The trials and tribulations of killer whale research – part 3

And so at last to that final bullet point…

Being an object of sport for fast paced dolphins, while simultaneously navigating round humpback whales, testing an underwater camera and preventing an excited dog from falling overboard

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

Another day, another whale… Albeit not of the killer variety. Peggy, Cindy, Whiskie and I were out on a beautiful, sunny, calm day in the bay. Having spent a few hours scouting for orcas with no success, we heard on the radio that a whale watching boat had found a couple of humpbacks; some of the first to be arriving in the bay from distant ocean playgrounds. Monterey Bay is not a breeding ground for these giant hobos, but it is their equivalent of a favorite, abundant restaurant. The bay is a feeding hotspot and many species come here to fill themselves up. (Not that it has always been this way. Monterey Bay’s healthy diversity was almost destroyed by the fishing and canning industry in years gone by. Today it is a real, tangible, miraculous conservation success story… Reassuring to know that humans can instigate miracles occasionally.)

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

While humpbacks are not Peggy’s research subjects, she will collect photographs and data on them when the opportunity arises. As a novice boat driver, I asked Peggy to guide me as I steered closer to the whales to ensure I followed the correct protocols around them.

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

The humpbacks were busy doing what humpbacks often do; hanging out at the surface to breathe, diving down to feed and returning to the surface at intervals. For first time whale watchers, this mundane event can be quite a spectacle as humpbacks fluke when they dive, (i.e. stick their tales in the air to thrust their buoyant bodies underwater). But for us, a more fascinating view was to be found looking at the radar to see bait balls (tightly shoaled fish), both small and huge, appear as a fuzzy blur, and knowing that this was the feast that the whales were after.

In the midst of this relatively tranquil scene, some exciting newcomers were about to come flying out of the wings to take center stage… Pacific white-sided dolphins… Hundreds of them… Careening past at high speed…

Pacific white-sided dolphin, © Peggy Stap/www.MarineLifeStudies.org

Photo courtesy of / © Peggy Stap, http://www.marinelifestudies.org

I cannot give adequate words to describe the physical tremor of energy I feel whenever these dolphins are present. Whales are beautiful, huge and majestic… Killer whales are sleek, stunning and dramatic… But dolphins, especially these small, dart-like creatures, are so fast, so fleeting, so full bodied, that they move me in a far greater way. There is nothing to compare with seeing them in the wild; a screen of any dimension cannot convey the energy they give off. I have never met any other animal with the same overwhelming sense of firework-sparkle-dancing-aliveness as these creatures. There is something so abundant about the way in which they move through their fluid environment. As a dancer I see this movement resembling a spontaneous, glorious, joyfully improvised dance. And in the core of my body I sense a buzzing, tingling, expansive, limitless energy emanating from them. Us humans, apart from dancers and other physically engaged people, have all but lost the immediate, embodied joy that comes from moving in such a completely unrestrained, unselfconscious, freely flowing way. And what we have lost, we often cannot imagine existing in another creature and we cannot connect with the simple fact that Pure Joy can be found in the body, rather than in the head. My urge to leave the world of trapped-in-their-bodies humans and join these liberated-in-their-bodies dolphins is overwhelmingly strong when I see them moving in this way!

Photo courtesy of / © Peggy Stap, www.marinelifestudies.org

Photo courtesy of / © Peggy Stap, http://www.marinelifestudies.org

Peggy, Cindy and I were mesmerized with the fleeting glimpses of leaping dolphins passing us on all sides. And Whiskie… Well, she was at the bow of the boat greeting them enthusiastically. “Let’s follow their path”, called Peggy, “They might bow-ride with us!”

And with that came my most treasured memories of being in Monterey Bay this year. I turned the boat and maneuvered away from the humpbacks to follow the tracks of the dolphins as they headed SSW. Under Peggy’s direction, I increased speed while she stood at the bow with Whiskie at her side.

