“We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”
― Andy Goldsworthy
Do you have a bucket list? I jokingly refer to mine when I think of something that I’d like to recount as a wrinkly, old lady, and which hopefully will have the added bonus of impressing my hypothetical grandchildren. “Swim with wild dolphins” was the first thing I ever added to my bucket list.
3 weeks ago, I got to cross it off.
My friend K and I were on a road trip in the far north of New Zealand’s north island. We stopped in a small, scenic town, signed ourselves up for an ‘eco-tour’ on a small boat, and set sail on a blue-sky day in the early afternoon.
The skippers were keen to stress that we might not see any dolphins; that the dolphins are wild; that we cannot swim with them if babies are present, or if the dolphins body language suggests they’d rather be left alone. They warned us too that even if we did get into the water, the dolphins could want nothing to do with us and swim away. And under no circumstances were we to try and touch them.
These messages were heartening in that the dolphin-experience would be a wild one, the dolphin’s safety was considered paramount, and the dolphins were in control of the situation. But the crushing disappointment I knew I’d feel if my dream didn’t come true was almost too much to bear.
So 20 minutes into our trip, when one of the passengers leapt out of their seats and shouted, “look! Straight ahead!” I thought my heart would burst there and then. 1, 2, 3, then too-many-to-count metallic grey fins broke the water. “They’re coming closer!!” gasped a little boy, and sure enough, the dolphins soared towards the boat. If I reached over the barrier, I could have touched their noses.
“Ok guys, if you want to swim, get your snorkels on now!”
We slid into the water, as gracefully as large, rubber flippers and the sexy goggle-masks would allow.
But I didn’t see the dolphins in the water – just grey-green darkness and other swimmers, scanning the murky waters for a glimpse of silver. We were asked to swim back to the boat. “You can get in again a little later.”
As we were sitting in the boat once more, the waters burst open, and a dolphin jumped up, up – and I’m fairly sure I stopped breathing. Then two dolphins jumped simultaneously, and I gripped the seat so tightly my knuckles went white.
“In you go again!”
I practically threw myself over the side of the boat. Plunging myself underwater, I couldn’t see a thing. I swam as hard and as fast as I could, away from the boat. And then I heard the unmistakable sound of cheerful clicking – the kind you might have heard on an ‘Ocean Sounds’ CD 😉 I stared into the murky green depths, willing a dolphin to appear.
And then one did.
Right below me: a huge, silky creature with a grin on its face. He stared up at me, and then turned on his side, as if to get a better look. I have no doubt he was amused at the gangly, beige animal armed with colourful plastic floating above him. He twisted and spun, showing off and clicking, and I tried my best to keep up, whilst also trying to remember to breathe, and hoping my heart wouldn’t leap out of my mouth.
And then he was gone.
The clicking faded, and I looked up to see the skippers signalling to those of us still in the water to come back.
On the way to the shore, K and I sat on the bow of the boat, our legs dangling over the side and our toes skimming the surface of the water. I remember the feeling of the sea air in my lungs; the way it made me feel fresh and alive. And I thought about how fragile our relationship with nature is. But in those moments, with the dolphin’s smiling face still vivid in my mind’s eye, I felt how connected we really are. And what a wonderful, hopeful thing that is.