Dolphin Cathedral

The following essay appears in Phil Bolsta's new book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything.


In April 2003, I was conducting a Wisdom of the Dolphins workshop in Hawaii. We were swimming with wild dolphins off the Kona coast each day. The last day we were there, many dolphins came down the coast in pods of five to eight, which tend to be the size of their family unit. The various pods all gathered together in a single group of about two hundred dolphins in a semicircular bay.

As we arrived in the bay, following slowly behind them, ten of them turned and twice jumped out of the water straight toward us at the bow of the boat. They then swam off and rejoined the others. All of them then settled into the bay. As we got into the water with them, they were still grouped in their family pods but were hardly swimming. They were almost static. The water was exceedingly clear. You could see a hundred feet straight down.

The dolphins then began slowly spiraling down beneath us. They weren't really swimming, they were just sort of sinking in slow spirals and eventually dropping out of sight. Five to ten minutes later, I looked down and thought I saw some fish in the water. It took a few seconds to realize that these weren't tiny fish, they were the dolphins reappearing. They swelled up again in a spiral and floated up toward us. They took some air, and then they all went down again. This cycle went on six to eight times over a period of an hour or two.

Watching them was unexpectedly powerful and moving. I felt I was witness to some sacred dolphin space. The thought occurred to me that this bay might be their equivalent of a cathedral in the water. We humans build cathedrals as high places, where our minds can soar up into the heights where we imagine the angels are. But a dolphin's world is inverted. Much as human beings are tied to the ground, a dolphin is tied to the ocean's surface, which it has to keep making contact with for air. So, whereas we build cathedrals to enclose a great space and height, maybe this bay was a natural "structure" for the dolphins, enclosing a great depth.

And whereas with human beings, it's a question of How high can we fly?, with dolphins, it may be, How deep can we sink? There may be something sacred to them about sinking deep. Obviously, out in the ocean, they could go as deep as they'd like. But here, in the bay, they could go deep and be surrounded by a semicircle of land. That seemed to be important, because with their echo location, they can "hear" the land around them.

They had come long distances to meet in this particular bay. They could have done what they were doing anywhere. The biologist's standard explanation would likely be, "They're just resting after a long night's fishing." But I don't think dolphins would travel twenty miles just to rest; they'd rest wherever they happened to be. I had a strong intuitive sense that they had gathered here as a group for some specific reason.

I wasn't the only one who felt this way. There were twelve of us in the water and almost everyone had the same feeling, that we were witnessing some sacred dolphin experience. The stillness and peacefulness was very powerful and precious.

Adding to the sereneness of the moment was the song of the humpback whale in the background. A few of these whales were a couple miles away, and their beautiful moaning sound carries for great distances underwater. It struck me that, just as when we're out in nature and hear the songs of the birds, the dolphins were surrounded by the songs of the humpback whales.

Suddenly, I realized that I was a long, long way from the boat. I felt myself moving into a slight panicky mode because I'm not a strong swimmer. I had been caught in Hawaiian currents before and nearly drowned, so I'm very respectful of them. Trying not to panic, I started swimming back in the direction of the boat, which was now just a tiny speck on the water. I totally forgot about the dolphins. I was thinking, I've got to get back toward safety, toward the boat. Suddenly, the dolphins appeared again beneath me. They were spiraling back up.

I was amazed to find that all sense of fear and anxiety in me evaporated in an instant. Often, when I'm recovering from that kind of fearful reaction, the anxiety gradually dies away. But in this instance, as soon as I saw the dolphins, the anxiety just switched off. One moment it was there, the next it was gone. I found myself turning around and swimming back out to sea, away from the boat, following the dolphins beneath me. The voice in my head was saying, You're crazy! You're a long way from the boat and security and you know how dangerous these currents are. What are you doing swimming out to sea with the dolphins, away from safety? But I knew deep inside that I was totally safe, that everything was absolutely okay. I found that instant shift in consciousness quite fascinating. I swam with the dolphins for a while longer, and needless to say, I did make it back safely.

When it was time to leave, when we all climbed back into the boat and started it up, the dolphins again stopped what they were doing, swam over to the boat, leapt around it, and then followed us out aways. They had been aware of our presence the whole time. They both welcomed us into their ceremony and acknowledged our departure. And that's what it had felt like, like we were witnessing some spiritual ceremony in another species. That's the only way I can describe it. It was a very magical experience and one that had a deep impact on me afterwards.

I've swum with wild dolphins a number of times, and I've noticed that in the days afterward, I'm changed. This time, two days later, I was giving a lecture, and I noticed myself feeling a very different sense of freedom as I spoke. In fact, I gave four lectures over the next week that all had a very different feel to them. I felt very spontaneous, very alive, and very supported in some way. I had this sense that the peace and sacredness of my time with the dolphins had stayed with me.

Date created: 10-Oct-08