In a time when songbirds were plentiful in the deciduous forests around Cincinnati, Ohio, Suzanne Cordrey grew up watching colorful birds come to the feeder outside the window and became enamored with the cardinals, eastern bluebirds and hummingbirds, among others.
She followed a normal pathway through school and after receiving a Masters degree in dental hygiene administration, found her way to Colorado. Golden eagles, red tailed hawks, magpies all called to her from the forests while she had to bridge that world with her career in dental hygiene. Then, during a bout of illness, a nagging voice in her head began to ask why she couldn’t just live her passion. So she left her career and began seeking a way to become an advocate for the animal kingdom in some way.
While attending a goals day workshop in San Diego, she found herself in tears, for no apparent reason. One of the conference speakers sat outside with her on the back steps, overlooking the sea. He asked her where she would really rather be. She replied, “Swimming with the dolphins and whales, my brothers and sisters of the sea.”
She recalls the moment of this sudden realization as becoming “like a snake shedding its skin.” Her life forever changed after that day.
Within six months she found herself on a ship operated by “Interspecies Communication,” in the Johnson Straits of British Columbia – as an intern, studying orca whales.
Shortly afterwards, she was off on a second trip, this time to the Amazon and armed with a hydrophone, to record the communications of river dolphins.
She and the others in her group traveled into the depths of the Amazon and camped along the riverbank. She saw scarlet macaws flying in pairs over the river and heard a cacophony of bird calls high in the tall jungle canopy where it was impossible to see who was singing to whom. There was a sad incident with a monkey who was attacked by an ocelot, and who did not survive. As Suzanne was trying to help the frightened monkey, he gave her a severe bite on her hand. Soon her whole arm was red, swollen, and dangerously infected.
Not being well enough to go out with the rest of the team, she stayed in camp by the river bank. There was no medical help anywhere nearby, and they had determined that if there was no improvement by that evening, they’d have to send her by a three-day boat trip back to the nearest river town. Surviving such a boat trip out in the equatorial sun, when she was already seriously ill, was by no means a certainty.
As she sat alone by the river, she heard the sounds of a dolphin breathing as he surfaced rhythmically over and over as he swam towards their camp. She clearly heard the inhalations and the exhalations, and she found she was breathing in sync with the dolphin. The dolphin did not go on down the river, but stayed right there, circling in the water near where she was. She recalls that he spoke to her in her head, staying with her for a couple of hours.
Within an hour or so, she found she was able to begin to move her swollen fingers again.
By evening, when her friends returned, the dolphin had gone on down the river; she was feeling surprisingly well, and by the next morning, with no trace of swelling left, she was able to go out for the day with the rest of the team – a remarkable healing.
After their trip was over and they were all back in Lima, Suzanne made a brave decision to fly off to Cusco and visit Machu Picchu, a mysterious ruins that she had long ago been drawn to.There she stayed in a nearby motel for several weeks. Late one night, after the park had closed, a local worker at the park stole her into the darkened stone buildings and tombs and gave her a tour of Machu Picchu. The event felt like a dream and she recalled deja vu scenes from very long ago. Early in the mornings, she spent time there alone before the crowds arrived and she felt very much at home.
It was a magical time. 8,000 feet high, at the Portal of the Sun, the gateway to the Inca Trail, among the tall cliffs were bromiliads and orchids. Looking up in the sky, she saw an Andean condor.
On her next adventure, as part of the staff for a touch healing group touring Australia, she cooked and took care of logistics. They rode horses in the eucalyptus forests, camels in the Outback, and swam with dolphins at Monkey Mia. At Ayers Rock, now called Uluru, they watched an eclipse of the full moon. Huddled together on the top of the rock, it was bitterly cold and windy. As the moon slipped behind the earth’s shadow, piercing stars came out in a sky that was far more black than any sky in the U.S. It was “outrageously intense.”
Back in Sydney the group prepared to return to the US, but Suzanne decided to stay on for the next six months. There were more dolphins and many more birds like sulfur-crested cockatoos in large flocks, flying freely over the land, living like all wild birds are born to do.
With Machu Picchu calling her, she went back for three months, also spending time at Lake Titicaca, one of the deepest lakes in the world. The Andes framed the cold water lake with an otherworldly beauty and the llamas, alpacas, and guanacos added to the mystery that the high altiplano maintains.
Continued in part two.
Top photo: Robert Pittman / public domain / NOAA / Two orca whales, Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
Second photo: chuck624 from Upstate NY, USA / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.” / Wikimedia Commons / A Scarlet Macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica.
Third photo: Christophe Meneboeuf – XtoF / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. “ / Wikimedia / Residential section of the Machu Picchu, Peru.
© Coalition for American Wildbirds, 2014