Beyond Flipper

categories: Cocktail Hour


Here is a post I am re-printing from my “Wild Life” blog over at OnEarth magazine, where it has been getting a lot of play.


Like any sane person, I am fond of dolphins. For the last seven years or so, since I moved south, we have been on neighborly terms. I remember my first New Year’s Day in the South, eight years ago, when I kayaked over to Masonboro Island. Escorted by a squad of pelicans, I paddled across the channel thinking of birds and looking to the sky, until, suddenly, something rose out of the water. A dorsal fin. Then three more, close by. I’d like to say that I reacted immediately with sheer delight at the wonder of nature, but that would be a lie. The first moment was one of panic, before slow identification of friend, not foe.

On some levels my life has been an erratic one: hard years of debt, failure, and frustration. But one thing I am proud of is this: I have always made an effort to get to know my non-human neighbors. Dolphins have been particularly good neighbors. Moving to the island town of Wrightsville Beach, outside of Wilmington, North Carolina, was a little like moving to the set of Flipper. It’s true the dolphins were less interactive than on the old TV show, rarely crying out to you in their ratcheting chatter, never imploring you to save a distressed swimmer or put out a boat fire, but you got the feeling that it was only a matter of time. I’d never felt as unsettled as I did our first fall in the South. My wife and I had a new baby and a new place, and I had a new job. Those early months after the move were a sweaty nightmare.

But dolphins helped. All through our first fall, I would carry my daughter Hadley down the beach in a little papoose contraption called a Baby Bjorn. We would stop and watch the dolphins as they lifted up into our world before dipping back into theirs. Thinking it was only polite, I started to teach myself all I could about dolphins. Like most people, I knew they used sonar, but what I didn’t know could fill a whole world. What I didn’t know was that just as a person experiences his or her life mostly through sight, and a dog through rivers of smell, dolphins experience the sea around them acoustically. They do this through a process called echolocation that involves emitting between thirty and eight hundred clicks a minute, sending these sounds bouncing off the world around them and then receiving, and analyzing, what echoes back. In this way dolphins sonically understand both where they are and what is around them. In this way, they place themselves and other objects, the bouncing signals providing complex and ever-changing maps of their underwater world.

Looking back now, I see that learning all I could about my new home was metaphorically akin to echolocation. I felt massively out of place in the South and needed to bounce off everything surrounding me before I could call it home. But to suddenly have dolphins in my backyard! Not long after that first New Year’s paddle I paid a visit to Dr. Ann Pabst, a professor and marine scientist at the school where I taught. She articulated my still vague thoughts.

“The fact is that no other large wild animal regularly lives so close to man,” she said. “It’s like sharing land with a grizzly bear.”


The latest dolphin news from the Gulf of Mexico is not good. Dead dolphins are being found at four to ten times the normal rate since the spill. No study has yet explained the high mortality rate, and scientists warn us not to jump to conclusions, but …

… but let’s put it this way: I have been asked more than once this fall why I harp on old news and keep writing about the Gulf oil spill, despite the fact that it is so clearly “over.” Dolphins are one answer to that question. When people tell me it is over, old news, I say, “It  may be over for you, but not for the locals.”  And no one is more local than the Gulf dolphins.

I remember a day during the height of the BP spill, when I was out in a boat with some members of the Cousteau Ocean Futures Society film team. There was a thunderstorm over the marina in Buras, Louisiana, and we were waiting out the storm in Barataria Bay when a pod of dolphins showed up. We watched the dolphins sea-serpent in and out of the water, their bodies sleek, black-gray rubber balls gleaming with water. They cycled up and down as if moving in a circle: a constant rotation from air to water. From up close you could stare right into their intelligent black eyes — no pupils, all black. The best moment was when a mother and her two young glided close to the boat. The mother swam by and the young one followed.

Despair mixed with delight, as it often did during those strange days. Seeing the dolphins reminded one of the Cousteauians of the plight of the dolphins’ large cousins, the sperm whales, out in the Gulf. The team had been out on the Gulf trying to film the whales over the previous weeks, but this was not an easy task, given how few were left and how deep they swam.

“They like to hunt and feed along the continental shelf,” my new friend said. “They prey on giant squids that live exactly where the oil is. There are only about 1,300 of them left here, so the loss of even one whale is crushing.”

It is hard to overcome our anthropocentric bias, to understand that animals have complex lives and that the loss of those lives is not just simple cold fact. But in the midst of considering our own plight, don’t we owe it to ourselves to consider theirs? I remember a story that a charter fisherman named Kit told me back on Wrightsville Beach. We were drinking beers at the marina when Kit, a Hemingway look-alike, described watching a dolphin give birth from his boat. The dolphin baby was stillborn, but the mother wouldn’t accept the loss. She kept nudging the small dead body up toward the surface with her snout. When the baby got to the surface, it would sink back down. Then the mother would once again push it up toward air.

