfalls are pushed off course, the wind overpowering gravity and sending the water off into smoky horizontal plumes. In a few places a vertical wind pushes the waterfalls straight up into the atmosphere, forcing countless water molecules to retrace their journey as rain drops.

The sun momentarily pierces through the rolling storm clouds, igniting the waterfalls. The mountainsides take on the appearance of a broken mirror, their shattered surfaces seeming to glow from within. It’s almost as if the land can no longer contain its unbearable beauty, but a moment later the light shifts, the clouds seal and the mountain has miraculously concealed it’s magic once again.

Waterfalls Falling Up

The Lion has stripes. Thousands of waterfalls appear along the fjord within the first hour of a storm. On the left side of the mountain two waterfalls fall up as howling winds blow through the fjord.

The storm rages for another hour before it moves further inland. The sky lifts back to its ceiling of mute grey and only traces of the violent weather remain. Downed tree branches litter the walkways and a light drizzle disrupts the surface of the puddles that were left behind. The sound of rushing water fills the air as the rain drains from the forest in hundreds of temporary streams and swollen rivers. In the distance fresh snow glows atop the mountains in the diffused afternoon light. The calm has returned, at least for now.

The environment here at the end of the earth is dynamic and ever-changing, making each day different and completely exhilarating. It’s important to be reminded of the raw power of nature and embrace my vulnerabilities to it.

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Piopiotahi: Day 10 – A Dolphin Encounter

Day 10 in Milford Sound – 28 October, 2014

It dawned on me today that I have the best job in the world. No question.

We arrived at the Discovery Centre early before the sun broke over the Cascades. Our team went through our morning routine, prepping the observatory for busy day of tours. When we completed everything with time to spare, my teammate, Karl suggested we go out for a quick kayak before the first boat of guests arrived. Moments before we were about to launch, we heard a call come over the radio from one of the skippers in the cove. Apparently a pod of dolphins were playing nearby. Instead of getting into our kayaks, we jumped into our small, motorized rescue boat with our coworker, Shannon and zipped out into the cove.

Within moments we found ourselves surrounded by approximately 20 dolphins who raced alongside our boat and played in our wake. I leaned over the bow and was amazed to see them so clearly in the water directly below me. I wished them a good morning, waving at them with my hands nearly touching the surface of the water. Directly beneath me they swam on their sides, tipping their bodies to get a good look at me, their pectoral fins reaching up to skim the surface of the water that separated us. I was stunned by the immediate connection I felt with them as we made eye contact. I had never been this close to such beautiful animals in the wild. We spent nearly five minutes speeding in circles around the cove with them before they made their way back out to the fjord. Lucky for you, I captured much of it on video for your viewing pleasure:

We returned to the kayak shed and traded the boat out for two kayaks. Karl guided me around our floating nature centre, showing me features I needed to know about the building and pointing out areas where we needed to do regular maintenance.

Down at the end of the wharf we saw a fur seal rolling around in the water so we paddled over to say hello. We watched as he swung his head from side to side, tossing a live fish in the air, then releasing it to allow it to swim away before capturing it again. Karl compared seals to house cats in the way they play with their food.

Fur seal with fish in Milford Sound

This playful fur seal tossed a fish around in the air, letting it hit the water and swim away before snatching it up again. It was definitely a game of cat and mouse.

Within minutes we were joined again by the pod of dolphins which quickly surrounded us in our kayaks. Karl took off paddling with them as I scrambled to capture his encounter on my waterproof camera. It was amazing to see him flanked by their rubbery, grey bodies. He later reported that two of them had come up alongside  his kayak and had lifted and pushed him along in the water. I wasn’t surprised. Their playful, inquisitive demeanor made them pretty great kayaking buddies.

Later that afternoon we found ourselves with another break between tours, so we took to the water again. This time it was Shannon and me in the kayaks and our manager, Andrea in the rescue boat. We were on a mission to flip a kayak and learn how to get back into it and assist with a rescue. Since Shannon was prepared with a wet suit, she had the pleasure of flipping into the chilly 7°C/45°F water while I assisted with getting her back into her boat.

Shannon pumping water from kayak

After we got Shannon back into her kayak, she used a hand pump to remove the water from the boat.

Andrea stayed nearby instructing us, then later drove donuts around us in an attempt to create enough wake to toss us in. It was a fun training session but I’m sure I would have felt a little different if I had been the one in the water! I later caught myself giggling as I realized what an incredible day it had been and how I had actually gotten paid to every minute of it. I am in absolute awe of how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to live and work in such an amazing place. I hope the rest of the summer continues on this course!
Shannon and Erika kayaking in Milford Sound.

Shannon (foreground) and me in our kayaks outside of the Discovery Centre where we work in Milford Sound, New Zealand.

45 Degrees South

The sun was barely breaking over the eastern mountains when I climbed aboard a bus in Queenstown. It had been a quick week of travel since I left Australia and after two months of anticipation, the time had finally come. I was returning to Milford Sound.

The drive would take nearly five hours, but the combination of travel-induced delirium and my anxious excitement made the time stretch and morph in curious ways. I felt like I was waking from a dream as laid my eyes upon familiar places long forgotten. You see, this was not the first time I had traveled these narrow mountain roads. Almost precisely five years ago my friends and I had trundled down this route in a clunky, old camper van, but during this portion of the trip I had been incredibly ill and my level of coherence was questionable.

Lake Tekapo

I find the bright turquoise colour of New Zealand’s glacial lakes mesmerizing. This shot was taken at Lake Tekapo.

Now awake and alert, fleeting memories came flashing back; some fuzzy around the edges, some vivid and clear and a few so sharp they stung. Electric green fields spotted with sheep, cattle and deer eventually gave way to patches of wild bush and forest. Braided glacial rivers of transparent turquoise glass tumbled over silvery grey rocks and gushed through deep chasms. Snow-capped peaks shrouded in wispy clouds rose in the distance, hinting at the glory yet to come. I was already visually overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring landscapes and butterflies beat in my stomach at such a rate that I worried I might float from my seat.

Aotearoa

Aotearoa: The Land of the Long White Cloud

As we drew closer and closer to Milford Sound, my memories became sharper and my dream slowly came into focus. Departing Te Anau, the last real settlement before entering Fiordland National Park, I put my headphones on and set the soundtrack to Sigur Rós. Grey clouds hung low and the morning mist soon developed into a steady drizzle. This was just how I had remembered Fiordland. I pressed my cheek against the cold window for a better view as we wound through the rainforest. Its twisted, old-growth beech trees wore fuzzy sweaters woven of moss and lichen and billowing skirts of ferns in every possible shade of green. Fleeting flashes of bright yellow caught my eye as small birds darted in and out of the forest in hot pursuit of invisible insects.

Silver beech, mountain beech and red beech dominate the rain forests of Fiordland National Park.

Silver beech, mountain beech and red beech dominate the rain forests of Fiordland National Park.

We sped past a sign post that marked “Latitude 45° South” and I wondered what my life would be like living at the halfway point between the Equator and the South Pole. I realized in that moment that throughout my life I’ve always found myself pulled between different geographic points, forever striving to maintain the delicate balance between the here and the there.

Crystal clear rivers fed by abundant rainfall and melting snow weave through Fiordland National Park.

Crystal clear rivers fed by abundant rainfall and melting snow weave through Fiordland National Park.

When the sun unexpectedly broke through the clouds, our bus driver pulled to the side of the road and came to a sudden stop. Before we crossed the pass into Milford Sound he insisted we take a moment to revel in the spectacular view of the mountains and drink from a clear, cold, glacial river. I filled my Nalgene bottle to the brim and took big, brain freeze-inducing gulps of the sweet, fresh water. I felt as though I was quenching an inexplicable thirst. The icy liquid became a drought-ending rain falling upon a dormant seed which had been quietly awaiting its turn to spring to life. I inhaled deeply and when I exhaled the clean, crisp atmosphere seemed to clean my lungs of every polluted breath of city air I had ever taken. The sensation of surrounding myself with pure, unadulterated nature was invigorating. As I consumed, I was consumed.

Mountain creek

The first of many times I have filled my Nalgene bottle in a mountain stream or river to quench my thirst. I adore living in a place free of pollutants.

We clamored back into the bus and began our approach to the mountain that stood between us and our destination. When we plunged into the confined darkness of the Homer Tunnel I realized that this was it: the home stretch. After a few minutes the tunnel began to glow before we were hit by the blinding daylight on the other side. We emerged high above the Cleddau Valley surrounded by towering peaks reaching to scratch the brilliant blue sky.

The Homer Tunnel cuts through the last mountain that separates Milford Sound from the rest of New Zealand.

