The Beachside Resident - April 2009
My fascination with dolphins started on a small, sand-dredged mound of muck in the Mosquito Lagoon, somewhere off Canaveral National Seashore, where I camped the night of New Year’s Eve, 2000, along with twelve of my closest friends –– a band of lonely children on the dark, starlit river.
After shuttling back and forth over the slick stingray shallows in a canoe crammed full of burgers, beers, and blankets, we discovered that no one’s cell phone worked on the island. We resigned ourselves to be completely detached from society when the millenium began its slow, groaning turn.
Why should a huge pod of dolphins decide to gather around our island on that particular night? It’s still a mystery to me. It is possible, looking back, that the island was their home, and that they were actually wondering the same thing about us.
It was cold, and some of the boys got to drinking and foraging through the scrub brush. Before long, they had built a glorious bonfire. I can’t say what else was burned that night, but it is worth mentioning that some of us were not acting quite ourselves. In truth, no one knew what was going to happen. It was a big moment for mankind, and a long time coming — two thousand years, to be exact. Some of us were afraid. Perhaps most of us, subconsciously, were afraid... those who hadn't yet lost the capacity for fear.
What happened that night? I don’t profess to know exactly, but some of the facts are intriguing. At around 11 o’clock, a pod of at least 30 dolphin came to the island, swimming right up to our muddy little banks. They seemed to be singing, whistling, breathing, or (depending on who you talked to) crying or laughing. As they circled the New Year's party, every one of us felt a connection — an almost telepathic oneness. The dance proceeded through the sparkling night and onward into the orange glow of the morning. Not a soul slept.
When we returned to the mainland, we found it in much the same condition as we had left it. We had expected an explosion, a small revolution, at least a few house fires. This was a letdown, in a mundane sort of way, but a great relief in another. The world would be okay, or so we thought. So we steeled ourselves for a new beginning. Everyone took separate paths — one moved to Santa Monica, others to New York, Boston, Miami, San Diego, Costa Rica, Australia. I packed my bags and relocated across the country, to Central Florida. We all agreed on one thing, though no one could explain what had happened in any intelligible manner: the dolphin had changed us in a permanent way. Of the thirteen people on the island that night, not one settled down more than five miles from the ocean.
Research suggests that a dolphin’s brain contains a component the human brain never developed, something called the paralimbic lobe, which “might be used for sensory processing.” Scientists are not decided on the exact function of the paralimbic lobe; they still don’t seem to understand it fully. They know that dolphins have the uncanny ability to create sounds, and through the process of echolocation, can form a picture of an object in their minds. It is not quite the same as seeing something... instead of a visual image, the dolphin perceives an “acoustical” picture of an object. Their sonar is cause for concern among the scientific community; no one can fully explain how dolphins separated by steel walls, in tanks 50 feet apart, can communicate with each other, as certain studies have shown them to do. Another curious fact: bottlenose dolphins have been heard mimicking human music, and even creating their own songs in arrangements ranging from bass thrums and alto whistles to silent realms of high-frequency sonic vibrations — full, soaring symphonies played above the range of human hearing.
Though the dolphin’s brain is not as advanced in some areas as the human’s (for example, the area responsible for panic and anxiety), the dolphin’s frontal lobe is the same size as a human’s. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a prominent neuroscientist and pioneer in the emerging field of “neurotheology,” suggests that this part of the brain helps to focus attention on prayer and meditation.
It might stand to reason, then, that dolphins have at least the capacity for religious thought –– if not in a strictly human sense, at least in an auditory one. While some humans think they know what God looks like, could it be conceivable that dolphins know what God sounds like?
If dolphins can hear God, can it be that their society may be more advanced than we are led to believe? After all, dolphins, like humans, exist in a world without natural predators, a world in which food is harvested with ease and where there is no shortage of any of life’s necessities. Instead of working most of their days for brief respites of leisure, like humans, the vast majority of a dolphin’s day is spent playing, singing, hunting, or exploring the wide seas. When you bear in mind that dolphins have no borders, no great wars, and no politicians, is it not completely foolish to consider that cetacean society may even be superior to the homo sapiens'?
Living beachside, we are fortunate enough to share some of our finest moments with these magical creatures. Some of us may have encountered the ocean-going breed while out surfing –– they always seem to appear to us on the glassiest days, when the water is clearest and the vibe is at its most mellow. They emerge from the oil-slick surface like a band of mermaids, surfing set waves with unimaginable speed, or performing graceful aerial maneuvers in the rainbow spray behind billowy crests. You might see the smaller, grayer variety of bottlenose dolphin in the river playing against the pastel backdrop of the sunset as you haul your trout or redfish into to the boat. Dolphins are an omen of good tidings, as the water is most likely clean where they are, the fish plentiful, and the energy serene.
Why did dolphins, once a land-dwelling animal like us, decide to evolve into the water? Was it global warming, global cooling, or was it something else, something borne not from necessity, but from desire alone? Perhaps the better question is why, given the extraordinary abilities of our own species, we haven’t evolved into something more harmonious with our own nature, something flowing, crafted of pure song, beauty, and light, like the dolphins?
Dolphins remain a mystery to Man, but they appear to those who look for them. You might, upon seeing one, comment how beautiful, how majestic an animal the dolphin is, or even momentarily fall into a trance, as if in the presence of angels, but consider: the dolphin might be trying to tell you something terribly important.