Sea Change

Lance has undergone a sea change.  He found his courage, and by God he screwed it to the sticking place. Yesterday, the wind died down to almost nothing so the sea went flat as a dinner plate.  Geoff and I went swimming and left Lance on the beach because we were tired of coaxing him to do something he obviously didn’t want to do. We went out pretty far to a point where the water came up to our necks.  I looked behind me and lo there was Lance, trundling through the water.  His skinny legs pawed the water, his toenails extended as if attempting to dig into something solid.  What could be going through his mind? And why would he attempt this, when he was plainly terrified?  Does he like doing things that scare him? The dog brain, simple though we may believe, remains a mystery.

Lance swam like a sewing machine.  Chucka, chucka chucka.  Sturdy and desperate at the same time.  He paddled over to me and looked me straight in the eye to make sure he got credit for the effort.  The he swerved over to Geoff to check on him.  Geoff was wearing a snorkel mask at the moment and was looking down into the sandy floor,  so he did not see the heroic Lancelot striding the waves toward him.  Lance poked his snout into Geoff’s side, and Geoff startled, lifted his face out of the water.  Having thus satisfied himself that Geoff was not dead, only floating face-down in the sea, Lance turned and returned to shore.  The slow rising humps of water pushed him along when his skinny legs failed.  Once on land, he shook himself off and rolled in the hot, loose white sand, so he appeared to be dusted in flour.  Then he came right back into the water to make the same trip all over again.  He kept this up all day.  We had to drag him home in the late afternoon.  What a difference a little wind makes.  Suddenly I have a brave new dog.

Emily has been having sympathetic brain spasms.

#556, c. 1862

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly — and true —
But let a Splinter swerve —
‘Twere easier for You —

To put a Current back —
When Floods have slit the Hills —
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves —
And trodden out the Mills —

That splinter that has put my brain out of groove? Tiger sharks.

We took a guided snorkeling expedition to another part of the peninsula, near the state park.  They dropped us off on a sandbar that led in one direction (about a half mile) to shore and in the other direction out to deep water.  On our way there, we encountered a pod of dolphins.  One swam close, brushing against the hull of our boat. Without fail every human on the boat clambered to the railing and leaned out to coo and sigh, as if apprehending the Baby Jesus, Himself.  I was first in line, cooing above all the others.  How do they do it?  Dolphins, I mean.  They inspire a near-universal response of awe and love.  Our mysterious friends of the deep.  We can be with the dolphins and not be afraid.  Even our crusty, grumpy Captain Gary turned soft on us when the dolphins appeared.  He sped the boat in their direction, knowing they would swim along, racing and leaping to keep up.  Apparently they love the hum of the engine, especially a catamaran.  The shape of the hull amuses them somehow.  Reminds them of another dolphin, perhaps?  Who knows?  But they definitely respond to the racing boat, much the same way that Lance will snap his head around and rivet his attention to my hand when I hold a tennis ball.  I hold him in my thrall as I wave the ball.   The dolphins are locked in similarly.  The boat’s shape and sound must strike a chord in their brain history.  They know what to do with a boat.  They play with it.

When we got to the sandbar, Captain Gary dropped anchor and turned us loose for about three hours to explore on our own.  The area immediately around the boat was shallow enough to walk.  While Geoff and I were snorkeling in the deeper water, I attracted the attention of a remora, which is a long gray fish with white stripes down either side and a suction cup on its underside.  These generally attach themselves to sharks and then coast along waiting for the shark to kill something. The remora scoots out to eat the bloody remnants floating around after the shark has taken its meal.  Anyway, this remora would not leave me alone.  It darted in and around and all up and down my legs, gliding along my skin, looking for a place to attach.  I swatted it away, but it kept coming back to me.  The fish ignored Geoff and only wanted to attach itself to my legs.  I swam away from it, flippering fast in the water, then stopped and looked down.  The damn thing had followed me and continued its fascinated inventory of my legs.  “Why?” I asked.

“He senses your predation,” Geoff said.

“I’m a vegetarian!” I yelled at the remora.  It didn’t seem to believe me.

I climbed back onto the boat so I could re-apply sun block.  Sound carries beautifully across water,  so I could clearly hear our snorkeling guide Spencer casually chatting with other folks in our expedition. He was reassuring them that they did not need to worry about sharks.  “Wherever you find dolphins, you won’t see sharks,” he said.  Apparently dolphins dominate sharks.  When they play Rock-Paper-Scissors, dolphins win every time.  The reason is not that dolphins love us and want to protect us from sharks.  Another cherished myth shattered out there on the sunny Gulf coast.  The reason is that dolphins and sharks compete for the same food supply.  And dolphins beat up sharks because they can.  They’re smarter, faster, and more aggressive.  Even more importantly, dolphins know how to work in groups to protect their food supply, whereas sharks tend to be solitary feeders.  Sharks are dumb, but they have figured out that it’s healthier to stay away from dolphins.

