Dolphin School

Dolphins and whales have always intrigued me. Around age eight, when I could first read sufficiently well to use the town library, I went straight for the books on whales and dolphins, devouring as much as I could about these remarkable creatures. It was not long before I was a young expert on their different species, their evolution, biology, diet, habitats, and migratory movements.

My first practical experience came in Bermuda. That swim had a lasting impact on my life. In my previous encounters with large mammals--dogs, cats, horses, cattle, deer--an element of taming had usually been present. I have watched starlings land on the back of sheep, and deer walk through a field of horses, but, unless "tamed", almost every other creature on this planet keeps a respectful distance from humans--and for good reason. To tame them we need to allay their fears, and gain their trust.

With a dolphin the situation is reversed. One accidental blow of its powerful tail flukes could knock me unconscious--and unconscious in water I could easily drown. Here it was I who wanted to keep a wary distance. In theory I knew much about their high intelligence and apparently caring nature, but coming face to face for the first time with a creature twice one's own weight, and in its own element, was a little unnerving. Now it was I who needed taming.

And tame me they did. These dolphins behaved as if they could sense my feelings. Maybe they could. With their highly developed sonar, dolphins can see through our skin. Like ultrasonic scanners, they can sense the shapes and movements of our internal organs. The beating of our hearts, the churning of our stomachs and the tenseness of our muscles, are all visible to the dolphin mind. They probably see our inner trepidation as clearly as we see the frown on a person's face.

For a while the dolphins stayed a few feet away, as if not wanting to invade my personal space. They swam around me, underneath me, poked their heads out of the water to take a look at me, but always at just about the distance I felt comfortable with. As I relaxed more they ventured closer and closer, even nudging me at times. Before long I was swimming underwater with them eye-to-eye; one beneath me, one on each side.

But that was not enough for them. They began opening their mouths right in front of my face, showing me their thick blue-pink tongues and, of more immediate concern to me, their rows of tiny, but exceedingly sharp, teeth.

Tooth contact is very important for dolphins. Not having arms or legs they cannot caress each other as humans do. Instead they use their teeth, rubbing them up and down each other's flanks. For a dolphin to tame us to the point where it can rub us with its teeth is much like our taming a wild animal to the point where we can stroke it with our hands.

Over the following years I swam with dolphins whenever I had the opportunity. They have repeatedly reminded me of several important principles, not the least of which is the value of letting go of wants and desires.

On one occasion I had been several hours in the sea with a wild dolphin. Feeling tired, I decided to call it a day. But before swimming into shore I wanted to connect with her one last time--to say good-bye in some way. I inwardly willed her to come by. But nothing came of it, so I decided to swim in anyway. A few feet from the shore she suddenly appeared, made contact, then disappeared again.

This letting go of wanting is something I am continually learning in my life on land. The problem with wanting something is that I may then try to control events and circumstances--and, not infrequently, other people--in order to make the world turn out the way I think it should. But often I do not know my own best interests. When I can let go of my attachments, and stop trying to control my circumstances, I frequently find events turn out even better than they would have, had my own plans come to fruition.

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