Dolphins On The Brain, Part I
[Out swimming amongst the cetaceans, gaining a little soul, avoiding cliché]
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist Wednesday, May 15, 2002.
So we're out cruising along the coast of Hawaii with China Mike the spirit-guru Zen-master whale-lovin' shaman boat captain and it's about 87 degrees and clear and calm and everyone's all, you know, SPF 30'd and anticipative and dolphined up, as you might expect.
And we're looking for a huge pod of wild spinner dolphins with which to snorkel and frolic and feel all connected and cool and magical, so as to live that whole soul-expanding swimming-with-dolphins cliché, which of course is only a cliché until you actually shut up your little ego and calm your causticity and get in the water, and then it becomes something else entirely.
But first, the whales.
Three of them, humpbacks, a huge, 40-ton escort male, a massive female, and a 3-ton baby. On our way to find the dolphins, just off the port side, maybe 300 yards.
You remember from the gentle slightly goofy spirit-prayer he led everyone in just before departure that China Mike the shaman boat captain has a thing for whales, a very special connection, they're his totem animal, which when you're out there staring them down and it's 87 degrees and you're in Hawaii and everything is loaded with natural wonder and power and small profound slaps of transcendental meaning, well, that makes perfect sense.
The whales are moving parallel with the boat. They breach, they show a flipper or two, they roll. Many ooh and ahhs are exclaimed. China Mike suggests we try to bring them over to us. We look at him, say what? He puts on some rather interesting and special Hawaiian whale chant music on the boat's little stereo. This is what he does. We turn and look back at the whales.
They are coming directly at us. No lie. Suddenly and just like that, all three of them, all 75 tons of living mammal, turn on a whale-size dime and are closing fast, like a small herd of elephants suddenly turning in their tracks and marching calmly toward your little VW sitting there in the open veldt.
Oh my God. Oh my god. We all exclaim it, almost in unison. OhmygodOhmygodOhmygod. They're coming right at us and fifteen seconds later they're upon us, right there, directly below out tiny boat, three enormous whales in about a hundred feet of water, these impossibly majestic leviathans. This can't be happening.
And then they stop.
You can't believe it. We can't believe it. They've stopped right below the boat. You lean over to look, but the eye can't capture the scale of it; you have to sort of back up your vision, widen the lens, realize that enormous dark shape isn't the shadow of a cloud. Surreal. Strange. Stunning.
We laugh in amazement. We shake our heads. Everyone is saying this is so incredible and no way and is this really happening and did that music really just draw the whales over here? Can you do that? Is that even legal? And then again, why the hell not? Our man Mike is a mellow mystic shaman, after all. Whales are his thing. Anything is possible. This is what you begin to realize.
Snorkel masks are grabbed, positions are taken, we lean way over the side of the boat (you're not allowed to actually swim with humpbacks), stick our faces in, and look. And gasp.
It is a comprehensive gasp: mind, body, soul, breath, ego. Everything starts, jumps, freezes. It is electric and shocking and like nothing you have ever seen in your life. It is epic and mysterious and otherworldly, like stepping into another dimension, like turning a corner on a normal street in a normal city and suddenly there's a hundred-foot bright red fire-god sipping a lemonade, smiling calmly.
Humpback whales 50 feet beneath your face and it's this massive stillness, this stunning sense of grace and power like nothing your mind is used to. You actually have to swivel your head to see the entire creature. The escort and the female appear dark bluish black, roughly the size of a Greyhound bus on steroids, wide as a 747, barnacled yet smooth, staggeringly enormous but somehow feather light and made of nothing but wisdom and significance and a very large amount of body fat.
Our eyes were as big as dinnerplates. Images were burned upon the deepest part of the anima, all the way down to where it really matters. The sun is hot and the water is cool and you're just a bunch of slightly sunburned bipeds in a boat sticking your face in the ocean to look at really huge animals. But of course, it's much more than that.
A minute later, with maybe two effortless thrusts of their 1-ton flippers, gone. Into the black of the deep Pacific. Dear God. People actually kill these animals? By choice? Are we insane?
This is what happened. The whales gave us a moment, let us peer, let us admire and awe and feel that connection all the way down. Of course it sounds smarmy and hackneyed. Too bad. They were aware of us. They knew what they were doing and they let us look and this was obvious and amazing and thrilling; they are not stupid randomly lumbering insentient beasts and hence this visit was a gift, an outreach. You know it. No pretense and no sensitive New Age-y wind-chime tree-hugger BS. It just was.
These are the glimpses that mean something. These are the connections you should pay attention to. Because if you don't, it's just war and death and oil-grubbing politicians and sodomitic priests and bad wine and jaded angst and soul-draining fluorescent lighting and cubicles. And that's just no fun at all.