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

For a few gorgeously fantastic minutes we were as much at one with the dolphins as it is possible for three humans and a dog on a boat to be. Which I guess is not saying much really! But, to at least be travelling close to their speed, in the middle of a pod that stretched out around us in all directions, sensing their interest in us as they veered towards the boat to bow ride briefly before careering off again faster than you could think was possible, and catching sight, ever so briefly, of a glistening, curious, intelligent eye as it took a sidelong look at us in mid-leap… Exhilarating… Totally exhilarating!

Now, we might all know what that word means, and it may get overused in print, but stop for a moment and contemplate… How often, really truly, can you honestly say that you feel exhilarated? How many times a day, a week, a month or a year, is that word not an exaggeration of your emotional state? …Mmm, I wonder. Maybe for some of us it is more often than others, but there is one thing I am certain of; experiencing the natural world offers such mood-enhancing moments more than many other experiences in life… Although of course, being the strangely conflicted and complicated animals that we are, we often miss out on such offerings, choosing instead to make other experiences such as television, computers and material things more important. While those things provide distractions from our worries; a constant background static, that serves to numb our lack of joy, I do not believe they often provide a source of joy itself. But without doubt, a deep, true source of joy, exhilaration and contentment can be found in nature and in our body’s connection with nature. And when we disengage ourselves from the complicated, confusing, life-sucking traps we have surrounded ourselves with, we can connect with it, maybe only for a few fleeting seconds, but the replenishment and hope that such moments provide can sustain us for a lifetime.

Photo courtesy of / © Peggy Stap, www.marinelifestudies.org

Photo courtesy of / © Peggy Stap, http://www.marinelifestudies.org

Anyway, I digress. Exhilarating… And, kind of comical too. Cindy was desperately trying to record data while catching glimpses of leaping dolphins; being the data recorder can be a self-sacrificing role as you often miss the most spectacular bits of action, “Wow, did you see that dolphin do a double back-flip, front somersault, perfect dismount?” “What, again? No way, I was busy recording our GPS position!” I was steering, constantly having to adjust to the push of each wave, with one hand at the ready to slow the engine if needed. Peggy was at the bow experimenting with a new underwater camera, attempting to record a shot or two of the dolphins as they rode the bow wave in front of the boat. And Whiskie… Well, Whiskie was beside herself. I think dolphins must be her favorite cetacean; she certainly seems to get most excited whenever certain dolphin species are present. She was barking at them from the bow, running along the edge of the boat to bark over the side, running back to the bow and barking some more… Which is all very good for canine-cetacean-relations, as the dolphins seem to be as curious about her as she is about them, but not so good for general dog-health-and-safety. After an almost ‘dog overboard!’ moment, we reluctantly slowed the boat. At which point the dolphins carried on their way. They were still travelling past us on all sides, but we were no longer an object of sport for them. No speed, no game… They ignored us!

Risso's dolphin, © Peggy Stap/www.MarineLifeStudies.org

Photo courtesy of / © Peggy Stap, http://www.marinelifestudies.org

After that, the scene returned to a gentle state. We traversed a wide arc or two, attempting to lure a few more dolphins close, but then let them be as one last group of animals came gently lulling their way onto stage… Risso’s dolphins… A family group, with babies. “Breathe out, slow down, go with the flow, there’s no rush, enjoy a tranquil moment or two, chill man chill…” That is the feeling that these large, white, blunt headed, slow moving dolphins emanate to me. There can not be a much greater difference in state-of-being than can be seen between Pacific white-sided and Risso’s dolphins. If you ever thought a dolphin was a dolphin, then rethink! Although Risso’s can get frisky, (and I have witnessed some pretty fast paced and flirtatious interactions between the two species, as well as a Risso’s version of surfing), most often they exude calmness and a kind of languid ease. Meditative relaxation appears to be, at least from a blatantly humanized perspective, their forte. I would not be surprised to learn that Buddha had been a Risso’s dolphin in a previous life, thus giving rise to his future enlightenment in human form!

Risso's dolphin, © Peggy Stap/www.MarineLifeStudies.org

Photo courtesy of / © Peggy Stap, http://www.marinelifestudies.org

After that encounter, our day at sea drew to a close. We returned home happy even though we had not seen a single hint of a killer whale that day. And that marks the end of my accounts of assisting Peggy Stap of Marine Life Studies in Monterey Bay this Spring… But, I hope to visit her again next year to partake in another game of trials and tribulations.

For now, looking back on that day and the joyful-in-the-moment-tingling-aliveness I experienced, I fall once again into gently mulling reflections… It occurs to me that the greatest gift which Nature can bestow on us, its most unruly and delinquent of children, is the gift of Now. How many spiritual and life-coach gurus attempt to nudge us onto the path of being connected to Now; to this single moment in time rather than the projected future or completed past? It is, supposedly, one of the highest forms of emotional and spiritual intelligence to achieve such a connection to the moment, such a letting go of all desires, distractions and thoughts built up from our addiction to our egos, our past and future… To attain such a total immersion in Now-ness that it gives birth to the unique bliss of ‘being in the flow’… How strange then that, when quite probably every other creature on Earth bar ourselves is able to achieve and live in this state effortlessly, we cannot be graceful enough to credit their intelligence as being anywhere near our own, let alone superior. We have only just relatively recently gotten our collective heads around the notion that there are different types of intelligence in humans. Bless our cotton socks, (an English term of endearment, given with a gentle pat on the head), how much longer will it take us to collectively accept and appreciate that there are many other non-human types of intelligence, some of which far surpass our limited, cognitive abilities?

I wonder…

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas, Blue Ocean Whale Watch

A nearly Christmas request…

For anyone who has enjoyed getting to know Peggy & Marine Life Studies either back in April/May 2011 or summer/autumn 2012, she is, as ever, in need of your support to continue her work. Please check the links below if you are willing and able to send a small donation her way…

A Gift that Gives
Birdies for Charity
Montery County Gives!
Donate a vehicle to MLS
Take it to the Streets

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4 thoughts on “The trials and tribulations of killer whale research – part 3

  1. Wow, Amanda! What can I say…? At last, I have some time to truly savour reading your wonderful account of your further whale and dolphin adventures with Peggy – and I feel truly transported! I’ve seen the Cardigan Bay bottlenose dolphins on a few, magical occasions (watched from the cliff tops when on holiday in Wales) – and that feeling of pure exhilaration and joy dolphins spark and inspire truly is beyond words, isn’t it…

    It’s fascinating to read your thoughts on the Pacific white-sided dolphins from your perspective as a dancer. That internal lift and wish to physically follow their freedom is the kind of spontaneous, unconscious response we so rarely allow ourselves in our hemmed in day-to-days. Your words remind me how it is something we should pause to contemplate, and to allow ourselves to nurture much more. It’s almost impossible to stay still and aloof whilst watching dolphins; they spark shared words and laughter and a lot of jumping up and down amongst the cliff watchers – a really fundamental experience of “being” which we too often button up.

    Your descriptions here have given me such an involving glimpse of amazing experiences. To be surrounded, out at sea, by hundreds of dolphins is something I dream of… Your words have transported me even further into that dream… Thank you…

    Melanie x

  2. Hi Melanie,

    Crazy eh, many of us harbour those kind of dreams… But many of us still live hemmed in lives where our beings get trampled down by our doings!

    There is the crossover for me; between dance/writing/arts and nature… They can both free the being that resides in us all. When I immerse myself in nature I can connect to the part of me that feels, is alive, is authentic, is in the flow… And when I immerse myself in dancing/writing I find that same, or a similar, connection. I know you understand that as your words always emanate deep being-ness!

    Thank you for support… I’m popping over to your site now to read your latest post,

    Amanda x

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