There is a dolphin in the waters outside our house in southern Puget Sound. A Pacific white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) to be exact, and although it is not necessarily outside its range, sightings around these parts are infrequent, especially of solitary individuals.
But this one keeps showing up in our local waters and, given the lack of other Pacific white-sided dolphins to run with, it’s been seeking out the company of boats, kayaks, paddleboards, and the humans that they carry. “Speedy,” as my son calls him, has taken to following along as we paddle, jumping alongside like some hyperactive Labrador on an invisible leash, shooting torpedo-like from side to side, then stopping on the surface of the calm water next to us with an inquisitive look in his liquid, soulful eyes. He’s not there all the time, and we never know when it is going to happen. But when it does, it’s magic.
It is, however, magic that has a darker side and it presents us with far more questions than answers. Encounters of this kind between marine mammals and humans have a record of ending poorly for the animal. I can’t help worrying about Speedy’s future–and our own.
“Luna” was a young orca in Nootka Sound whose attraction to humans ended up being his eventual undoing. Separated from his pod early in his development, he seemed to adopt the people of Nootka Sound as his brothers and sisters during the five years he spent in their waters. Luna died after years of contact – years of nudging fishing boats and chirping at awestruck tourists and residents alike – run over by a tug, without ever really being heard by those whose company he so relentlessly sought.
Because that is the question, right? Why do these animals keep coming back? Is it their solitude that brings them closer to us, a simple matter of loneliness, or is there something they are risking death to try to tell us?
The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act is a statute designed to protect dolphins, whales and the rest not only from being hunted but also from being loved to death. The assumption is made that these marine mammals need their space and given their requirements, us humans need to stay out of their way as much as possible. It is the MMPA that sets the distance for whale-watching boats at 100 yards, a rule that applies to paddlers as well.
But what are the rules that should apply when it is the dolphin or the whale that closes the distance? Most of the time, these encounters are a case of simple curiosity, and the animal quickly moves on, but that is not always the case. There is Speedy and there is Luna and there have been others. Is it just naive anthropomorphism, assigning human emotions and motivations to other species, to suggest that they are seeking us out for a reason?
There is no denying the sentience of these animals, their ability to work and live together, their languages and the cultures that they represent. We know that they communicate with each other. It does not seem illogical to suggest that communication across species might someday be achieved.
The British writer John Berger put it this way: “The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, (and) seas, are specifically addressed to man.” It may seem fanciful and unlikely that we will ever be able to understand these secrets, to discuss them with each other across previously unbridgeable chasms of mind, but that’s not the same thing as saying that it will never happen.
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Ken Campbell is a noted paddler, filmmaker and conservationist. Last year, he completed a 150-mile journey up the Washington coast in a a kayak that was constructed out of discarded single-use plastic bottles.