14 August 2000
If there is an animal more graceful and beautiful than the kangaroo, the dolphin is it. If God had stopped there, that would have been miracle enough. But She went on to endow this magnificent animal with brains; an intelligence and curiosity comparable to our own.
You've heard all that new age hippie crap about how dolphins are a special animal, set apart from the rest of creation? The stories about dolphins helping autistic children connect to their world and rescuing sailors. Everything is true. Because I live in a (mostly) mechanistic world, this represents a fairly serious shift in my frame of reference. But the dolphins at Seaworld were able to do it for me in a little over an hour.
I visited Seaworld (on a discount ticket) yesterday with some friends and did the usual stuff you do at a theme park. Rides and shows. After the dolphin show, I separated from my friends and spent some time with captive dolphins at Dolphin Cove. They have a relatively large area to play in but are free to come and look at the visiting humans if they want. As much as I value the company of my friends, after only 10 minutes I was so sorry I had wasted my day when I could have spent the whole time with these animals. The dolphins are curious (and probably bored) animals who were happy to say hello to any human who came by. It seemed to me they preferred children, but I couldn't say for sure. I don't understand it. These people spend $50 to get in but only a few minutes to really look at the animals they supposedly came to see. Watching a choreographed show is nothing compared to this.
People would come and go, but I stayed. Eventually, they acknowledged the time I was devoting to them. This is when the magic started. More and more, they stayed close to me, especially when there were no other humans for them to be entertained by. One in particular seemed to stay close to me. He was probably older than the others; he had a battered fin and a dented head, with one dent to the right of his blow hole.
I only had one frame left on a cheap disposable camera. If I hadn't wasted so many photos on the dolphin show, I could have taken many more and much better ones, but maybe they wouldn't have appreciated me as much if they thought I was just there to photograph them. These sort of experiences you shouldn't filter through a camera lens anyway. I started off mumbling platitudes about how beautiful they were, but got bolder over time. How much did they understand? Probably nothing, but that doesn't matter. We still communicated.
The older one I mentioned above breathed on my face, not once but a few times. (Of course, you want to know what their breath smells like. It smells of fish.) He took to taking a breath (probably not a deep one by dolphin standards) and just lied under the water directly beneath me. I waited for him as he knew I would, while the others churned around him. When he came up for a fresh breath, he would stay nearby.
Later in the afternoon, a man came and gave them fish. He carried a whistle that was outside the range of human hearing. They were keyed up after this and wanted more from me. They came right up to me with their mouths wide open. I was so sorry I had nothing to give them apart from my company. I think they told me that was enough.
While I was giving all my attention to the older one, one of the others splashed me thoroughly. I knew he did it on purpose. They hardly splashed at all apart from this incident, and they spray was aimed right at me. I joined in the game with some mock outrage. "That was mean! You know I can't do anything to you!" I wanted so much to strip down to my underwear and join them in the water. But the water would have been freezing on a rapidly cooling day, and it wouldn't have taken long for a keeper to find me and I would have been treated unkindly. It is permitted to swim with the dolphins, but only if you pay extra and on the humans' terms. As it was, I could only watch them with hopeless longing.
The day was drawing to a close, and the dolphins knew it. For the first time, I heard them vocalise (within the range of human hearing; I assume they communicated amongst themselves using sonar).
This was a pod of all males. Two of them engaged in sex play. One affectionately nibbled along the underbelly of another. They chased each other head to tail in a circle. The water boiled at their fury.
I would have gladly stayed with them most of the night, but when a keeper told me to go, I left. I'd already explained to them there was nothing I could do.
So, have the dolphins replaced kangaroos at the heart of my affection? I am very much sorry to say they have. Sorry because I have no way to feed this love. The kangaroos will win by positive reinforcement. I could never spend time with dolphins on the same terms I enjoy with kangaroos. This marine magic will lie fallow, but something deep inside will have been touched forever. I will never forget the time I was privileged to spend.
I can't leave this essay without including my thoughts on their situation. Dolphins live in a rich aural soundscape in the oceans. They have been cut off from this soundscape in captivity, which must cause them distress, even to those born into that quiet world. These intelligent animals will tell you that the safety and this controlled environment is no trade off at all. I am opposed to the keeping of dolphins in captivity and their being taught tricks for our amusement. However, I would not otherwise have had this wonderful opportunity to spend time with them and if they can touch others as they have touched me, maybe it will help to raise awareness of their plight in the wild.