Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals

Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals

by Brenda Peterson


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"Peterson writes of nature with an intimacy that tugs at the reader's deep memory."—Orion

This is the story of a life and spirit guided by animals. Brenda Peterson was raised in the High Sierras on a national forest lookout station, and wildlife had a daily, defining influence on her life. Peterson explores her deep connection with animals, from watching grizzlies in Montana's Rockies, to keeping Siberian huskies as pets in New York City, to her work for the restoration of wild wolves. Her lively storytelling bridges the worlds of human and animal, as she fascinates us with intimate stories of her studies of wild dolphins, whales, and orcas. Peterson reveals how animal bonds have enriched her life and led her toward a wider epiphany: As a species we cannot live without other animals. "[A] wealth of fascinating anecdotes and insights...[an] engaging memoir."—Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393323283
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 07/17/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Brenda Peterson is the author of three novels and two collections of essays, Living by Water and Nature and Other Mothers. She lives in Seattle.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



    On this familiar, floating wooden dock, my feet are strong and secure in sleek black flippers, my snorkel mask adjusted like a transparent Cyclops eye, my wet suit tight against my body like a second skin. In my stomach, that familiar fluttering, my heart beating excitedly as I prepare to plunge into the chilly saltwater lagoon. It is my winter pilgrimage to a research center in Key Largo, Florida. I visit here, traveling cross-continent from my home in Seattle to meet both my human family and the dolphins we have come to call our "other relatives."

    I can name all these dolphins, adolescent females who swim by, dorsal fins rising and falling in an arc that my eyes take in gratefully. Dinghy, Jessica, Samantha of the crooked jaw, and Dreamer glide by and then execute acrobatic leaps and spins in perfect sync. Dreamer is my favorite, with her half-lidded sleepy brown eyes and intimate scrutiny. She cruises up and with a graceful, glossy snout, or rostrum, gently lifts my flippers and legs so I fall backwards on the dock, laughing.

    "Now they're ready to play with you, land-lubbers!" the researcher calls down from his perch above the lagoon. He is studying dolphin-human interaction for his doctoral thesis in marine mammal biology and has spent the summer here at Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Research and Education Center gathering material on the dolphins' altruistic behavior toward children with life-threatening diseases.

   Inthe next lagoon over a little girl with leukemia, so terribly thin her wet suit hangs on her like a sagging blue slicker, floats in the lagoon with a bouncy yellow life preserver. She is all elbows and arms, but no fear. Even through her mask, her astonishingly pale face reveals the wasting disease that will kill her. This time next month she will be dead, but for now all she knows is that this is her heart's desire—to be in the water with a dolphin. And though very weak, she is thrilled, giggling shyly as a dolphin circles, taking her in with a calm, contemplative eye. This twelve-year-old girl is participating in the Make a Wish Foundation, one of several therapeutic programs at this research center. I gaze at her surrounded by dorsal fins, dolphins tenderly lifting her above the water to carry her slowly around the lagoon, as if she were drowning and they her funeral bearers. In ancient Greece it was believed that dolphins carried human souls between our world and the watery realm of the dead. Dolphins were recognized as creatures who go between the worlds, as guides not only of the shipwrecked and drowning but of the living as well.

    As I at last slip into the next cold winter lagoon, catching my breath, my chest heaving until the wet suit warms the saltwater against my skin, I feel as if I am also going between two worlds: between the exuberance of the past seven years, in which I've made this Key Largo trip to swim with these dolphins, and my present, conflicted emotions over continuing this bond when it means captivity for the dolphins I have come to love. This swim I must make a decision that weighs on my heart like the pressure of a fathoms-deep dive. But for now I can't bear to think that this might be my last swim with these sister creatures.

    Once in this lagoon, which borders a bay into the Atlantic Ocean, I forget everything, even myself, for a moment as I listen: yes, the underwater ricochet of dolphin vocalizations. Bleeps, signature whistles, cetacean songs that sound like creaking doors and Geiger counters come closer and closer until suddenly out of the murky green of the lagoon a graceful glide of silver streaks past, one pectoral fin lightly touching my legs. It always amazes me to remember that inside each dolphin's pectoral is a perfect, five-fingered skeletal hand, remnant of their ancestors who returned to the sea as our mammal cousins. To be touched by this hand-fin is to feel chosen. For just as dolphins are conscious breathers and would suffocate if knocked unconscious, these creatures are so agile and synchronize each movement so thoughtfully that even the slightest touch is a conscious choice.

