Our draw to nature, the warmth of the sun and the embrace of the ocean is universal.
Living in New York and other parts of the northeastern U.S. for over 30 years now, I have made traveling south a wintertime ritual of exploration and adventure. Every journey combines land and sea experiences - which allows for the complete exploration of the beauty each locale has to offer. No landscape is the same, just as no underwater seascape is the same.
Swimming south renews my place as a citizen of the planet.
In Australia, I was as completely taken by the aboriginal culture of the Red Center and the magic of Uluru, as I was by the underwater richness of Australia’s temperate and tropical waters. It was there that I first admired the jewel-like iridescent mantle of the giant clam, one of the most vulnerable species in our oceans.
In Belize, a land of gentle people, a trip through the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve on horseback and exploration of the significant Mayan site of Caracol was as exciting as experiencing the country's marine diversity in the outer atoll of Turneffe.
Hiking Mount Scenery, Saba’s volcano and the tallest peak in the Netherlands, was breathtaking in its tropical lushness but barely a match for the underwater splendor of the pinnacles in this unusual Caribbean outpost.
Seeing Lonesome George, now sadly gone, in the Galapagos, was as moving as the sharks, penguins, giant green turtles and seals that surround divers as they glide through the currents.
In Thailand's Golden Triangle, I learned about mahout economics and elephant preservation while interacting with the country's gentle giants. Underwater, among the anemones and clownfish, I witnessed a pair of unafraid mating cuttlefish, the first I had seen in eleven years of diving.
Indonesia graced me with its calls to prayer in Jakarta, intricate temples in Yogyakarta, lush upland terrain of Bali's Ubud, and the pristine reef system of Misool in Raja Ampat, a resounding success in marine and shark conservation. There I hiked to a remote lake for a swim with non-stinging jellyfish.
There have been other memorable adventures - swimming with humpback whales off the coast of Puerto Plata, finding my first seahorses in Utila's Cayo Cochinos, and swimming by an underwater moai in Eastern Island after exploring the real monuments above ground.
I am grateful to the Earth for her many gifts and do not take them for granted. It is my belief that it is critical we protect her, for it is nature that has the ability to bring all cultures together.
My sweet home island of Puerto Rico was devastated by a Category IV hurricane in late September, 2017, one of the storms that crippled the Caribbean this year. Please support environmental protection and the residents of Puerto Rico, who now suffer through no fault of their own, by donating to United for Puerto Rico at https://www.unitedforpuertorico.com
Another choice I recommend is the One America Appeal and you can donate at https://www.oneamericaappeal.org/
Sonia now resides in New York City surrounded by her four animal companions - Bruno, Merlin, Starbright and Prometheus. In her time away from the business world, she devotes herself to urban environmental work, animal rights and the study of esoteric sciences, dreams and natural healing, all of which are reflected in her photography.
FEATURED ESSAY AND PHOTOGRAPHY
FROM ARTIST/WRITER SONIA TOLEDO
Sonia was born in 1963 in Puerto Rico. Her father had his own law practice and taught finance at the University. He also drank heavily, philandered and lived life according to his own rules. Her mother was a very bright woman who followed the path of tradition – a path not well suited to her.
The combination was explosive. Her parents' wounding relationship ruled everyday life. Sonia learned to disappear. To not be seen meant survival. From a young age - between the beatings and raging - Sonia committed to herself that she would never be dependent on anyone for her well-being.
She attended Harvard College, majoring in Economics - not literature, her true passion - because of that need for financial independence. After a few years working for an economic development consulting firm, she received a Masters in Business Administration from Columbia University. In 1989, after a summer internship, she joined Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith as a public finance investment banker.
Thriving in the cold world of finance was not difficult – part hard work, part intuition and part good fortune. Sonia was blessed with good mentors, many of them women who had broken ground in the industry without giving up their identity or character.
Twenty five years after joining Merrill Lynch, she is still productive in the field of public finance.
Something curious happened along the way – Sonia began to shift. She turned her passion for travel, nature and photography into a language of self-expression to help her shed the old dried out shell of trauma.
“This is a lifelong work requiring deep and profound exploration of the inner world. Art facilitates the process. It gives voice to the voiceless. It transforms. It makes it safe to be vulnerable and open to love.”
Sonia finds inspiration in the power of women, relations between the sexes, and the primeval beauty of nature. Each trip is an initiation, each locale a distillation of the world we live in... .
Rajan is the elephant featured in the cover photograph of this issue of Ageless Woman. While Sonia was scuba diving in the Andaman Sea, photographing marine life, Rajan was swimming above her when she took this shot. It is one of our favorite photos. Read more from Sonia about her memories of Rajan:
I met Rajan in the island of Havelock in the Andamans while traveling to India in 2012. I found out that the first thing elephants do when they meet a person is to look them straight in the eye. That's how they size you up.
There are many stories about Rajan, the last of the ocean swimming elephants. I heard that his mate had taught him to swim and that, when she died from a snake bite, Rajan mourned for years.
After the lumber trade he worked in ceased, Rajan was purchased by a resort in Havelock. This spared him the terrible fate of becoming a temple elephant, being made to walk on stone floors and beg for tips.
Rajan lived in the Havelock jungle and would come out to swim with visitors, but only when he felt like it. I had the privilege of diving with him twice -- he used his trunk as a snorkel and enjoyed it when divers hummed tunes underwater.
Rajan died last summer in his jungle home, having been retired in 2014. He was between 67 and 70 years of age. I cried when I heard this world had lost him. I cry every time I think of the harm we are inflicting on these vanishing giants.
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