Dolphin Rescue

The sea had been flattened and becalmed, with only gentle undulations of mild swells on the surface.  With virtually nothing to check my progress, the board paddled smooth and therefore fast across the water.  A long straight-armed stretch, a twist of my torso, a long lean forward, and the plunge of the paddle’s blade made no sound.  Again, and again.  Switch sides and repeat.  Deep, heavy breaths were the loudest sounds.  A long straight wake trailed behind my board, punctuated by tiny eddies which whirled and slowly faded away where my paddle exited the water. 

The morning sun warmed my hat as I headed back to Newport Harbor with my head down.  My sunglasses guided sweat droplets across my field of vision.  I looked at my watch to see my distance, not the time.  I adjusted my will, deciding to paddle a little harder for the next 12 minutes, to maintain a 5 mph average for the hour-long paddle. 

A dolphin fin interrupted the smooth unending surface ahead of me.  One fin. 

Where are his friends?

Over the years, I have seen and paddled with countless dolphins, but I could not think of a single time that I had seen just one dolphin.  They are not solitary animals, and are always in large pods, or small groups, never alone.  I kept paddling toward the fin, approaching within 25 yards, when it disappeared, and I fully expected to see several more dolphins surface. 

But no, this single fin surfaced again, just 10 yards away.  I heard a labored exhale, and the dolphin slowly rolled its back and went under again.  I paddled up to the spot where I had last seen it, and there he was, swimming underneath me, only 10 feet underneath the board. 

The dolphin struggled with a yellow rope, which was wrapped around it, apparently from a submerged lobster trap.  The line was wrapped several times around its beak, and even ran down its body and wrapped around its pectoral fin.  The line was weighing it down and preventing it from swimming away.  The dolphin swam in slow circles, over and over again, and expending what appeared to be rapidly dwindling energy to get a breath.  It was not totally clear to me given the depth of the water and because I could not see the bottom, but it appeared the dolphin had to pull this heavy trap off the bottom to surface.  It was like swimming with a cinder block tied to your leg.  You are not going to last very long.    

I took off my hat, glasses, camelback, and shirt.  I sat on the board and quietly slid into the water.  I tried to appear nonthreatening, as I waded toward it silently and slowly.  At first, it swam toward me and I actually thought I would be able to grab the line.  But, again and again, the dolphin would retreat just as he came within reach. 

It appeared as if a battle raged within the dolphin’s mind.  It seemed as if it knew on some level I was there to help, and it kept approaching me to receive it.  But then some other part of its brain would tell him I was dangerous, and it would dart out of my grasp.  Defeated, I swam back to the board and sat down.  I put my right hand deep in the water, and talked to him, hoping to coax him over by cooing.  A few times, he came within arm’s reach, but again, he retreated.    

After about a half hour of this frustrating dance, I knew that I needed help.  Unfortunately, this was one of the few times I had ventured out to sea without my phone, and I had no way of calling anyone for help.  I would have to rely on someone passing by.  But it was Tuesday morning in late September, and I was a mile offshore.  Not exactly a lot of traffic out there, which is kind of the point (usually).  But this time, I was hoping for a boat parade. 

I stood up and looked around.  Far toward shore, I saw a lonely paddler, digging hard back to the harbor on an OC-1 (an outrigger canoe).  He was approximately half a mile away, closer to shore than me.  I started yelling “HEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY.”  I threw my paddle above my head and started waving it back and forth. 

Within seconds, the OC-1 turned right, out to sea, and started heading directly toward me.  Relieved, I sat down and waited for him to arrive.  The dolphin continued to struggle for breath, surfacing every minute or so, first in front of me, then behind. 

“Hang in there, buddy.  We’re going to get you some help.” 

  Our rescuer arrived and from 50 yards away, while still paddling, he yelled out, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay, but I do need help.”

“What’s going on?”

At that moment, the dolphin surfaced between us, and the canoer immediately saw the problem, namely, the line wrapped tightly around the dolphin’s mouth, preventing him from opening it.