    I long ago stopped wondering if a dolphin's memory or intelligence is equal to our own. I have ample evidence and experience that their capacity for flexible thinking, their myriad strategies for learning new behaviors are survival tools my species could find instructive. Dolphin societies have evolved highly sophisticated social structures and communication skills. Their altruism toward their own as well as other species and their astonishing capacity to outwit researchers are what makes them so beloved and yet so mysterious.

    As a dolphin again streaks by with just the lightest touch to my arm, I wonder which of "the girls"—as my sister and her children call this group of dolphins—has chosen to reach out to me, remembering me from many other swims here. I lift my head above the surface and propel myself above the water with the borrowed power of my flippers. Calling out to the watchful researcher, I ask, "Was that Dreamer who touched me?"

    "No," he laughs. "That's the new one. Alphonse."

    "But he's so big!" I sputter in surprise and have to take off my face mask and snorkel to clear the fog of my breathing. "He was just a baby ..."

    "Yes, last time you were here. But he's a big boy now."

    As Alphonse cruises by, turning his head to catch my eye, my heart is again captured and I am overjoyed to see he has survived so well, grown up in this lagoon with many doting aunts.

    Only a year ago I had arrived with my sister Paula and her three daughters in tow for another swim only to find the lagoon closed because of a birth—Alphonse's long-awaited arrival. Paula has also been devoted to these dolphins ever since they first "midwifed" her third child, Lissy, in 1986. On Paula's first swim with "the girls" she'd been nine months pregnant and the dolphins had forced all the other swimmers out of the lagoon to focus their full attention on my sister. Practiced in echolocation, the dolphins listened to the fetal heartbeat and, as always, found it fascinating. But that day back in 1986, there had been something different, an agitation in the dolphins that prompted the researcher to ask my sister hesitantly, "Is everything all right with your baby?"

    As a surgical nurse and the mother of two healthy girls, my sister had satisfied herself that this third birth would go without a hitch. The doctor had warned her however, after her last delivery that another pregnancy and cesarean section might be life-threatening. Paula listened to the warning of the dolphins' insistent concern and made sure to have blood donors and a specialist on hand for Lissy's birth. As it turned out, Lissy was born jaundiced and with a rare blood incompatibility that required an immediate transfusion of her body's entire supply of blood. In our family, we credit the dolphins and my sister's intuitive skills with saving Lissy's life. And Lissy considers herself half-sister to "the girls."

    In 1993, when Lissy was seven years old, I arrived with my sister's family to find that a dolphin had just been born. This newborn dolphin was for us like coming full circle in the cycle that included human and animal birthing. The research director let us inside because we were old friends. AS we tiptoed in, honored to be allowed to see a newborn dolphin, he whispered, "The little one's chances for survival are 50-50. We have hope because this is Dinghy's second calf. The first one died, you know—as so many dolphin newborns do in the wild."

    He went on to to remind us that in the wild, the many toxins, heavy metals, and PCBs in the oceans are absorbed by cetaceans and stored in their blubber. When a mother gives birth for the first time, her body purges these toxins through her milk and she literally poisons her own calf. "In some places where Eskimos still hunt and eat whales," he said sadly, "the Inuit women are now like cetaceans—when they nurse their young, they risk killing them with all the toxins in their milk. So you see, the way the oceans and the dolphins and whales go will be the way we humans go. It's just a matter of time."

    The hope was that Dinghy's lactating purge released most of the toxins from her body into her firstborn calf; without as many pollutants and poisons, this one might survive. "We haven't named him yet," the research director said. "It's bad luck. And we don't want to get too attached, if he also dies."

    Even as he spoke, the silver-haired director already showed how deeply attached he was to this newborn. "Look, see that long, deep wrinkle on his little side. That's from being so recently folded in the womb."

