In Pursuit of Dolphins

israel 490

Short summer fiction for this season of beach vacations-

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Cloud 9 magazine.                                                                   

In Pursuit of Dolphins

I’ve always heard that if dolphins are present, you don’t have to worry about sharks. I never thought much about sharks, but I always thought it would be great fun to swim with dolphins.

Ever since I was four, my family has vacationed on Anna Maria Island, a sliver of sand off the Gulf coast. As grade school children, my brother Jack and I spent hours shoulder deep in the Gulf. We would hop at the right moment to let the waves lift us and set us down again gently, like seagulls perched on the water’s surface. We’d strain our eyes for a glimpse of that first fin, when the dolphins would approach. They’d glide up or down the coast, in that transitional border between their sea and the shallow water man claimed as his territory, and we would fantasize about playing with them.

Jack and I would change into our suits in the station wagon before we arrived. I couldn’t wait to blast out of the car and smell that slightly unpleasant, oil-tinged beach scent. As our parents unpacked, we’d be jumping through the breakers. I’d lean over to scrub my face in the surf and taste the salt. It stung my eyes and drops of sea water trickled into the back of my nasal passages, burning out any leftover sinus.  Jack could venture shoulder deep immediately, but my belly button had to stay dry until my mother set up camp on the sand. Even after she arrived, to read her magazines and consolidate the freckles on her back, if she caught me beyond that halfway mark of the pier, I’d have to sit on the beach next to her for thirty minutes.

Now that I’m grown, my family still escapes to Anna Maria Island every other year. My husband Reese and I have to unpack as our son, Curt, splits for the pool. I gripe at him for choosing concrete over coast, then head for the beach, my shoulders soon tight from sun and salt. As I share my thrown-together sandwich with the seagulls, my eyes adjust to the vast distance. I stare hard for the familiar dark curved triangle that cuts through the surface of the water, and then slides under again.

Midway through our last vacation, we woke to drizzle. With rain in the forecast, we decided to blow the morning at a nearby aquarium. But while Reese was tying his sneakers, the balcony brightened.

”I have to take advantage of this,” I kicked off sandals and ran toward the bedroom.

“You’re staying?” Curt hadn’t pulled on a tee shirt yet.

“Sure.” I yelled through the closed door as I slipped into my suit. “You want to?”

He didn’t respond. I left the bedroom, started on him again. “You can’t pass this up. We might see dolphins. Give it a chance.”

The previous summer, before his tenth birthday, Curt’s soccer team reached the semi-finals of a city-wide tournament, largely due to his athleticism. He didn’t like shooting goals, but preferred to control the ball from mid-field. The young coach had no children, had never played soccer, but had read some books. On the field, the kids appeared to play without a game plan, even to the parents on the sidelines, who still struggled to understand an offside penalty.

The score was tied 1-1 at the end of the game, sending them into a shootout. The parents watched as coach and players huddled across the field. Then one of the smaller boys donned the jester-like goalie’s jersey.

“Why isn’t Curt playing goalie?” A teammate’s father threw up his hands as he paced the sidelines. I shrugged and we all stood there, stunned.

Our goalie did not stop a single kick. After Curt booted in the ball, the other team’s goalie caught every player’s attempt. On the sad ride home, I asked, “Why on earth did Coach Winfrey put in Micah as goalie?”

Curt looked out the window. “He asked me to and I said no.”

I almost hit the ditch. “Why?”

Curt looked down at his cleats. “I was afraid to.”

I was astounded at his reply, but let it drop. Now, with a glorious morning’s swim as prospect, maybe my son needed a little push to join me on the beach.

“Why stare at fish through glass when you can experience the real thing?”

Curt hesitated.

“We won’t go far,” I promised. “It’ll be fun.”

He slung a towel over his shoulder. He would swim in his black mesh shorts, the ones he wore day and night, letting them dry while eating hot dogs by the pool. Reese left to find a cup of coffee and a newspaper. I scooped up my flip-flops, and Curt and I scooted down the stairs.

When we reached the beach, the sun was already wavering. The shoreline was practically empty, and I couldn’t see any other swimmers. I stepped through the breaking waves and strode then stroked out to my favorite spot, shoulder deep. I didn’t wait for Curt, who was taking his time getting used to the water.

