“Why the HELL,” I grumbled to myself as I stumped along the empty Kaikoura streets, shivering in my jumper and fleece and hat and waterproof jacket, “am I paying ACTUAL MONEY to jump into FREEZING COLD WATER at FIVE IN THE MORNING?” I was not, initially, in a good frame of mind to get the most out of the Dolphin Encounter.
It’s been a low-key, slightly out-of-sorts week here in Kaikoura, I don’t mind telling you. Nothing has gone really wrong, of course, everything’s fine: I’ve been staying in a perfectly pleasant backpackers, walking on the beach and visiting seal colonies and looking at shags, reading books and sitting in the sun and drinking tea and having lots of conversations about the Democratic primaries (“Let me google ‘superdelegate’ and I’ll get back to you, okay?”) and generally being pretty chilled out. Nothing’s wrong, but I have been spending a lot of time alone, brooding, sending angsty text messages and missing Wellington much more than I expected to. Tourism hasn’t been too much on my mind this week.
But still, the whole reason I’m here now, the whole reason I decided not to go for another four-month work visa, is so I could see the country, and what there is to see here in Kaikoura are marine mammals, specifically whales, seals, and dolphins. I was pretty apathetic about the whole thing–I’ve been whale watching before, in California, and I like seals fine, and dolphins are also, yes, just fine. I just sort of didn’t care what I did, and when a girl at the hostel told me how exciting the dophin swim was, I was like, yeah, sure, fine. I mooched down to the information centre and found that there was one spot left on the 5:45 a.m. Friday morning swim and I thought that was a pretty good sign, so I gave them a lot of money and then spent three days walking along the beach, wondering if I shouldn’t cancel because dolphin swimming? How predictable. How…precious.
I went to bed later than I should have last night because of the interesting conversation going on in my room (“A copay is a fee you pay to the doctor–yes, on top of the fees that you’re already paying out of yoru paycheck, just to stay well”) and getting up this morning was a grievous struggle. It was burning cold and I felt I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes with me and I seriously considered buying some possum-fur socks I saw on the street the other day just because I couldn’t warm up. “Dolphins are DUMB,” I moaned to myself, and thought of about eighteen other things I’d rather be doing instead of struggling into a wetsuit and watching an informative video.
I stayed cold on the bus (even in two layers of 7mm neoprene) and cold on the boat, and it was still dark and I was so tired. The sun began to rise and I saw a huge albatross sail right outside the window out of which I was blankly staring. I saw a dorsal fin or two, very quickly. Hmm. The boat operators had been adamant that these trips are on the dolphins’ terms, not the humans, and that they don’t entice or attract them in any way. “Don’t be disappointed,” they said, over and over again, “if this experience doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. They’re wild creatures and you’re in their world. As far as they’re concerned, you’re here to entertain them.” I thought that I would be fine, actually, if the dophins decided to sleep in, as I so desperately wished I had, and if we headed back to the bay early.
But soon it was time to put on our hoods and flippers and masks and to get into the freezing cold water. They’d told us to keep our faces in the water and to make as much noise as possible, that that would interest the dophins. “Use that karaoke voice!” one of the boat crew said, and I thought, watching an albatross land on the water like a very large hook-nosed duck, “Well, at least I can do that much,” and I jumped right in.
They were with me, I was with them, right away. Most of them were about as big as I am and they were so close, so close, as close as I would be to you if we were sitting curled up on a couch right now, drinking hot chocolate and eating ginger nuts, and I was telling this story and you had to dodge to avoid my wildly gesticulating hands. I had to hold my hands really close to my sides to avoid touching them.
I sang to them through my snorkel as loudly as I could and didn’t feel the cold at all. They looked me right in the eye and dove around me and I swam in fast tight circles and they kept coming and coming to look at me, at one point about seven at a time, all around me. I wasn’t scared, exactly, but it was a bit overwhelming, a bit unbelievable. Sometimes I just had to laugh these weird hysterical screamy laughs through my snorkel because they were right there. They were so smooth and graceful and gorgeous, exactly as you’d expect, keeping pace with me as I thrashed around, disappearing beneath me and then popping up again as I began to hyperventilate from excitement. They see me, I thought, the eyes of my eyes wide open, they know I’m here, they want to…
What did they want? What did they see?
I popped my head up to check the position of the boat and the crew were jumping up and down and pointing at me and giving the thumbs-up sign and yelling “KEEP GOING! KEEP GOING! THEY LOVE YOU!” and I put my face back down, breathless, and they were still there, some really big ones and some smaller ones, all with slightly different faces, and, I later learned, various scars that they get from their frequent and enthusiastic mating and which help researchers identify them one from the other. I kept swimming, as fast as I could, singing singing singing, and they kept swimming with me, thinking about whatever they were thinking about: about the push and give of water, about speed and strength, about the rising sun and the deep darks where I can never go.
I was getting too tired to swim much more so I headed back to the boat for a rest and hauled myself up onto the lower deck, my legs still in the water. A couple of dolphins flipped around the back of the boat, and one of the crew members went “They’re following you! They want you to go back in!” and I have read A Ring Of Endless Light way too many times not to think, not to hope, that maybe they had, maybe they did. I hopped back in for one more go and the part of me that has been pretending to be a mermaid since I was six years old thought: if I stretch up to the mountains in just the right way, if I sing just the right song, if I want this really really bad, maybe my legs will fuse and my lungs will expand and I will understand the language, I will leap up into the sky, I will blend my mind and my body seamlessly, perfectly, under the water, under the waves.
Too soon, it was time to go, time for hot chocolate and ginger nuts and broken exclamations amongst ourselves (“Can you believe..?” and “Did you see…?” and “Wasn’t it just..?”) and a biology and conservation talk and to flop back into dry clothes. I was wide awake and warm, looking out to the mountains, watching them do their acrobatics and surf the front wave of the boat. The captain of the boat came up to me and told me I’d done really well, that they’d stayed with me for a long time. “They must have liked your singing voice,” he said. “Or maybe you just have good dolphin karma.”
And I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I had a wee cry, then and there, looking out the window at the albatrosses soaring low and brilliant, at the sun on the water, at the dark shapes just underneath, the bright mountains; at all the elements that comprise and create the joy of living in the world.