It was memorable, because it was a risk.

Striped Dolphin.
This does not belong to me, it was taken by photographer Chris Johnson. Found in the article “How To Photograph Dolphins in the Wild” on the blog Whale Trackers.

     “Do you see them? There’s a pack of five dolphins right in that bay over there! See the fins?” My mom is shouting and pointing frantically. The ladies lounging in beach chairs to our right see them, my stepfather sees them. I’m craning my neck and straining my eyes, until finally I spot the small rubbery looking fins circling the water.

“I’m going out,” my stepdad states. He turns to grab his snorkel from the picnic table and walks with determination towards some rocks a few yards down the shore. There are two rocks stacked on one another that allow for people to enter the water without being thrown back into the rocks or hitting the coral that surrounds most of this bay.  The current is rougher right along coast, but about twenty yards out it becomes serene, with no more than ripples breaking the water’s surface.  A strong swimmer can make it out past the break.  But only a confidently strong swimmer could make it out to the pack of dolphins that circle a little more than a quarter of a mile from the shore.

Suddenly, I feel a pull towards the adventure. A pull towards the risk of such a rare experience, but there was a paranoia which kept me from snatching my snorkel off the table and running after my stepdad.

I’m surrounded by blue on all sides.

I’m exhilarated and alarmed, as my imagination begins to toy with what it must feel like to drown. Or what it would feel like to be drug under by a shark with no one to save me. No way to save me. The shark’s teeth sinking into my flipper or perhaps the soft flesh of my calf, jerking me away from the peace of the surface. My terror rising from my gut and exploding from my throat, gurgling down in a flurry of splattering water and frantic contortions of my body as I try to escape the grip back to the light above, but the blood is already filling the water. It leaks from the points of puncture around the shark’s teeth. I’m sinking down, down,

down.

I’m fighting towards those ripples above. Five other brave snorkelers had been spread out twenty or so feet from myself.  They begin to scream with me, helping in my shattering of the silence, shattering of the calm which rests over all that blue water, but not for long.  Why is their screaming now silenced? I breech the surface briefly, emitting a scream and a gasp for air before I’m drug under again. The snorkelers have deemed me for dead, silenced by their mouthpieces and the smacking of limbs in the water as they cut through it quickly back to shore.  As if they blacked out with fear.  And I’m still thrashing and kicking the sea monster and the pain must be growing, but all I can feel is fight.

Fight.

Fight.

They know from my screams that I’m still there, that I’m not yet dead. They can hear me bobbing up and down in the water. They can hear me dying in my bellows, filled with exhaustion as my oxygen depletes and my left leg hangs by frayed tendons and skin.

I’m rewound back to shore, my hair blows across my face and I pull a strand out from behind my sunglasses. I’m standing on my beach towel on the lava rocks in the place where I had been sunbathing peacefully only three minutes before. I shake the daymare out of my eyes, will my imagination to reign itself in. It tends to carry me away at times.

We watch as my stepfather cuts through the break, pumping his arms and legs in rapid succession.  It won’t be his first time swimming with wild dolphins. He’s told stories of five different times that he has been snorkeling in Hawaii and happened to stumble upon a pack of them alone.  He says it’s safe if you can swim that far without the fatigue. I know I can.

I feel that bubble of longing first in my stomach. It sits there like a rock as those of us stuck on the shore spot the dolphins again. Slightly farther out and closer to the center of the beach.  Two baby dolphins leap out of the water in unison, carving little rainbows through the air. We’re all shouting as they perform. They show off for the three snorkelers who have already made it into their habitat. My mom runs to grab my brother and sister and I feel like I might cry because of the urge to go, colliding with the urge to stay safe and dry, with my feet planted on my beach towel. So I push my inner firewall aside and  follow my mother to the picnic table.

“I’m going, Mom. I know I can make it out there.” My stepfather had told us that morning that its rare to be able to swim with dolphins like this. He simply got lucky time and time again.  Now the dolphins were here, circling out in the water. Waiting to play with us. I had to go.

