When I was ten years old, I was transfixed by a book at the town library: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. The cover art, a watercolor of a young woman in a black racing swimsuit riding a sleek blue-black dolphin, arcing between a night sea and a starry sky, was a gateway to the story within, of a sixteen-year-old girl who swims out into the ocean with a marine biologist who is studying communication in dolphins, to discover she is telepathic with them. After I read Ring — and while I was reading it — I ransacked the library for books about dolphins, and telepathy, and communicating with these incredible animals.
Life often brings us in a long arc back to the first passions of our soul. After I resumed my home-grown research on dolphins as an adult, I knew that I wanted my initiatory wild swim to be with Joan Ocean. Ocean began snorkeling with wild Hawai’ian spinner dolphins in the 1980s, when she was renting a house on Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast. With waterfront access for her daily swims, Ocean discovered that the bay was frequented by the spinner dolphins — compact, brown-eyed, with gradated colors shading their sides, and long slender snouts — who would rest there during the day. Over months and years, Ocean built personal relationships with many of the dolphins, knowing them by feeling and sight, and she became a translator of dolphins, but using her intuition and empathy instead of a hydrophone and speakers. Now, Ocean leads several seminars a year out into the waters in chartered boats to allow other people to experience something similar, in a respectful, non-invasive way.
Ocean articulated the concept of “telempathy”: a combination of telepathy and feeling, information mainlined into the consciousness by way of emotion and intuition rather than a process of thought or symbol. Dolphins communicate by vibration, by gesture, by holographic packets of information/description/essence delivered in a simultaneous, non-linear arrival into one another’s perception by means of sound — and the reception of this communication creates a new form that is a synthesis of feeling between the participating beings. That’s the empathy part.
I wanted to experience this, to feel this. So with the support of my friends and an expedition fund, I signed up for a seminar and bought an airplane ticket to Kona.
Entering the water where dolphins live is like — is — slipping into another dimension: a realm where you are the guest and the folkways of the natives must be learned. In our orientation, we are advised: Dolphins don’t have hands. Be polite and keep your arms at your sides because it alarms them. The protocol is to keep your hands to yourself while you’re swimming, to restrain yourself from reaching out with your grope-y monkey paws with their many articulate and creepy phalanges. I can’t say I blame dolphins for being offended; humans are usually up to something with our fingers.
It has been postulated that because cetaceans lack hands, their evolution — longer than ours by a good 48 million years — went into developing their internal environment rather than their external environment. With our hands, humans put energy into building, fabricating technology, manipulating the world around us. But dolphins and whales, lacking these, turn that energy inward, over 50 million years evolving intricate brains full of spindle cells for transmitting emotions, information, sensitivity, awareness of their environment and each other, subtleties of communication that surpass human comprehension.
Other protocols, both passed on through Joan’s experience and by benefit of NOAA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act: don’t block or impede their progress, don’t chase them, don’t overshadow the dolphins and their access to air.
Live With Us in Forests of Azure
The first day, I ride the bow out on our boat the Manta, standing on the pulpit as we stream north up the Kona coast. Although other dolphins, spotteds and bottlenoses, inhabit these waters, we actively seek the little spinners, known as nai’a by the natives.
We seek them in the open water off the coast, rather than the bays where they go during the day to rest. The spinners are nighttime hunters and use the day to recreate and relax. Interfering with them in that state has a deleterious effect on their health, as it would anybody’s. Out along the coast though, they are on the move, and can get away if need be.
If you have ever gone out looking for marine mammals on a whale watch or otherwise, you know there are long periods where you might not see anybody, and start to believe the entire day will be a wash, and the quest stretches out into a sameness, and you zone out. Yet after some magic moment, once animals start appearing, they keep appearing, but only after you have given up all hope.
Then — so — at last! — our first escorts arrive! Rather than the spinners, it’s two beautiful grey Tursiops — big bottlenose dolphins. Under my bare feet, under the bow, they are helixing in the water, braiding around one another like strands of DNA. I can see the nicks and scars in their silver, gleaming sides. They are heralds of joy.
That day, we practice getting “oceanized,” doing many drops into the water. All the spinners we see are booking it north up the coast. Whenever we do a “drop”, the captain watches the dolphins approach from far off—as they near, he shouts, “Dolphins are coming!” We place our faces in the cool water to see them flying far below us, in formation, in squadrons.