The Homer Tunnel cuts through the last mountain that separates Milford Sound from the rest of New Zealand.

Cleddau Valley Milford Sound

The view exiting the Homer Tunnel above the Cleddau Valley.

Our bus slowly jerked and wobbled its way down the steep switchbacks and before I knew it we were passing the welcome sign to Milford Sound. To our left a snow-dusted Mitre Peak appeared and my breath caught in my throat. The peak is renowned for being New Zealand’s most photographed mountain and for good reason; its steep sides rise sharply from the sea and its rocky spine draws the eye up to its pointed summit which towers 1,692 metres (5,551 feet) above the fjord. Commanding the attention of anyone who lays eyes upon it, Mitre Peak knows it’s the star of the show. I hadn’t had the opportunity to see its often cloud-shrouded summit during my last visit and I was excited by the prospect of having it as the backdrop for my summer living in Milford Sound. After five years of dreaming about this place, I had finally arrived.

Mitre Peak in Milford Sound

Mitre Peak dominates the view of Milford Sound from the village foreshore.

In a matter of moments we were pulling up to the visitor’s centre and I unloaded my heavy backpack and duffel. I made my way to the Southern Discoveries reception desk and introduced myself as one of their new nature guides. A girl named Claire with neon pink pigtails gave me a warm welcome then insisted I drop my bags in the office and head out onto one of our company’s nature cruises into the fjord. I jumped at the opportunity to see where I would be working for the next six months.

Minutes later I was boarding the boat and it wasn’t long before we were pulling out of the harbor and making our way out into the fjord. Bowen Falls laid immediately to our right and soaring cliffs rose hundreds if not thousands of metres above us on either side of the fjord.  I found myself in awe of the magnitude of the environment that surrounded me. It was so stunningly beautiful I knew I would struggle to capture it in pixels or words. Everything seemed 10 times bigger and more magnificent than I had remembered. The views were absolutely unbelievable.

Bowen Falls

Bowen Falls provides the village of Milford with fresh water and clean, green hydroelectric power.

The Lion

‘The Lion’ mountain sits just east of Stirling Falls on the north coast of Milford Sound.

We sailed past vertical walls of rock that wore the scars of millions of years of geological activity. Ancient glaciers once bulldozed their way through these mountains to create the fjords, carving enormous U-shaped valleys that were eventually flooded by rising sea levels. The cliff faces were decorated with multicoloured ripples, waves and striations which revealed a diverse mineral composition and the violent action of colliding tectonic plates. I was surprised to learn that the fault line between the Australian and Pacific plates crossed directly over the mouth of Milford Sound and that the area was overdue for a massive earthquake. Little did I know that just a few days later I would experience a minor earthquake while I was getting ready for work in the morning. There was no denying it: the earth was alive and moving all around me.

Igneous rock, metamorphic rock, iron ore, garnets, gold and many more minerals make up the cliff faces of Milford Sound.  The waterfall featured in this photo is one of the Four Sisters.

Igneous rock, metamorphic rock, iron ore, garnets, gold and many more minerals make up the cliff faces of Milford Sound. The waterfall featured in this photo is one of the Four Sisters.

We made our way down the length of the fjord and out to the Tasman Sea. On the fringes of the Roaring 40’s, the incoming swell caused the large boat to pitch just enough to make the tourists on the top deck stumble around like drunken sailors. I had thankfully retained my sea legs from my recent month aboard the STS Leeuwin II and admittedly enjoyed a couple of giggles at the expense of a few of my fellow travelers.

Milford Sound

The view looking back to the village of Milford, my new home for the season.

Four fur seals lounge around on Seal Rock in Milford Sound's marine reserve.

Four fur seals lounge around on Seal Rock in Milford Sound’s marine reserve.

Eventually the boat swung around and back into the shelter of the fjord. Motoring along the northern side of the waterway, we entered Milford Sound’s marine reserve. We cruised passed a big boulder where several fat fur seals lazed around in the afternoon sun, digesting their lunch and warming up after a swim in the 13°C (55°F) waters. We soon approached Stirling Falls, the second of the two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound. During the rainy days which occur more often than not, thousands of waterfalls instantaneously appear, streaming down the cliff sides in all directions. Stirling Falls tumbles out of a hanging valley 155 metres (508 feet) above the water and marks the deepest part of the fjord which is estimated to be more than 400 metres (1,312 feet) in depth.  (Mere measurements can barely convey the grandeur of this place, so you’ll have to take my word for it. If you’ve been to Fiordland before, you will likely understand my struggle to find the appropriate words to capture how spectacular and humbling these mountains and coastlines are. And if you’ve never been here before, book your ticket to come visit NOW.)

Stirling Falls Milford Sound

Stirling Falls tumbles from a U-shaped “hanging valley” on the north coast of Milford Sound.

Stirling Falls

Our boat approached the base of Stirling Falls where everyone standing on the bow of the boat was treated to a freezing yet refreshing “glacial facial” as the spray blasted off the surface of the fjord.

I stood alone on the bow of the boat, my senses completely overwhelmed. I was stunned by the sensation of my reality bending and twisting into something beyond surreal. I would be calling this place home for at least the next six months. It felt unreal. How did I get so lucky?

The boat began to bear to the north and as we rounded the corner into Harrison’s Cove I laid eyes on my new “office” for the first time. Built as a floating nature centre and underwater observation chamber, the Milford Discovery Centre sat moored at the western edge of the cove. Directly across from it on the east side of the cove towered the Cascade Mountains which rise straight out of the water to an impressive 1,832 metres (6,010 feet). During rainy days, more than 200 waterfalls come pummeling down its steeps sides, giving the mountain range its name and completely transforming its appearance. To the north Mount Pembrooke loomed in the distance, its 2,000-metre (6,562-foot) summit capped with a glacier that sparkled in the midday sun. No matter where I looked, I was overcome by the striking views in every direction.

Milford Discovery Centre

My new “office” (the Milford Discovery Centre) sits in Harrison Cove across from a massive range of mountains with Mount Pembrooke towering the distance.

The boat pulled up to the Discovery Centre’s dock and as I disembarked, I felt the ground shift beneath my feet. It wasn’t just the floating pontoons rising and falling in the boat’s wake as it pulled away, but it was something more. The next chapter of my journey had just begun.

The next chapter has officially begun in Fiordland National Park.

Embracing the world with my arms and my heart wide open. The next chapter has officially begun in Fiordland National Park.

More or Less at Sea: A Month Chasing New Horizons

The sunrise begins with a soft periwinkle glow and takes hours to develop into its full, extraordinary radiance. As the sun bursts over the horizon it reveals mountainous waves rolling across the skyline, their whitecaps tumbling, swirling and crashing against the hull of our ship. Humpback whales spout and breech alongside, waving friendly hellos with their tails. The spring sunshine warms my cheeks and shoulders, filling me with a sense of carefree contentment. We climb masts, we haul on lines, we set sails and we laugh at stupid jokes. By midafternoon I find myself 33 metres above deck hanging tightly to the mast’s shrouds, surrounded by sun-bleached sails pulled taught by countless lines. There’s nothing but the sky and the sea from horizon to horizon and I can’t help but wonder with amazement at the path that has delivered me to this place at this very moment.

Later a blindingly beautiful sunset reflects off the surface of the sea, its rays washing the ship’s sails in a golden glow. Our shadows stretch down the deck as we absorb the last of the sun’s warmth. I find myself relishing every minute and wishing I could stop time. An inky black night eventually seeps over us and reveals the Milky Way, a glittering brushstroke stretching across an endless sky. I peer over the rail to see a twinkling wake of blue bioluminescence following our ship through the Indian Ocean. We sit out on deck beneath our thick blanket of stars and trade tales of travel and misadventure. In the wee hours I climb wearily into my narrow bunk where the ocean swells rock me to sleep. It will only be a matter of hours before I will wake to live these moments all over again.

Sunrise aboard the STS Leeuwin II

“On Earth’s part, all days start beautifully.” — Peter Gunnarsson  (Photo by Erika Delemarre.)

This is the page turning; this is a chapter coming to a close. In early September I finished my six-month tenure as a marketing officer for the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation. As I wrapped up my time working in the office, I transitioned into volunteering aboard the STS Leeuwin II, our gorgeous 55-metre, three-masted tall ship. I was given the opportunity to live aboard the ship and help facilitate our seven-day Youth Explorer Voyages, teaching young people how to sail and leading them on what will likely be an experience of a lifetime.

Happy Hour with the Leeuwin Crew

I’ve spent the past seven months working on the awesomely diverse team at the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation. To celebrate my departure from Leeuwin, the crew took me out for a send-off happy hour at a pub in Fremantle.

