Dolphins 1986

I swam with dolphins in 1986, so last post’s experience sent me delving nearly 25 years into my memory, but at least some of that long-ago encounter was indelible.  I was traveling with a group of seekers, spending two weeks on retreat in the Thousand Island mangrove islands of southwest Florida.  The details of that sojourn are complex, and must wait for another venue.  The relevant bit is: On the way there, and on the way back, we swam with dolphins on one of the first keys south of Miami – Dolphins Plus on Key Largo – but we had special access, and I doubt this experience is any longer obtainable.

A German doctor led our group of about 8 German, French, and English (and me, pseudo-European) – Two-Meter Peter we called him, as he was so tall and thin, with a horse face square-framing intense but kind eyes.  Always dressed in white, and certainly one for the ladies, he had the need to be the commander more than we were in need of commandment.

This lagoon was huge, perhaps 100 meters squared, with an area netted off where only the dolphins were allowed, so they were always there by choice, they could go to their ‘quarters’ anytime and we could not follow.  Six of us were allowed in at a time, but that worked out OK, as one of us didn’t want to go at all, and Celine was dithering (though she was tres français and not suited, in truth, to anything but heels and a whip – and she was very good with the whip).  She was kneeling by the edge of the pool, trying to hand a dolphin a toy as a way of deciding, and the dolphin accidentally bit her finger.  That decided her.  Smart dolphin.

There were four dolphins – two young lads, a girl, and a ‘mama’ – older lady dolphin.  Each time we were in for an hour, and there were only two programmed events, a ‘dorsal fin ride’ at the beginning and end of the hour.  In between, it was you and the dolphins – if they chose to stay.

Now, you need to know that Two-Meter Peter had come on this trip with two girlfriends, inevitably one on the wax and one on the wane.  At the beginning of the trip, Grete (names all changed to protect the guilty, God protects the innocent as part of His daily routine) was feeling pretty sore at being displaced from her longtime seat as sole girlfriend (at least when she was around, but she knew the rules) but, hey, this was the New Age, and anything was supposed to go, so she was pretending everything was fine, just fine.

To do the dorsal fin ride, we swam the length of the lagoon and waited, four of the six.  At a signal from the trainer, the dolphins disappeared, reappearing almost instantly behind us.  As they came by, you grabbed a dorsal fin thumbs down, and got a ride against a warm mammalian body across the entire lagoon at high speed.  They would drop you at the other end, and get a fish snack while you swam back to wait another turn, as this went on for about 3-4 rides, ten minutes or so of the hour.

The thing was, none of the dolphins would go by Grete.  They just didn’t seem to like her, with some getting a two-dolphin ride and she got none.  Only if we put her out there on her own would they give her a ride, and then only for the fish, I suppose.

But here’s the thing – by the time we came back two weeks later, the two girls had predictably made friends and shut Peter out – he wasn’t getting any from either of them.  But hey, this was the New Age, and though he was really pissed (little boy that he was) he was pretending everything was cool (“Zat’s kuhl.”) – and this time the dolphins liked Grete just fine, but they wouldn’t touch Peter, same deal.  Conclusion: dolphins don’t like emotional hypocrisy.

Do they see your emotions with their sonar image?  They are getting an ultrasound image of you through their sonar sense.  They can certainly tell if a woman is pregnant, and she doesn’t need to be far along.  Or is it telepathy, or as I prefer telempathy?  I am absolutely convinced that trying to decipher dolphin language from their clicks and squeaks would be like trying to understand Italian looking only at the hand gestures.  In my opinion, the noises are simply for emphasis or punctuation or color, and that the main communication is going on telempathically.

For the rest of the time in the water, it was free play.  The boys came around (regardless of your gender) hooking you behind the knee with their extended penis (which I was told was under voluntary control – your knee is about where the vagina would be on a female dolphin) a behaviour they must have discouraged at the tourist site of the previous post.

After that disconcerting encounter, I was swimming around, chasing after them, with an egoistic, “Hope they like meee!, Come play with meee?” energy.  I did come up beside the larger female and we were lying inches apart eye-to-eye – so deep, so kind, may you look into such an eye someday.  I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll just cop another ride” and surreptitiously sidled my hand around toward her dorsal fin.  Without moving her eye away from mine, either in distance or in contact, she simply rolled, a fraction of a degree at a time, to keep me from getting ahold of her.  Her eye was laughing, “I get paid for that’.

At one point one of the young males came up to me and started trying to bite my limbs.  In an instant this turned from friendly to me at a disadvantage – in the water with a 300-lb master swimmer. You’re petting a German Shepherd all cozy-like and suddenly he is on top and growling – it had that kind of feeling.  I literally had to bop him on the nose to get him to stop.  When I got out, I asked the trainer about it, and he said, “Aw, he was only trying to give you a love-bite, a dolphin hickey.”  He pointed to the fins and flukes of the other dolphins, regularly tattooed with lines of bite marks – “It’s what they do to show affection.”

So the next time, two weeks of spiritual practice and the encounter with Pati Stillwater (next paragraph), we were again in the water, and again, the same one came up to me trying to bite my limbs.  I turned to him, and said (and sounded in my mind), “OK, here I am.”  I put out my arm in front of my face, and he slid his open jaw up on my forearm.  What a string of sharp pearlies he had!  He closed his jaw gently on my arm and then looked at me, as if to say, “Alright?” and I, with an underlying feeling that I am crazy, nodded and thought back, “Alright”.  He turned his head, dragging his teeth down my arm, enough to make lines and a little blood, but nothing serious.  He was then happy, and danced away and we played a bit.

After the first encounter, I walked over to a pen where other dolphins were trained, and two, who had to recover from their time with John Lilly, were being rehabilitated.  (Interesting and difficult man, John, I met him twice – food for another post.)  Pati Stillwater, now a Continuum movement healer, was helping and swimming with them.  I asked her if she thought, given her work with dolphins, whether they were intelligent, or some such stupid question.  “Some are, some aren’t” this wise woman replied, and changed my whole speciesist thinking in a sentence.

I cannot remember other details of our conversation, but she was swimming with dolphins to improve her skills in dealing with autistic children, and very much into the non-verbal side of their communication.  In 1986 I was 36 years old, yet to have a child, and felt so naïve at the end of that conversation – I grew up a lot in those two weeks.

By the time I got back to swim the second time, I was of a different mind-set.  Once the rides were finished (poor Peter, left out this time) I went into the playtime saying, “Wow! what an opportunity, I am going to see if I can swim like them.”  Instead of trying to chase or attract them, I just started enjoying the water feeling on my skin, keeping my legs together in the dolphin kick. I could not leap the way they did, but I went spiraling down into the lagoon in imitation, again and again.  Suddenly – I had almost forgotten about the dolphins in trying to get the skill – the two females, older and younger, were spiraling around me (this image of the three of us is the inspiration for the three waves in the KMI logo) so that we were corkscrewing through the water like a three-stranded rope.

Every time I needed air – much more often then they – they would instinctively know and come out of the tight spiral to let me up, only to close in again as I twisted down from the surface.  I was slow and clumsy compared to them, but they were patient teachers and seemed to enjoy it also; we did it again and again, many breaths, all else forgotten.  It is one of the highlights of my life, those few minutes, the whole two weeks really, bookended by these encounters with yes, a brain bigger than ours, but a heart and psychic force so much bigger than ours as well.

For another encounter with non-wooly mammals, go here:


One Response to “Dolphins 1986”

  1. Deborah Serrano Says:

    Lovely stories about your dolphin encounters. Thanks for sharing these. I agree about the heart communication with dolphins. I’ve felt it.

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