A minute later I heard shouting.  “Oh look!” Spencer was pointing, very excited.  Then a saw it.  A black, knife-shaped shadow, about three feet long, darted through the shallow water where Geoff and the other folks in our group were paddling around.  It moved super fast and then disappeared into the forest of undersea grass. “There’s a shark, right there,” Spencer cried, pleased with himself, as if he had produced it himself.

“What was that story you were just feeding those kids? ” I demanded, trying not to sound shrill.

“Oh, I tell that to everybody,” Spencer said as he climbed into the boat.  Our crusty, grumpy Captain Gary had just returned from his foray into the deeper water.  He already knew about the shark—a bonnet shark and an old friend, it seemed.  “Yeah, this is his hangout,” Gary said.  Wonderful.  Our guides have brought us to a “shark hangout.”  I must have looked as stricken as I felt because Spencer launched into the spiel:  Most sharks shy away from people.  They’re more afraid of us . . .  etc.  I am suddenly lonesome for my couch.

The conversation turned, naturally enough, to tiger sharks.  Spencer described them as “garbage can fish” because they literally will eat anything, regardless of nutritional content.  Plus, they differ from other sharks in that they do not shy away from humans.  Oh, no! Tiger sharks yearn to embrace their human cohorts—in the most intimate manner imaginable—tear their limbs from their torso and wear their intestines like a necklace.

The only local tiger shark attack that Spencer knew of was a man who was fishing in waist-deep water.  He had packed the bait into his pockets.  A passing tiger shark liked the smell of that and tried to get into the man’s pockets . . . violently.  “The way I see it, “Spencer said. ” The guy baited himself.” Then he raised his shoulders in a philosophical shrug and fanned out his hands, as if to say, “I rest my case.”

Yeah, hard to argue with that one.  The guy was totally asking for it.  Oh, but Spencer wasn’t finished with his story.  He and his nephew had recently caught a 12-foot tiger shark and released it.  I asked where, hoping the shark was living happily in Hawaii now.

“I’d rather not tell you,” Spencer said.  I stared at him until he succumbed to my will.  “A couple of miles from here.”

Great.  That’s just great.  Rather than think about this too much,  I sank back into the water and returned to my patrol of the grass beds.  Beneath my snorkel mask, the flickering blue and green ovals of fish first zigged and then zagged in their group fish-think when they felt the water shift with my movement.  The sunlight illuminated their skin with triangles of gold.  I happened upon an extremely large conch shell that had fastened itself to the lip of an equally large scallop shell.  I nudged it with my flipper.  The creature inside the conch shell reacted with a furious poof of sand and disengaged its hold on the scallop.  The conch creature (I later learned) had been in the middle of feeding on the scallop creature.  More predation.  When had I first glimpsed the two, I thought they were having sex—some exotic, inter-species coupling.  It could happen, right? But no, this was hunting, not loving.  I’m always misunderstanding things by filtering the world through my own prism. The sorrow of my life.

My brain, Lance,  tiger sharks, dolphins.  Our respective mental engines are going chucka, chucka  . . .  It’s a miracle that any of us manage to co-exist at all, if only because each of us is running in an entirely different groove.  Back to language and communication.  I have been thinking about why we all react with such romantic exhilaration when the dolphins show up.  The simple reason may be that the dolphins respond to us in a way that shows they are aware of our presence as something other than food or a threat to their food.  They play with us.  What else could that be?  They swim with us in a manner unmistakably frivolous.  This suggests some imagination at work.  Their capacity for play and willingness to involve us in their game tells us that they are imagining things about us—just as we also involve them in our imaginative vision.  We’re having a simultaneous and briefly mutual fantasy with the dolphins.  This is how love affairs get started.

The startling point for us humans (because we believe we’re at the top of the kingdom) is that we feel seen by the dolphins.  A barrier between us drops.  We see real evidence of understanding.  We feel we could have a relationship with the dolphin that we could never have with a shark who looks at us with the same dead, empty eyes as we look to our own grilled steak on the dinner plate.  With the dolphin we look into a lively mind  that is utterly alien from our own in its wildness and self-possession.  A dolphin is really not like a dog, who also plays with us.  We have a  contract with dogs, who goof around to curry favor, so that we’ll feed them snacks and give them pedicures.  The  dolphin doesn’t need us.  Yet, the dolphin seems to want us for its own benevolent reasons.  When we feel ourselves folded into this strange intelligence, we are both thrilled and humbled.  Do we deserve to be loved?  Probably not.  That makes it even more exciting.

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