Swimming with Spinner Dolphins: Captain Cook, Hawaii

* I did not have my camera with me.  This picture is from www.bigislanddivers.com

It is 6:30 in the morning at Kealakekua Bay, the site of Captain Cook’s arrival 1778 and subsequent murder on this day, February 14, in 1779.  I wander past the Hiki-au Heaiu, a place where human sacrifices were held and also the site of the first Christian ceremony on the island.  The stone walls rise four feet from the ground.  I stand on a picnic table to view the interior, which is filled in with stones also rising four feet high.  In the center, there is an altar of some sort.

I pass by the heaiu and make my way to a grassy area nearby.  I spread my yoga mat out and begin my practice.  Today is the second day I have arrived at the bay at sunrise in hopes of seeing the spinner dolphins rumored to rest here.  Last night, J and I actually slept in the parking lot.

Forty-five minutes into my practice, I see a red-haired woman run back to her car, open the trunk and start wiggling her body into her wetsuit.  The two men that are with her are close at her heels.

The dolphins must be here.  Why else would someone be in such a rush to snorkel?

I hurry to the edge of the bay, peering towards the long horizon.  I see three fins emerge and submerge, like hands waving from the sea.  I run back to the van.  I hastily slide into my wetsuit, grab my fins and mask and head towards the shore.  The beach is made up of round black stones the size of a loaf of bread.  Barefoot, I fast step across quickly and clumsily; my eyes focused on the horizon.

I have had a fascination with dolphins since I was a little girl.  When I was in high school I read every book on dolphins and whales in both the school library and public library.  It has been a dream of mine to swim with dolphins and I have never done it before.  In the past, I considered paying to swim with dolphins in an enclosed area.  In the end, I could never settle my feelings on the morality of enclosing such beautiful, free creatures.  Also, I am a notorious miser and the thought of paying a couple hundred bucks to spend 10 minutes with a trained, domesticated dolphin makes my body pucker in uncomfortable places.

So, the time is now, 7:45 on Valentine’s Day, 2012.  The place is Kealakekua Bay and my 33 year old self is realizing a dream my 8 year old Midwestern self dared to have.

The shoreline is a little rocky; the waves coming in are a little rough.  I put my fins on on the shore and dive in the churning water.  I kick like hell, the best way I have found to deal with surf and emerge ten feet later spewing salt water.

After coughing up the salt water I inadvertently swallowed, I focus on the matter at hand and swim as quickly as I can towards where I last saw the dolphins.  Now that I am in the water, it is tough to see their movement on the horizon.  Four people are already out and one other is behind me.  The dolphins are about 1000 feet from the shore.  I swim furiously and make it there in no time.  The water is clear, with visibility for 15 feet.  I kick and stroke and kick and stroke; face down in the water; using my snorkel to breath; all the while looking for them.

Eight feet below me and five feet ahead of me, I see them.  There are eight dolphins total, one calf.  I stop moving.  Everything in my world stops moving, except them.  I hear my breath come in and out of my snorkel.  My eyes unexpectedly fill with tears.

I am splayed in the water Superman style.  My hands spread wide.  My legs jump from my hip sockets in a crude “V”.  I breathe into and out of the very top of my lungs, afraid that if I move too quickly or breathe too audibly, they will disappear.

I float for over an hour, watching them surface and dive.  The calf swims just beneath his mother.  The mother’s tail taps him protectively on this back each time she pushes down to propel herself forward.  Mother and son move in tandem.  As a whole, the dolphins move sometimes as one unit, all eight in a pod together, and sometimes they break apart into a group of five and one of three.  The calf always stays beneath his mother and in the bigger pod of five.

I slowly swim to shore, savoring the moment.  I think about my 8 year old self and what it would look like to go back in time, grab her and say, “You’re gonna do it!  You’re going to swim with wild dolphins when you are 33!”

I am amused at the thought, but recognize that knowing the future would have made it less savory than living it.

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