    Such a tiny creature and so awkward for a dolphin! This newborn, who would one day be named Alphonse, swam right up against his mother, but his breathing had not the practiced glide and arc of a mature cetacean. Instead, as Dinghy surfaced to exhale that "twoosh, twoosh" of misting air at 100 mph, her son belly-flopped and let out a squeak that was more noise than breath. As Dinghy inhaled, then patiently dived, encouraging her calf to do the same with a guiding pectoral fin to his flanks, Alphonse instead sputtered and flailed sideways near the dock.

    We all gasped, expecting him to crash into the floating wooden rectangle, but at the last minute one of his aunts glided between the newborn and the dock, gently guiding him back to his mother.

    "This is the most important thing the newborn has to learn," the researcher told us. "To plan and synchronize each breath, not only for his own body, but in rhythm with his pod. Can you imagine humans trying to breathe together while moving so swiftly through the water?" he laughed. "I can't even do it for three minutes with one of my own children, much less my wife."

    Nor could I imagine the intimacy and awareness it would take to time my own breathing and fluid movements with those of another human being. As I watched Alphonse and his mother pair-bonding and practicing breathing together, his mother twirling and pirouetting protectively near her newborn, I wondered what kind of life this new dolphin would have, if he survived the crucial first six months. Though he was born in captivity, I knew from my countless trips to Dolphins Plus that these dolphins were cared for and even loved, unlike in some aquariums or zoos where they are forced into tedious performances to "earn" their food. The researchers had assured me that these dolphins were let out every week or so into the open ocean and that they willingly returned to the shelter and safety of this lagoon. In this research facility, they were not expected to interact with humans and had "free zones" for retreat from human encounters. They were never fed as a reward for performance or interaction. The dolphins initiated contact, not us. So to be touched or swum alongside, to be eyed or played with was a dolphin's choice.

    I also knew that here the dolphins were safe from many perils—from sharks to drift nets to boat parasites and heavy pollutants in the open ocean. They had excellent veterinary care and reliable, healthy food. Nevertheless, captive dolphins often die of sudden, unknown diseases. And the annual infant mortality rate among captive dolphins is no lower than in the wild. Why not?

    During my last several swims in Key Largo, I had found myself troubled by the increasing demands that human visitors were placing on these dolphins. Were they stressed? I had seen the research center grow from a shack on the lagoon to a popular, well-run organization offering dolphin swims twice a day. What toll was this taking on the dolphins? A question haunted me: Is it fair to ask the dolphins to give up their freedom so that we can receive the pleasure of their company? What do the dolphins receive from us in return? Is it worth their lifelong captivity?

* * *

A TAP ON the flipper again from a pectoral fin brings me back to the lovely, dark-green depths of the lagoon. Four dolphins, upside down, reveal their pale white and pink bellies as they cruise in a blur below me. Swimming near me is my friend Laura, who has suffered chronic pain for many years. In her stiff wet suit and snorkel she is shy and awkward in the water, swimming at the edges of the lagoon just as she so often stays outside human circles, held back by what she has called "that other territory of physical pain that seems to separate me so from everyone else." Laura is here to swim with the dolphins, not seeking some miracle cure or healing, but simply to float without the pressure and pain of gravity, to rest in another element that is easy on her body, the benevolent buoyancy of this saltwater. Her hopes of an encounter with a dolphin are muted by her desire not to intrude on them—for more than any of my friends, Laura is loathe to invade or demand anything of anybody.

    So she floats hesitantly away from the delighted splash and play of those of us in the middle of the lagoon, surrounded by curious dolphins. Samantha with her crooked dolphin smile is pushing my feet now as if I were a favorite float toy, and we skim through the water barely touching the surface. I am propelled through the lagoon so fast that the palm trees and other people all blur into green fronds, black-suited figures in bright life preservers, and turquoise water. Right before we run into the dock, Samantha swerves to miss the wooden rectangle and deposits me at the fence. I am at once exhilarated from the encounter but suddenly aware that here I am again facing my dilemma: Samantha and I cannot race into the open ocean together or explore the fifty-plus miles a day that she is capable of traveling. Nor can we leap together over the fence, because although it is low, she is "psychologically imprisoned," as the animal behaviorists call it. Samantha and all the other dolphins here could easily leap the barricade, but will not leave their pod—or their people. Samantha is held captive here as much by her sense of community and belonging as by the underwater fences.

