Delphine

How many life forms have turned to an environment not native to their forebears?  The first humans to live on another planet will face such a challenge.  From first life on this one – a prokaryotic jiggle of reproducing chemicals, probably hung on crystals in an archaeozoic pond or swirling around a hot sea vent – or so our story goes, everything lives in the water, but then creatures took to the land and the air, and some that roamed on land learned to take to the air, and some in the air have come back to the land or the sea.  But periodically some who lived in land take on back to the ocean, carrying the land-based need for air with them.  We spent the day with two of these.

Dolphin Discovery is very commercial, very packaged, tucked on the moonscape shores of Hell (literally, Hell, the Cayman Islands – yes, all the usual jokes).  The ‘lagoon’ where human meets dolphin is utterly man made – poured cement and polypropylene nets.  Inside the new construction Florida-looking building the shop is full of dolphin snow globes and really bad carvings and T-shirts appealing to the egoistic part of conservation. The hour–long program is a half an hour of orientation and preparation, herded by the young muscular, dedicated, and largely oblivious staff, and half an hour of highly scripted in-the-water time.

But no scripting can conscribe the joy we have at being near these animals.  Every one of the 20 or so people in the three groups happening at that hour had a smile on their face, simple, unforced, and ear-to-ear.  We can see the various dolphins playing, surfacing, and then leaping when they understand the show is about to begin.

I choose the most athletic encounter, Quan a more gentle option. (When will I learn, when there’s a menu, to simply have what she orders?  Always in restaurants she orders, so I order something different, and she invariably has pinpointed the best thing in the house.)

I was paired with a family of 6 – well, three kids, an au pair, and Leandra and Salvador from Santiago (what did it cost them to take a vacation in the Caribbean? – woweee!)  They go into one room for their orientation in Spanish; I sit through the introductory video (with my thumbs in my ears – why do they have to play it so loud?) and learn nothing new, except the confirmation that dolphins in captivity live about half again as long as dolphins in the wild, a counterintuitive conclusion confirmed again and again – vet care and plentiful food? A job?

We are paired with two young males, Galileo and Neptune and the wiry black trainer – also Salvador – who regularly feeds them fish from a plastic creel.  We stand waist deep on a platform, and various activities are played out – kissing the dolphins, shaking hands with their flipper, stroking them. We see their teeth, avoid their eyes, inspect the tiny earhole behind, stroke their warm but plasticky bodies, like a soft kitchen floor covering. Their skin is striated with teeth marks from the other dolphins – maybe they do fight, I don’t know, but most are marks of affection.

When they turn over the belly button mark of a mammal is evident, their penises sheathed in something looking like white labia, the belly mostly smooth and uninterrupted, almost like a Barbi.

We get a couple of very short dorsal fin rides with two dolphins, but the highlight was lying spread eagled in the water and having two dolphins nose you into the air from your arches.  For a few seconds at the height, you are entirely out of the water, being skated over the surface, before collapsing forward as they curve around for the fish.

Quan, linked to a group of 4 rather large people from New Hampshire, starts out by asking the Hispanic guide, when the dolphin first came up, if the dolphins speak Spanish, since she was talking to them in Spanish (of course it’s the hand gestures that trigger the series of behaviours).  The poor girl took her seriously, and she got a very sincere reply that they don’t speak any of our languages, they have one of their own.

Much in evidence, the clicks and squeaks (with which Phil Spector characterized the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever soundtrack) punctuate what I believe to be their telepathy (see the next post).

Quan’s group got to do much the same as ours, though they got pushed on a boogie board.  When it came Quan’s turn Copernicus pushed her very fast – almost into the wall (confirmed on the video they make for you) – either because she lighter then the rest, or because the dolphin (they’re all healers) wanted to adjust her neck.

But the highlight of hers (which we didn’t get to do, alas) was to ride with the dolphin belly-to-belly, hanging onto the ventral fins with the dolphin on its back below you.  I may go back just for that experience.  Those who know Quan will understand what a thrill it was to be in the water in a full frontal with e 300-lb mammal being essentially humped across the pool. ”I could feel his whole front undulating beneath me.”

The turtle farm is a bit of a letdown after this exhilarating experience, but it is a visit to a more primeval sea creature.  Whereas the dolphins seemed like neighbours, with a common ancestor probably measured in the tens of millions of years, the turtle returned to the sea hundreds of millions of years ago.

Largely eaten to extinction, this farm holds breeding turtles in the hundreds and little ones in the thousands.  They wisely sell some to the local market for meat, decreasing the pressure on the wild population, and some they release.  We see them from dinner plate size to the mothers, who are like upside-down wheelbarrows galumphing up onto the artificial beach to lay their eggs.

But all the rest are coming up for air; you can hear the sharp sips from the railing above the pool.  What must it be like for these two creatures, to have to return to the surface to do something as fundamental as taking a breath?  Do they see it as totally natural, or something unfair and constricting? As a failure to be fully aquatic, like the fish around them?  We always have the feeling that we, whoever ‘we’ are, are the end product of evolution, but of course we are in medias res, just like all the others.

You can imagine an alien intelligence, peering into this breeding farm we call Earth, and saying to its companion, “Always having to pee, always having to sleep, having to find someone and copulate to reproduce – are they ashamed of how primitive they are?  or  “Do you think they know how stunted their minds and hearts are?  How happy they will be when they evolve a consciousness to fit their body and their task?”

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