BY LAURA MARJORIE MILLER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ATMOJI
Flying in an eight-seat hopper plane from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Bimini, in the Bahamas, I peered eagerly down at the water. I was on my way to meet dolphins.
And also—coincidentally—to be close to Atlantis. Scanning the aquamarine expanse with my eyes, I hoped to catch an advance glimpse of either.
My main objective was the dolphins. I was traveling to WildQuest, a retreat center that’s been on Bimini since the 1990s, to further my personal research: to experience the communication of free dolphins in the water through my own senses. I was eager to make the acquaintance of the Atlantic spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins who live near the island.
By magical coincidence, a fragment of Atlantis is believed to lie in this place that so many dolphins frequent. At least that’s what is said about the Bimini Road, a mysterious, geometrically regular stone structure just off the coast, many meters long.
Hurricane Irma had blown through the region two weeks earlier, stirring the water and making the ocean bottom hard to see. But during my week among the dolphins, I sure could feel Atlantis and had it on my mind.
The road to the retreat center showed the wake of Irma’s passage. In Porgy Bay, Bailey Town, and Alice Town, many of the gaily colored concrete buildings and wooden conch shacks still had their windows boarded. Boats were lodged in the sand because nobody had resources yet to pull them back to the water. Some graffiti we passed cried in big black letters, LORD PROTECT BIMINI.
Yet for all the disturbance, Bimini remained soft. The Atlantic surrounding it was a blazing world of milky aquamarine, the beaches were white, the insides of the conches that tumble around the shore like the litter of Aphrodite were pink. The air carried scents from the conch shacks, the smoke fires from people burning their wood rubble, and a sweetness that is like curry.
During our orientation meeting, Amlas, co-director of WildQuest, announced the customs that would prevail for the week. Wi-fi would be available in small pools of connectivity around the main building.
“But I don’t want the kitchen turning into a Starbucks,” she admonished. “Please keep your screen where others can’t see it.”
Amlas and her partner, Atmo—they are partners in business and in life—have a presence that conveys an authority they have earned through many years on and in the water. When they speak, you listen. She continued, “This computer world people live in, this virtual world, it is madness.”
Amlas discouraged us from bringing cameras or phones on the boat. I didn’t mind this; I’ve found that it’s best with dolphins not to have some contraption in your hands mediating your experience. On land, I did have to make some use of my computer: I was committed to doing a daily post for my expedition funders, so every night I’d go to the vacant and dark meditation room to write. I felt like I was sneaking off to have a smoke—I was extremely self-conscious of the light cast by my screen—but I was firm in honoring the spirit of the rule. I didn’t allow myself to scroll.
Later I realized how much of what Amlas was saying would end up having to do with dolphins and with Atlantis. Often the theme of a journey comes unexpectedly.
Day One Diary: “As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean”
WildQuest’s boat is a big white catamaran with an interlaced grid work of white straps between its hulls, so if you lie on it and look down, you can watch the ocean race past underneath you. We do a practice drop in the water to make sure everyone in the group has their snorkel skills ready. I practice freediving down, looking at fish over the stone reefs. Because the water is turgid from the hurricane, if there is a reef beneath you, you have to dive to see it. Coming up, I lick my lips, which taste like salty potato chips from the seawater.
It feels like it takes us forever to see dolphins. The day is hot and bright, and we scan the water with a fathomless yearning. Will we have any luck today? See dolphins at all? The crew is on
the lookout, so I lay myself down on the hammock, close my eyes, and listen to the pulse of the boat motor and the waves rushing by.
I start dreaming, and in my dream I see the ocean rippling and broken with the dark shapes of dolphins. And then I know they are there; I sit upright and lo! Dolphins have just arrived or we’ve arrived upon them: a small pod of spotteds—handsome elders with black and brown freckles and dark capes, pale babies wriggling and cavorting around.
We wait on the boat to see whether they are interested in us. WildQuest allows you in the water only if the dolphins keep returning, and these do, angling away from the catamaran and then back toward it. Amlas says, “Well, this is interesting,” and orders us to go in.
Beneath the surface, I hear the dolphins sonaring. I feel their clicks filling the water and in my body with delight. It is different from the way you hear in air. I peer down to see a mother and a calf swim right underneath me.
Later, as I sit at the front of the catamaran, legs dangling down, the dolphins are bow-riding us, slowly cruising to keep us company. I see them caress each other: one dolphin will extend his pectoral fin toward a friend to touch her, reaching it out from his body like a little wing. It is even more awkward-looking and endearing than it sounds.
The refulgent late-afternoon light suffuses everything until you cannot see where the sea ends or the sky begins. White sunlight flows over the surface of the water like molten glass.