    Troubled by these thoughts, I propel myself off the fencing with a strong thrust of my fins and streak through the lagoon, undulating my hips and legs, my hands straight at my sides in imitation of the dolphin's movements. But whereas they are graceful, my back is sore from such heavy work after only a few laps around the lagoon. I do not have the flexible, long spine that stretches from neck to tail fluke to slide through the waters. Without tail flukes, with separate legs that can paddle but not propel, with ungainly arms that can pull water but not aerodynamically slip through the waves using currents and my body weight to speed up to 30 mph, I can only crawl as best I can. Added to this indignity is the fact that as a human I splash at both ends, unlike the dolphin, who can enter and exit water almost without a ripple.

    Back-paddling now to rest my weary spine, I glance over at Laura, who is clinging to the fencing, as if out of breath. Is she in trouble? A cramp or some muscular seizure from deep within her pain-wracked body as her mysterious illnesses, her "physical poltergeists," clench? I turn on my belly and begin to swim over to her, but I am not the first to arrive. By the time I can see Laura through the murky depths and the one eye of my snorkel mask, she is surrounded by six carefully circling dolphins. All of a sudden, their sonar echolocation is very loud as they bounce their sonar off her body and listen to what vibrations come back. This is how dolphins "see" the world, with ultrasound—most of it at a higher frequency than human hearing can detect—in much the same way we have so recently figured out how to use radar in submarines to "see" acoustically canyons and valleys and other ships without our eyes.

    Dolphin sonar is so sophisticated that for years the Navy has been studying captive dolphins to learn how better to adapt to an underwater world of sound. Ultrasound, which humans have used to image a fetus or to shatter and dissolve a kidney stone or break up a heart clot, is being studied as "vibrational medicine." Human ultrasound is also being used to open narrow blood vessels to help some heart patients avoid bypass surgery by relaxing artery walls and softening fatty deposits. Medical science is discovering that ultrasound is a less-invasive alternative for treating cataracts and even certain kinds of tumors. And some recent evidence indicates that ultrasound frequencies in the region of 2,000 Hz, high above human hearing, nevertheless have a calming and pleasurable effect on human brain waves, possibly by triggering the release of endorphins. Perhaps this accounts for many people's sensations of ecstasy upon encountering dolphins, particularly in the wild.

    Over the years I've come to believe from firsthand experience that it is not so much that the dolphins use ultrasound to heal themselves or us; it is simply a vibrational resonance so sophisticated and strong that it works like a tuning fork. Another tuning fork held near a tuning fork that is struck will begin to vibrate at the exact same pitch as the struck one. Our proximity to dolphins or their echolocation and vocalization might simply encourage our own bodies to resonate with a higher frequency, thus bringing our brain waves into the same Delta or Theta brain waves as the dolphins'. These waves are akin to what we humans experience as meditation or dreaming—but Delta and Theta waves are the dolphins' natural state.

    Our immune systems may be triggered by the dolphin sonar, which supports our natural healing. But do we actually have to be next to real live dolphins to experience the same resonance? Or could it happen by listening to audio tapes of dolphin vocalizations, which hospitals have found help women in labor get through birthing with less stress. Or in the future, could we develop three-dimensional, IMAX-like sensory-surrounding movies that recreate the same experience as actually swimming with a dolphin in the wild? A kind of virtual healing?

    Dr. Horace Dobbs, author of The Magic of Dolphins, has researched human depression and dolphins for years; he has combined visualization techniques and audio tapes of dolphin vocalizations to pioneer a therapy he calls the "audio pill." His audio tape Dolphin Dreamtime is a combination of dolphin vocalizations, sounds of the sea, the human heartbeat, and a background choir. It seems to placate people suffering from mental illness, depression, and other neurological ills, as well as offering relaxation and meditative support. Dobbs believes that much healing can come about through hydrotherapy, visual hologrammatic images, and audio vocalizations—the combination of which approximates the experience of a dolphin encounter without requiring the capture of live animals. Using such techniques, we can borrow skills from the dolphins without enslaving them or mistaking them for some living form of Prozac.

