It was a hot summer day, and we were at a tiny beach along Palliser Bay, not far from Ngawi. The sky was perfectly blue. It didn’t seem like danger could be that close.
“The water’s sooo cold!” Holly yelled. Mia went running, her arms flapping wildly, back up onto the black volcanic sand.
Holly and Mia are my nieces. They were 12 and 10 then, just last year, and visiting over Christmas with their parents, my older sister Amy and brother-in-law Mark.
The sand burned our feet, and Mia did a funny dance on her tiptoes as she ran back into the water. Soon all of us were in the water splashing around – the four adults and two children. The chilly seas of Cook Strait felt good against the heat of the day.
That was when we first noticed the undertow.
It wasn’t bad in the shallow tidal pools, but as soon as you got out up to your thigh or waist, you could feel the waves pulling at you on their way back out to sea.
CJ pulled Holly and Mia aside immediately. “You’re not in Lake Michigan anymore,” he said.
Back in Holland, Michigan – where Holly and Mia live – there are miles and miles of safe, uninterrupted beach along Lake Michigan. It’s such a large lake that you can’t see the other side, and at first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s not so different from an ocean.
But it is.
In the name of education, CJ then proceeded to scare the Adorable Nieces to death. He warned them about the undertow and about not going out too far, but then he also took it upon himself to share his particular fear of sharks and stingrays. The girls’ eyes grew large with shock and horror.
From then on Holly and Mia stayed close to an adult in the water at all times, which was good. But, thanks to Uncle CJ, they also had one eye out for the next wild beast that was certain to jump up out of the sea and rip them to shreds.
The family in Able Tasman
A week later we were in Abel Tasman National Park. I love that place. The combination of coastal trails and sandy beaches is incredible.
We spent a day walking into the park from Marahau, first passing by an enormous tidal basin at the park entrance. Once deep into the park, we walked through fertile rain forest. Prehistoric-looking tree ferns angled out over the sunny coastline below the trails, and vines rambled through the undergrowth.
Side trails led us down to the beaches here and there. Stepping out of the shady bush and onto those bright, golden sands was like entering another world. We saw cormorants (called ‘shags’ here) and gannets on the rocky headlands. Oystercatchers and stilts walked through the shallow waters nearby.
Every time we came to another beach, Holly and Mia lit up. The water was warm and the sun was intense.
CJ and I played in the shallows with the girls while Amy and Mark found shelter in nearby caves. Several times Holly and Mia got nervous when they were sure they saw a shark fin. Shark attacks in New Zealand are rare, and I wasn’t too worried. But CJ, hypervigilant about sharks, was always on the lookout for danger.
“Watch out for the stingrays,” he told the girls. “They hide in the sand.”
“You’re just scaring them,” I said. “You’re being paranoid.”
Eventually I would join my sister and brother in law in the shade, but CJ and the girls always continued to play. CJ is really just an overgrown kid, after all.
At one point Mark said, “I’d love to see a stingray.”
“Me too,” Amy added.
I shook my head. “Chances are pretty slim.”
Leaving the park
That afternoon we began the walk back out of the park towards Marahau, along the coastal trails. When we got to the last enormous tidal basin, CJ wanted us all to cross it on foot. The tide was coming in, but the water was still shallow all the way. Amy, Mark and I were exhausted and planned to stick to the shaded trail.
Holly and Mia begged their parents to be able to go across the water with Uncle CJ.
In the end Amy and Mark reluctantly agreed that the girls could go with him.
As CJ headed out into the shallows holding Holly’s hand on one side and Mia’s on the other, Amy laughed and called out. “You keep my children safe!”
Amy, Mark and I headed up onto the high coastal trail that curved around the U-shaped basin. Every once in a while we’d see CJ and the girls in the distance through the trees, out there in the middle of the clear blue. They were walking through water that was thigh-deep on the girls, far from the shore on all sides.
Then, at one point we heard all three of them scream. Their voices echoed up out of the inlet and into the trees. They had become tiny dots in the inlet by then. It was hard to tell, but it looked like maybe CJ was giving Mia a piggyback ride.
We assumed they were playing, and we didn’t give it a second thought. It wasn’t until later that we found out the truth.
Holly spots the danger
It was Holly who saw it first. They were walking through the water, each still holding Uncle CJ’s hand, when she screamed.
“Stingraaaaay!” CJ yelled.
There it was, a stingray not three feet from them. Its back was the same tawny brown as the sea bottom, making it very difficult to see. CJ later told me that it was at least three feet across.
Mia immediately began screaming bloody murder, and she scrambled up onto CJ’s back, almost knocking him over.
The stingray curved and swooped, and the barbs of its tale passed within a foot of their feet.
“Calm down, calm down!” CJ yelled. “Stay close to me!” The three of them huddled together. The girls were terror stricken.
The stingray curved again, moved to the left and then – silently, gracefully – it turned away toward the open sea.
At that point, CJ, Holly and Mia started screaming again, but now it was screams of laughter and joy.
“A stingray! A stingray!” The girls yelled. “We saw a stingray!”
And that was what they yelled as they came running over to us near the entrance to the park, after they’d finished crossing the tidal basin.
“No fair!” Mark said. “I want to see a stingray!”
“You should have come with us,” CJ said. “We had an adventure. Better than the boring coastal trail. Wasn’t it, girls?”
“Yes! Yes!” Holly and Mia screamed.
That evening as we gathered around the dinner table, Holly and Mia told us the story over and over again. They couldn’t wait to tell their school friends back in snowy Michigan that they had seen a stingray in New Zealand over the Christmas holiday.
Mia smiled. “That was the best Christmas present ever.”
CJ cleared his throat. “The girls were good because they’d been prepared. They didn’t try to touch the stingray or run over to it.” He looked at me. “Smart that I prepared them, don’t you think?”
I laughed. “Yes, CJ. Yes.”
“Call me paranoid now, why don’t you?”
“I’ll never call you paranoid again.”
He smiled broadly. He was a happy, proud uncle indeed.
Have you ever seen a stingray? Evil killer or gentle sea angel?