After seven months of living a somewhat settled life in Fremantle, I’ve again reduced my possessions to fit into my backpack (and admittedly an additional duffel bag, thanks to my camping and climbing gear) and moved out of my home and into a small shared cabin on the ship. This month of living, volunteering and sailing aboard the Leeuwin officially marks the grand finale of my year spent in Australia. I am once again a nomad.

Under the approaching deadline of an expiring Australian visa and the end of my contract with Leeuwin, I recently threw my energy into an exhaustive job search. After submitting applications to companies and organizations in several countries my endurance paid off. I was over the moon when I got the news: My next destination will be New Zealand. I was offered a position working for an ecotourism company as a nature centre host and kayaking guide in Milford Sound, a remote location on New Zealand’s South Island.  Located in Fiordland National Park on the southwest coast, Milford Sound is renowned for being one of the country’s top natural attractions, a playground for hikers, kayakers, rock climbers, scuba divers and more. It’s my kind of place. (If my words haven’t captured the magnitude of this place, these photos may help.)

When I first visited New Zealand back in October 2009, Fiordland captivated me with its soaring, snow-capped peaks and its cascading waterfalls. I had never before experienced the beauty of fjords and I found myself mesmerized by the misty mountains and jaw-dropping vistas. When my fast-paced travel schedule forced me to move on before I was ready, I vowed to return someday to spend more time exploring this fascinating place. Little did I know that precisely five years later (nearly to the day), I would be returning to live and work in this beautiful and unique location.

Key Summit Fiordland

On our way to Milford Sound, my friends and I hiked up to Key Summit in Fiordland. The views from the top were incredible. (Photo by Erika Delemarre.)

Words cannot describe how excited I am for this opportunity. I continue to be astounded by how my hard work and determination have paid off and the Universe continues to conspire in my favour, forever placing me in the right place at the right time with the right people. These combined elements have reliably produced extraordinary results for the projects I’ve worked on in Iceland, Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia and I’m now I’m off to start a new chapter in another incredible destination. It’s extremely difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that this next big leap will take place a mere week from now, but there’s no denying that change is in the wind. And my sails are set.

As thrilled as I am to start this new chapter, I must also admit that it’s been an uncomfortable process to begin to uproot myself again. Letting go of the few material possessions I’ve accumulated over the past year is no big deal, but letting go of the friends I’ve collected will be a different story entirely. Fremantle has become my home and the people here, my family. I’ve become an active member of my community, enjoying frequent rock climbing meet-ups, going to documentary nights and group dinners with friends, reveling in our Sunday morning social ritual at our neighborhood farmers market, attending art openings and fundraisers for local sustainability and conservation initiatives, riding bikes through Freo and along the beach with my friends … these experiences have left a lasting mark on me. And as I think about it more, I begin to realize I haven’t felt like a traveler or an outsider for a while now. It’s almost as though I truly belong here.

July 4th Friends

A bunch of my friends joined me in celebrating American Independence Day with a “‘Murica, eff yeah!” barbecue that I hosted at my house. It may have been the middle of winter and fireworks may be illegal in Australia, but we still have a fun night!

And this makes me wonder: Am I losing my travelin’ edge? My anxious wanderlust is no longer such a strong driving force to keep me moving from place to place. Does this mean I may have finally found an antidote for my travel bug? The experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met during my time in Western Australia have made a settled lifestyle seem appealing again for the first time in a long time. But I’m unsure if I’m truly ready to stop and I know I’m definitely not ready to return to the United States. Living abroad in different countries and surrounding myself with friends from all over the planet has taught me many unexpected lessons and forever changed my perceptions of my world and myself. This informal education rivals anything I learned during my time in university. There’s so much we can share with each other that I know I will not be content living in a homogeneous community ever again.

As I’ve begun to say my regretful goodbyes, my friends squeeze me tight and continue to remind me that I can always come back to Western Australia. Fremantle will always be here for me. But as much as I love entertaining the idea of returning to this beautiful city by the sea, something inside me tells me I’ll find an equally fitting place in New Zealand and fall in love with a new community of friends there. And maybe I’ll meet someone along the way who will tell a tall tale that will open my eyes to a new idea for the chapter after next. One thing is most certainly certain: this story isn’t over yet.

 


A thank-you note from Erika:

To the Irvine and Savill Clan, you have my never-ending love and gratitude for welcoming me into your family for the past 12 years. Thank you for taking care of me this year. Heaps of thanks and love to my friends who have shared their country and perspectives with me and warmly welcomed me into their communities: Lauren, Chid, Carly, Caitlin, Mike, Kath, Elisa, Rob and Elias, Kirk, Lisa, Nicholas, Alia, Maya, the James sisters and the Errington brothers, Sophie and Nik, my many creative, inspiring friends in the Fremantle, Perth and Albany communities, the whole gang of climbers at the UWA Outdoor Club, Catherine and the team at the Western Australian Museum Albany, all the characters at Dylan’s, and last, but most certainly not least, my huge crew of golden-hearted salty seadogs at the Leeuwin. You all have taught me more than you’ll ever comprehend and you’ve made this past year in Australia exceed my wildest expectations, for which I will be eternally grateful.  Hope to see a few of you in New Zealand!

Two Years Abroad: Real Life is Here

Precisely two years and ten countries ago, I climbed aboard a flight bound for Iceland.  I wish I could say I never looked backed, but I have.  A lot.  The experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met whilst traveling and living abroad have forced me to reflect on everything that previously defined me: my nationality and culture, my upbringing and education, my relationships with my friends and family, my political and social ideals and even the direction of my career and long-term goals.  Travel has also allowed me to reevaluate and redefine the meaning of a successful and fulfilling life.

Erika with Ice at Jökulsárlón

Here I am at Jökulsárlón, a mere month into my journey. and I had no idea I was embarking on an adventure that would span more than two years and ten countries.

When I left home, I initially expected to be out in the world for possibly nine months to a year at the most.  Unknowingly I had made the rookie mistake of underestimating my wanderlust and how much I would enjoy living as an expat in a foreign land.  In September 2013 I hit my one-year mark while living in a tiny fishing village and volunteering on a marine conservation project on a remote island in Cambodia.  At that point I had no intention of finishing my travels and returning to “normal life” in the United States.  There was still so much of the world left to explore.  There was still so much more of me to explore.

Erika Delemarre diving

I celebrated my 30th birthday while I was working for Marine Conservation Cambodia on the island of Koh Rong Samloem, Camobida.

Now, a full year later, I’ve established a (somewhat) normal life in Australia.  When I first returned to a developed country and western culture I faced a whole new set of challenges as I readjusted to the cleanliness, order and modern conveniences I had learned to live without during my year living in Southeast Asia.  Having lived such a simple life allowed me to gain a new appreciation for things which I had previously taken advantage of (ie. hot showers, reliable 24-hour electricity, fresh dairy products, running water, anonymity in public spaces, drinkable tap water, consistent internet access, clean and dry feet, indoor climate control, fresh espresso … the list goes on!).  Suddenly these “basic” amenities had been transformed into cherished indulgences that I’m still thankful for every single day.

After a few months of readjusting in the small town of Albany, Western Australia, I moved north and began to put down roots in Fremantle, a suburb of Perth.  I now live in a colourful, old house in a historic neighborhood, I work a full-time job at an interesting non-profit organization, I hang out with an incredibly diverse and inspiring group of friends and I go on fun micro-adventures during my free time.  I have a regular routine, I own a rusty bicycle and I’ve had my heart broken.  This is no longer just travel; this is real life.  And this is home.

Real Life Is Here

The highlights of my past year in Australia run the spectrum and I’ve learned many unexpected lessons along the way.  During my first couple months in the country I lived with a good friend, her husband, their little boy and their friendly, old labrador retriever.  Witnessing the dynamics of a loving, balanced and highly-functional partnership while actively participating in family life and the upbringing of a four year-old was an unanticipated gift.  Having grown up as an only-child with a single mother, I felt voyeuristic at times as I observed a reality so different from my own.  After years of feeling awkward around kids, I was surprised to find that I easily stepped into the role of “Auntie Erika” for my friend’s son.  I became increasingly confident with caring for him, creating imaginative games to play and simply relating to him on his level.  I would have never expected that traveling half way around the world to spend time with this beautiful family and hang out with their affectionate little boy would have such a profound impact on me.

Erika and Josh

Near Albany, Western Australian with my buddy, Josh.

