By Shantha J. Bunyan
The dolphin looked directly into my eyes! My heart was racing. I couldn't believe it. It was a dream come true in so many ways—except this dolphin was not happy. He was clearly peeved with all of us, a drastic change from moments before. His accusing glare spoke volumes.
He swam from diver to diver, looking each of us in the eye as he passed, his intelligent gaze seeming to ask, "Did you take my toy? Was it you?" A policeman in an underwater interrogation room. But none of us broke. We would not return his toy, or tell who took it. It was a matter of life and death—the dolphin's life, though he didn't know it.
This was not the way I'd imagined my first up close dolphin-in-the-wild experience would go. Growing up in the US, in landlocked Colorado, I had yearned to spend time with dolphins. I was also an avid reader. My favorite author was Madeline L'Engle, and while I didn't actually believe I'd have a psychic connection or an ESP-type interaction with a dolphin like the heroine in A Ring of Endless Light, I'd hoped that when I met one, it would like me, at least! When I was younger, I'd dreamed of being a marine biologist, working with dolphins, perhaps even studying the neuropsychology of marine mammals. A couple of introductory classes in marine biology, slogging through the classifications of various algae and kelp, cured me of that dream pretty quickly, however.
Still, I'd had those dreams of the sea in my youth, and the hopes never quite faded. During my midthirties, when I quit my job working in a hospital as a surgical technician so I could travel the world for a year, I began scuba diving in earnest. As I continued traveling, diving more and more, I decided to certify as a dive master as a way to help fund my travels and to increase my time in the ocean.
A couple of years into my planned one year of travel, I'd seen dolphins from a distance while boating to and from dive sites, but I hadn't seen one while underwater. Once, I sat on the cliffs near my friends' home in Australia and watched a pod of dolphins teach their babies how to jump. It was a fascinating experience, and something that I never even considered happens. I knew dolphins are smart and communal, but I never pictured a pod coming together to teach the little ones behaviors as basic as leaping out of the water!
When I finally met this dolphin, I had just finished my professional scuba training a couple of months before in Malaysian Borneo. I followed up my training with an internship for a few weeks, but as there were no jobs immediately available at that resort, I'd decided to do some tourism and fun diving in Egypt and Jordan until something opened up.
On the day of my face-to-face dolphin experience, I was scuba diving in the Red Sea, off the coast of Hurghada, Egypt. This was the first dive on a weeklong liveaboard tour I had booked that would visit sites around the southern parts of the Red Sea. We were diving at a site aptly named Dolphin House.
Apparently, there was a dolphin in the area with a reputation as a show-off who would sometimes come to Dolphin House, where tourist boats would cluster with people who would scuba and snorkel in the hopes of a sighting. Sure enough, a few minutes into our dive, we came across a dolphin who was clearly there for the show—his show.
He was a beautiful gray color, lighter on the bottom, with speckles on his belly, and darker gray fins. His body was at least as long as the average human, but he was sinewy and strong with muscle. He moved through the water with the elegance and grace of a ballerina, and the laziness of a bored house cat.
When we first approached, he was amusing himself by swimming to the surface—delighting the snorkelers each time he appeared among them—and immediately turning to swim back underwater, weaving among the divers in my group, who obliged by gathering around and taking photos and videos. He was clearly showing off, enjoying himself in front of his audience. He preened, sliding his body through clusters of soft coral.
On one pass he made in front of me, he stopped to delicately pick up a jellyfish in his mouth, like a dog with a frisbee. As he tried to hold it, it kept falling from his mouth—jellyfish are floppy! He picked it up a couple of times, until he had a good grip and began swimming away. Then, caught in the current made when he swam, the jellyfish flipped out from between his teeth and flopped to the ground.
Not to be deterred, the dolphin dug his snout into the sand just beyond where he'd dropped the jellyfish and nosed a piece of coral out of the seabed, which he began flipping around—a seal with a ball for just a moment—before he lost interest and went to show off somewhere else. He seemed to have a smile and a twinkle in his eye the whole time he was playing like this.
