When you consider large marine mammals, you see a highly evolved organism, supremely attuned to their environment. Dolphins, for example, are efficient and deadly hunters. They travel and live in complicated social and familial relationships. They have evolved for survival in harsh oceanic environments all over the world. In order to do so, dolphins have developed refined survival mechanisms, with hyper attention to their environment.
I have always imagined that dolphins, like most animals I have encountered, would be vigilantly attentive to their surroundings, assessing all threats at all times, near and far.
But maybe, as Bill Murray’s character Steve Zissou laments in The Life Aquatic, dolphins are not quite the thing. He muses (as two dolphins swim by his observation bubble): “They’re supposedly very intelligent…although I’ve never seen any evidence of it.”
The only reason I raise the issue, tongue in cheek, is because I was paddling back toward Newport Harbor one time, a mile or so from the harbor mouth, when I saw a small pod of bottlenose dolphins. They were four of them, and they were swimming very slowly. They were about 100 yards to my left and heading in roughly the same direction as me.
I paddled toward them to get a closer look and saw they were a family. One of them was a baby and it was adorable. They continued on, swimming slowly toward me. I expected that at any moment, they would hear me and acknowledge my presence in some way. After all, my board makes some noise as it slaps on swells from time to time, and my paddle too makes a little noise. But there was no reaction at all from them.
We drew closer and closer. I finally stopped paddling and just watched them, as they swam directly at me, apparently oblivious. They went under the surface, swam under my board just a couple feet from my feet, and then one of them surfaced directly under my board, lifting the nose of my board up in the air and nearly toppling me off the board. When the dolphin hit my board, it was completely surprised. It freaked out, jumped, splashed me with a thumping powerful stroke of its tail, and they were all gone. It surprised me too. I laughed out loud, happy to have stayed upright, and said sorry to them.
I had scared the dolphin like I sometimes scare my daughter when I hide in the hallway and jump out at her to chase her around the house. Before this happened, I would not have imagined that was possible, but evidently, dolphins are not the all-seeing, all knowing vigilant terminators of the ocean that I imagined. You can sneak up on them and scare the crap out of them without even trying, which I guess makes them more like us than I thought.