This lesson came with good timing because just a couple months later I spent the summer teaching school children about coastal ecology and the importance of marine conservation through programs with South Coast Natural Resource Management and the Western Australian Museum Albany .  I had already begun to realize my passion for teaching others about the magic of the underwater world and how each of us can do our small part to protect the oceans during my time working at Marine Conservation Cambodia.  These combined experiences revealed a new path for me: Environmental communication and conservation through youth development and education.  Basically, get kids and young people outdoors, reveal to them how awesome nature is and, in turn, build a new generation of humans who care for the planet by looking beyond short-sighted, unsustainable economic goals to see the bigger picture and the role our species plays in both the destruction and protection of our fragile ecosystems.

Children walking on Middleton Beach, Western Australia

I contributed to my community by spending my summer working for South Coast Natural Resource Management and the Museum of Western Australia. I took groups of children on educational beach walks and taught them about coastal ecology and the importance of marine conservation. It was immensely rewarding to witness them soaking up the knowledge I shared and make commitments to protect their favourite beaches.

When I moved to Fremantle in March of 2014 it was to begin a new chapter of my journey.  I joined the staff at the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation, a not-for-profit youth development program which teaches students teamwork, leadership and communication skills through the unique medium of tall ship sail training.  The organization takes young people out on seven-day sailing voyages aboard an 1850’s-style barquentine ship, the STS Leeuwin II.  I had always wanted to learn how to sail, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to join a couple voyages during which I learned the intricacies of sailing a tall ship and further explored my interest in youth development through outdoor education.  Additionally I spent the majority of my time with the organization working as a marketing officer, reworking their branding package, designing stakeholder communications and helping produce a new line of merchandise all with the hope of increasing supportive revenue streams for the non-profit.

Erika on the Bowsprit of the Leeuwiin

Sailing aboard the STS Leeuwin II and helping facilitate the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation’s youth development program has been an adventure of a life time.

In April of 2014, after about a year and eight months abroad, I returned to the United States for the first time.   I was called home to Arizona to partake in the wedding celebrations of my best friend from childhood.  I made my way from California, through Arizona then over to Oklahoma, Texas and New York in less than three weeks, spending quality time with close friends and family along the way.  It was great to see everyone again and recharge my batteries by surrounding myself with my loved ones.  After a year and a half of fleeting friendships, it was refreshing to be around people with whom I have long history and shared background.

A tearful reunion

It was a tearful reunion when my family collected me from the airport in Tucson, Arizona.

As I hopped from city to city, it was interesting to see how some of our relationships had changed while I had been away.  Some close friends had moved on into new chapters of their lives which no longer included me, which was somewhat expected.  But more surprising was the reemergence of old friendships which I thought had fallen by the wayside during my absence.  Oddly enough, I felt my connection with my close family members had become stronger, our emotional connections running deeper than they had when I lived nearby.

Ashley and Erika

Ashley and I grew up together and I wouldn’t miss her wedding for the world. I’m glad it gave me good reason to return home to reconnect with my friends and family across the States.

After my whirlwind tour of the States, I returned to Fremantle where I was welcomed home by my new set of friends comprised of a mix of both Australians and other expats.  (I continue to feel so fortunate that these beautiful people have embraced me and integrated me into their lives, especially given my temporary Aussie status.)  For a few days following my return my head spun as I compared and contrasted my friendships both near and far and the role that social media has played in it all.  Is a real friend the person who hits “Like” on every Facebook post and comments on every photo as you travel around the world, but fails to show up when you’re just 15 minutes down the road?  Or is the real friend someone who falls silent and is rarely in touch for a year and a half, but dedicates several days of their time to you and goes the extra mile to make each minute count when you’re together in the same place?  From my experience, I’d argue the later.

Zach and Erika at the Grand Canyon

My friend, Zach has been like a brother to me for years and years. During my visit to northern Arizona we spent a day hiking around on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

Through my travels my definition of “friend” has become more fluid and ever-changing.  The kindness I’ve received from strangers or people I’ve known a very short time has occasionally trumped the support I’ve received from the people from whom I would expect it most.  It’s also amazing to me that after just seven short months in Fremantle I’ve become part of a community that feels just as strong as those I built over several years’ time in both Flagstaff and Tempe, Arizona.  Is it simply the high-caliber personalities that I’m meeting or is it because I’m becoming more skilled at finding my place in the heart of a strong community?  Probably a bit of both.

Chid at the farmer's market

My friend, Chid has shared so many amazing aspects of the Fremantle community and Western Australia with me, including the our neighborhood farmer’s market which has become a Sunday morning ritual.

Despite hanging up my backpack for a little while and becoming settled in the local community, I’ve managed to retain the sense of excitement and challenge that comes with being a stranger in a foreign land.  The top of my list of breakthroughs include learning how to sail, taking up rock climbing as a hobby and actively pursuing opportunities to explore what really defines me.  I’ve had so many light-bulb moments and pivotal experiences in which time stops for a split second and allows me to reflect: “Erika, this is you. How did you never see this in yourself before?”  Lesser accomplishments – but accomplishments none the less – include becoming completely comfortable driving on the left side of the road, learning to adopt Australian spelling and slang (which I’ve affectionately begun to refer to as “dingo lingo”) and navigating a culture that is similar to mine but different in so many ways.

Climbing in a Quarry

During my time in Australia I’ve taken up rock climbing and I’ve met a ton of awesome friends through the local community.

One thing that is absolutely certain about traveling and living abroad is that it allows one to redefine “normal” and raise the bar on challenging experiences.  Things that used to seem like a big deal or maybe even seem a bit scary are now common place to me.  Learning to navigate a new culture in a foreign country?  Piece of cake.  Bravely sampling curious cuisine chock full of mystery ingredients?  Game on.  Starting a new job in a new city?  Easy.  Rappelling 30 metres down a sea cliff with pounding ocean surf below?  Sign me up.  Building a group of friends and strong support network from scratch?  I got this.

But don’t get me wrong; as awesome as all of this sounds, there have been countless times that I’ve felt consumed by true loneliness and many moments in which I’ve questioned the path I’ve chosen.  Solo travel has truly been a blessing and occasionally a curse.  I haven’t had to compromise with anyone as I’ve followed my heart, intuition and passions to some pretty incredible destinations, meeting a lot of interesting people along the way.  But at the end of the day, I’m still flying solo.  Unfortunately I’ve also experienced a car accident and falling terribly ill with food poisoning, a variety of infections and even a parasite, all of which made me long for the comforts of home and wish my mom was by my side to make everything better.  But despite the occasional pitfalls and set backs I continue to ride the wave and enjoy the ebb and flow of this journey.

Erika at the Pinnacles

I took a solo road trip north to The Pinnacles to get out of the city and do a little exploring. The geology of the place was incredible and I found myself wishing I had a friend to share the mystery and wonder with.

When people ask me if I miss my family and friends back in the States, there’s absolutely no denying that I do.  But in the same breath, I explain how having the guts to leave my comfort zone to travel the world was by far the best decision I’ve ever made for myself.  Two years in and my growth continues to be exponential.  I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring.

Erika on the salt flats

Exploring the salt flats northeast of Perth and reminding myself that the end always marks the beginning of something new.

A Heavy Backpack and an Empty Bottle

The first time I saw him, I was walking along the wharf headed to my office in Fremantle Port.  He looked like any other traveler; he was a bit disheveled, his skin was darkened by the sun and he carried with him a heavy backpack and a friendly smile.  It wasn’t until I crossed paths with him again a few days later that I realized he was somewhat different from most travelers who hang around the ferry terminal.  Besides his reappearance, there was one thing that set him apart: He spent most of the day sitting in the shade of B Shed taking swigs from a tall glass bottle concealed in a crumpled brown bag.

The third time I encountered him I was on an errand walking from my office into the historic heart of Freo.  He greeted me as if he knew me and engaged me in friendly conversation about how the beautiful sunshine made for a perfect afternoon to take a walk.  His jovial banter was disarming but there was no doubt that it was the product of the liquid courage he gripped tightly in the tattered paper bag.  Several hours later he reappeared outside my office, speaking boldly to each passerby, including many of my coworkers who shared stories of his friendly but drunken dialogs along the wharf.  I worried that someone might take offense to his public drinking and alert the port authority, but it seemed that his pleasant nature was more or less keeping him out of trouble.

The next morning I was sitting at my desk working on a design project when a familiar figure showed up outside my window.  It was around 10 o’clock in the morning when the young man tossed his backpack down against one of the big, rusty ship anchors that lay strewn along the wharf.  He sat down on top of his bed roll and cracked open a fresh bottle.  I watched him for a minute and then turned back to my computer screen.  I continued to work, but could see him out of the corner of my eye as he took sip after sip in what seemed like a desperate attempt to blur the reality of a new day.  I couldn’t concentrate.  I knew if he continued at the rate he was going, he would be intoxicated by high noon and had the potential to cause enough of a ruckus to have the cops called on him.  I couldn’t let myself be a bystander.