I turned to the shore, which looked far away, sixty yards or so, due to the minute grade of the slope. I was two-thirds of the way to the end of the pier to my right. Curt dog-paddled out. Usually he preferred boogie-boarding to wave riding, but I had hurried him out the door without his board, and he didn’t want to trek back up to the condo. He floated a little, easy in the salt.

“Don’t you love it here?” I looked at my son. He lifted his head out of the water and gazed as if he were thinking about something. Maybe he wished he’d gone to the aquarium to see the fish up close. If the rain returned, we’d be sorry we stayed, and Reese had the car. The wind blew, and thick clouds choked out the sun’s warmth.

Curt shivered and stared at the waves. “I’m thinking about sharks.”

We had never worried about sharks on this beach before, due to the regular dolphin sightings. However, last summer a boy had lost an arm to a four-foot shark less than five miles south of our beach, and an elderly man had been attacked off his private pier a few miles north of us. He died soon afterward. I tried to put the thought of it out of my mind.

“Miles of sand and sea surround us, tons of fish. Why would a shark come up to us?”

“Maybe that’s what that boy thought,” Curt replied, not looking at me.

“How many people have been in this water since then, though? We’re well inside the safe zone.”

He remained unconvinced.  And I couldn’t dispel the thought that, since we were alone in the water for as far as I could see, if one were lurking, we’d make a fine brunch.

“All right, I’ll head in some,” I sighed. Curt looked a little relieved, as much for me as for himself. I semi-backstroked, in a sitting position with my back to the shore, piddling really. We stood when I was rib-cage deep, half way to the end of the pier. The waves weren’t ready to break yet, were rolling into their head, still good for a lift. I spread out my arms and bent my knees, lowering my shoulders to the water level to get the full effect of the rise and dip. Then I caught sight of the fin far off to my left.

I squinted and focused hard before saying anything. Many times what seems to be a fin is merely a lapping wave.  A viewer has to gaze straight and hard, but in a general area, because the dolphin won’t surface again in the same place. But the fin rose again, and this time it was unmistakable. There were three of them, still far down to the south.

“Dolphins!” I turned to yell at the scant beachcombers who had braved the damp weather, none of whom were within earshot but who could recognize my gestures. They covered their eyebrows, salute fashion, and nodded in recognition.

Then I realized: for all the years we had spotted dolphins out in the Gulf, my parents would never have allowed me to swim that far past the pier. But if we hurried, Curt and I could intersect their path.

“Hey, we can reach them. Let’s go.”

Curt didn’t move. He had never mentioned an interest in touching or swimming with dolphins. Though very much in shape, he had never swum a lap at sprint pace, and swimming has its own cardio-respiratory demands. Besides, the dolphins’ track ranged out twice as far as the end of the pier.

How badly I wanted him to share this with me—something he could tell his grandchildren sixty years from now. The fins continued to arc, nearing ten o’clock. I lunged toward Curt and pulled on his arm.

“Come on; this is an unbelievable opportunity! You have to.”

He reluctantly joined me. We swam freestyle, the stroke for speed, another hundred yards. We were well past the pier, and I didn’t want to think about how deep the water was. Usually this beach drops into a trough after the gradual slope then rises onto a surprisingly shallow sand bar. In past years, during low tide, I have stood rib-cage-deep at the bar, near the end of the pier. While snorkeling, Reese has seen dozens of sand dollars on the outer edge of the bar. But this year we were unable to locate the incline. Two days earlier, we swam out just past the pier, occasionally dropping straight down to sound for the bottom. Reese is six feet tall, and when the surface was two yards beyond his arms stretched above his head, we quit trying. We were beyond the bar. Maybe the sand was not as shallow. Maybe the bar had shifted closer to shore than we guessed and we had passed it.

