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Dancing with dolphins

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What does it mean to live in a world with other sentient beings? T.R. SHANKAR RAMAN describes a moment of connect.

Pair in a pod:Two spinner dolphins in the Bay of Bengal.Photo: Kalyan Varma
Pair in a pod:Two spinner dolphins in the Bay of Bengal.Photo: Kalyan Varma

There is a dark sea above and a dark sea below. With one I am transfixed, with the other forever moving. Above, the arched firmament is smeared with galactic grey and sprinkled with silver brilliance of stars uncounted. Below, a fathomless depth hides under a smooth lustre, crested with white ribbons of surf and the luminescent wake of our passage.

And there is, with the wind, the gentle wind tugging at my t-shirt, sifting through my hair, my eyes, eyelashes, over my hands and my legs, sighing in my ears, a light swell on which the boat rises, and a moment poised on a vertex of consciousness, filled with being.

In boundless seas, I am transfixed, I am moving, I am.

The moon is yet to rise. Behind me stretches the boat, its throbbing engine now silenced with a switch. The mizzen sail billows with mainsail and foresail and the boat leans into the darkness. There is a lull and a surge of air as if the ocean has held its breath briefly and the sails slacken and then fill with a pop, like a slap on the rump of a horse that gets it going again.

There is no other boat or ship around. Except for the faded glow of an instrument panel astern, there is no other light not of the seas. There is just us, in a boat pointed towards an unseen island. People of a purpose sailing on the undefined and relentless purpose of the seas.

Dawn flenses the cowling of night off the waters, revealing clear blue unmarked by cloud. The world opens before us and the bow parts the brightened waters. Flying fish break forth, like a fountain of grasshoppers flushed in a meadow. They arch through the air gleaming and flashing in sunlight. They skitter the surface, rise briefly, and plunge. The water is glassy smooth and secretive again.

Suddenly the sea is alive with spinner dolphins. Their sleek and shining shapes course through the waters in a sibilant rush. In energetic waves they rise and breathe and curve and dip, in a sinuous symphony that scarcely mars the waters. In the distance, others breach the waters into the air in exuberant bursts, spinning and twisting and falling in founts of spray. The water is cobalt and clear and I watch a dolphin near me swimming its sea as he watches me sail through mine. His curved fin and flippers and flukes, the snout and streamlined body are all crafted to perfection in the waters. The dolphin effortlessly keeps pace, now scouting ahead, now falling back. And then with a surge he is gone and the rest of them are gone. Barely 10 minutes of being with dolphins and yet there is a pang of loss at their passing.

The boat cruises on and the sun rises into brilliant day. Did we come upon the dolphins or they come to us? The dolphins have the answer. And I wish I could ask them. I feel a strange kinship: is it because I know that they know?

The biologists have figured this much. Dolphins and their kin, porpoises and whales, are counted among the most intelligent mammals. Their large, intricate brains, in relation to their body mass, place them somewhere between humans and the great apes. Faced with a mirror, a bottlenose dolphin can recognise himself, a self-recognition that bespeaks a self-awareness and earns a membership in a small but growing club of animal species, which includes the human being. Dolphins are social and empathic, intelligent and emotive. They can be affectionate, enchanting, aggressive, playful, endearing. Their life is in the open sea. The life of the sea is in the dolphins.

Extreme emotions

The sun sears its way west. As dusk settles, a pod of pilot whale makes its way through the darkening waters. A brown haze hangs over the water, like an airy smog, the breath of a sea monster. Through the haze, the sun drops quickly from blood-red sky to bloodied sea. Our journey is not over.

The intelligence and sentience of dolphin and whale carries consequences, as does ours. Dolphins and whales such as orcas can be driven from delight and vitality to depression and debilitation when held captive in artificial sea ‘worlds' that are more like tanks and puddles. They can become extremely distressed when people drive them for slaughter or separate a mother and her calf for capture and trade. Then the dolphin or whale must buy its life, its existence of sorts, by succumbing to perform and amuse other people to the chimes of artificial music and the ringing of the cash registers. We know now for sure, the biologists say. They can feel pain. They can suffer. They are sentient beings, too.

Darkness returns and we are enveloped by the seas, with dolphins on our minds. What does it mean to be a human being in a world with other sentient beings? And what the moral imperative of our ability to bring far greater harm and pain to a dolphin than he or she can ever bring to us? Will our search for new worlds and other intelligent life bring us great discovery from the starry sea above, or from the yielding sea below? Or will it come instead from the sea within us, in surprise and joy and revelation? “When it is dark enough”, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “you can see the stars”.

It is early yet in our quest into the lives and languages, the cultures and personalities, of dolphins and whales. The interpreters are still busy: marine scientists and other philosophers, the writers and the poets. Every day they probe the seas, to fish out a nugget of knowledge or ravel out the skein of connections. It is an expansive, artful, expanding world.

Meanwhile, I am on the bow of the boat again, cruising the dark seas. I sense an impending arrival at a place ordained but of my own choosing, too. And a sense of place impels me through waves of thought into a consciousness of what it means to be.

trsr@ncf-india.org


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