* * *

I KEEP A respectful distance from Laura and the dolphins swimming in ever closer circles around her so that she is held in the exact eye of their whirlpool. Even underwater I can hear her small murmurs of surprise as suddenly all the dolphins leap above her head—all except one. I struggle to see which dolphin is now performing a pirouette to come belly to belly with Laura in a behavior I have never before witnessed. Vertical alongside Laura, this dolphin opens pectoral fins and tenderly takes my friend in an interspecies embrace. Laura gasps, tiny bubbles leaving her lips. Dreamer clasps Laura to her long, silver body. In slow motion, dolphin and woman twirl together through the water, Dreamer always careful to keep Laura's snorkel above the water so she can breathe—which she does now steadily and calmly, as if Dreamer is sharing oxygen with her human body, which had for too long been suffocating. What Dreamer shares in that embrace I will never know. I can only theorize.

    Laura swears it was not healing as much as it was animal kindness. "My pain did not disappear," she says afterwards as Dreamer swims her to the dock, lifts her bodily up onto the flat wooden platform, and dives deep. "When that dolphin held me and carried me through the water, I felt whole and a sense of well-being." She pauses and pulls off her snorkel mask, tears streaming from her eyes. "That's it!" she says. "I felt what it was like to be well again, because I was with such a well being."

    As Laura steps from the dock onto the shore, her legs collapse under her; one of the researchers helps her walk. Her entire body is trembling, as if still vibrating to another frequency not her own, one borrowed from the dolphins and their buoyant world where the effects of gravity cannot curse a body. She trembles like this for more than two hours and then falls into a deep sleep from which she awakes refreshed.

    "The dolphins didn't heal me," she still says to this day, whenever we talk about that rare underwater, interspecies embrace. "I have to do that myself. But they left me with the feeling that anything is possible—even that one day I might be without pain."

    I ponder this gift of possibilities that the dolphins bestowed so kindly on my friend Laura the next day when I visit another dolphin research center farther down in the Keys called the Dolphin Research Center.

    Here at the research and educational center in Grassy Key, the dolphins are unfamiliar to me, since I've come here only three or four times before. Though the facility is concerned and very committed to its dolphins' care, I have never felt comfortable with its program of rewarding dolphins for interaction with humans—too much like "singing for their supper." But today I am here to observe the work of Dr. David Nathanson, a neuropsychologist who has worked for years with stroke victims, Down's syndrome children, and other children at risk. Using flash cards and interaction with dolphins as a reward for learning, Dr. Nathanson's work shows impressive results in terms of increased learning skills for these disabled children.

    "But could this learning increase come about just as well from interaction with domestic animals?" A respected marine mammal biologist and dear friend, Dr. Toni Frohoff, has posed an important question. "Say, like cats or dogs—those therapy animals used by the blind or the disabled in programs such as the Delta Society, which trains domestic animals to help people who are blind or disabled or in the hospital?"

    With these questions in mind, I again observe Dr. Nathanson at work with a little Down's syndrome boy who has made his animal-assisted therapy internationally famous. This little boy, Dean Paul Anderson, was never expected to talk, let alone learn. But after five years of working with the dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center, Dean Paul has proven himself somewhat of a prodigy, his symptoms less intense than medical authorities predicted. Is it the dolphins who have made a difference?

    According to his mother, Cathy Anderson, the dolphins have made a huge difference in her son's development. "Dean Paul thinks of himself as more dolphin than human," she laughs, watching her son propelled around the lagoon by his favorite dolphin, Santini. "When he draws a picture of his family, some of us have dorsal fins. And there are always several dolphins in the drawing, like brothers and sisters. If you watch my son closely you'll see him exhibit definite dolphin-like behaviors—like he'll turn his head sideways to give you his full attention, the way dolphins, with their 180-degree vision, will do. Sometimes when he doesn't make words, Dean Paul makes dolphin bleeps and vocalizations. He even seems to have his own signature whistle."