Here is what I thought that day as the dolphins swam by our boat in the Gulf: these sentient beings, these families, are now swimming through 200 million gallons of oil and millions of gallons of dispersants. A people that rarely have empathy with Homo sapiens from other parts of the world, and that only recently released a substantial percentage of its own population from human slavery, may not be expected to have empathy with Tursiops truncates. So how to stretch our minds, how to understand that this was not just one of the greatest environmental disasters in United States history, but in dolphin history? We will not see the full body count of course, since most dead dolphins, like the stillborn baby that Kit saw, sink to the ocean’s floor. Out of sight, out of mind.

That day we watched the dolphins for a while longer, though they seemed to be getting bored with us. They swam, farther away from our boat, but, before they exited, they provided one final treat. A large individual circled back and slapped its tail, a big sharp crack. Then it dove down and swam off. I wondered out loud if the dolphin we saw was “fishwhacking,” which consisted of batting fish with their tail flukes, so that the poor stunned fish sometimes flies 30 feet in the air. The truth was that the dolphin might have slapped its tail for any number of reasons, including sheer exhilaration. Who knew? Dolphins are generalists, with no one set fishing behavior, and adapt differently in different places to the local tides, geography, and fish population. In other words, they are creative thinkers, not inclined to doing things just one way.

After a while the storm passed and we headed back to Buras. I stood in front of the boat and held onto the bowline as if surfing, bouncing along, wondering if any dolphin bowriders would join us. I loved the feeling of being out there, of salt and sand and sun, of having spent a day outdoors with dolphins, of living out a childhood fantasy by riding in a Cousteau boat. But the feeling was not a childhood feeling. I knew too much. I couldn’t stop thinking about the dolphins. I couldn’t stop imagining those smart, interactive, family-oriented animals swimming through an oil-and-chemical pool of slime.

Was there anything good in all the ugliness? I had  heard a hundred people say that perhaps the spill would lead to a time of reckoning. That even those of us who would rather not think about these things, would find ourselves thinking: just what have we done?

But these questions faded when the spotlight did. We humans can handle only so much guilt, and we grow weary of the work of empathy. Soon enough the national media skipped on to its next big story.

The problem was that there were many, both dolphin and human, who weren’t able to move on. This is where they were from. And they have stayed stuck here in this place they call home. Mired.

It is the locals who often take the hit in service of our global needs. Dolphins are locals here, more local even than the Cajuns and their drowned camps, and they have their own local culture that will be lost along with the human one. From different places spring different dolphin qualities. When I paddled from North to South Carolina a few years ago I stopped at Jeremy Creek in the town of McClellanville, South Carolina. There the local dolphins are famous for self-stranding on the town boat ramp and eating fish out of hands of people. In other words, this is a tradition particular to the place, taught from parents to children. I only bring this up so that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking it is “just animals” we are killing. These are beings with cultures and traditions.

When we tally up our ledger sheet of gains and losses, we had better consider this. We are gaining oil, yes. But one of the things we are ripping apart is culture. Just as local fishermen won’t be able to show this eroding land to their grandchidlren, so dolphin communities may not be able to continue living in a place they have lived in for centuries if we keep taking wild risks for the last drops of oil. The Deepwater spill might not do them in, but what about the next one? In the past few weeks BP has gotten the offical go ahead from the Department of Interior to resume deep water drilling in the Gulf. When we consider what we are sacrificing at oil’s altar, we had better not forget certain mammalian neighbors, neighbors who live in communities, mourn for their dead and unborn, teach their children, and call their friends by name.

My initial reaction to seeing dolphins near my home was an almost aesthetic one, like oohing and ahhing at a particularly pleasing painting. But dolphins are not paintings, and they are not symbols of my attempts to find a home. They are the true locals, and I’ve come to believe that it’s just common courtesy, no more than good manners, to treat them with respect. This is not “environmentalism.” It’s just looking out for one’s neighbors.

This post was adapted in part from my new book, The Tarball Chronicles, and in part from a longer essay on dolphins that originally appeared in the Toad Suck Review

  1. Tommy writes:

    Just as dolphins have always been in these waters, generations and generations of dolphins, I drive by forest land cleared for development and lament: trees have always stood on this land, generations and generations of trees, too many generations to count, same as the dolphins. I remember once, sitting on a deck overlooking a valley in Forest Knolls, CA, watching a loan hawk parasail along the ridge, and I realized, there has always been a hawk gliding through this valley, generations and generations of hawks. The greatest cause of wildlife decimation is habitat loss. And I have one word for the dolphin kills you are reporting (why hasn’t anyone else picked up that story??)(It’s alarming.) : biomagnification.

  2. Dori Henderson writes:

    Thank you for sharing this essay – the writing is lovely and gentle (like the creature you write about). Was that intentional – matching the tone of the essay to some strong element in the piece?

    I really liked the way your essay used concepts of home and neighbors to create empathy in the reader for those directly affected by the terrible Deepwater oil spill. And, this was one of my favorite lines in the essay (though there are many): “We humans can handle only so much guilt, and we grow weary of the work of empathy.” which puts emphasis on a larger, human problem.