“You can’t get him close?”

“No, I’ve been trying to grab the line for a half hour.”

The canoer’s name turned about to be Dave Spitzer, and after we made further attempts together to corral the dolphin without success, Dave offered to paddle into the harbor and get harbor patrol to come out to help.  We decided I would stay with the dolphin and Dave would tell Harbor Patrol that I was about a mile straight off Balboa Pier.  I thanked Dave and he was off, pulling hard for the harbor, much faster than I could go on a SUP.

I sat down on my board again, and thought about how late I was going to be for work.  I was already due to be home by that time, and Bri (my wife) was probably starting to wonder what happened to me. 

I said to my struggling friend, “Just come over here and I’ll take care of you right now.”

The dolphin came near, released another wavering breath, only about 5 feet away.  I looked closely at him.  I thought I could see him looking at me, with a glassy black eye.  Worried that help would come too late, or perhaps not at all, I swam with him again and tried to swim down for the rope, but he could not bring himself to set his fear aside and he continued to keep his distance. 

After another long 30 minutes or so of this, I looked up and with gratitude, I saw a harbor patrol boat hauling ass out of the harbor, throwing a large bow wave.

“Here comes the cavalry buddy!  You’re gonna be good in no time.”

I stood on my board and again waved my paddle and the boat adjusted course to come directly to me.  When the boat arrived, there were two deputies on board.  They asked me what was going on, apparently thinking I was hurt.  I learned later from Dave that he told them a paddler needed help and did not even mention the dolphin, worrying that they may not feel like it was a critical mission to save a dying dolphin.  To their credit however, when they learned that it was the dolphin and not me that needed help, they immediately sprang into action. 

Officer Ken Francisco suggested we get the line by using a grappling hook they had on board.  I paddled over to the boat, took the grappling hook from the deputy and paddled toward the dolphin.  After three attempts, I successfully snagged the rope attached to the dolphin.  I gave the line to the officers and they pulled on the line, retrieved the hook, and now had the dolphin’s line in hand. 

On the back swimstep of the boat, Officer Francisco pulled on the line until the dolphin was directly next to the boat.  He tied off the line so the dolphin could not get away. 

At first, the dolphin thrashed like a hooked marlin about to be gaffed.  I wondered how in the world the deputy was going to manage to untie him.  Imagine trying to wrestle a 700 lb. terrified animal.  This was a dangerous situation as one swift swat from the creature could cause serious damage.  I sat on my board, watching from just a few feet away.

Officer Francisco laid down on the swimstep, on his stomach, and threw his chest and arms in the water, grabbed the dolphin and put it in a complete bear hug.  I was shocked.  It was like he had done this before. 

To my complete astonishment, the dolphin suddenly overcame its fear, showing its own bravery, rolled over placidly, and lay completely still.  Our suffering friend offered its sore and strangled fin for inspection to us. 

Officer Francisco began the process of unraveling the rope.  And it took a surprisingly long time.  From the pectoral, around the nose, back down around the head.  At one point, the deputy had to retrieve a knife and cut it before he could unwind it completely from its nose.  It occurred to me as he did this, and as the dolphin continued to lay there like dental patient, that I would never have been able to unwind the rope swimming in the water with the dolphin. 

The last bit fell away.  The dolphin’s mouth opened slightly, it flipped over, and sensing it was free, vanished with a flash of its tail.  The two deputies and I cheered and stared out over the water for some time looking for it to surface again.  It finally did with one parting breath and a tiny leap 100 feet away, and then it was gone. 

I thanked the officers for coming to our aid, we exchanged names and I told them I would friend them on Facebook.   We then both began our trip back to the harbor. 

When I got to the car, three text messages waited for me from Bri: (1) “Where are you?”; (2) “You okay?”; (3) “Seriously, what’s going on?”

I immediately texted back, “Sorry I’m late.  I was rescuing a dolphin.  Driving home now.”

It’s not every day you get to say that. 

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