    There is another disabled child in the lagoon with Dean Paul, a little girl who has delayed motor skills and at the age of five still has not said her first word. After working with the dolphins for several days, she amazes her parents by saying quite distinctly and with perfect diction, "Coca-Cola!"

    The exuberant parents are so happy to hear their child's first speech that they immediately insist that Dr. Nathanson let their other, nondisabled child swim in the lagoon. But other people's sessions are scheduled and Dr. Nathanson patiently explains that these sessions are therapeutic only.

    "Listen, you," says the suddenly hostile parent. "I've paid a lot of money to come here and get my kid some help. As far as I'm concerned, as long as I'm paying for the time, I own these dolphins and I can get anything from them I want!"

    Dr. Nathanson sighs and walks calmly back to the lagoon to continue his work with the other disabled children, leaving the girl's parents to fume and mutter. Their furor has blown over, but I am still reeling from the woman's words as if caught up in an inner emotional storm.

    I own these dolphins and I can get anything from them I want! Her words spin around me and I feel a wave of nausea deep in my belly. Here is the naked human greed that for years I have tried not to face whenever I have watched dolphins at work and play with humans, even in semicaptivity. The woman had revealed the selfish and dominating demands of humankind. Our species has for too long seen other animals as existing only to serve our needs, believing that animals have no distinct life beyond what they can give to us.

    Though the palm trees reveal little breeze and the lagoon is calm, my own body trembles with an inner tumult as if a great wind surges through me, changing my own landscape. This is a turning point in my life. Where there had been uneasiness there is now a decision, where there was ambivalence there is now a new awareness. I realize that I can no longer participate in any encounter with wild animals that keeps them captive. A childhood in the forest has taught me this, but I had forgotten those long-ago lessons in my joy to find connection with this, my other family. I remember that in Hawaii a native friend once told me, "Dolphins are obviously your aumakua, the animal you belong to, whether you know it or not. Fortunately, you found out who you are and the animal you're meant to be with. Whom you must protect as a relative and who protects you." I had received the graceful lessons and protection of the dolphins as my interspecies siblings, but what had I done to protect them?

    Standing in Grassy Key now, outside the Dolphin Research Center where people pay to have their children "healed" by dolphin encounters, where some parents believe they own another animal whose altruism is simply natural, I make my stand. I can no longer support such entrapment, even if it means I will have to give up my own deep connection to the dolphins in Key Largo. It is my responsibility now to give back to the dolphins, they who have given me so much. It is simple reciprocity—resonance. The tuning fork is struck, and I must respond.

    Because dolphins have helped shape my character and my life's work with other animals, now I must try to help shape the future for the dolphins, whether in captivity or in the wild. That night I rent a small motel room next to the Dolphin Research Center. It is a place I've stayed before, right on the water. It offers small kayaks, which I have often paddled out to the lagoon, to float there just outside the fence and watch the dolphins inside. The night sky features a new moon and Venus is sitting inside the luminous crescent like an intimate visitor. As I paddle the still waters I can already hear the Geiger counter bleeps and ricochets of dolphin vocalizations. Keeping a respectful distance so as not to disturb the dolphins, who have already worked all day long with other humans, I bob in the moonlight, humming low, sometimes randomly singing a nonsense tune.

    Suddenly two dolphins swerve from their synchronized leaps and streak toward the fence, skidding to a stop at the last moment. It is this stutter and stop of the dolphins' natural speed at the underwater fencing that finally breaks my heart. The fencing symbolizes the invisible, psychological restraint put on these creatures whose natural exuberance should know no limits—certainly not our own.

    As I watch the two dolphins leap around their small saltwater lagoon, I cannot bear to think of giving up my long relationship with the dolphins at Dolphins Plus. I know full well that dolphins will continue to be captured worldwide for human use. I argue with myself: Won't they feel abandoned if people who truly care for them don't keep visiting, keep restoring the bond? Don't I have a responsibility toward them and our interspecies friendship?

