Rumors Of Dragons

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?

sea serpent.png

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.

baby dolphins.png

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 …

dolphin party.jpg

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 …

w.

16 thoughts on “Rumors Of Dragons

  1. What an amazing experience! Reminds me of when I was about 10 years old. My grandfather (WW I Navy), my cousins and I were fishing in the St. Lawrence River near Lake Ontario. We were moving from the main river into a large bay with a narrow, rock-lined passage to fish for smallmouth bass and northern pike. The 23’ inboard cruiser needed ~3 feet to navigate, so I was out on the bow to scout the water for the channel and to avoid the rocks.

    We were heading west in the bright early morning sunlight and it lit the entire bottom, which I could see for 50 or more feet around a 180 degree arc. The bottom was a mix of emerald green weeds and chalky white limestone rock.

    And the, from left and right came swimming pods of smallmouth bass! 20-30 in a group swimming past us and glistening in the light.

    It was breathtaking!

    I almost couldn’t look for the channel and rocks the bass were so totally mesmerizing.

    We made it through to the bay and likely caught some of those fish I had seen swim by. It was like they were coming to join us, hoping to nip off some of the delicate shiners we offered as bait.

    While I can’t write your prose, I do write poetry and so attempted to capture the glories of that place and those experiences in a poem I write to celebrate the birth of my granddaughter:

    Viola
    10/24/2017

    Cool summer morning breeze conveys
    Through open window’s bullseye glass
    The jazz frogs croaking counterpoint
    To drumming fish tails final splash
    Ensuing silence swirls to dream

    Horizon glows with river’s light
    A pulsed bassoon immensity
    The rhythmic wave borne sparkles flash
    And colors morph prismatically
    Entraining breath evoking sigh

    Bright Escher jewels of smallmouth bass
    With flashing emerald glowing eyes
    In close formation left and right
    Go swimming home a flight of doves
    Transforms the spirit into flesh

    A thousand isles mosaic maze
    With countless channels secret coves
    The Nymphaeaceae keep this space
    For dragonflies and fish alike
    Then Lola comes entrancing all

    You smiled before your eyes could see
    Clearly pleased that you were born
    An infant Mona Lisa face
    Dreaming with artistic grace

    You find the light and sense the sound
    Turning shadows into truth
    You have no doubt yet question all
    Seeking things both big and small

    Each breath you take creates a thrum
    Pulsing squeaks like feeding bees
    Your voice is there your meaning clear
    Chortling without any fear

    Your hair is reddish soft pastel
    Teasing tendrils early dawn
    Your smile persists because you know
    Life unfurls from all you show

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  2. Have you ever tried ‘petting’ dolphins at about 20-25 (guessing speed) knots? Well …. actually just touching them to say you did. They like to ride/swim the shock-wave where the bow cuts the water. Sometimes a couple of minutes duration before switching off to share the ride with another. Just lean over the bow and hang on to the bow rail and reach down and touch one as it surfs and rolls out of the water!

    In an earlier, younger and somewhat reckless time I had a 20′ deep-vee hull with a long shaft 115 hp outboard. The bow was a walk in style and the hull was very deep and the bow splayed out quite a bit that was good at throwing the water far to the side and more importantly providing considerable lift in rough seas or fast and reckless operation in 4′-6′ swells. Surfing a 20′ boat on 6’+ swells at about 25-35 knots is a wild ride! Anyway, I spent weekends off Florida’s Atlantic coast in search of the tasty “dolphin fish” (not the porpoise/mammal). Key was to locate a weed-line or floating debris. Crank it (the boat) up to planning speed at about 3/4 throttle and go looking. Usually led to too far offshore for a 20′ boat, but ya gotta go where the fish are … right. The 30+- story hotels tend to fade over the horizon. The weather and sea conditions can and do change over the course of a long day. Smooth and glassy can turn to 6′ over just a few hours. When/if the late afternoon swells get big and you got to make it back to port …. well …. that’s where the surfing comes in. You tack by getting on top of a wave with little more than the boats prop in the water. The front portion of the boat seems to be 8′-9′ off the water and very little throttle needed unless you fall into the trough, then full throttle is needed to climb the backside of the next wave to get into the surf position again!

    Ohhh … those reckless days were fun! I guess that’s why a lot of my friends were also a bit “reckless”, some more so than others!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Willis, another superb story from the master story teller himself!

    Here in South Africa we have a long-running project to stop dolphins from drowning in ‘shark nets’ that are put into the sea to kill sharks before they can kill people. It is a wicked system driven by lots of misinformation and propaganda, all aimed at bringing tourists to swim in the Indian Ocean without fear of losing an arm or a leg to the rightful occupants of this beautiful corner of the marine world.

    Here is a link to the project which has been going for many years now and making progress to make the sea safer for dolphins. After all, were they not here long before people?

    https://www.dolphins.org.za/

    Thank you and best wishes
    John

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    • Thanks for your kind words, John. The demonizing of sharks is an issue. I like sharks, and they scare me. I’ve dived with the sharks more than a couple times. Awe-inspiring creatures.

      Also, people losing a leg or an arm is an issue. I had a good friend who was killed by a shark. Didn’t make me hate sharks, though. Sharks gotta shark, it’s their job.

      Not sure what the best answer is for South Africa, but whatever it might be it should NOT have the side-effect of killing dolphins.

      w.

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  5. I’ve been aboard a passage-making sailboat in a sea full of dolphins. It is a wonderful thing and all but defies description. It is magical.

    Thanks for bringing back the memories.

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  6. I’ve been aboard a passage-making sailing vessel surrounded by a sea of dolphins. It defies description.

    It’s magical.

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  7. This is the first account I’ve run across about the size a dolphin pod can reach. Amazing, indeed,

    I’ve just never been reading the right account at the right time to learn that the pods can contain more than 30 or 40 or 50 dolphins so I have not only increased my knowledge of dolphins today, but I have been treated to a stunning account of what it is like when a massive pod is encountered.

    Now I have something new to add to my bucket list. Thanks, Willis.

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    • H.R., at the time I’d never heard of such a thing either. Since then, I’ve seen various reports about what they now call “superpods”. However, I’ve never seen anyone say why they join together in such huge numbers, or where they are going to do whatever it is that they do.

      w.

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