Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dolphin Encounters

(What a great coincidence that I’m posting about dolphins on Leap Day. It’s almost like I planned that.)

Reflecting on my trip to the paradise archipelago of Islamorada in the Florida Keys, I’ve dubbed this year’s winter vacation “The Week of the Dolphin.” 

I’ve learned many things about dolphins this week, the most notable of which is that dolphinfish are not those adorable smart and sleek sea mammals that recently starred in Dolphin Tale. They’re the ones that put up a Moby-Dickensian fight against die-hard anglers and often become the fish fillets gracing the menus in nine thousand variations at every waterfront restaurant in the Keys. I’ve eaten dolphinfish before of course. But I always knew it as one of it’s many aliases, mahi mahi (which is not the west coast translation of “big rainbow Neanderthal-browed fish that tastes like chicken,” as I thought. It simply means “very strong” in Hawaiian). Never mind that we had a six-foot long, stuffed and mounted dolphinfish on our wall in the den for most of the formative years of my childhood, and the story about how my sister reeled in this beauty at a very young age was repeated ad nauseum at family gatherings. It's taken me until adulthood to fully appreciate the value of this fish, which for me is all about eating.

Over the course of four days, we ate fried dolphin sandwiches, blackened dolphin, “keys style” dolphin (involving exotic fruit and melted cheese), dolphin with jalepeno and cilantro, grilled dolphin, teriyaki dolphin, roasted garlic dolphin, and tropical BBQ dolphin, among others. This was in addition to conch fritters, crab cakes, conch chowder, crab legs, grilled grouper and seared tuna. I can’t believe I’m even writing this, but we actually didn’t leave room for the lobster! Our week in the Keys was a super-sized fishfest, and even the kids held their own at dinnertime. If you’re looking for a good mahi mahi recipe, try this website, featuring Paul Prudhomme, the king of blackened-style cooking.

But what I really want to tell you about is the other kind of dolphin in Florida -- the brilliant gray doe-eyed variety that responds well to behavioral training. It turns out we were blessed with these dolphin encounters in abundance as well. On our first full day on the islands, we visited the Theatre of the Sea (TOTS). TOTS is a wildlife sanctuary that features a number of short “shows” with trained wildlife, including sea lions, parrots, and of course, the highlight: the dolphins. We were also treated to an open bottom boat ride through the dolphin habitat. The guests sat along the edges of the boat in a square, and as we motored along, the dolphins swam right up inside the boat, jumped through a hoop hanging in the center, and rang a bell. Pretty cool stuff, even if it is a little contrived:

Back on land, during the dolphin show, a trainer performed synchronized swimming stunts with her partner, young dolphin Twister. It was beautiful to watch Twister push the trainer through the water as she posed gracefully as a figurehead on top of his nose. The flips, dives and emotive movements were straight out of a Cirque De Soleil performance, and the audience was thrilled. Then my daughter, The Bean, was called up to the deck to meet and greet Twister herself. She happily shook his flipper, and in that moment I thought, “She's a goner. Now’s the time to start saving for the advanced degrees in marine conservation.” 

During the next show, the boy got his turn, and The Pie Guy bravely shook the flipper of a sea lion. The kids crashed into bed that night, full of dolphinfish and dolphin memories. It was a perfect day.

The highlight of the vacation, however, came the next day. Grandpa had rented a fishing boat and he couldn’t wait to share the experience of fishing on the open water with the grandkids. But before we even got to the fishing spot, as we motored just off the shores into the Gulf of Mexico, we had our third dolphin encounter. We were about 10 minutes from shore, clipping along in our little speedboat at 20 mph. All at once, we spotted something leaping out of the waves just a few hundred yards away. Our guide immediately slowed the motor and circled closer to the site. Three wild dolphins were waiting for us, and they were ready to play. We pulled up next to them and trolled along slowly beside them as they began their improvised show.

The dolphins stayed on the right side of our boat, just a few feet away, playing in the waves for ten minutes, and their acrobatics were even better than the trained dolphins we’d seen the day before. 

The wild dolphins leaped several feet out of the water and crashed back down on their sides; they reared up on their tails so that they were almost completely upright; one dolphin lifted half it’s body up toward the boat and pointed his nose to us in greeting; at one point two dolphins even jumped through the air, criss-crossing over each other. 

Each time they reared up out of the water, my heart leaped with them. The experience was so intense that it literally brought tears to my eyes. I realize that dolphins are by nature very playful creatures and that spotting them in the wild is not completely unusual. But this doesn’t make the experience any less amazing and memorable. We all feel very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, and I for one have a new appreciation for these intelligent, beautiful creatures with whom we share our oceans. 

1 comment:

  1. I almost feel like I was there sharing these adventures with you.


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