    At that moment one of the Dolphin Research Center trainers comes out into the night to check on the dolphins. Whistling softly, calling out to several of the dolphins in a fond, singsong voice, the researcher sits on his haunches on the dock and carries on a whimsical conversation with one of the dolphins. I can't hear what he is saying, but the dolphins' pleasure in their bond is evident. These dolphins, like those up at Dolphins Plus in Key Largo, are loved and nurtured. During their long captivity, the dolphins are cared for and given everything they need. All but their real lives, their families, their freedom.

    "I'm so sorry," I hear myself whisper now to the two dolphins breathing near me behind their underwater fence. "I'm so sorry you've given up so much. I hope knowing us humans has made up for some of what you lost."

    Soon the two dolphins are "talking" to me, opening their mouths to vocalize in return, nodding their long, graceful rostrums as if to say, "Can you stay out late and play?" I do, but my heart is subdued. I stay with these two for almost an hour before the wind whips up from the ocean and my kayak is too unsteady to stay afloat. Besides, it is almost midnight and I need to rest. I know, of course, that these dolphins will not sleep; they will simply shut one eye and, in an adaptation that is so simple, yet so sophisticated, rest one hemisphere of their brains, while remaining conscious. Perhaps, I reflect as I paddle back to the motel room, dolphins don't need to sleep because they spend their entire lives in a lucid dream.

    The next morning I make my way back up the single-lane road to Dolphins Plus. Though it is a slow and sometimes endless road along these reefs connected like a bright coral necklace for a hundred miles between Miami and Key West, I want the trip to take more time than it does. Before I can even grasp what I am about to do, I arrive at Dolphins Plus in the late afternoon, just in time for another swim with "the girls."

    "Welcome back," the director grins, "always room for you."

    I have not called ahead as I should have. The programs are always full to overflowing, but I am welcome here. Can I really go through with this—my last swim with these beloved dolphins? Giving up my encounters with the girls feels at once like losing relatives or like abandoning those whose lives and well being seem intricately connected to my own.

    Sure enough, here are Dreamer and Samantha welcoming me back "home." They are eager to engage and Dreamer leaps over my legs before I can even get my flippers pulled on. As I enter the lagoon I try to tell them by body language or telepathy that this is my last time with them, that it is not a rejection but a commitment not just to their group but to all dolphins. Somehow this philosophic rationale seems silly or hollow when greeted with such fondness and familiarity. It feels like telling siblings that I can't ever see them again because I'm off to save the world.

    Silly, I tell myself, self-righteous, and above all humorless—quite a sin in the cetacean world. In spite of myself I laugh as Samantha prods at my knees teasingly, as if to ask, "Want to race?"—certain she will win.

    As I swim leisurely on the surface, my snorkel mask down to watch when dolphins swim below me, upside down, or right by my side, eye to eye, I try to get some sense of how well these dolphins are doing. Are they are depressed or overworked, like my sisters who have each endured grueling years as intensive-care nurses? As I watch the dolphins leap over other swimmers and meet my eye with grace and familiarity, I believe that these dolphins are probably in the best shape of any dolphins I've ever witnessed in captivity. Yet they are still not free to come and go as they please. Like ambassadors from another realm, they are perhaps resigned to teach and translate, ever going between two worlds. Like those who must always speak a second language because they are in exile from their homeland, perhaps these dolphins have somehow even volunteered for the job of helping humans recognize other species' intelligence.

    A pang of sorrow strikes as I realize that soon I, too, will be in exile from these dolphins. I swim with a heightened awareness of the lagoon and creatures around me—the way one would memorize a beloved face, landscape, or home for the last time. It is like leaving a second home: I take in the lush lagoon, each dolphin eye holding mine, even the raucous cry of the brown pelican who also makes his home here, as I swim. My eyes blur behind my fogged snorkel mask. I can't see a thing now, but before I can rise to the surface and clean my mask, I sense that I am suddenly surrounded by all six dolphins in the lagoon.

    Three ahead of me and three behind me: this is an unusual formation. Usually the dolphins flank me at each side like protective scouts, but now they have placed me within their center in the position of a calf learning to swim. As the three lead dolphins streak forward, their powerful tail flukes pull me in their fast wake. The three dolphins behind me propel me forward with their pectorals, so I need make no movement with my own arms and legs—yet I speed along with them, aerodynamically held in their glide.