In between dolphin flybys, I practice my surface dives and flips, reenacting my pool moves, to get a feel of myself in these waters that are new to me. A humpback whale is singing his love song about a mile or two away, so I hold my breath and dive down to listen to him, letting the song resound through my cell walls. I hang inverted in the water, facing forward, freediving style — and come face to face with a spinner dolphin. He looks me in the face from his quizzical dolphin frontal view. Oops! I wave. He speeds away. I wonder if I’m being obnoxious, if I’ve committed a breach of etiquette.
Later I ask our “podleader” Doug Hackett what the appropriate protocol is for diving down to see the dolphins if we want to get below the surface. “You go in the direction they are going,” Doug explains. Got it.
The second day is Venusian with pleasure: a cute surfer dude rotates into the crew, with pale-blue ocean eyes and blonde hair turning to silver in his forties, and a sharkish sharp-toothed grin. When dolphins aren’t in sight he’s the next best thing to look at. He is a graceful freediver too: when he is our safety swimmer I catch sight of him diving down, a lone body surrounded only by blue. The outing that day is carefree and delightful because the distraction of him alleviates some of the intensity of human neediness that accompanies seeking for dolphins.
It’s easy that morning to find where the dolphins are playing. The captains radio each other tips, yet all you really have to do is spy out where a lot of boats have gathered, and so many people in the water that it “looks like the Titanic,” quips my friend Althea. Drawing closer, you can spot the dolphins doing their wriggly pirouette spins in the air. Once in the water, it’s courteous to point down if there are dolphins underneath you, so others can look. I neglect this courtesy myself, but avail myself of other people’s kindness plenty of times.
Someone is signaling and…there the dolphins are! A squadron approaches. Following Doug’s advice, I turn and angle my body. I swim above and alongside, my eye gaze cast down diagonally. My fur-seal-length freediving fins help me to keep pace, as do the hours I’ve put in swimming on weekends in my local pool. I fin along, watching the dolphins below, one arm stretched out in front of me like Supergirl in case I should plow into any other snorkeler.
The dolphins start rising up through the water, ascending towards me. At a certain depth, a click happens. It’s not a click you can hear, but something happens that’s different from before, and I know the dolphins are coming. More than just seeing them, I can feel them, like a drum in the distance, its volume increasing as it approaches, higher and higher and louder and louder and BAM! The dolphins erupt around me, surging on every side, beneath, behind, and in front of me, glossy and strong. I time my breath with theirs: when they rise to breathe, I do too, and flow beneath the surface again, stitching, sewing the surface of the water with our bodies. A dolphin to my right is watching me with his brown eye, he has a cookie-cutter shark scar on his left flank. He breaks the surface to exhale, inhale, and I do too, every time he does, until I am breathing with him.
It is impossible to be aware of anything other than dolphin. I feel their bodies turning and I turn with them. I realize we are turning in a wide vortex. It is like a chanting, a sound beneath sound that I don’t know where it’s coming from.
This happens several times that day, maybe three. At least two, distinctly. I lose count.
After each run, the dolphins eventually dive out of human range, away with their own business. The dolphin who was watching me is the last one to go down. He slows momentarily, gives a spin, and disappears into the blue. It is only after that moment that I lift my head up and burst into tears of joy.
One would think that any day with dolphins would be heaven, but not for yours truly — it can be purgatorial too when you are confronted with your shit and feel how far from heaven you actually are, especially when heaven is right there in front of you. Day Three, which rightfully should be Paradise, begins with me being triggered. One of the women on the boat scoffs at me for not asking out the surfer. I fly into an internal fury, torn between the forces of my intuition to leave well enough alone and this relative stranger’s taunting pressure to challenge myself. I feel like in an outside estimation I am failing and that pisses me off. I moan to Althea. “This sounds like past-life stuff,” she says.
When the captain puts us into the water, there are dolphins around, frolicking. I adopt the method which worked so well the day before — here come the dolphins, swim alongside, there’s the interlock and….
They are all shitting on me.
The polite term for cetacean scat is fecal plume, and it does come pluming out into the water, light green fish slurry. Dolphins are basically freewheeling hippie aliens screwing and caressing and breast-feeding on the fly, happily and innocently naked, so it stands to reason that they would be excreting too. Sometimes cetaceans defecate on you when they want you to scram, but they also do it when they are just hanging out with each other. At the moment these dolphins are all having some kind of decadent Roman poo party on me.
