Parrots and panic attacks

As most people who know me can tell you, I’ve always preferred animals to people, so it was taken for granted that my travels were going to include a lot of nature. Australia’s wildlife is so far removed from home; seeing cockatoos, rosellas and galahs flying around the back-garden is ever so slightly different to the normal flocks of blackbirds, pigeons and magpies at home.

My last week in the Mornington Peninsula was chock-full of plants, birds, animals and trees, starting with a visit to Australia Gardens, the botanic gardens in Cranbourne. I’m not the biggest fan of looking at hedges and flowers, but these were landscaped in such a beautiful way that it felt less like trawling through a garden centre, and more like exploring different parts of the Australian bush. From red sand deserts to waterfalls and wetlands, Australia Gardens incorporated segments of the country into a bitesize section.

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Next up was Healesville Animal Sanctuary. I can never decide how I feel about zoos: is it ever acceptable to keep a wild animal locked up, in a country it isn’t native to? Main example being Calgary Zoo – animals like lions and zebras were living in minus temperatures (and housed next to each other; the male lions were agitatedly pacing up and down the wire fence, staring at the lone zebra opposite them). However, Healesville is different. It only keeps animals native to Australia, and in enclosures suited to their size. It has a huge emphasis on conservation, and much of the park is geared towards education: even the birds of prey and parrots in the Spirit of the Sky demonstration (which is definitely worth watching), come with a message of ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ (which is about asking people to buy recycled loo roll, to save on the millions of trees destroyed every year).

What impressed me the most was the Tasmanian Devil work. While many zoos boast brilliant conservation schemes, I’ve yet to hear about any that work – or that release back into the wild (although this is partly due to the fact I don’t do much research on zoos). At Healesville, they’re working to repopulate Tasmania with the near-extinct animal, and are doing well at combating the contagious facial cancer that destroyed so many of the species. The animal, despite its name and reputation, is obscenely cute. We met a young female who was hand-raised, and due to this, followed the handler around like some weird cat-dog hybrid. She won’t be released, but her future children will.

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After a brief visit with a pet dingo (the next reason on my ‘why I should move to Australia’ list), I went for a swim with seals and dolphins. Here’s a bit of background information you should know: I can’t swim very well; doggy paddle is the only stroke I’ve mastered, and I’m as happy in water as a cat in the bath. Despite this, it sounded like a good idea, and we set off into Port Philip Bay.

Decked out in a wetsuit, flippers and a snorkel, I sat on the gently bobbing boat and wondered how hard all of this could actually be: the sea was calm, all you have to do is kick, and the distance between the boat and the first dive spot (a hut structure swarming with seals) was minimal. The instructors offered us foam noodles and buoyancy aids, but feeling rather positive about the whole thing, I slid off the boat with nothing.

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As soon as I hit the water, I realised this was possibly the stupidest decision I’d ever made, and I was most likely going to drown as a. the water was actually very wavey and the two colliding tides very strong, b. there was nothing to grab on to, c. I cannot swim, and d. the instructor and the seal hut was about two-million miles away. Luckily survival mode kicked in, and I managed to doggy paddle for my life in the direction of inflatable help, and only disappeared beneath the surface a few times. At one point, I almost grabbed hold of a seal for help, but realised there have been no animal-rescue films involving seals. Had it been a dolphin, orca or dog, things may have been different.

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So, despite a rocky start, once I found myself a foam noodle and paired up with a couple from England, I felt a lot calmer, and could enjoy the sights of the seals. They were completely unafraid of us, and spent half an hour looping around us, swimming beneath us, and playing with our flippers, their graceful, sleek bodies cutting through the waves.
Once we finished with the seals, it was off for more dolphin spotting (unsuccessful), and another swim in a marine park. As the water was much calmer, swimming was easier and almost fun. Snorkelling took a while to get used to, but the novelty of seeing underwater outweighed the fact I forgot how to breathe. I may have survived, but sadly my camera didn’t – so if anyone knows where the best (and cheapest) place to get a decent digital camera in Melbourne is, please let me know!

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Water is so far out of my comfort zone: I love to sail, but being in it – well, it terrifies me. However, I did the swim, I survived and am now contemplating a scuba dive with sharks.

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