Dolphins On The Brain, Part II
[In the water, swimming with wild cetaceans, humbled and mesmerized]
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist Friday, May 17, 2002
Not ten minutes after the breathtaking, one-in-a-million humpback whale encounter, we find our pod of spinner dolphins. Hundreds of them. Uncountable numbers, really, slicing and moving along the coastline and romping in the water like giddy puppies, leaping and somersaulting and spinning in the air like capricious corkscrews (hence the name) and slapping the water and dashing off, riding the prow of our boat, the world their romper room.
Spinner dolphins seem like joy incarnate, light and energetic and refreshingly pure in their enthusiasms and excitement and togetherness.
That this is so unusual to witness speaks rather poorly of our own species, you realize, with a touch of sadness and maybe bitterness and much sighing. Then it quickly passes because hey look, dolphins.
Smallish and sleek and long-nosed and highly attuned they are, and watching spinners frolic and communicate and move together so fluidly in their natural element takes your little anthro-centric notions of human superiority and spiritual righteousness does the appropriate thing: slaps them right back into the box of humble perspective, where they belong.
And once again masks and fins are quickly donned and the boat stops and just like that, boom, we're in the water. This is all it really is. A small group of family and friends puttering along in a funky hand-built boat in the open ocean with China Mike the shaman boat captain and we find the huge pod and pull alongside and just jump in.
Nothing fancy. No secret handshakes or special training or official permits or illegal soft-money contributions to Enron lawyers. You just slip in and float around with these sleek fun mammals for awhile, and be enlightened.
And they are everywhere. Down. Left. Right. Ahead. Clusters of two, three, a dozen, moving in tight formations and coming right at you and then darting away, diving beneath and fading into the bluish depths like pale ghosts, slowly rising back up and jumping and scampering behind.
Spinners, like dolphins belonging to many other species, are highly curious and highly sensual and sexual and playful and funny. But brief moments of apprehension and fear as the dolphins sometimes come right at you and don't stop or turn away until the last moment.
Long minutes of being completely mezmerized as you follow a small group farther and farther away, only to finally raise your head out of the water and look around and realize you're about a half-mile from the boat and you're water-logged and dazed and not a little blissed-out. But mostly you just float there, almost effortless, look around, breath, kick your fins a little, be subtly transformed, not really believing this is happening but of course it is because you can feel the water plugging up your ears and hear your breath like a roar in the snorkel tube and every now and then you can't see any dolphins at all and suddenly you realize, Jesus with a mild shark phobia, I'm just floating out here in the open ocean. I hope I don't look like something's dinner.
Lift head out of water, spot a dozen dorsal fins slicing the water 50 feet to your left. Head back down in the water, look left, and here they are, checking you out, clicks and squeals and they dart and swerve and capriole and disappear and then you look right and there's another group, same thing but different, circling, clicking, moving away. Amazing. Who needs church?
The pod is fast, nimble, curious about the humans but not exactly sufficiently fascinated that the estimated 400-500 adult spinners in this pod would care to stop and hang out for awhile, and hence we get back in the boat a few times throughout the morning and follow them, move down the coast, jump back in the water whenever the boat stops. Three, four hours in the water. Nonstop. Saturated with the experience, drunk on dolphin play, stunned over and over again by particular moments, by surreal dolphin eye contact, by sunlight streaming through the water and creating extraordinary suspended-time montages, rays of refracted light playing off sleek silvery dolphin bodies swimming 20 feet directly beneath you. Images that store directly in the vault of your soul.
They could've swam away, but they didn't. They could've ignored us completely, but they didn't. Like the whales, they let us in, checked us out, allowed us a glimpse into another world, into their territory, their much more lucid and fluid and sensual interpretation of the planet. This is what it feels like. Another world. Screw the hackneyed crystal dolphin sculptures and cheesy pendants and bad oil paintings. You just gotta deal with it.
Swimming with wild dolphins. It's one of those things. One of those legendary and mystical and numinous adventures New Age crystal-lovin' granola types are always all agog about, one of those things you read about and hear about and maybe even fantasize about but you think you'll never really experience, because your life is rather urban and manic and dolphins are way over there, far out in the ocean, and the connection is just too difficult to feel, sometimes. Until it isn't.
Until Fate steps in and the chance arrives and you actually do it and then it seems like the most normal and beautiful and perfect thing in the world. And you wish everyone could try it and then maybe there wouldn't be so much rage and imbecility and aberrant Catholicism in the world even though you know there probably still would be, but it's nice to dream.
This is what snorkeling in the open ocean with dolphins can do. Make you wax annoying and euphoric, against your will. Make you wonder at the sad, perspective-impaired ways of the world. Make you wake up the next morning and think you just dreamed the whole thing because no way. You? Swimming with wild dolphins? Did that just happen? How cool is that? And of course, when can you do it again?