I stopped what I was doing and spent a few minutes searching the internet for resources for the homeless in Fremantle.  I made a couple calls, wrote down an address for a shelter and printed a map for him.  I ducked into my coworker’s office and told her I was going to step outside for a moment and requested she keep an eye on me through the window just in case my assistance was poorly received.  I walked outside and around the corner, greeting him casually as I approached.  He didn’t seem to remember our previous interactions nor did he recognize me, but after we exchanged a few basic pleasantries he immediately opened up to me.

“Well, for starters, I’m homeless,” he began.  It turned out he had just traveled across the country from Queensland and he had only been in Fremantle for a couple of weeks before he managed to get kicked out of one of the local homeless shelters because he had been drinking.  (Ironically, the information scrawled on the folded paper in my pocket was for the same shelter.)  He went on to explain that he was having a lot of trouble in his head and he was trying to work through some things but that the “psych ward” wouldn’t admit him because they thought he was just looking for a safe place to sleep.  He had found that the only way he could quiet his mind and escape his fears was by drinking.  He factually described his situation, but there were undertones of helplessness in his monologue.  He felt like he had reached a dead end.

I sympathized with him and explained that I was also a traveler and there have been times when I have felt quite alone and lost too.  We talked about what it can feel like when the whole world seems to be working against you and how one small event can cause a domino effect, impacting your life either in a positive or negative way.  As I spoke to him, long forgotten memories of my father came to mind.  My dad had struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues and had experienced homelessness in his youth.  I began to share his story with my new friend, interlacing it with hope of being able to get back on track and live a productive and fulfilling life.  I reminded him that he wasn’t alone and that he was part of a community filled with people willing to help him work through the challenges he was currently facing.

We also discussed how it’s important to empower oneself by taking care of one’s physical and mental health by doing things like eating nutritious food, avoiding drugs and alcohol and actively seeking out support from the community.  I told him that I couldn’t give him any money but that I was willing to help in any other way that I could.  He expressed that he didn’t really know where to start, so I offered to do some research for him and get some information together on local agencies that could assist him with getting counseling and employment.  As our conversation came to an end, I introduced myself and finally got his name: Robert.  I told him I would see him around and would have a list of resources with me next time.  With a broad smile he thanked me for taking the time to talk to him and listen to his story.  “No one has ever really asked me how they can help, Erika.  It means a lot to me.”

By the time I got back to my desk, Robert had disappeared from view.  I was lost in my thoughts as I wondered what he had been through that had brought him to this point.  One small twist in the plot and I could have been him and he could have been me.  Was there really anything I could say or do to help him change his situation?  He was not far from my mind all afternoon.

Later that day I took a short break from work to put together a list of resources for Robert.  I found a variety of shelters and counseling centers all within walking distance of the port. I took a few moments to mark the handful of addresses on a Fremantle tourism map, scribbling the name of each place between the twisted streets of downtown Freo.  I took a walk down the wharf, looking for Robert in the places I had seen him before but I had no luck.  I was determined though, so I made a long lap around the buildings, looking for him everywhere.  I finally found him resting against his backpack in a sheltered corner near the Maritime Museum at the end of the port.  An empty bottle lay on the ground next to him.  He was visibly surprised to see me come around the corner, but greeted me like I was an old friend.  I squatted down next to him and unfolded the map, showing him where we were and how close by all the different offices were.  I could smell the alcohol on his breath as I showed him the list of agencies that I had compiled, each with a brief description of the services they offered.  With a concentrated expression, he studied the map as I explained what I had found.  I reminded him that he wasn’t alone and that he shouldn’t lose hope in himself or humanity.  He could and would rise above the challenges he was facing if he was determined to do so.  Again he expressed his gratitude but also his disbelief that I had made the effort to track him down.  I explained to him that there have been countless strangers that have helped me out along my journey and it was my responsibility to pay that kindness back into the world.  I told him to take care of himself and wished him luck as I walked away.

I didn’t see Robert again for the rest of the week and after a fun weekend of bike rides, hikes and socializing with my friends, he quickly became a passing memory added to my Fremantle experience.

The following week I was on my lunch break when Robert suddenly reappeared.  He came into the lobby of our offices and asked if he could speak with me privately.  One of my coworkers raised a suspicious eyebrow at me as I followed him out the front door.  We stepped outside and rounded the corner to the place where our friendship had begun amongst the scattered old ship anchors.  I noticed that he carried with him a plastic grocery bag filled with apples, a loaf of bread and some canned food.  He wanted to stop by to tell me that he had gotten started on some medication that morning.  Last week he had found a local counselor to speak with and had managed to get a referral to a psychologist so he could get a prescription.  With a shy grin, he quietly reported he had been sober for three days and was feeling really good about it.  He felt like there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel and that he was beginning to feel hope for his future.  I asked him what his biggest dream was for his life and he explained how he wanted nothing more than to be a carpenter and build homes for people.  I told him that no matter what, on the good days and the bad days, he could not allow himself to lose sight of that dream.  Even when he had set backs and failures, he must work day by day to do small things that will bring him closer to achieving his goal.  He agreed and promised me he wouldn’t give up hope.  He reached out to shake my hand and we wished each other good luck on our respective journeys.

I returned to my desk in awe of what I had just witnessed.  Was it possible that spending just a few spare minutes to show another traveler that he is not alone in the world could really impact his life in such a profound way?  Could a simple expression of empathy and willingness to help be enough to change the course of one man’s life?  I suppose only time will tell, but I look forward to the next time that Robert and I meet.

 

A note to my readers: My actions and this narrative are inspired by and dedicated to both my father and my stepfather who have taught me about perseverance, kindness and compassion through both their struggles and their triumphs.  My love to you both.

A Birthday by the Sea, for the Sea

Last year I sat alone on a large piece of drift wood that had washed up a rocky beach on Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia and quietly watched as the sun set on my twenties.  It had been a long journey – both physically and mentally – to get to that remote island and I could only dream about what the next year would have in store for me.  Now, 365 days later I stand on the sandy shore of Fremantle, Western Australia and watch the sun’s glowing, golden light explode out from behind pink and orange clouds, its rays transforming the ocean into a brilliant, sparkling tapestry.  It struck me in that moment that the spellbinding beauty of the ocean is as heartbreaking as it is humbling.  Its magnificence is almost too exquisite to bear.

Sunset from South Beach in Fremantle, Western Australia

A golden explosion of light as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean.

As I begin my thirty-first year on this brilliant blue planet, I reflect on what I’ve learnt about myself and my world through the various marine conservation and environmental education projects I’ve worked on during the past year.  This journey has been a blessing and a curse.  As I’ve gained more knowledge about the issues at hand and the plight of our oceans, I have also come to deeply understand the challenges we face together as a species and as the stewards of this planet.  I’m often hit by fleeting moments of helplessness as I read news about international oil companies developing deep-sea drilling techniques, the Western Australian government funding a shark cull, the acidification of our oceans killing the world’s coral reefs, the Japanese fishing industry finding ways to get around international anti-whaling protocols, and more.  I am utterly astounded by the sweeping lack of respect for both the animals that call our oceans home, but also the single ecosystem that is responsible for supporting and sustaining all of human life.  If the oceans die, we die.

Erika diving with jacks.

It’s easy to forget about all of the beauty and life that resides in our oceans. This is a shot of me diving with a giant school of jacks in a Marine Protected Area in Sipadan, Borneo.

But then I remind myself, I can only do what I can do.  And that is to share my passion with and educate as many people as I can reach, both through personal relationships and this blog.  With that said, I have a very special birthday request for you, my friends.  Since many of you don’t reside here in Western Australia and will miss out on the opportunity to shower me with love and expensive gifts on my birthday, I ask from you this one thing: Will you join me for a sea-change?

“But what’s a sea-change?” you might ask.  Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a sea-change is defined as follows:

sea-change   n. a change wrought by the sea … an alteration or metamorphosis, a radical change.

Below I have shared 10 easy things you can do to help protect our oceans from further harm, whether you live down the street from the beach or several hundred kilometers or miles from your nearest seashore.  National Geographic was kind enough to compile the original list on their web site and I’ve expanded a bit on each topic and shared some interesting links to help you with your own personal sea-change.

