Dreaming of the Dolphin's Sigh

ALL the way through school, my teachers wrote notes to my parents: ``Sara daydreams in class.'' And they were right, I did. Blessed with a vivid imagination, I could leave the classroom for better places simply by staring out of the window into the branches of the moss-draped live oak trees. We all daydream, fantasize about things we want to have happen. My dream was of dolphins; I've watched them, studied them, and loved them. I grew up on the Georgia coast and dolphins were always a part of my life. But for a long time, they were simply there; an accepted part of my world. Then, on a May morning, just as the sun rose, I walked along the beach at Tybee Island. The sea changed from pearly gray to pink and rose and as I watched, a line of curved fins moved through the opalescent waters.

Almost without thinking, I began swimming out toward the dolphins. Since I'm not a terribly strong swimmer, I felt some qualms about getting too far from shore, but the need to get closer to the dolphins was too great to resist. Then, a single dolphin veered away from the rest of the pod and swam closer to shore, whether looking for fish or just playing, I'm not sure.

Suddenly, he surfaced near me, his trunk shining silver in the rays of the morning sun as he leapt up into the air, scattering droplets in the light. I heard the gentle ``whuussh'' of his blowhole, a sound as gentle as a sigh.

Stunned by his grace, I felt a sense of longing, and an almost physical pain at the suddenness of such beauty. I felt what I later learned C.S. Lewis described as being ``surprised by joy.''

Recently, I visited the Dolphin Research Center at Florida's Grassy Key with a special group concerned with the welfare of dolphins. The center is a not-for-profit organization working toward a greater understanding of marine mammals. It is a place where many sick or stranded animals are nursed back to health and then returned to the sea. It is not a place where tourists pay money to ``swim'' with dolphins.

The day was gorgeous, the sun was shining and a light breeze blew from the sea. The dolphins were swimming in pools, separated by long walkways and docks and contained only by low barriers from the jade-green sea that stretched out in front of us.

Members of the group were invited to interact with the dolphins. I opted for a ``free'' swim as opposed to a structured swim where the keeper is present to encourage the play. In a free swim, you aren't allowed to make any overtures toward the dolphins; it's their ballgame. We were told ahead of time not to expect too much.

There are some things you want to believe in, regardless of how fantastic they seem. I slipped into the water and looked around for the dolphins. They were there, but they'd suddenly disappeared. Then, I felt a gentle touch at my waist. A dolphin had approached me so silently that I hadn't known he was near.

Dolphins aren't small, the average length is about 10 feet, yet they move so smoothly, so easily that they don't leave a wake. He touched me once with his snout, then a moment later two dolphins surfaced and began swimming, one on each side of me. At first I was startled, then delighted as they took me into their world, their environment.

Later, I was alone on a floating dock in a pool with two dolphins: Natua and Andessa. Natua, who is male, is larger, with skin the color of pewter. Andessa, the female, is pale silver, her underside the color of pearl with a faint pink cast. I was lying on my stomach, my arms in the water, when Andessa swam by slowly, looking at me. As she approached, she cleared her blowhole of water, and in the stillness, I heard again the dolphin's sigh.

Slowly she swam by on her side, looking at me, her gaze steady and calm. If you've never been close to a dolphin, you can't imagine the look in those eyes. It is a look that holds intelligence and innocence and something else, something mysterious. You find yourself talking to them and the amazing thing is that they respond.

Then Natua surfaced vertically in front of me, flukes down in the water, smiling his dolphin ``smile'' and wearing a frond of seaweed on his snout. Taking the seaweed from him, I threw it out into the pool. He turned, retrieved and brought it back on his snout. We played this game for a while until he returned with the seaweed in his mouth. He swam directly in front of me, his mouth open, the seaweed neatly tucked in as he waited to see what I'd do.

Putting my hand in his mouth, I gently removed the seaweed. He moved closer to me, his mouth open, showing his sharp teeth. I placed my arm in his mouth. Gently, he closed his mouth over my arm, held it for an instant, then released it, did a back flip and swam the perimeter of the pool rapidly. He returned, making clicking sounds and seeming delighted with himself and me.

In the quiet of the evening, being with the dolphins was like a dream; it was my dream, my place and my time. Sometimes a thing is so tender, so private, that writing about it is almost a violation; yet, it needs sharing. I felt a sense of wonder that I had felt only one time before, when the nurse brought my newborn son to me at the hospital. When I touched his hands that were like starfish and saw his fingernails with their perfect half-moons, I was completely awed. I wasn't prepared for such perfection.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem, ``God's Grandeur,'' that ``there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.'' With the dolphins, I felt that freshness, that knowledge of life, of a thing inside that had lain untapped or tamped down by the everyday things that cover perception. Suddenly, it was released and I was filled with life and the sheer joy of it and the understanding that it was one of these creatures that had given it to me.

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