Tank-side visits were off limits to humans after hours, by dolphin decree. They were extremely territorial animals, capable of splashing an unwelcome loiterer to a point just short of drowning. “Get away” was the clear message.
One memorable evening I sauntered over to the tank, hot and uncomfortable, looking to be splashed. The girls were docile, slowly swimming at the surface of the water in clockwise circles around the edge of the pool while I stood watching. The moon was full and the air was calm. The only sounds were those of the gently lapping tiny waves created by the motion of the dolphins through the water, and the rising and falling of the surf in the nearby ocean. In a bold move I leaned over the edge of the concrete tank, dangling my hands in the water within reach of the two swimmers.
As each approached I held my breath, expecting a deserved and inevitable splash. Two or three laps later, Phoenix and Ake (Ah-Kay) were still calmly swimming past my immersed hands, now rolling a quarter turn to gaze upward at my face and then swim on. A progressively more intimate relationship developed over the course of a half hour that evening. Phoenix initiated the behaviors and Ake followed suit. Their quarter turn roll became gradually more pronounced and the pace slowed as Phoenix extended her left flipper above the water's surface, first in a salute and on subsequent passes, in a sort of handshake, a touch.
Several curious Earthwatchers silently joined me. All extended their hands toward the dolphins, touching, stroking and caressing the extended fins - firm, rubbery and wet. We watched each other, and as I gazed into their oh-so-human eyes, they seemed so much like my own that they appeared misplaced in this fishy form. I gradually became aware of the link that was broken somewhere in the ancient familial path that sent us on our separate evolutionary ways. Myths spawned by the old Samoans of reincarnated warriors in dolphin form became obvious manifestations of this kind of observation.
Soon the girls resumed their normal swimming pattern and we dropped back from the tank lest we ruin the moment with a splashy awakening. We withdrew to the moon shadows near the back of the lab and spoke in hushed tones. A second year assistant from California, a surfer, spoke for us all, saying, "dude...that was awesome!"
But that was just a hint of what was to come.
Several mornings later, daily tank-side prep and cleanup was in progress. I moved the usual research objects into place for our morning training session: beachball, surfboard, basket and Frisbee. The sun was scorching as always, and the dolphins swam leisurely in their pool. Phoenix watched me over the edge of the concrete tank, a light blue wall about four and a half feet high. Each circular pool was equipped with a central drain and a watertight access door to allow entry for cleaning when empty. The door was several steps down, with a two-foot square window for underwater viewing. That the dolphin was watching me was unusual. They tended to ignore us until appointed times for feeding, work or play. Because of this, I pretended to ignore her, relying only on my peripheral view for fear of scaring the watcher off. As minutes elapsed, water began showering lightly over my shoulders. I was being intentionally splashed, but not in the usual aggressive way. This was a gentle attempt to gain my attention.
I turned and faced my assailant, wished her good-morning and asked, “What are you up to?” Upon making eye contact, the dolphin quickly swam away as I feared she would. But she bobbed immediately to the surface of the water in the area by the underwater door, and then returned to her original position. Splashing water in the direction of the door, she dove again, disappeared under the surface, and now that I was paying attention, re-appeared, framed in the underwater window. Not only was this inordinately cute, deliberate and unprecedented, but the behavior held within it an equation that struck a chord I’d been trained to recognize: command, respond, reward.
It took several repetitions before the stupid human in this encounter understood the dolphin’s intentions.
Command: splash toward the door.
Respond: greet at the underwater window.
And with that, I walked toward the door, quickly descended the steps and met my dolphin counterpart face to face at the viewing port. All that was missing was a reward. And with that, the face behind the glass disappeared and the entire body popped above the surface of the water, extending in the “hug” position. My reward: command, respond, reward.
I’d been trained. Oh my God! The dolphin had trained me. I was a bit of a slow learner, but I eventually understood and was changed forever in my estimation of animal intelligence and my sense of place in this amazing world.
* * * * *
My month of participation was over. As the plane taxied for takeoff I paged through project literature. Nowhere were such experiences alluded to or mentioned. Lou Herman's words echoed in my head. “.... severely enlightened." He knew. And now I did too.
“Like, totally better than Flipper, dude." I laughed under my breath, gazing out the window as Diamondhead slowly receded beneath billowing white clouds as the plane headed back to Chicago.