Aboard Atlantis

Monday, October 23, 2006

They appeared out of the west, a white smudge on an polished blue horizon. About a mile long, the smudge appeared fuzzy and indistinct, like a mirage. It was moving toward us, fast. As it neared, its appearance began to change. The white smudge broke apart, dissolving into smaller individual elements, like shimmering pixels in a digital picture.

White-capped waves appeared. Plumes of whitewater erupted like geysers. Are those explosions? What is that? It was as if a storm had focused all its energies on a specific area, an oval about the size of a soccer pitch, and was roiling the surface. But there was no storm. The surrounding waters remained placid.

The white caps drew closer.

And then we saw them. Hundreds upon hundreds of Pacific White-Sided Dolphins. They had spotted us, and they were galloping to intercept us.

They were upon us in minutes. Six-feet-long and 200 pounds, dark gray on top and white underneath, they easily matched Atlantis’ 12 knot cruising speed. Several dozen approached for a closer look. Scouts perhaps. They swam alongside, coming almost close enough to touch. Their curiosity was palpable, and they seemed pleased to see us.

Propelled by frenetic strokes of their tails, they sliced the water’s surface, throwing up rooster tails of foam and spray. With astonishing agility, they veered from side to side at break-neck speeds. They swam in layers, two and three deep, separated at times only by inches. But like the Blue Angels flying squadron, they flew wing tip to wing tip but never touched. They alternated trips to the surface to breath. Every half-minute, in a tightly choreographed maneuver, the top layer parted.

Dolphins on the bottom rocketed to the surface and soared into the air. Their momentum carried them 10 feet and more. In that instant of flight they exhaled - pfffffft - and sucked a breath though their blowhole.

We lined the ship’s railings, enthralled. The dolphin’s enigmatic smiles seduced us. Their athleticism thrilled us. We laughed, giddy voyeurs peeking beneath the skirt of perfection. Perfect adaptation. As we watched, they soared through the air like touchdown passes. They hopped across the water like Olympic triple jumpers They skipped over the waves like flat stones thrown by Davy Jones Himself. And when they could soar no more, they nose-dived back into the blue waves. Smack! Their bellies
slapped the water. Hundreds of dolphins belly smacking the water around us created a pitter patter sound. Smack smack smack smack. Smack!

The dolphin scouts investigated Atlantis, interrogating her with their sonar, their eyesight and their big mammalian brains. But others had less intellectual motivations. Like all ships, Atlantis pushes though the water like a snow plow. Its bow cleaves aside tons of water in a great churning wake. Surfer dolphins looking for a ride found the forward face of the pressure wave. With flicks of their tail rode it like champion body surfers. But with one exception: they were surfing the inside of the wave.

And then they were gone. All of them, all at once. Poof.


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