    Slipstream! My mind recognizes what my body has already enjoyed. The dolphins are swimming for me, carrying me aloft in their waves, just as a dolphin will ride a boat's wake, easily pulled along in another's path. This is how I am honored, as if I am a newborn and can be carried along by the pod.

    Never before have the dolphins allowed me this privilege, one usually reserved for their own kind. And in this moment of following, being flung forward without any effort, I feel as if the dolphins understand that they are like rockets, fondly flinging me out into some unknown orbit, some other space that we will no longer share. So fast is this propulsion, it's as if we are no longer in the heavy element of water, but above it. And as I speed along, held in their gravity, an image suddenly comes to my mind. Hundreds of dolphins in the open ocean, porpoising across whitecaps, leaping out of the water together so quickly that their bodies never seem to touch down. Only the tips of their tail flukes splash to show they are swimming, not flying.

    "Crossover" is the word scientists use to describe dolphins' soaring over seas, their traveling so free and fast, so high-spirited and almost effervescent that their sleek bodies barely skim the waves. The suggestion of splashes from tail and pectoral leaves a luminous wake across the water. For these crossover miles, the dolphins, like their human terrestrial mammal kin, belong more to the element of air than to sea. Crossover behavior is a wonder to see, and I had not yet witnessed it myself. So where was the vivid image in my mind coming from? The dolphins or me?

    As I swam in the dolphins' slipstream, I closed my eyes and watched the bright crossover images expand. Now I saw a superpod of wild dolphins flying over the waves, jubilant and exuberantly free. Had the dolphins carried me not only with their bodies but also with their minds? Was this the hologrammatic intelligence that some dolphin researchers believe exists, what we might experience as a kind of photographic telepathy?

    Held in their fluid embrace, I pulled my arms close against my sides and our communal speed increased. The dolphins swam so fast now, swerving at the fences in an expert curve of wake and small waves. Racing around the lagoon, I opened my eyes again to see nothing but an emerald, underwater blur. And then I remembered what I had either forgotten long ago or never quite fully realized. This feeling of being carried along by other animals was familiar.

    Animals had carried me all my life. I was a crossover—carried along in the generous and instructive slipstream of other species. And I had always navigated my life with them in mind, going between the human and animal worlds—a crossover myself. By including animals in my life I was always engaging with the Other, imagining the animal mind and life. For almost half a century, my bond with animals had shaped my character and revealed the world to me. At every turning point in my life an animal had mirrored or influenced my fate. Mine was not simply a life with other animals, but a life because of animals. It had been this way since my beginning, born on a forest lookout station in the High Sierras, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness and many more animals than humans. Since infancy, the first faces I imprinted, the first faces I ever really loved, were animal.

* * *

AND NOW AS these beloved dolphins held me in their moving wake, I followed them one last time. As I glanced over at Alphonse, his brown, benevolent eyes held mine and I tried to send him a mental picture of his own beautiful, wrinkled body at birth. My eyes blurred in my mask as I apologized that I would not be there to see him through his new life. It was a life that broke my heart. Captive-born, he would serve humans and their healing; he would never know a watery world without fences or exult in the company of a wild pod crossing over air and sea.

    Straight ahead three dolphins ululated the strong currents that carried me still and as I raced with them, I felt more dolphin than human. In that moment, I knew the crossover images in my mind were not mine alone, but shared. For all the other dolphins carrying me were once free, born in open sea, given a birthright that was now denied. But still they had the memory of speed and slipstream, of spacious ocean and traveling thirty miles a day, their powerful pectorals and tail flukes never flung against fences.

    In that lagoon on my last swim with the dolphins whom I will always hold as dear as my own brother and sisters, I promise myself that I will begin the real work of helping to release and restore captive dolphins to the wild. And that perhaps one day before I die, I will hope to be blessed with seeing what these generous ambassador dolphins can only remember: a crossover of thousand-strong dolphins slipping wildly through wide open seas.

    The dolphins still remember their wild birthright. And so do I.

Shots in the Dark

By Jon Cohen


Copyright © 2001 Jon Cohen. All rights reserved.

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