First, to avoid a common confusion of terms: There are dolphin fish—called dorado in Spanish-speaking countries and mahi-mahi in Hawaii—and there are also several species of dolphins that are relatively small mammals of the whale family. Dolphin fish are lovely, ferocious fighters on rod and reel, and delicious on the table. But the other dolphins, the mammals (sometimes called porpoises, adding yet another element to the confusion), are even more special.
For centuries man has felt friendship toward mammalian dolphins, even a kinship with them. In Homer's Iliad the sea is portrayed as an old man with four dolphins radiating from his hair and beard. Also, the Greek word for dolphin is delphys, which is directly related to delphis, the word for womb, suggesting that the dolphin is the living womb of the sea, symbolic of the source of all life. Then there is the Greek myth about Dionysus, the god of wine, sailing incognito to the island of Naxos, where the crewmen of his ship planned to sell him into slavery. But Dionysus changed the ship's oars into serpents, grew vines from his loins and filled the ship with the music of invisible flutes. The understandably crazed sailors jumped overboard and would have drowned had not the sea-god Poseidon turned them into dolphins, thereby earning their eternal gratitude.
Despite all this anthropomorphism, until recently I had little interest in dolphins. They never struck me as any more exciting or intrinsic to the ocean scene than pelicans or gulls. Then, last March, I took a 13-foot kayak to the village of Loreto in Baja California on the Sea of Cortes, and in a week's time my attitude toward dolphins changed profoundly.
It happened by accident. I borrowed the kayak from a friend and took it to Baja to avoid having to hire a boat and guide to fish while I was there. On my last trip to Loreto, six months earlier, I had explained to a guide that I wanted to release the fish I caught.
"They'll die sooner or later anyway," he said.
"We will, too," I told him, "but I still want to release my fish."
"They'll die right away," he argued, "and pollute the water."
I couldn't help laughing at that absurdity, and I decided then and there that, for better or worse, I'd do my fishing on my own. What the guide really wanted, I finally figured out, was to avoid coming in after a day's fishing with an empty boat. Apparently, releasing fish in Baja is an unknown and inexplicable practice.
I saw the dolphins about two hours out the first morning. In those two hours, between 6 and 8 a.m., I had hooked and released several good fish, trolling large bucktail and feather lures on a long line behind the kayak. The reel was tied securely to a rubber grommet near the prow of the boat, and if it hadn't been, the rod, which was angled back across my left thigh as I paddled, would have been yanked overboard with many of the strikes. There were jacks, sierra, bonito and a couple of good-sized barracuda.
At about eight o'clock I looped in toward shore to follow the rocky coastline back toward my hotel, three miles to the north. Though in deep water, I was only 100 yards from shore. I was watching the brown pelicans and the black-crested terns diving for fish when, no more than 50 yards ahead and slightly to my right, toward the open sea, a cloud of little silver mackerel exploded from the water, churning the surface to foam. I swerved toward them and paddled hard to intercept the thrashing cloud of fish and drag my lure through the middle of them. The mackerel broke the surface every few seconds in their panic, so obviously something big was feeding on them, probably a school of something big, and whatever they were, I wanted to hook one.
A lot happened as I cut across the path of the escaping mackerel. First, a large fish struck, pulling line off the reel in a strong run. When I grabbed the rod, I dropped my paddle overboard. At that same instant, dolphins began to surface around me, showing their dark backs and sharklike dorsal fins as they rolled gracefully in and out of the water. Some of them were nearly as long as my boat. I was terrified for a second or two—the first glimpse of dolphins almost always makes you think of sharks—and by the time I realized what was happening, the paddle was at least 10 feet from the boat. Meanwhile, my hooked fish was running northeast, out to sea, and the dolphins, at least 30 or 40 of them, were rolling by, also heading south, and apparently unperturbed by it all. The nearest ones were no more than 20 feet away.
As soon as my fish stopped its run I wedged the rod securely into the boat and slid feetfirst over the side, swam after the paddle, grabbed it, tossed it back toward the kayak and swam after it as fast as I could. I wasn't exactly frightened, but I was, at the least, ill at ease. A large dolphin rolled about five feet to my right just before I reached the kayak. I saw its dorsal fin and smooth back, even its beaklike snout. It came nearly all the way out of the water, and my distinct impression was that it looked me straight in the eye, and that it was smiling.
By the time I'd retrieved the paddle, climbed back into the kayak and landed and released my fish, the school of dolphins was gone. The fish was a bonito, the largest I'd ever hooked, a 12- or 14-pounder. Bonito are members of the mackerel family, and I knew that mackerel often accompany dolphin schools, which explained my luck. I decided I'd paddle the same route the next day to see if I might run into a dolphin school again.
I did run into them again, every day for a week. Each morning, the school traveled the same route at the same time, never more than a few minutes off schedule. After the third day I lost interest in hooking fish when the dolphins arrived. As soon as I saw them—usually from at least a couple of hundred yards away—I reeled in and stowed the rod in the kayak. I got to know those dolphins, or, more accurately, they got to know me.
And each day the school grew. On the second day there were at least 50 dolphins, and I paddled along in the middle of the school, staying with them for at least a quarter of an hour. They rolled and jumped on all sides, some within three or four feet of the kayak. My paddle once brushed against one, and I could hear them breathing—strong, wet, whistling exhalations and inhalations each time the smooth backs rose above the surface. When I hooked a good fish on the second day—another large bonito—I was sorry to have to stop and play it. When I did stop, the dolphins nearest me slowed down, as if to give me a chance to rejoin them if I wanted to. Within seconds, though, the school moved on.
By the fourth day, the dolphins had learned to expect me. I had started out earlier than usual and first saw them a mile at sea, when it was barely light. It was absolutely windless then, the surface as unbroken as an endless pane of polished glass.
The school was about 200 yards to my right, the south, when I noticed the lead dolphins breaking quietly through the surface. Then, when I slapped my paddle against the water, they turned my way at once in response to the sound, and when they reached me several of them circled the kayak, as close as they could get without actually touching it or interfering with my paddling. Soon the school had re-formed, and I found myself in the middle again. We traveled together for half an hour that day, heading south. Whenever I tired and had to slow down, they slowed, too, and circled the kayak. There were more than a hundred of them by now. When I finally turned to paddle back to the hotel, they followed me for a minute or two before resuming their regular route.
The last day was best. I met them two miles out at sea, in the first dim orange glow of morning, and we stayed together for an hour. That far out, in near darkness, my feelings of isolation and exhilaration were magnified. Their breathing seemed louder, their sleek forms lovelier, their effortless power more formidable than ever. For a long time—perhaps five minutes—a very large dolphin rolled along beside the kayak, barely out of paddle's reach to my left. Every time his head came out he was staring at me. I could tell. His dark eyes glittered, reflecting the burnished orange sea.
At the end of an hour, still half a mile from shore, the orange sea turning to silver, I headed for the hotel. This time they rolled and frolicked around my kayak for several minutes before they finally turned away to go about their natural business. I was tired, and as thoroughly happy as I've ever been.
I talked about the dolphins with one of the guests at the hotel. "They're friendly—as friendly as dogs," I said, trying to explain what I'd experienced. But even as I said it I knew it wasn't right.
It was several days later, back home in Oregon, that, in my reading, I came across what I should have said. Another Greek—Plutarch this time—explained why dolphins are unique. "It is the only creature who loves man for his own sake," he wrote. "A dog is tame because man feeds him. To the dolphins alone, beyond all others, nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage."
Dolphins are indeed special, and that is precisely why.