“Oh Samantha! You shouldn’t! You could drown!” It’s my grandmother’s pleas of worry, ironically syncing with my own.

“I’ll be fine. I have to go.” I say this in a deadpan, I won’t allow any fear to creep into my voice. I will go confidently, not second guessing myself. I grab my snorkel and begin to run towards the two rocks my stepdad used.

“Be careful, Sam!” It’s my mothers voice that calls after me.

As I get farther down the coast I hear the hint of my brother’s voice, carried off in the wind of the tropics,”Wait, Wait! You’re going?! Mommy why can’t. . . “ and it’s gone.

I’m paused in my pursuit at the edge of the rocks. The water crashing against the ledge at my toes. I sit down, the moss rubs like damp carpet on my bare legs. I dip my flippers in the water and yank them over my feet as the tide crashes against the rocks at my ankles. I snap my mask over my face, tightening the straps on either side until my head is near explosion, to prevent any water creeping in and blurring my vision out there. It’s so tight, my skin is bulging out around it. I press on the front to suction it over my eyes and nose. I blow into the snorkel to clear it out and bite down on the mouthpiece. I glance out towards the tiny black dots within a circle of tiny gray fins. I focus all my energy and concentration on that spot. I put one foot into the water at a time and push off the rock. And I’m swimming.

I’m cutting effortlessly through the break, expelling as much exertion as necessary to get through the current attempting to force my shoulders backwards. I picture the dolphins and the calm. The serenity of the sea and the wild. I’m breathing quicker, I’m ten yards in. I’m pumping, kicking, cutting through the water, but pacing myself all the while. Air goes in and out, in and out, in and out of my snorkel. It’s all I hear aside from the tide.  I pause, raising my head from the water to look back at the shore which has shrunk significantly behind me. I gather my bearings and realize I have drifted too far right, so I begin cutting diagonally and farther out to sea towards the snorkelers. I can’t see the fins anymore, but I know they’ll be back. I put my face back into the water and swim so fast that my arms burn deep and my ankles threaten to tear from the pull of my flippers. But I feel great. I’m another fifty yards out. Pausing again to check my progress, I spot my family along the shore. Barely visible as anything more but tiny colored dots. Their far off gaze gives me encouragement.

I’m still swimming and exerting until the waves stop and the vibrant sea life below disappears into the blue. It is then that I realize I passed the drop off long ago and all the blue beneath me begins to make sense. I’m tredding water as I look down and watch the blue layers stretch endlessly. There are no more colorful schools of fish, no more vibrant green coral reeves. A wave of anxiety grips me as I listen and look. Just blue and silence, except for the slightest whistle of wind against my ears. And a splash of water.

I glance to my right and see another snorkeler coming up for a look at her progress. I’m comforted by the company. We’re only about fifty feet from the now surfacing dolphins and the other four snorkelers. I see my stepdad in the distance as he turns to swim back to shore.  I turn back to the girl on my right.

“Can we just swim up to them? The dolphins, I mean,” I hear the nervous edge to my voice. My stomach flutters as I remember the feeling of drowning in my vision back on the shore.

“I mean. . . yeah. Just not aggressively or anything. . . ,” she seems startled by the noise of our voices.

I don’t reply, but resume my steady progress towards the circling gray fins. We swim with less drive, placing our masks in the water. I see nothing but blue and a few snorkelers here and there.

It comes spiraling across the water five feet beneath me and I gasp silently, sending bubbles out from my mouth.

A roughly five and half foot gray dolphin twirls through the water, making gray and white striped funnels of bubbles. Another dolphin swims ten feet in front of me and that’s when I notice the two white strips down its flank, rather than the all gray bottle-nosed dolphins I expected to see. The sort one sees in children’s marine life books or the trained dolphins you can pay to swim with in giant saltwater pools. These are different. It notices me and smiles- of course, dolphins always seem to be smiling with the slight upward curve of their mouth, but I knew they were pleased with themselves. They sensed our thrill to be in their presence.  I pulled my face from the water in time to see the two baby dolphins dive under while flapping their dorsal fins frantically to get their bodies moving, kicking up the water following them. I’m elated and beaming. I swim in circles and watch them dive down the hundreds of feet to the bottom of the ocean. It’s so dark and filled with blue that only their white stripes remain visible.

