Dolphin Magic in Baja

By Georgia Tanner

Baja Dolphins

One spring day while living on the northern Gulf of California south of San Felipe, I gave a kayak and water safety lesson to a friend. The sea was smooth and warm. I swam alongside my student’s boat and demonstrated the dolphin float, a technique for relaxing in the water. First the swimmer floats face up, then fills the lungs with air and holds it as long as comfortably possible. Breathing is done with a deep and rapid exhale/inhale through the mouth like a surfacing dolphin; the continually-inflated lungs help keep the upper body buoyant enough to stay afloat while resting to gain strength. Next, as my friend paddled the kayak, I did the dolphin-mimicking underwater stroke alongside her. This is done by using swim fins and a tight-fitting mask without a snorkel. The legs are held together and the fins act as flukes; with arms close to the sides, the body describes an undulating motion while the fins give power.

As we moved into deeper water, my friend shouted with surprise and delight, and we watched the arrival of a dozen Pacific Bottlenose dolphins. Tursiops gillii tend to be rather shy, and seeing so many pop up around us was a rare treat.

Although the extreme tides and shallow water restrict visibility in the northern Gulf, I knew the dolphins’ sonic capabilities would keep them aware of our location as I swam underwater. Still, I was astonished when a big dolphin--males of this species can reach 12 feet--came forward out of the murk, faced me beak to mask, and whistled. He was probably giving me his signature whistle, rather like a human coming up to you and saying "I’m Jerry."

From earlier work with dolphins I knew that each dolphin has a personal signature whistle, yet this was the first time I had been its recipient. The whistle may be learned from dolphins in the tribe, or even given like a nickname. And they gossip; when two dolphins get together they may emit the signature whistle of an absent dolphin. But luckily for my friend and I, dolphins love mimicry, and so they respond with enthusiasm to human attempts to swim as they do underwater.

Baja Dolphins

There’s a strange synchronicity around dolphins that many people have experienced. Sometimes they show up offshore just when we think about them, as if we’ve thought them into existance--or they have thought us. Those who scoff at magic and the unknown may explain this weirdness by citing our human/dolphin similarities: we are mammals with similar-size brains. Or it’s because we want to be like dolphins, fast, graceful, free of rules and gravity and inhibitions. No doubt...but something else is operating, and magic’s charm is that it can’t be explained away.

One full-moon night in the ‘90s I was camping near Puertecitos, the village about 50 miles south of San Felipe. It wasn’t just any full moon, a local woman told me, it was a moon 17,000 miles closer to Earth than usual. This news, the tribe of dolphins I had seen yesterday, and the still clear Gulf weather insprired a ceremony to celebrate the upcoming celestial event.

Whether or not the dolphins show up is of course up to them. In the sea you don’t make promises. It’s their territory, and they already carry a large burden of human curiosity and needs. So I try to stay free of expectations about seeing dolphins. If and when a desired meeting occurs, it’s always a delightful surprise to break through the spell of matter into the kingdom of mystery.

The moon does not disappoint. Enlarged by its proximity to the earth and by the refraction of tropical moisture from the south, it rises over the Gulf like an enormous headlamp. Then it slips behind thin clouds and expands into an orange globe, bisected by bands of gray.

A few minutes before nine I carry a bundle of white sage out onto the rocks. I light the sage and bring in the scent of the mountains. By then the moon is painting a silver highway on the sea from the horizon to the point.

Almost immediately the calm is charged with the sound of dolphins breathing. The sea on either side of the moon track is dark and they can’t be seen. According to the sound they are two or three hundred yards up the coast--hard to tell distance because in the stillness every sound carries, including that of small fish jumping. I hold my breath and listen. The sound of breathing is sharp and distinct--barely audible inhale, rapid explosive exhale. Soon a half dozen black backs and dorsal fins arch up into the moon track. The dolphins mill around in the radiant sea as time stands still. I feel blessed, aware that everything in the universe is connected.

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