1. Mind Your Carbon Footprint and Reduce Energy Consumption Reduce the effects of climate change on the ocean by leaving the car at home when you can and being conscious of your energy use at home and work. A few things you can do to get started today: Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, take the stairs, and bundle up or use a fan to avoid oversetting your thermostat.

It’s surprisingly east to cut your emissions by reducing your reliance on your personal vehicle.  Challenge yourself to going carless for one day a week by implementing public transit, your bike or simply your feet!  You’ll find yourself feeling more fit and possibly considering ditching your car more often.  I’ve survived without a car of my own since September of 2012, so I’m sure you can do it too!  Additionally, maybe you can consider harnessing the power of the sun to power your home.  There are many rooftop solar companies in communities around the world that are working to make solar an affordable option for individuals and families of every income bracket.  If you’re not able or ready to make the commitment to getting your own panels, call up your local utility company and ask them what renewable energy options they have available for your area.  Chances are they offer a reasonably priced alternative you could take advantage of in your home or business.

2. Make Safe, Sustainable Seafood Choices Global fish populations are rapidly being depleted due to demand, loss of habitat, and unsustainable fishing practices. When shopping or dining out, help reduce the demand for overexploited species by choosing seafood that is both healthful and sustainable.

Several years ago I visited the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium for my first time and wow, was it amazing!  The aquarium is known for being a leader in marine research and education and has distributed this neat Seafood Watch which is a science-based guide for sustainable seafood consumption.  You can pick up a hard copy or download their cool app onto your smart phone.  And one last thing: SAY NO TO SHARK FIN SOUP.  I don’t care how novel or trendy it is.  Don’t eat it.

Erika and Reef Shark

SHARK!! The only place sharks belong is swimming free in the open sea.  Say “NO!” to the Western Australian shark cull and the popular Asian cuisine, Shark Fin Soup.

3. Use Fewer Plastic Products Plastics that end up as ocean debris contribute to habitat destruction and entangle and kill tens of thousands of marine animals each year. To limit your impact, carry a reusable water bottle, store food in nondisposable containers, bring your own cloth tote or other reusable bag when shopping, and recycle whenever possible.

After participating in more than 100 beach and reef-based cleanups on four different continents, I cannot begin to express how important this change can impact the health of our oceans and coastlines.  Shift your thinking as a consumer and begin to view disposable plastics (bags, take-away containers, straws, etc.) as permanent plastics because they will continue to remain in our landfills, waterways and oceans for hundreds if not thousands of years to come.  My friends over at the Surfrider Foundation have led a long-running campaign called Rise Above Plastics and they have a lot of information that will help you kick your addiction to disposables to the curb (then kindly pick them up and put them in the recycling bin).  Seriously, if you click through on any of the links on this blog post, this is the one you want to follow!

I’ve done several things to significantly reduce my reliance on disposable plastics and I invite you to adopt similar substitutes that are cheap, easy and good for the planet.  Bottled water is a major polluter both in its production process and the disposal of single-use bottles.  I’ve carried a Nalgene bottle with me since I first discovered the brand in 2001 and these things are so tough that I’ve only had to purchase two of them over the span of 13 years!  (That means I’ve saved approximately 2,200 disposable bottles from going into the landfill and saved nearly $4,000 of cash I would have wasted on purchasing bottled water.)  If you’re in the market for a metal bottle, SIGG also offers quality products with a lot of fun designs to choose from.

Another huge step you can take is to commit to “ban the bag” in your life and your community by refusing single-use plastic shopping bags and voting for legislation that regulates the use of these little environmental terrorists.   My favourite compact, reusable bag that I have used for years is the ChicoBag.  They’re tough, inexpensive, colourful and fit easily in a pocket, purse or backpack, so there’s no excuse to never have your own bag when you make purchases.  I’m also always armed with a Light My Fire spork that I keep at hand for when I eat out at restaurants that only offer disposable cutlery.

Light bulb with barnacles

Light bulbs are NOT the natural habitat for barnacles.

4. Help Take Care of the Beach Whether you enjoy diving, surfing, or relaxing on the beach, always clean up after yourself. Explore and appreciate the ocean without interfering with wildlife or removing rocks and coral. Go even further by encouraging others to respect the marine environment or by participating in local beach cleanups.

As you’re headed home after a fun day on the beach, you can take your love for the coast a step further by picking up discarded rubbish that others have left behind.  Can you imagine how pristine our coastlines would be if every single person who visited a beach this year picked up just one piece of trash?  Also, as an avid scuba diver, I highly recommend diving with an extra mesh bag to collect any waste you find on your dives.  If you don’t want to carry the extra gear, I challenge you to stuff your BCD pockets full with the discarded plastics and fishing line you come across (as long as there aren’t any hooks attached!) – the animals you dive with will thank you.

I spent seven months working for Marine Conservation Cambodia and we dived multiple times a day for our research projects.  We often collected rubbish off the sea floor and this cell phone and old radio were two of the most interesting pieces I found.

I spent seven months working for Marine Conservation Cambodia and we dived multiple times a day for our research projects. We often collected rubbish off the sea floor and this cell phone and old radio were two of the most interesting pieces I found.

5. Don’t Purchase Items That Exploit Marine Life Certain products contribute to the harming of fragile coral reefs and marine populations. Avoid purchasing items such as coral jewelry, tortoiseshell hair accessories (made from hawksbill turtles), and shark products.

This one is a no-brainer to me, so I’m quite surprised when I see people wearing jewelry made from these products.  Think of how PETA activists react to celebrities wearing fur coats but tone it down a few notches when your tell your best friend that her new red coral necklace might look lovely but is contributing to the demise of our reefs and therefore the health of our oceans.  Speak up when you see it; your words have power to influence the lives and actions of others.

6. Be an Ocean-Friendly Pet Owner Read pet food labels and consider seafood sustainability when choosing a diet for your pet. Never flush cat litter, which can contain pathogens harmful to marine life. Avoid stocking your aquarium with wild-caught saltwater fish, and never release any aquarium fish into the ocean or other bodies of water, a practice that can introduce non-native species harmful to the existing ecosystem.

How about taking all the money you would drop on outfitting and maintaining a salt water aquarium in your home and invest it in getting your scuba diving certification and your own dive gear instead?  I promise you that once you experience the underwater world you will have a newfound appreciation for those little fish locked up in those tiny glass boxes.

Erika and Spade Fish

It’s way more fun to swim with fish than keep them confined in a small tank. These neat spade fish (sometimes called bat fish) would follow us around like puppy dogs on our underwater surveys and they seemed to delight in playing tag with us.

7. Support Organizations Working to Protect the Ocean Many institutes and organizations are fighting to protect ocean habitats and marine wildlife. Find a national organization and consider giving financial support or volunteering for hands-on work or advocacy. If you live near the coast, join up with a local branch or group and get involved in projects close to home.

This is quite frankly what this past year has been about for me and I encourage you to align with a conservation organization that speaks to you and your concerns, whether it’s fighting for the health of our oceans, working for the protection of endangered species on land or advocating for the conservation of our forests and natural spaces.  I learned and contributed a lot through my work with Marine Conservation Cambodia last year, but I’ve also done a lot of advocacy for organizations from the comfort of my own home for quite a few years now.  I’ve participated in events, initiatives and online campaigns for the World Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, Australian Maine Conservation Society, Sea Shepherd and more.

8. Influence Change in Your Community Research the ocean policies of public officials before you vote or contact your local representatives to let them know you support marine conservation projects. Consider patronizing restaurants and grocery stores that offer only sustainable seafood, and speak up about your concerns if you spot a threatened species on the menu or at the seafood counter.

And for those of you who don’t live near the sea, please keep in mind that everything is connected.  Doing what’s right for the environment in your area will have a positive effect on the overarching health of our natural spaces and oceans worldwide.  So exercise your right to vote and be the voice of the creatures that don’t have one.

Children walking on Middleton Beach, Western Australia

I contributed to my community by spending my summer working for South Coast Natural Resource Management and the Museum of Western Australia. I took groups of children on educational beach walks and taught them about coastal ecology and the importance of marine conservation. It was immensely rewarding to witness them soaking up the knowledge I shared and make commitments to protect their favourite beaches.

9. Travel the Ocean Responsibly Practice responsible boating, kayaking, and other recreational activities on the water. Never throw anything overboard, and be aware of marine life in the waters around you. If you’re set on taking a cruise for your next vacation, do some research to find the most eco-friendly option.

Another important part of boating responsibly is being aware of where you drop anchor and embark/disembark from your boat.  If there’s reef below you, remember that your anchor, the hull of your boat and your feet can cause instant and lasting damage to coral that takes hundreds of years to grow.  If you enjoy fishing or crabbing, make sure to adhere to local regulations on size and quantity because depleting your local stock contributes to the global issue of overfishing.

