Tuesday, August 9, 2011

At the airport, we met a guy who had come to the Big Island to work as a dolphin trainer at one of the swanky resorts. All of us were new to the island, and he invited us to come by sometime to swim with the dolphins. They were 'wild' dolphins, free to swim away, but they came back again and again to the manmade lagoon that dominated the grounds of the Hilton Waikoloa. Guests at the hotel could pay $200 to be allowed on the other side of the fence, to wade in the shallow pool and tentatively reach out to stroke the sides of the dolphins, which swirled around the people's legs like currents around a pier.

We planned to take our new friend up on this offer. Who could pass up a free dolphin encounter? This is the sort of thing that happens when you tell people that you're living on island. They're quick to offer you a cup of coffee, a ride somewhere, a hit from their joint.

A few days later, the friend-of-a-friend we were staying with squeezed us into her fuchsia Geo Tracker and drove us down a long, twisting road early in the morning, on her way to work at a beachside breakfast restaurant. From the top of the road, a thousand feet up, the blue plain of the sea spilled out to the curve of the horizon, dotted with whitecaps. We bumped along between coffee plants ripe with berries, wire fences, goats munching dry grass. Further down, ohia trees stretched over the road, branches reaching and twisting, and bright red hibiscus cloistered the path until we could no longer see the ocean, just this serpentine road between tropical gardens and rusty homesteads.

At the bottom, in a cement parking lot, Jen dropped us off and we waved her back up the long hill, back to the restaurant in downtown Kona for her breakfast shift. We were in Kealakekua Bay, hemmed in by steep cliffs and jagged lava flows. A few Hawaiian guys, shirtless, hung out in a clanky pickup; a woman nursed a baby in the doorway of an old van. They were all barefoot, relaxed, smoking, listening to scratchy music -- the picture of what island life might be if the Disney-esque luaus and tiki bars of the Hilton Waikoloa hadn't been built. They offered to rent us a kayak.

“No thanks,” Adam said. “We're just going to snorkel.”

“You go snorkeling way over there,” one of the guys said, pointing at a white statue across the bay – the Captain Cook monument. His Hawaiian accent was as thick as a Scottish brogue. “You kayak over, then snorkel, then come back.”

We believed him that the good snorkeling was to be found across the bay, but we were fit and had flippers and it was early in the morning, still, so we said we'd swim over.

Close to two miles later, we arrived utterly exhausted at the monument, just the same time as boat upon boat from the Kona resorts pulled into the water next to us. Big boats with barbeque grills and water slides, small jet boats, boats of all shapes and sizes. Out of these boats spilled countless numbers of people. Some of them were not good swimmers, apparently, so they wedged themselves into tubes and floated facedown in the water, spluttering in their snorkels. The snorkeling was indeed far better in this part of the bay than it had been on the long, aimless swim over. The shallows were filled with so many tropical fish it was like being in a cartoon, but you couldn't swim two yards without bumping into a tube or getting kicked by a flippered foot.

I raised my head. “Goddamn it,” I said.

Adam and I sat on the cement pier for a moment with one of the snorkeling guides, who was watching, bemused, as his guests fumbled and flopped in the water like fish on dry land. The quiet morning had become filled with their chatter, and the air floating atop the water was choked with gas and rumbling engines.

“Shall we?” Adam asked, and we both giant-stepped back into the sea, beelining it the mile-and-a-half back to the other side of the bay where the snorkeling wasn't as sweet but where the quiet Hawaiian morning was still unfolding at its own slow pace. It was agreed that instead of hugging the horseshoe curve of the shore, as we'd done on the way over, we'd book it straight across the deep bay. Flippers or no flippers, a 3.5-mile swim is an endeavor.

Facedown, nothing below us but sun-filled, wavering blue water and dreamy, faraway sand, we swam with purpose, determination. It became silent except for the hollow sound of our breath measured through the snorkel. Click. Clickity-click. Click.

Adam raised his head. “Did you hear that?” he asked. I nodded. “Dolphins?”

I shrugged, and we lowered our faces again and continued swimming. Click-click. Clickity-click-click.

Like bullets propelled from the water, a pod of Pacific spinner dolphins were catapulting themselves out of the ocean about 50 feet from us, out toward the open sea. They seemed to be playing, chasing each other like squirrels up a tree, showing off their acrobatic prowess for no reason other than that it was a glorious morning. We breathlessly swam toward them, each silently begging the dolphins not to swim away. They didn't. They met us halfway, leaping near us like I'd seen their northern brethren do alongside of a boat in Alaska. Instead of following the sides of a big boat, though, the dolphins were following us. They moved southeast as a pod, and we swam in their midst. There were moments when I was enveloped by the pod, dolphins on either side of me, dolphins below me, dolphins above, twisting, arching, spinning. I felt like a dolphin myself.

They stayed with us all the way across the bay. Occasionally, they'd disappear for a few moments and I'd stop swimming and look around for them, raise my head from the water. Sometimes Adam was gone too, and I bobbed alone in the warm, salty water. But always, out of the bottomless blue shadows, a lone gray body about the same size as my own would effortlessly push through the density of the water, undulating toward me. It was made for this, pure muscle, a perfect gymnast's body, lithe and agile and certain of itself.

They came so close as to brush against us, but The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association strictly warns that “the natural curiosity of wild dolphins should never be misinterpreted as 'friendly' behavior in which they are purposefully seeking out human attention.

Dolphins may approach people in the wild because they are naturally curious and may investigate unfamiliar objects in their habitat, but this is not safe for humans or the dolphins,” it goes on to say. “The dolphins' natural behaviors are being disturbed when they abandon them to seek out humans.

When people swim with resting wild spinner dolphins, the dolphins may be drawn out of their resting state to investigate the swimmers. This may be a change in behavior which may constitute 'harassment' under the Federal law that protects them and other marine mammals.”

I understand that my species can be a thick-headed bunch requiring explicit instructions, and I know marine mammals need protection. But I'm reminded of an interview with Joel Salatin that I just read about his book, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. I'm all for environmental regulations, but the accusatory tone from this, our governing body meant to protect marine life, makes me indignant. I'm no dolphin harasser, and dolphins don't live in a world devoid of human interaction. Humans shouldn't live in a world devoid of dolphin interaction either. Doesn't understanding lead to protection? Doesn't an intimate experience lead to reverence? The site actually condones encounters with trained dolphins at a tourist attraction. When did we fuck up so badly that the only way we an hope to protect wildness is to avoid it at all costs or to put it in a resort? It's dispiriting that such a simple, extraordinary act could be turned so ugly by people with only the best of intentions. 

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