And of course I know why, so I am able to take it in stride. Okay, guys, I GET IT! The dolphins are shitting on me because I am shitting on myself. This continues each time we get in the water, and of course, which I knew would happen to compound my sense of self-inadequacy, this happens to be the day everyone else has a mystical experience, returning the boat triumphant with stories of how the dolphins swam around them in sacred geometrical patterns and telepathically shared “heart wisdom.” The human drama of this combined with my boring dark mood is too ridiculous for words.
On the final drop of the day, the water is clearer. I spy a dolphin playing the Leaf Game that the spinners love, amusing himself by dragging a leaf on his pectoral fin which he will eventually pass to a friend. He cavorts and dives down in front of me. I watch the edge of his flukes merging into the blue with the green gleam of his prized leaf at his side and I burst out laughing. I have gotten over myself.
Later, I ask Joan about the defecation behavior. She reassures me it is normal but that the dolphins have given me an image I will never forget! Pondering this, and because multiple things can be true at once, I realize that there is yet another level of communication. That I am supposed to jettison waste from past lives. Like the dolphins do, to travel lighter. This insight does not arrive as sentences, but as sense.
Your Nature Is Joy
The last day, Day Four, is relaxed and happy. Everyone on the boat is chilled out, and Joan is with us today. This particular seminar is huge, with around one hundred people split among five boats, so Joan alternates from boat to boat. I am happy she is with us on the final day. I tell her I want to swim by her, and that I will stay out of her way, but I want to be near her. Dolphin swimming near Joan Ocean is like chimping with Jane Goodall and I want to be in her energy, to feel how she does things. That being a priority takes the edge off of any need I have for the dolphins to validate me. This day, the water is so transparent that you can see clear down to the sea floor fifty feet below, patterns and ripples in the white sand revealing where different currents merge and diverge. The spinners are cruising in their formations, effortless. It is enough to have them in my eyes, and enjoy being in the water, teaching the Leaf Game to Althea.
On the return trip, I am standing barefoot on the bow pulpit, still in my grey surf capsule that calls to my mind the streamlines of a dolphin. On the way out to sea, the pulpit is always a highly-contested territory, with everyone staking a claim in the urgency of going — yet on the way back, people are satiated, lounging on the deck, snacking in the back, chatting about their experiences. So I have the bow to myself. The wind is blow-drying my hair but my wetsuit keeps me warm.
I start singing out loud. Who cares? Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” is playing in my head so I sing it in full voice that gets scattered over the crystalline azure water, into the breezes and clouds and the sky — exultant, joyous, and free:
Can you hear me calling
Out your name?
You know that I’m falling
And I don’t know what to say….
We better make a start
You better make it soon
Before you break my heart
Someone shouts, “Dolphins!” At 11 o’clock spinners are racing toward the boat. Swerving in the water, they surge up under the bow from every direction, multiplying, riding beneath us, in the slipstream created by the boat all around itself, weaving and leaping and racing and dashing under my toes. I crouch and lean down to sing to the dolphins below me, stand upright to sing to the atmosphere, the sky — by this point people have gathered on the railings to either side of me; I am still at the head of the prow. From ahead of us, we must look like are in the show-stopper of a movie musical as the dolphins are wave-forms leading the boat in the froth, as people flank me, with their tuning forks aloft and AUMing. I just keep singing Fleetwood Mac:
You know IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII I want to be with you everywhere
It’s a long way from a ten-year-old in a library to here, a ring of endless light, full circle, but I did it, the child I was, she accomplished it, and that’s who I did this for. I call to her across time, that little chubby dark-haired girl sitting with her heart awoke in a heap of books on the library’s carpet floor: I made this come true for you, honey. You did it. We did it!
And with that, it is more telempathic to exit the story as it is, because if you get this you get everything — as though you are seeing through my eyes the dolphins exulting in the fizzing froth beneath our feet, speeding through the water, lashing and barrel-rolling and turning, in the dancing, dazzling spray.
Laura Marjorie Miller writes about travel, magic, myth, natural history, ocean conservation, and other soulful subjects. Her travel writing has appeared in such places as Utne Reader, Faerie, UMass Magazine, SEVENSEAS, Outpost Magazine, The Boston Globe, and online at elephantjournal.com, GotSaga, and Tripping. Laura is an active swimmer and freediver. She advocates traveling with one’s whole body, and exploration as a creative act. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck.