Dances with Dolphins: Exploring Cetacean Relations
by Judy Wade
You have to be a special sort of person to want to spend your whole vacation with a dolphin. Annette Tulisiak of Santa Monica, California, thinks it's the other way around.
"These are the most amazing creatures," she says of the gray, four- to eight-foot, torpedo-shape mammals. "They are not fearful, they're very curious, and really seem to want to communicate." Tulisiak recently spent a week on the 90-foot catamaran in the atolls of Bimini in the Bahamas, swimming and snorkeling among Atlantic spotted dolphins. According to organizers, the tour is "a magical experience to make your cells sing with joy and love."
The group's first evening was spent in a Ft. Lauderdale hotel to allow time for orientation and preparation, along with snorkel practice in the hotel pool. Besides getting acquainted, solo travelers had an opportunity to pair up with a cabin-mate. The group ranged from mid-30s singles to a couple in their 60s, all with the common bond: a love of dolphins and a desire to connect with them in a natural setting.
As the catamaran headed for open waters the next morning, the topic of conversation was, of course, everyone's reason for being there. Tulisiak revealed that several years prior she had had a dream of swimming with dolphins. It was such an incredible experience that she wanted to do it in real life. From a vantage point on a Malibu beach she'd often watch dolphins cavort just off shore. "It's apparent that there's something magical about them," she explains. "My dream simply intensified the feeling."
Within a couple of hours of leaving Ft. Lauderdale, the boat was cruising among islets that were barely more than strips of land. Almost immediately dorsal fins were spotted, and the captain throttled down to give the creatures an opportunity to approach. "It was as if they knew we were waiting for them," says Tulisiak. "They came right over to us. We were told that one of the reasons for choosing these waters is that the dolphins here are very people-friendly," she says.
The group assembled on the boat's aft deck, which is equipped for scuba divers with small compartments for stowing snorkel gear and towels. A safety-conscious dive master monitored the boat's progress, making sure that the anchor was firmly set before allowing swimmers in the water.
"I was so excited. Your tendency is to want to swim after them, but the facilitators advise against it," says Tulisiak. Swimmers were encouraged to use the "dolphin kick," keeping arms at sides, almost imitating playful dolphin behavior. "They want to have fun, so if you look like you're having a good time, they're going to want to join in," she says.
Up-Close and Personal
During the group's first dive, a trio of dolphins swam along the bottom, emitting the high-pitched squeals characteristic of cetacean communication. Tulisiak felt that the dolphins were checking out the swimmers, keeping their distance without coming in to play, possibly because the swimmers were a bit too anxious.
As the guests became more relaxed around the dolphins and stopped trying to make something happen, experiences on subsequent days became more rewarding. Tulisiak recalls her most memorable encounter, with a pod of 12 to 16 dolphins. "I was swimming just a couple of feet above them. They started rubbing each other's pectoral fins, which we'd been told is a gesture of playfulness. They weren't inhibited by my presence at all. I felt like I was one of them, hanging out with them, coming into their world and seeing how they play, almost like being part of a special club," she says. Since dolphins average about six feet in length, they seem human-size.
Although swimmers were told never to extend a hand to dolphins, the creatures often swam within arm's reach. One time someone brought a light, long silk scarf into the water and the dolphins tossed it among themselves, as if playing a game of fetch.
At different anchorages, "we'd all watch for dorsal fins, and the boat would immediately begin a slowing process, which took time," Tulisiak says. "But the dolphins would hang around. They'd stay close by, definitely attracted to the boat."
Although it is not necessary to be a strong swimmer to enjoy a dolphin encounter, it is a decided plus to be familiar with ocean swimming. The boat anchors in remote areas, usually with no other craft in sight. Even in 30 feet of water, the bottom was clearly visible. Air temperatures in the high 80s and water temperatures in the mid-80s made wetsuits unnecessary, although some guests donned full skins as sunburn protection.
Learning from the Experts
Facilitators, on board to enhance the experience, can include experts like Penelope Smith, a teacher of interspecies telepathy, and Joan Ocean, who leads advanced dolphin swims and meditation experiences. These specialists encourage guests to get into the water, then dive in a playful fashion within sight of the dolphins. From her experiences, Tulisiak learned that the creatures respond better to swimmers who dive below the surface and who display a feeling of confidence in the water.
Aboard the Bottom Time II, five crew attended to a maximum of 28 guests, housed in cabins with double or bunk beds, all with small sinks. Six showers and four separate toilets are nearby. Well-prepared table-service meals, presented in a separate dining area, included many meat dishes as well as vegetarian choices.
A Varied Itinerary
In addition to swimming with dolphins, the trip included snorkeling near reefs and rock outcroppings, and viewing brilliantly colored fish and soft corals. On board, facilitators sometimes led meditations and chanting, while formal lectures and briefings were avoided.
A favorite end-of-day ritual was to go to the bow of the boat, lie face down and hang over the edge as dolphins played in the bow wake, surfing like exuberant teenagers beside the fast- moving boat. "They'd get in the stream and go with the boat, having a blast. You could see in their eyes that they were really having fun," she recalls.
To Tulisiak's surprise, the trip gave her greater connection to and awareness of her spiritual being. "My whole body felt lighter, peaceful and stress-free. The experience was exceptionally therapeutic for the respite it provided from a stressful world," she reports. And it all has to do with the dolphins.
"They are very spiritual, and the remote environment is incredibly beautiful. You communicate with dolphins on a very different level. You don't touch them. But you come from a place of playfulness and joy. You open up your heart to experience being with them, which pretty much sums up the essence of how we all felt."
For more information on dolphin swims and whale encounters, contact tour organizer Alex Kochkin, (415) 663-8211; Fax, (415) 663-8261; P. O. Box 1195, Point Reyes, CA 94956.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Dolphin Research/Swim" and "Spiritual Tours."