10. Educate Yourself About Oceans and Marine Life All life on Earth is connected to the ocean and its inhabitants. The more you learn about the issues facing this vital system, the more you’ll want to help ensure its health—then share that knowledge to educate and inspire others.

So, do you think you can do it?  Will you give me the greatest birthday gift of all time by committing to a sea-change of your own and incorporating at least a few of the suggestions above into your daily routines and habits?  I hope so.  And if you do, I would love to hear about it in your comments below.

Thanks and lots of love from Down Unda,

Erika Erika in Dive Gear

An Endless Summer

Erika at Middleton Beach

I celebrated my first Australia Day on Middleton Beach in Albany, Western Australia. Beautiful beach weather in January is something I easily adapted to.

The last time I experienced winter I was in northern Vietnam.  And that was about 16 months ago.  I know, I know.  I’m lucky, right?  Thanks to the tropics of Southeast Asia and the reversed seasons down here in the Southern Hemisphere, I’ve reveled in more than my fair share of warm weather (and sunburns and sweat and dehydration and mild heat stroke, but that’s besides the point).  Despite my grand plan to keep chasing the summer between hemispheres, I believe the time has finally come to pay my dues.

I returned from my short trip back to the States last week and Australia has been kind enough to welcome me home with a string of rainy, windy days compounded with the gloom of shortened daylight hours.  What the heck, winter?  I leave for three weeks and you’ve swooped in and robbed me of Australia’s permanent sunshine!  Not cool, man.  Not cool.

I’ve found that I’ve temporarily lost motivation to ride my bike or go running, though I refuse to let the crummy weather keep me from doing some kayaking or heading up to the climbing gym, no matter how soggy I am when I finally get home.  But wow – spending a mere week beneath rain clouds is certainly having an adverse effect on me.  As I write I sit bundled up in my old house (which lacks central heating) and I find myself wishing I had my beloved goose down blanket or another warm body to cuddle up with to help me stave off this chill.  Instead I find myself channeling warm thoughts of countless days spent on the sunny beaches of Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.  I can’t deny it: I have been absolutely spoiled rotten this past year and a half.

Two things that give me warm and fuzzy thoughts: our House Reef beach on Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia and Shadow's precious pups!

Two things that give me warm and fuzzy thoughts: our project site ‘home’ beach where I lived on Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia and our dog, Shadow’s precious pups!

Earlier today I had a Skype session with a friend preparing to travel to Iceland in a few weeks’ time.  I gave her a long list of suggestions and places to see, then double-dog-dared her and her boyfriend to leap into Jökulsárlón, a picturesque iceberg-filled bay on the country’s south coast.  As I described the frigid yet exhilarating arctic plunge, I got to thinking: “Wow, I am a total, complete wuss.” This Australian “winter” is nothing compared to the biting cold I endured during the months I lived in Iceland.

Erika swimming in Jökulsárlón

Running and plunging into Jökulsárlón, Iceland’s famed glacial bay, is one of the many exhilarating moments I’ve experienced during my travels.  Those are icebergs behind me, so you can guess how cold that water was!

I then began to think about how it’s just a matter of perspective with everything, really.  Once you’ve experienced extreme temperatures, deep loneliness, a terrible job, a broken heart, immense boredom, etc. everything else is relatively more awesome by comparison.  I have absolutely no room to whine about bad weather or complain about anything else for that matter because even if the sun has indeed set on my endless summer, life is still pretty damn radical and tomorrow is a new day.

Continental Drift: Returning to the point of departure

Nine countries and a year and eight months later, it's time to come home...

Nine countries and 20 months later …

“I love you and I’ll see you soon,” I said.  I hung up the phone and stared out into the garden, quietly contemplating the words that had just come tumbling from my mouth.  It had been a long time since I was able to say that to my mom.  In just a few days I would be getting on a plane bound for Arizona and I would be seeing her for the first time since I had left home to begin my travels.  Excitement tinged with a shade of apprehension had tied my stomach in knots for weeks as I attempted to mentally prepare myself for the journey ahead.

Though it may come as a surprise to many of you, I’ve been anticipating this return for over a year now.  In early 2013 while I was living in Cambodia, my best friend emailed me to announce her engagement to her boyfriend of many years.  It was great to hear the news and I knew immediately there was no way I would allow myself to miss out on the celebration.  And when I received her invitation to make a special appearance as one of her bridesmaids, I knew she wouldn’t allow me to miss it either.  Even with the wedding date set for nearly a year later, I felt the slight weight of a close-ended journey and a mandatory return home looming just over the horizon.

During this past year my various volunteer projects and paid positions have allowed me to extend my travels in both time and distance, delivering me most recently to Perth, Western Australia, a city known for being the most remote metropolis on the planet.  Consequently, I couldn’t be positioned any further from home at this point; I’m literally half a world away from the Southwestern United States.  It will be quite the journey — three planes and over 30 hours of travel — to get to Tucson, Arizona.  I expect it will be worth each tedious security screening, every hour of uncomfortable airline sleep and each bite of processed, in-flight meals.  Don’t get me wrong though, I’ll love every second of it with just one exception: the epic case of jet lag that will hit me when I cross the international dateline and arrive on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.  (I have to draw the line somewhere when I say, “I love to travel.”)

And what will await me on the other side?  Well, that’s where the anxious anticipation peaks around the corner, beckoning me to take a closer look at what it means to return to home.  I can’t wait to fall into the arms of my family when they come to collect me from the airport, but once the excitement wears off I know I will be faced with the realities of the change that has occurred in my absence.  Will the lines in my mother’s smile have grown deeper, her cheeks softer with another year of age?  Will my seven year-old niece have grown so tall that I will barely be able to recognize her? Have my family and friends maintained the love and closeness I’ve felt for them despite the months and thousands of miles that have separated us?  I can only hope.

Additionally, I expect I’ll have countless opportunities to consider the changes I’ve undergone during the past 20 months since I initially left home.  The places I’ve traveled, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve experienced along the way have all had a profound influence on me.  Have I changed for the better?  Absolutely.  Have parts of me remained considerably the same?  Without a doubt.  Will I see these changes (or the lack thereof) reflected in the eyes of my loved ones?  And will I like what I see when I see them seeing me?

Over the course of three weeks, I will travel across the United States making stops to visit family and friends in cities stretched between California and New York.  Despite all of my over-analyzing, I know that it’s going to be amazing to see everyone again, catch up on the moments I’ve missed and indulge in the familiarity of my past hometowns, old friendships, local food and more.  When all is said and done and I’ve recharged my batteries with all of the love I can handle, I’ll get back on a flight to return home again, but this time to Australia.

The Universe always says “Yes.”

I’m no stranger to serendipity, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a wild chain of events recently unfolded, leaving my head spinning and my heart racing.  The past month has been one of the most exciting I’ve experienced since coming to Australia and I directly attribute it to my firm dedication to approaching life with an open mind and open heart, staying focused on my goals and the positive outcomes I desire.  Time and again, this forward-thinking attitude has proven to be both effective and immensely rewarding.  Occasionally I’ll step outside of myself to watch, absolutely astounded, as my genuine enthusiasm and willingness to help others comes full circle, placing me in unusual circumstances with just the right combination of talented people who collaborate with me to raise the bar on this never-ending adventure that is my life.  I hope you’re ready for some magic, friends.

Erika with a Helena Gum Moth

If I were a magician, this would be my promotional photo. Naturally, I would be renowned for pulling cool insects out of hats rather than rabbits.

When I first moved to Albany, Western Australia I met a fellow traveler who was briefly passing through town.  We had the introductory conversation familiar to any world wanderer; you know, the one that covers all of the where-have-you-been-where-are-you-going details.  I was surprised when she told me she had been working on a tall ship in Tasmania doing youth development work for at-risk teens.  The organization would take inner city kids out to sea, teach them how to sail and how to trust in and rely on each other through challenging situations.  Having lived most of my life landlocked in the Arizona desert, I hadn’t realized such a concept existed and I was instantly intrigued by her stories.  As she spoke I avidly scribbled notes of the ships and programs she recommended, determined to do some research.  Admittedly I never got around to exploring her suggestions after our conversation, but I had unwittingly laid the foundation for future endeavours simply by thinking, “Wow. I want to do that some day.”

Kids walking along Middleton Beach

Taking families for a Salty Summer Beach Investigators walk down Middleton Beach in Albany.