I later found out that these dolphins are actually known as ‘Striped Dolphins’ and are seen mostly in the tropics, especially in the Pacific Ocean.  They are known to be very fast swimmers sometimes reaching up to 25 miles an hour (we were exceptionally lucky to be able to swim with them in one place) and being quite the avid acrobats. Which explained the frequent jumps from the water, which comes instinctively and makes them easy to train. Dolphins have been found to have a larger brain in proportion to their body mass, than that of chimpanzees or great apes, according to “Dolphins Explored”, an article from Animal Planet. When I got the opportunity to swim with trained dolphins at a resort in Hawaii, the activity was ran by Dolphin Quest, I asked our trainer Elle what it is about dolphins that allows them to remember the differences between humans they interact with and other dolphins that they hold strong bonds with.  She too mentioned the brain size of dolphins, while also revealing that they have been doing recent studies for about three years with dolphin memory.  They give them specific signals that mean to wait and when they signal a second time an hour later, the dolphin remembers the original signal and knows that it is time to do the trick from earlier. Therefore, they are proving that they have much more memory capacity than previously suspected, allowing them to remember specific events, and likely, specific people.

It’s peaceful out in the deep of the sea. It’s deep enough to allow snorkelers to float without the risk of exhaustion. While waiting for the dolphins to resurface, I let my body go limp like a dead man’s. I just float like that, praying for them to come back.

And they do. They swim in doubles and triples towards the surface. They carve more rainbows above the water as I watch in awe. They allow me to follow them for a minute, before once again diving deep to the ocean floor and then zooming to the surface to leap from the water once more. One snorkeler with a square box sitting upright on her wrist, attached by a thick band, follows two dolphins while holding the box close to them underwater. I realize she must be filming or taking a picture. My stomach drops with regret, because in my rush and worry about the distance from the shore, I had failed to bring my own underwater camera. So I studied the dolphins deeply to remember the curve of their backs, following them to memorize their smaller than average frames, their white stripes, their chiseled dorsal fins which varied slightly from one dolphin to another, and their smiles.

Nobody speaks, everybody absorbs. The chatter we are surrounded by on land would have shattered the habitat of the ocean. It would have tamed the wildness of our experience out there. My stepfather told me later that the only reason we got to swim with them for so long in one place (they typically move from one place to another rapidly) was because the baby had just been born and was learning to swim. I couldn’t believe I had been one of the first creatures to swim with it!

We lost them eventually and I reluctantly began the long trip back to shore. I was so anxious to tell my family about the experience, that I swam into the wrong part of the bay and was only inches above the huge reeves of coral and rocks laced with sea urchins. I had forgotten the danger of the feat, now that I felt I had conquered entirely. I began to panic, swimming in circles and entirely losing my surroundings. I eventually just went for it, clamping my frail fingers into the first rock I saw. My nails drug across the dark moss, as I used my core to suck my lower body from the surf and awkwardly slammed my left knee into a rock and splintered my palms on the black spiky sea urchins. I had to lift my knees high to step onto the rock with my flippers, causing me to nearly fall backwards into the coral. I hopped to the closest dry rock and removed my flippers to regain balance. I began running towards my family, totally ignoring the stream of blood coming from my left knee.

“They were everywhere! I swam with them! I was part of the wild!”

I had been part of the natural world. In the original form that we have advanced so far from.  I had been one with the habitat to which we all forget we came from. The wild. We are not so different from dolphins ourselves, aside from our land legs, but we’ve grown. We feel we are separate from animals and they belong to us. In reality, we too are a species of God. Humans have their own rules of life and interactions, just as dolphins do.  They likely are as baffled by our existence, as we are by theirs. To existence in their habitat, as they had invited me in and welcomed me to play with them, was one of the greatest honors I have ever received.

Sometimes I wish we could all disappear back into the wild.

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