by Harlan Yarbrough
My friends Brian and Heloise were visiting from Cambridge (Massachusetts, not UK—Brian works in the admissions office of one of the big universities there, which is how I met him, but that’s another story for another time), so Andrea and I had invited a couple of neighbors over for dinner and a social evening. Over dinner, Brian and his wife told us with obvious enthusiasm about going out from Paihia the previous day to swim with dolphins.
Our neighbor Jack said, “They’re amazing aren’t they.”
We all agreed, and a few minutes later we all moved to the living room and Jack told us what he called “my most dramatic dolphin story”. Here’s the story he told—I went back and checked with him a couple of times to make sure I got it right.
When I lived in the Bay of Islands, I used to go out quite often with my friend Dan. He’d had a couple of good years and got Q-West down in Wanganui to build him a thirty-six foot cat with twin Cat C9 Diesels. It’ll carry a dozen plus two crew, and he uses it to take tourists out on “Swim with the Dolphins” cruises. A few years back, when I was out of work for most of a year—mostly voluntarily—I used to go out with him quite often, when there was a space aboard. At first, I went out mostly for his company—we’ve been good friends for a long time—and to help him out. For several months, I went out whenever I didn’t have any other obligations.
After the first two or three months, I went out as much for the dolphins as for Dan, maybe more. I’d come to recognize several of them and knew their individual personalities—and, boy, do they have individual personalities. There was Old George, whom I called by that name because he reminded me so much of a neighbor I used to have, and Miriam. I don’t know why I called her Miriam; she just seemed like a Miriam to me. I’d never seen her with a calf and wondered about that, but maybe she wasn’t old enough yet. And Lily, younger, I think, and smaller than Miriam and somehow sort of pretty. And Billy, he’s a joker but really sweet, and … well, anyway, they sure do have personalities.
I think I actually spent more time in the water with ’em that summer than Dan did. I’m pretty sure I got to know them at least as well as he did, and they got to know me, too.
Well, one day we were out there with a pod of dolphins, probably the one I knew best, on a typical beautiful Far North summer day. We had six people with us, a couple and four individuals, and the couple and two individuals had become tired or cold and climbed back aboard, leaving a man and a woman still swimming.
All of a sudden, one of the dolphins began repeatedly ramming the woman in the water with his nose. I yelled, “Help me!” and leaned way over the gunwale and grabbed the woman’s ankle. With Dan and the husband pulling me from behind, I yarded the woman out of the water and into the boat. She’d taken on a lot of water and was barely conscious but was coughing. The coughing, of course, reassured me and Dan, and the woman, whose name I knew then but don’t remember, began talking rather hysterically—which is hardly surprising in the circumstances.
Once I saw she was going to be alright, I grabbed my mask and flippers. I said to Dan, “Get me out, if he attacks me,” and went over the side. I’d recognized the dolphin by the little white stripe on his dorsal fin and swam straight to him. Stripey—which is what I’d called him for months—was usually one of the sweetest, friendliest, gentlest dolphins in that pod. I grabbed a big lungful of air and started berating him—talking to him underwater. Crazy, huh? He could’ve knocked me out right there, and, besides, I had to keep going back to the surface to fill my lungs. I don’t know what made me do it.
He just floated there in front of me, hardly moved, while I ranted and raved and then surfaced, gulped air, ducked back underwater, and ranted and raved some more. He sort of lowered his nose, and I wondered if he was going to start butting me, too. Then I realized his whole attitude looked like a dog that’s just been scolded. Don’t ask me now how a dolphin looks contrite, but he did.
Another lungful gave me time to change what I was saying, not that I thought he could understand me—although sometimes I wonder. Anyway, instead of criticizing Stripey as I had at first, I started saying, “You’re such a nice dolphin. Why would you do a thing like that,” and surfacing to breathe and then continuing with more of the same.
After a few minutes, Stripey moved forward, so his nose was almost touching my belly. I’d just grabbed another lungful but didn’t say anything. I reached out and stroked him, and he seemed to relax. Don’t ask me how I know, ’cause I couldn’t tell you, he just seemed to relax. I took another lungful of air and said, “You ought to come up and apologize.” I didn’t expect him to understand me and can’t imagine that he did, but he followed me to the side of the boat and waited there, the picture of cetacean contrition.
I called up to Dan and said, “Put a rope around her waist and let her come back in, if she’s willing.”
To give credit where it’s due, I have to say she was one plucky lady. As soon as she understood what I was on about, she got the rope under her arms and splashed into the water beside me and Stripey. He didn’t move, even as the woman swam up quite close to him. After a moment, she began petting him and he again seemed to relax. The two of them stayed like that for quite a while, and it was quite a scene. Dan told me later everyone on board was watching the three of us like a scary scene from a good movie.
When the woman moved even closer, I felt a little nervous. I had my hand on Stripey and could feel him sort of vibrating or shivering. When she kissed his nose, his shaking stopped and I felt his muscles relax under my hand. The woman stroked him a few more times and said “Good-bye”, then swam to the ladder and climbed out. I was so impressed, I kissed him myself—not a particularly nice taste—before stroking him a few more times and saying good-bye.
After I’d followed the woman up the ladder, I looked over the side and saw that Stripey had moved even closer to the boat, right alongside, maybe touching. The woman and I both leaned over the side and stroked him again and told him what a nice dolphin he was. We straightened up, and he swam a little ways away and dove.
He came out of the water on the other side of the boat in a beautiful spy-hop, and then dove again. All eight of us were still looking at where he’d been, when he came entirely out of the water in the most beautiful breach I’ve ever seen a dolphin do. His tail must’ve been eight feet out of the water. He and the rest of the pod then dove and disappeared, and we motored back to the wharf.
Dan told me, after the tourists had left, that he’d heard about a woman being killed in an attack like that. “That was a long time ago, though,” he said, “thirty, forty years, and I’ve never heard of another case like it.” I hadn’t either and still haven’t. Good thing he was just bunting her with his nose. “Maybe you didn’t know, but dolphins kill sharks by ramming ‘em with their dorsal fins.”
Dan and I never did figure out what set Stripey off that day. We speculated that because both of the subjects of attacks were women, the cause might have been something to do with hormones or maybe scent—natural or perfume or who-knows-what—but that’s just speculation. Dan suggested brightly-colored bathing suits as a trigger, but I’ve read that dolphins are almost color-blind. The bottom line is that we really didn’t know and still don’t.
I saw Stripey a dozen more times that year and never failed to pet him and make a little fuss over him. He seemed to like that. I haven’t been out with Dan for four or five years, though, so don’t know if Stripey’s still there.
Anyway, that’s the most dramatic dolphin story I know.
None of us said anything for twenty or thirty seconds, and then Andrea said, “Wow!” The rest of us nodded our heads and she added, “I hope he’s alright.”
“Yeah,” Jack said, “it’s like that. Y’get to think of ‘em almost like human friends.”
Soon, Samantha and Jason had to leave, because they both had to go to work in the morning—they’re both teachers. Jack and his ex-wife, Shirley, left not long after. It’s funny how they don’t live together but seem to do all their socializing together. There’s probably a story in there somewhere, too, but, again, that’s for another time.