Several months passed as I enjoyed settling into life in the quiet, seaside town of Albany.  I spent the summer months volunteering at the Western Australian Museum and I landed a coveted seasonal job at South Coast Natural Resource Management leading marine ecology and conservation awareness beach walks for kids and families.  I spent much of my free time outdoors, hiking the trails around my house, practicing mountain-top yoga and taking lazy bike rides through the town’s charming neighbourhoods.  I made a few good friendships along the way, got out camping a couple of times and essentially enjoyed a fulfilling yet relaxing Aussie summer.

Erika and an Australian flag.

I celebrated my first Australia Day on Middleton Beach with my close friend, Lauren and her son, Josh.

When February rolled around work began to slow down as families prepared for the approaching school term.  I found myself craving something new and fresh; that change and challenge I have grown so accustomed to navigating during my travels.  I began to explore some options and I decided to take a weekend to visit some friends up in Perth, the capitol city of Western Australia a few hours north of Albany.  While I was there I spent time with a variety of new and old friends spread out in different parts of the sprawling metropolitan area.  Twice during the long weekend I found myself exploring Fremantle with my friend and fellow wayfarer, Mike.  I had enjoyed Freo on quite a few occasions in my past visits to Perth, but something was different this time.  At last, things just … clicked.

Entrance to the Fremantle Markets

The Fremantle Markets are housed in a Victorian-era building erected in 1897 and are the hub of local commerce on the weekends.

Fremantle has a small-town vibe; a microcosm within Perth’s expansive reach.  Situated by the sea, the city sits at the mouth of the Swan River, making it one of Western Australia’s most important shipping ports.  Fremantle’s vibrant historic, yet artistic air reminds me of a mix of Flagstaff and Tempe, Arizona with a dash of Portland, Oregon for good measure.  (My apologies to my international friends who may not be familiar with these cities.  You’ll just have to take my word for it; Fremantle is the a solid combination of a lot of desirable traits.)  This creative enclave exudes an palatable sense of community that seems to seep from the mortar of the brick and limestone colonial architecture, much of which was erected in the mid 1800’s.  Additionally, Notre Dame has established a small campus in the city’s historic heart and the university’s influence is reflected in the city’s population which is young, active and engaged.  It felt like I had known it all along, but during my most recent visit it dawned on me that I had discovered my next destination.

Urban Art in Freo

Urban art is plentiful in Freo, whether displayed as large murals or tucked away down narrow alleyways.  I immediately loved this piece for obvious reasons.

When it came time to leave Freo and head back to Albany, I wasn’t ready to go.  Upon returning home I had a good conversation with one of my closest friends, Lauren who has always been great at inspiring and challenging me.  “What’s holding you back?” she said.  “Just GO!”  As we sat there together on her couch, I opened SEEK, the go-to job search app for finding work in Australia.  I plugged in Fremantle, selected my ideal career categories and hit the search button.  And BAM!, there it was, right at the top of the list: The Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation.

Leeuwin II

Launched in 1986, STS Leeuwin II is Australia’s largest sail training tall ship and is dedicated to challenging and inspiring people on adventurous ocean voyages.  Engaging activities are designed to encourage teamwork, communication, goal setting, problem solving and leadership. Photo complements of the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation.

The organization’s name grabbed my attention—Who can resist ocean and adventure?!—not to mention they were both based in Fremantle and just happened to post an opening for a Fundraising and Marketing Officer the same weekend I had be daydreaming of moving to Fremantle.  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  The job duties and required skills fit my educational, professional and volunteerism background perfectly, almost to the point that I felt the position was written for me.  I immediately jumped into researching the organization and committed to submitting my application before the deadline the following week.

Established in 1986, the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation is a non-profit organization that has impacted the lives of more than 40,000 young people in Australia through the concept of “challenge by choice.”  High school and university students from all backgrounds are welcomed aboard the Leeuwin II for week-long Youth Explorer Voyages during which they learn to sail and are challenged with activities that break down their boundaries and teach them valuable lessons in communication, leadership and teamwork.  Everything I read about the organization and everyone I spoke to about it reinforced my initial impression: This opportunity was made for me.

Leeuwin Youth Explorer Voyage

Participants and crew on one of the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation’s Youth Explorer Voyages. Photo complements of the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation.

I set to work on my application, diligently revising my resume and composing a detailed, multi-page cover letter that I hoped would prove hard to resist.  Within a week’s time I had compiled a thorough application package of materials that reflected my talents and passions supported by a handful of solid letters of reference.  (Thank you for everything, Jeff, Sarah, Ed, Lauren, Craig, Rose and Catherine!)  I sent my documents in hours before the deadline and then took a long run in an attempt to burn off the buzzing sensation that was coursing through my veins.  Later that afternoon I sent an all-call out to my network on Facebook.  I felt something great coming over the horizon and I requested the supportive and positive thoughts of my friends and family to help me show the Universe what was up.  I was serious about this one.

Within 24 hours time, I had the first of a series of phone interviews with the CEO of the organization and less than a week later I had secured a job offer.  Everything swiftly and seamlessly fell into place.  I had hoped with all of my heart that it would happen, but I never quite expected it to.  Additionally, the organization wanted me up in Fremantle to start my new position as soon as possible.  I literally had five days to disassemble my life in Albany and make the move.  And there it was, suddenly staring me in the face: the excitement, challenge and change I had been craving.  This was an amazing opportunity to start a new chapter in a new city I adored while working on a project I truly believed in.  Oh, and to top it all off, they had arranged to send me out to sea for a week-long voyage after I completed my first few days in the office.  If that’s not a signing bonus, I don’t know what is!

The Adventure Continues

Why hello there, Dream Job, it’s nice to finally meet you.   (Swiped from the Leeuwin’s engaging Facebook page.)

During my few busy days of tying up loose ends in Albany, I was continually struck by moments of sheer elation and clarity.  I kept catching myself grinning as I quietly contemplated how the Universe works in mysterious ways.  Additionally, I reveled in an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I am able to live a life flexible and simple enough to change course and start a new, unexpected chapter at a moment’s notice.

After I had packed up all of my belongings—which I’m ashamed to admit now fill both my backpack and a large duffle bag to the gills—I experienced that familiar feeling of letting go and breaking away that I had felt when leaving Arizona back in September 2012.  Had Albany truly become my home in a mere four months?  Living in a normal house (as opposed to a beach bungalow), having regular employment and hanging out with a consistent group of friends all contributed to a feeling of being settled and returning to normalcy.  I truly enjoyed it all, but alas, the adventure continues!

My transition to Fremantle was done in a round-about way, which is somewhat expected when one doesn’t own a car and refuses to take the easy (ie. boring) route of buying a plane or bus ticket.  As it turned out my friend, Mike and some of his friends were down near Albany on a rock climbing trip the same weekend I had to make my move north.  Ever the creative planner, I arranged to pack up my life, go camping and climbing with them, then hitch a ride with them up to the city at the end of the weekend.  I was astonished by their willingness to help me out, considering most of them were complete strangers to me.  (Huge props to Tim, Mike, Rob, Caitlin and Chid for teaching me to climb, feeding me, housing me and transporting me and my stuff over the long weekend!)

On Top of Gibraltar Rock

I had my very first outdoor climbing experience with my friend Tim at Porongurup National Park. We did a five-pitch climb up Gibraltar Rock and I even got to lead on the last run up to the top. It felt really natural and I had such a blast chasing down some beautiful mountaintop views!

My final morning in Albany arrived and I shoved my remaining belongings into a day pack.  Another travelin’ friend, Matt picked me up and we drove west out of the city to West Cape Howe National Park.  The dusty washboard road wound through paddocks and bushland before arriving at a lookout over Shelley Beach. I grabbed my bag, gave Matt a hug and officially finished my chapter in Albany.  As I set of down the trail, I was overcome by the sense of renewal and excitement associated with embarking into the unknown.  I felt as though I was literally turning a page between chapters as I hiked toward the stunning coastline of West Cape Howe National Park.

Cliffs of West Cape Howe

Hanging out with some new friends on the cliffs of West Cape Howe (that’s me in the green shirt). Photo by Michael Fuller.

After an amazing weekend soaking up the beautiful views of West Cape Howe and enjoying some very challenging climbs, my friends and I gathered our gear and squeezed into Rob’s SUV for a long yet enjoyable road trip back to Perth.  The next morning I was up with the sun to start my first day with Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation and officially begin the next chapter of my journey.  That morning as I walked toward the organization’s port-side offices, I rounded the corner and was momentarily stunned by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.  It was right then and there that I realized that just over 11 years ago on my first trip to Australia, I had visited this very location and had been awestruck by the beauty of this very ship.  Guess this is where I was meant to be all along.

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”

— Ellen Johnson Sirleaf