While watching him effortlessly move through the water before us, we divers seemed to enter a timeless world, the kind that you discover when you are so absorbed in something fascinating that hours can pass before you even realize. From the glances and hand signals the other divers and I were exchanging, we could have all stayed there forever, watching this incredible creature, taking photos, marveling at his movements and grace, laughing at his antics, enjoying that infinite moment of happiness.
At some point during his play, a plastic bag floating in the water caught on the dolphin's tail as he was swimming past. He turned, grabbed the bag, and began toying with it. His actions with the bag were similar to his behavior with the jellyfish. He'd grasp it in his mouth, toss it, and catch it again, perhaps try to carry it along with him for a bit.
The excitement and joy that we divers had felt changed to horror. Garbage of any sort, while not uncommon, is never something that we like to see in the ocean. Plastic bags are particularly awful as they look uncannily like jellyfish while floating through the water, a tasty treat which a lot of marine life eat. The week before, I had seen this when I was caught in some sort of jellyfish migration. During a dive, I was suddenly surrounded by jellyfish (the non-stinging kind, luckily!) as they traveled along the current. Bannerfish and duckfish were having a feast, swarming the jellyfish and nipping in for bites.
We watched the dolphin play with his new toy, the plastic bag he tossed about and nibbled and wouldn't leave alone long enough for one of us to grab. Every time he would lose interest and begin to swim away from the bag, it would tangle on his fins or tail, and reminded of its existence, he would turn around and come back. He'd catch it in his mouth and begin tossing it around again. While we would gladly allow him to approach us, none of us would consider invading his space or going so close to him that we could get to the plastic ourselves.
Finally swimming to the surface for some air, the dolphin left the bag for just long enough that one of the dive guides, an instructor from Spain, could dash in and grab it. He quickly stuffed the plastic into his wetsuit pocket, hiding it from view. We all breathed a sigh of relief, giving underwater hand signs for "awesome" to him, thrilled someone had gotten the garbage away from the dolphin.
The dolphin, however, had not forgotten the bag. He came back down to the divers, and it was immediately clear he was looking for his toy. The search was on: the dolphin looked high and low, peering around the group. Then, he began a slow circle, going from diver to diver, looking at each one of us individually.
The moment was upon me. I was looking into the eye of a dolphin. And he was looking directly back into my eyes! He wanted to know if I had taken his toy. No question about it.
My eyes widened. I felt stripped to the soul. I was suddenly glad I hadn't been the one to dash forward and save the dolphin from the bag. He might've read the guilt in my eyes.
"Did you take my toy?" I knew his question.
Eyes wide, I might have even shaken my head a little.
He moved on. I relaxed a bit.
He asked every diver down there.
We remained tough. No one gave up the goods. Luckily, the dolphin was a good-natured soul, or maybe just a true performer at heart—the show must go on. He returned to his show.
Eventually, our tanks began to run low on air. Before we left the area to return to our boat, however, we noticed he seemed to cough a couple times, like a cat with a hairball. What came out was a few pieces of plastic bag. He had been nibbling on the plastic "jellyfish."
We surfaced, exhilarated about our dolphin interaction and certain we'd saved him from a much more severe bellyache. The dive had been a thrilling moment, the kind rarely experienced in one's lifetime, that manages to be simultaneously exhilarating and a sobering reminder to care for our planet.
Whenever I see a floating plastic bag during a dive now—and sadly, I've seen more than I can count—I try to grab the bag to stuff into my usually already bulging pockets, and I think of that dolphin. I would gladly deprive him of every single one of his toys in order to keep him alive to continue his enjoyable performances in the Red Sea.
Shantha J. Bunyan is currently landlocked in her native Colorado, USA. A former surgical tech, she earned a BA in Neuroscience from Colorado College. After indulging her wanderlust in 2014, she lived abroad for nearly six years, traveling and periodically working as a scuba dive master, exploring the world both above and below the surface. Sometimes she manages her chronic pain and invisible illnesses, and sometimes they try to manage her; but while she's fighting, she writes. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in publications such as DoveTales, an International Journal of the Arts; Resistance; 140Max Magazine; What Rough Beast; Rigorous; Bluing the Blade; From Whispers to Roars; and Awakened Voices. Some of her travel adventures and links to her previous publications can be found at RandomPiecesofPeace.com.