Curt had not matched my pace. I held up, listened for him, and gauged the progress of the dolphins. To my surprise, they reared up at about 11 o’clock to my left. A hot chill swept over me. First of all they were black. They didn’t look like Flipper at all. They were close enough for me to see their shiny flesh, which made me think of how a runner’s thighs would feel after a two-mile jog, slick with a slight give, but firm under the surface. They didn’t seem to be mammals. Because of their slow, clockwork-like movement, they appeared to be mechanical replicas. Their alarming progress seemed incongruent to their leisurely pace, perhaps because of their size. They were much larger than I’d expected, and I realized that I was afraid.

I could hear Curt splashing behind my splashing. He sputtered, “Are you sure those aren’t killer whales?”

“They’re dolphins.” I was so out of breath from swimming that my voice squeaked. What if they were friendly dolphins’ malevolent cousins? What if one were a nursing mother who thought we were trying to harm her young one? If a creature this size could crush my ribs with even a playful roll of its body, what could it do to Curt?

I forged ahead and tried to determine the length between me and the dolphins as they curved and slid under, unhurried but advancing markedly. When describing a fateful or heroic experience I always exaggerate distance to my benefit, thus I reckoned they were a little farther off than they seemed. Twenty feet? But in an area the size of the Gulf, distance is distorted. Knowing this, I reckoned it would be less than it seemed. Five feet? I considered body length, and guessed they were about two body lengths from me.

I was delirious with excitement. The middle one, the largest, puckered his blow hole and then the hole disappeared as his head cruised under the surface. I charged forward, slapped the water and yelled to get their attention. They ignored me. I tried to scream underwater, anything to reach them. They were practically straight in front of me, but how far?

Strangling wheezes shot out of my heavy breathing. I had to draw deeply, and I fought to avoid swallowing more salt water as the gray waves kept coming. I felt dizzy. My heart was hammering from the swim; I swam some more. I longed for Curt’s boogie board. They glided on. I was spent.

Or was I? I couldn’t possibly reach out and touch those huge beasts. Nothing could be holding back my arm from its maximum span. Surely my fear wasn’t slowing me down, constricting my bronchial tubes, convincing my brain I couldn’t make contact with the dolphins.

Years before, on a summer afternoon in the middle of a freshwater lake, while I was swimming off a rented pontoon with my friends,  a ski boat skimmed by, its wake so large that it rocked the pontoon and knocked its detachable ladder into the water. I was closest to where the ladder sank, and everyone called for me to save it. I bravely dove down, but the deeper I probed, the murkier the water became. Sunshine glinted off the aluminum as it floated down, just beyond my grasp. I tried to grab it, but the chill of the thermocline made me shudder, and I scurried to the surface.

To my friends’ hopeful faces I shook my head, coughing. Nobody questioned my effort. We’d all have to chip in on the $150 to replace it, so surely I had done everything possible to reach it. But I wasn’t sure then, and now I couldn’t tell either.

With these beautiful exotic creatures so close, I wanted to be able to say, “We swam with dolphins. “ To crow in front of my brother, and tell my friends at home. To be the one at the party to regale guests with this adventure, to share a lifelong memory with my son.

Runner-up, bridesmaid, also-ran: there’s no trophy for almost. Almost hit the ball over the fence. Almost crossed the finish line first. Almost cleared the tracks before the train.

Meanwhile the dolphins slipped by. They were simply faster, at home in their territory. I angled north, but couldn’t reach them. I treaded water while Curt caught up with me. We watched the fins rise and fall.

“We were so close,” I panted. “Maybe they’ll circle around. Sometimes they circle around.”

“We missed it,” Curt muttered.

“You want to stay a while? Isn’t it neat to be out this far?” I pulled up my legs, wrapped my arms around my shins to make a ball, but began to sink. I scrambled to the surface, hacking. At least Reese wasn’t around to see how far out I’d taken Curt.

His breathing was labored. “We’re out pretty deep, and you sound horrible.”

He seemed to spend as little energy as possible to keep his head above water. For the first time, I thought about how tired he was.

The sky had darkened more in our pursuit, and with the object of my focus gone, I realized the waves had grown more choppy, the wind more intent. I smelled the storm rolling toward us; saw the opaque gray wall at the horizon. We were a long way from the shore. Drops began to ping against my cheeks. I turned to watch and yearn for the diminishing dolphins. And I knew that sharks were the least of my worries.

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