This voyage so far has encompassed Hong Kong, Manila, the South China Sea, Thailand, the Pacific Ocean, and mid-Pacific with lots of miles still ahead of us. We’re in a fifty foot (15m) gaff-rigged staysail schooner, a tub of a sailboat. Up north of Hawaii, we got caught up in the tail end of a disintegrating hurricane that had missed the Hawaiian Islands and continued northward.
We had a battery radio that we listened to for the weather reports. So we heard about the hurricane before any signs appeared. The day it showed up was clear, bright sunshine. The first sign was a long-period, slow, almost greasy-looking smooth swell.
Then there was a smudge on the southern horizon. It soon revealed itself as a vertical wall of solid cloud. The storm hit late afternoon. It was calm until the wall of cloud enveloped us. Then the wind whipped up. Fortunately for us, the hurricane was winding down. It was downgraded to a tropical storm before it hit us. And we were not in the dangerous quadrant. That’s the area where the storm’s motion adds to the wind strength and the power is greatest. So although we saw plenty strong winds and lots of big waves, the boat weathered it just fine. And the next day, we were back to the usual. The days were lovely, blue water, blue sky.
One afternoon, a light breeze was blowing, just enough to keep the sails full and drawing. I looked out, and I saw what looked like black bumps on the horizon. I thought … what makes black bumps on the horizon?
I watched and watched, and although the bumps got bigger, I couldn’t make out what it was. Clearly, it was alive, I could see it splashing and moving in the far distance. Strangely, as more of the mystery creature became visible coming over the horizon, it started to look like the mythical sea serpent.
Or maybe it was two sea serpents, long ones, with parts of their bodies underwater and parts above water, I watched it for the longest time … and then suddenly, you know how the picture shifts, it all became clear. I was looking at a huge pod of dolphins swimming in a long thin line. That’s why it had looked like a couple of sea serpents. But the pod was gigantic, it was already well over a mile long, and heading towards the boat.
Nothing happens fast at sea. And so slowly, slowly the members of the pod moved in line towards us, with more and more of them appearing over the horizon as the first among them neared the sailboat. And amazingly, when the first dolphins drew even with the boat, dolphins towards the back of the line were still coming over the horizon.
When your eyes are about ten feet (3m) above the waterline, it’s about four miles (six km) to the horizon, and the dolphins continued to stream over the horizon unabated. Four miles of dolphins from the horizon to the boat.
The line of the dolphins passed maybe a quarter-mile from us, pretty close but still hard to make out. I was hoping that I would get a closer view of them when I saw two dolphins leave the pod and come rocketing over at an incredible speed to check us out. They were large, obviously males. They went all around the sailboat for a few minutes, eyeing us, checking out the boat, and then they rocketed back to the main pod … I was sorry to see them go.
But after they got back, they must have given us a good report … because in a little while some of the females came over with their young, including infants. I lay on my stomach on the bowsprit, which is the wooden spar that sticks out forwards from the front of some sailboats. That way I could look through the crystal-clear water directly down on them from just a few feet away.
The tiniest ones were unbearably cute. They were perfect miniatures of their mothers, identical in every detail. The mothers and babies came and swam under the bow of the boat. The babies swim right under the mothers, for protection. Then when the mothers come up for air, the baby pops out from under and swims alongside the mother to the surface, in a gorgeous aquatic ballet. They both take a breath at the same instant, I could hear the mother’s breath, a deep breath, and the baby’s breath like the palest petal of air, then the baby pops back under the mother, and off they go again.
Amazingly, I saw the mothers trade off the childcare duties. I watched one mother and a kid for a bit. They were doing the pair breathing, they went on for a while.
And then, another female came up to the bow and said something to the first female. The kid ducked from under the first female to the other. Amazingly, the first female celebrated her new-found freedom and lack of responsibility by immediately indulging in a whole long series of jumps and dives and turns. It looked like she just got off an eight-hour shift … she was one happy lady, she never did come back to the sailboat. She was done with childcare for a bit. She went tailwalking and styling across to join the other ladies in the main dolphin parade.
And all the while the unending stream of dolphins was passing by. Different groups of them came to play around the boat and then retired to join the pod. The leaders of the group were halfway to the opposite horizon, and still dolphins came to play … and when the leaders of the pod had finally and slowly made it all the way to the horizon, and had disappeared from view, there were still more dolphins coming over the opposite horizon, still more dolphins coming to visit us. While some dolphins were disappearing over one horizon, more dolphins were still coming into view at the other horizon. Eight full miles and more of dolphins making their slow way to … where?
And then with an almost tragic finality, the tail of the huge long pod came into view, clearing the horizon and wending its deliberate way forwards towards us. Those last dolphins still had three miles to go just to get to the boat. As they approached, the last visitors came and gazed at us through the two-way mirror of the ocean’s surface, and then left to join their friends. I sadly watched them join up with the tail of the pod and then slowly, slowly, the tail of the pod shrank towards the horizon.
And finally, in the long slanting rays of the mid-afternoon, the last of the gorgeous, mysterious dolphins slipped over the far edge and were lost to sight … I sat in silence, almost dazed by the experience. After watching them laugh and play for those few mercurial hours, I felt like I do when friends depart after too short a visit. And I wondered how the world appeared from their side of the silvery mirror of the surface.
What did we look like to them? What did they think of us? Clearly, they were intelligent. They sent out scouts to gauge our intentions before the females and juveniles came to visit, just like any wandering tribe in an unknown country. They moved in a conscious, purposeful manner, with the females and juveniles in the middle of the pod, and bigger males ranging widely back and forth along both sides, clearly watching out for the tribe as they steadily moved towards … somewhere.
But where were they headed, and why? I put my head back on the cockpit cushions and drifted in an afternoon haze, half-sleep, half-dream, considering the question of their mystery hegira. After picking up and discarding a variety of hypotheses, the picture started to become clearer. As my head sank lower into the cushions, I could almost see how the word had come skittering down the oceanic spinal telegraph, an electric spark that went quantum tunneling through that mysterious aquatic mental telepaphone that connects all the sea creatures, sending chirps and sparks about how there was gonna be some seriously shaking dolphin party down the way. The message said the whole dolphin tribe was invited, there was gonna be fins and sins over at the corner of what almost sounded like Water Street and Ocean Avenue, but I couldn’t make out the words, they sounded strange and squeaky …
And yet somehow, as the motion of the boat gently lifted and soothed me to sleep, I knew exactly where that dolphin party was going to be, and it was a warm and happy place, with lots of good friends and plenty of delicious fish-heads, in my half-dream I could almost taste their sweetness …