Celine van Weelden, WCA Intern
13/12/2016: Forming Friendships
I had barely slipped off the side of the boat when they came speeding out of the blue, overtaken only by a chorus of excited clicks and whistles. A mother with a calf gliding in her slipstream passed below and another older male with a cluster of stalked barnacles along the side of his jaw cruised by to my right. Three more swam straight up to me and began to swimming in slow circles; inviting me to come and play. They sped up, first clockwise for a few rotations, then counter before switching effortlessly back again. I struggled to match their pace and maintain eye contact. Even as someone who is at home in the water I felt clumsy and slow. I tried to keep my arms close to me, afraid a loose finger may accidentally brush one of their sleek bodies and break our trance. A minute or so of this left me breathless and partly choking on the water which had entered my snorkel in a moment where my need to keep it above the surface had been forgotten.
A brief time out and couple of minor snorkel readjustments allowed my breathing to return almost to normal and then I was pulled back into this exhausting game of follow the leader. One juvenile was particularly playful. He would swim away and then speed back past me leaving a train of silvery bubbles drifting behind. Ripples sending reflections of light dancing in patterns across his smooth skin. Finally, when he too seemed to have tired himself, he flipped elegantly over and floated belly up underneath me, so close that I could see the pale speckling that was beginning to dot his pearly underside and countless faint scars that already zigzagged along his rostrum (AKA snout/beak).
There is a common misconception that when a dolphin shows its teeth it is smiling and happy. This is in fact more likely a sign of aggression. Like with most creatures’, their eyes tell their true emotion. And as these intelligent young eyes gazed back at me I had the incredible sensation that this being was looking not just at me, but into me. From a scientific point of view, this is exactly what he was doing. Using echolocation to capture an audible image of me. There was no question in my mind as to whether he was enjoying that moment as much as I was. That we shared a curiosity for each other and a certain comfort and appreciation of each other’s time and company. I felt such joy to share such a pure and uncorrupted presence, my whole body tingled with it and I believe he felt something too, although in his own dolphin way. After a few circles of farewell, he drifted off, after the rest of his pod.
Just like humans and other social creatures, dolphins build life-long relationships. Now, thanks to research carried out by Angie Gullan and the other individuals working with dolphins around the globe, it has become apparent that such relationships can bridge the gap between our two species. Just as humans will be more comfortable with each other as they become more familiar with one another. Dolphins can grow accustomed to humans and even seek out their company. It is a process that takes time. Angie has been observing and swimming with the same population of resident inshore bottlenose dolphins for over 20 years and has bared witness to the many poignant events in their lives. If they feel like socialising she is the first person they will approach. Mothers will even bring their new born calves to show her thanks to the decades’ worth of trust between them.
Personally, I would define friendship or companionship as two individuals who choose to be in each other’s presence and company because they enjoy it. There is no better way to describe the connection Angie has with the dolphins of Ponta.
When I first arrived, they would just swim past me despite obvious curiosity to come closer and investigate. As the time passed they grew more familiar with me. Now after three months of seeing me on an almost daily basis they will single me out of the group of humans. The fact that they choose to come and play with you is one of the most powerful feelings I have ever experienced. I take it as their way of letting me know they have grown to know and accept me.
I would like to thank Angie, Mitch, Diana, the rest of the Dolphin Encountours team and all the other amazing people I have met during my time volunteering here in Mozambique. They let me into their lives and shared so many incredible experiences with me which will stay with me for a long time to come. I have always loved the ocean but over the past three months my respect of its power and beauty has grown exponentially. I feel that I am now only beginning to truly appreciate all that it holds and provides. It really is a whole other world, and one that I cannot wait to continue exploring.
Ponta is a special place, one I will most definitely miss when I leave, along with all these new friends I have made (both those in the sea and out!). I guess I will just have to come back and visit.