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  • Writer's picturestephanieraffelock

Swimming With The Dolphins

The road is straight, marsh water on either side. A lot of the Keys are like this; a solid piece of highway, that banks down to the shallow waters leading out to the sea. Dean and I have been quiet for the last half hour of our drive. We’re lost in our own thoughts, taking in the foreign land of Florida, a place that when we see it on a map, always makes us giggle. “It looks like the penis of the America,” I tell him.

“It looks like it needs Viagra,” he replies. It’s a silly joke that never gets old.

We’ve come to Florida to visit Dean’s mother, but we’ve filled the time with so many other things, because my husband feels like he needs more time and a larger buffer between himself and the complicated woman who we’re never sure will be mean or welcoming. She’s tiring. I’m relieved that our visit to her house has been shortened by the creative itinerary that Dean has made up for us.

We’re headed to someplace called The Dolphin Research Center. We’re going to swim with the dolphins, but I am told that the dolphins get to choose whether or not they want to swim with us. I like the fairness of how that arrangement sounds, and I’m hoping that they will want to swim with me.

Tall reeds and skeletons of old trees flash by the window as we drive. My memory is caught by the lines from a T.S. Eliot poem: “I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.” The strip of asphalt grows wider, the ocean receding further out from the reaches of the soft banks that flank it. Two lanes become four and soon we’re in the town that houses The Dolphin Research Center.

We’ve packed swimsuits, towels and a bag of snacks. There’s a hotel nearby where we’ll spend the night. Standing in the warm and humid air, I get a rush of excitement about swimming with the dolphins. I’ve never swum with anything other than a person. The family story is that I learned to swim before I could walk. My older brother would tell me to crawl to my sister, and then put me in the water. I always found my way to her and back again to him. Learning to swim at such an early age made me fearless in the water. How the sun and water feel on my body is always a sensuous experience for me. I am a perpetual child of summer who loves the water.

I spent youthful years on the California coast, body surfing and swimming every day. Beginning at ten o’clock and exhausting myself by noon, these were dreamy days. I had few responsibilities or obligations and my rookie life as a legal adult was simple. Body surfing with my friend Bernie on Topanga Beach, drinking Welches grape juice in the hot sun and working nights slinging drinks to businessmen in the Marina who tipped well. No ambition was dogging my heels, just the joy of sun and water.

Dean and I have gone to Maui for vacations, where we spend hours a day in the ocean, getting salty and tan, relaxed beyond what normal life can imagine. Returning to the water is always a rebirth experience for me. Now I’m going swim in a different part of the world and maybe the dolphins will sing to me. The water affirms a life in me that is free from sorrow. Swimming with the dolphins, I think, will be a pure kind of pleasure, with no agenda attached.

We check in at our appointed time, sign the waivers and change into our bathing suits. We’re introduced to the people who will be swimming with us today, a nice couple from somewhere, USA. Maybe they’re on vacation. Maybe they have their own family avoidance going on, but my interest in them is passing. I wish it were just Dean and I swimming with the dolphins. I’m selfish in moments like these. There’s magic afoot and I don’t want to share.

We’re given a tour of the facility and told that our fees will go toward research. Here, they study the psychology of dolphins, their ability to communicate and commune with humans and each other. We hear the stories of how dolphins have rescued swimmers and led lost boats back to port. Maybe by studying how dolphins communicate, it will help us humans to communicate better.

I feel a rush of anticipation when we are finally given instructions about the swim: “Don’t grab at the dolphins. Your arms are where their dorsal fins would be, and your arms are so much longer than their fins that it must look intrusive, even threatening. Let them come to you,” the facilitator tells us. “Dolphins are playful and they are sometimes amorous with humans. They have a great deal in common with 16-year-old boys.” We all laugh.

I really hope that a dolphin doesn’t try to hump my leg like some horny little dog. Surely the facilitator intervenes if that happens. I push the thought away. Instead I think about what I’ve heard: don’t grab at the dolphins and they like to play. I’ve been close enough to animals that I know interactive play with them is like being in another realm. It’s a way of communicating joy and delight. I want to play with the dolphins.

Our group is led to a large swimming area with a deep pool that backs up to a series of other pools and swimming areas. A floating platform juts out into the water. An underwater gate is opened for the dolphins and we stand on the platform and watch three of them come in. They break the surface of the water with their snouts, curiously checking us out. And they wear what looks like a permanent smile. They don’t have to be with you if they don’t want to, I remind myself.

I will probably never have this opportunity again, so I’m going to go for it. Before any of the other swimmers move, I ease myself from the platform into the water. The dolphins are circling the bottom of the pool now. They’re a lot bigger than I’d imagined. I already know what I what to do. Once in the water, I dive to the bottom where the dolphins are circling. I turn somersaults. First forward, and then back ward, before I swim back to the top for air. I dive again. More somersaults, but this time when I swim to the top for air, I have company. As I take a big breath, I feel the dolphin’s sharp little teeth on my thighs. She’s holding me by my thighs and pushing me around the pool and I feel another dolphin push her snout into my breastbone, and that holds me straight, like I’m floating on my belly, but able to hold my head out of the water as they push me around. They are playing with me. I'm making involuntary squeaking sounds, joyful sounds of play. I grin at my husband who is applauding from the platform.

The facilitator shouts out to me: “They like you. Just relax and go with it.” My reaction is part excitement and part terror. This huge sea-beast has my thighs in her jaws, while another dolphin pushes on my sternum. A third dolphin is now swimming next to me. I have usurped the dolphins in the pool.

After a few minutes, I feel excited and exhausted, a little overwhelmed to be playing with such large animals, so I take a stroke toward the platform. The dolphin releases me from her mouth and I get out of the water. But the dolphins don’t go away. They wait for me at the surface, bobbing their dolphin heads and watching me intently. My husband is on the platform with me. He hasn’t even been into the water yet. Go back and play with them,” he says.

Back into the water, I go. Back into the mouth of the dolphin. Back to being pushed around the pool by two dolphins just as before. Their bodies are smooth and sleek. I let my hand reach back and touch the one that has me in her mouth. She feels warm. I take a deep breath and try to relax into the experience, though there’s no relaxing to be had. It’s too exciting to be interacting with them in this way. I’m not just swimming with the dolphins; I’m playing with them.

We’ve done a few circles in the pool, when the facilitator asks me if I will get out of the water and allow for some of the other “guests” to swim. I know that I got the best of what we came to experience, so I say goodbye to each of dolphins. “We had a good time, didn’t we?” I say to them. Then I get out of the water. My husband and the other couple are swimming now. And the dolphins swim close beside them. They don’t try to take anyone else into their mouth like they did with me, but they are swimming and circling in a way that’s welcoming. I see my husbands face and it’s filled with a sense of wonder.

When the session ends, the dolphins swim back through the gate to a larger area. I’m standing on the platform shaking from the cool breeze. I wrap myself into a towel and sit down staring at the pool, trying to remember each detail about this time. My heart is beating fast. Dean pulls up a chair next to me and places his arm around my shoulders, pulling me toward him. “That was really a magic moment,” he said.

I nod my head. Some part of my heart quivers at the recognition of being connected to all beings and it fills me with appreciation. Dean’s strong arm pulls me closer and he kisses the top of my head. There are pink marks on my thighs from the dolphin’s teeth. I touch them, savoring the images and feelings of the day.

For a brief moment I can see the truth that we all hide from ourselves: the universe is only love.

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