First, consider the day. A delightful day, just one of many working alongside the crew of a small cruise ship traveling for 8 weeks along the Belize Barrier Reef. The customers were attracted to this cruise for its access to remote keys (islands) with their shallow bays and clear waters, often teeming with colorful tropical fish. Our 200 ft long, flat-bottomed ship dropped anchor this balmy day on a stretch of sandy bottom which the captain knew to be well clear of the fragile coral. The distance from the anchorage to the beach where the snorkelers would enter the water was just over a mile, so passengers would be shuttled to the beach and back in 26 ft launches with seat capacity of two dozen each. The boats ran the 10-minute trips every hour until noon when everyone returned to the ship for lunch.
My job as a registered kayak guide that winter was usually to accompany passengers on kayak trips when the ship was in port, but on these popular snorkeling days the captain asked me to provide what I called lifeguard duty for the participants. I was asked to keep my kayak off shore and visible to the swimmers as a platform in case they needed assistance getting back to shore, adjustments to their equipment, a brief rest or ‘encouragement’ to not stray too far from the group. Lifeguarding those groups of snorkelers was one of my favorite assignments. It was less stressful than long kayak trips with their ever-customized destinations, complicated logistics and many safety considerations. An added feature of snorkel trips was they involved constant social interaction with happy people who were often experiencing the most fun they had had in a long time.
The routine for snorkeling days like this one included keeping me on the water until the last person was safely ashore. When all were all seated in the returning shuttle, I would paddle back to the ship alone. The motor launch was faster, so paddling alone I would quickly fall behind by a few hundred yards.
The whole lifeguarding experience always left me feeling satisfied. Returning to the ship, tired, I would reflect on my contribution to the customers’ experience which was usually meaningful to them. I would also feel grateful for having a job that connected with my love for outdoor exercise, the sun, the ocean. All this basking in the warm climate when the winter days at home could be under two feet of snow and below zero was the kind of activity that had me thinking, almost out loud, Thank you God, for this moment; there is no place I would rather be right now. It was an appreciated sense of wholeness, and quite significant this day as the prelude to the arrival of the dolphins.
The anchored ship’s PA system could be heard over water for miles, and as it announced the return of the launch I could hear, not only the activity of the group being recovered on board, but also, surprisingly, my name! The captain was using the outside PA system to alert passengers to look out to view a pod of dolphins. “They are visible off the port side, just to the right of where you see the lifeguard kayak,” he explained. I had not noticed the loping group of dolphins following my kayak. The seas were a bit churned up in the wind, and the 2 to 3 ft waves tended to limit my view to either side. But when I heard the captain’s announcement I turned in time to see a large Atlantic dolphin, neatly framed in the wave beside me, moving parallel to my kayak, in the same direction, and at an impressive speed. I looked behind me as best I could, to see two, then three large dolphins leave the water in tandem, like links on a chain, curving perfectly back into the waves beside me one after the other with almost no splash. I loved it; I hoped they would return, come close again, greet me, the slow swimming, strange looking 18 ft long, orange creature visiting from thousands of miles to the north.
The entertainment was over. Dolphins have places to go and food to chase and apparently can’t detain themselves long to look at slowpokes like me. Except one, that is. I think it was the first one, the big one that had originally shot past me like a torpedo just under the top edge of the wave. I like to think he or she came back to acknowledge the spiritual connection; to bow, to tip the hat so to speak, in recognition of respect – for life, for creation, for such vivacious moments however temporary.
It was a feeling. What I’m trying to communicate next has no words that fit well, but attempting to share let me say this: the large mammals can swim much better than we humans. They navigate better, they can tolerate immense pressures, they understand a remarkable language of tones we intelligent humans can’t decipher, and… they seem to live more peacefully in community, enjoying each other and who they were created to be. I surmised all that from one moment of eye contact lasting a fraction of a second. He or she was about my size, came back alone alongside my kayak, perhaps to measure my paddling speed, then turned 180’ and made a last run from behind, jumping completely out of the water right beside me. I am sure the hefty animal’s head turned slightly to present a clear eye, looking right at my eyes. In an flash – again, not with words, but with knowledge, with spontaneous heart knowledge – I felt myself communicate, “Hello Friend… Thank You!! Thank you for coming by . . . I know without doubt we are kindred spirits. I’m so impressed with you; I’m humbled by your beauty, your athleticism. I love you, Friend.” Then, “Good bye.” The total experience lasted about 15 seconds.
When my attention returned to the task at hand, I noticed I was 90’ off course and down wind from the ship. I turned the kayak, reluctantly really, toward the ship’s stern where the deck hands would assist me back aboard, and the galley crew would provide another delicious meal among so many well tanned friends chatting about exciting colors of the fish they had been identifying and photographing all morning. Then they would ask me, “Did you see the dolphins from your kayak?”
“Yes,” I would reply; “It felt as if they knew me.”