Day Two Diary: No Admittance Except on Party Business
A storm cell moves through, a brief weather tantrum that roars thunder and hammers rain but then ends resolutely. However, it leaves behind an ocean full of swells that requires increased energy to swim in. Mirroring the weather, the dolphins are also on the move, heading off on business known only to them, probably to a dolphin party to which humans are not invited.
The water today is dark like a blue glass bottle. We boat along with a large pod of forty or more spotted dolphins, with plenty of time to observe them from above. My favorite move that I see is for a dolphin to swim upside down, belly toward the sky, then give their tail a smack on the surface. It is a frustrating day, though, for whenever Atmo tells us it is okay to get in the water, the dolphins skedaddle: Ha-ha BYE! The drops feel rushed and urgent, the energy quite different from yesterday. It’s one of those days where I have too many thoughts and know it. I feel like I can’t get grounded in the water, as strange as that sounds.
On the way back to the marina, I lie on my belly on the hammock to watch the water moving past. Suddenly in the distance there is some frolicking—although the dorsal fins look different—then those shapes turn and head toward the boat. They are silver, and there are three of them. They swim right under us doing DNA helixes with one another. Man, you guys are big, I think. Oh my GOSH, you are BOTTLENOSES! It makes the end of the day happy, like a surprise treasure we have received. It is too late for swimming with them, but I am happy to see them.
Day Three Diary: At Play in the Fields of the Lord
Today the ocean is blue silver, and you cannot see the horizon line. It is just sky condensing to fluid. Whenever we see dolphins in the distance emerging from and slipping below the surface of water, it looks like dark shapes and silver glass.
The first dolphins we see are bottlenoses. It makes me so happy to see these dolphins, a joy that goes clear to my heart so that I’m already laughing and smiling just from watching them. They are a small pod with a tiny calf so fresh from the womb that she still has fetal folds creasing her skin. It is said that bottlenoses are antisocial, but these aren’t. They approach the boat, so we get to put in the water with them, although with little hope that they will engage us.
I am at the edge of our human “pod” when the dolphins emerge, a cluster of them, and beckon me to follow. They are silver gray and swim close. I start swimming alongside them, in their relentless, joyful rhythm.
If asked how I knew to go with them, whether it is a gesture or a sideways glance that caused it, I would not be able to tell you. It is not even a word that says, Come. When it happens, you simply know you are supposed to go. If you resist it, you know your heart will break. Is that enough?
I find myself belly-laughing with happiness at the sounds the dolphins make. Bottlenose sounds are different from spotted dolphin sounds. Bottlenoses sound just like R2-D2, electronic squawks and bleeps and whirrs. I am swimming and laughing so hard at the same time, into my snorkel and inside my mask. They hear me laughing and several times break formation to swim right at me and hang in the water to look at me with this quizzical, beautiful dolphin frontal view, which just makes me laugh more. They dive below and swirl around one another in constellations and then rise back up. At one point, one of them blows a bubble trail that looks like sand dollars; I follow along to my left: one, two, three … I am tripping so hard on dolphin. I feel like they are going to lead us off to Faerie. I could follow them forever, and my strength would never ebb.
Suddenly, a high whistle is sounding. What is that? It breaks the spell. I stop swimming and raise my head up. Nala, one of the crew members, is signaling vigorously for me to come back. Even though we are supposed to stay with our pod, after that experience, I don’t mind getting reprimanded for leaving the group.
Later in the afternoon, we come upon spotted dolphins who also let us be among them, spiraling around us in their choirs. I see pink bellies and play-fighting, teenagers jousting underwater with their jaws, much like horses do when they are hungry.
Day Four Diary: “Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild”
A squall blows through on our way out and another on our way back. Between storms it is overcast, the state of the ocean rich blue-gray and darker. It is all spotteds we see today, and they are usually traveling, swimming along with the catamaran. This goes on for a long time.
I start to recognize individual dolphins and realize we are encountering the same pod over and over. One has a tattered left fluke, and his name pops into my mind as Fray. Some dolphins have white rake marks on their backs that look exactly like tribal chieftain tattoos. I begin to recognize dolphins by these tattoos. From looking down upon the dolphins so much from the catamaran hulls, I’ve also noticed that spotteds have a parabolic marking that arcs up from the edges of their rostrum and goes over their blowhole, like an upside-down tilak. Dolphins scud alongside one another, flapping their angel-wing pectoral fins over each other’s pectoral fins, like a fast flurry of patty-cake. The refrain from Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” swells up into my heart, and I start to cry. Where are you leading us? We do several drops, yet the dolphins never stay.
Eventually we arrive on the dolphins frolicking in a sea of sargassum, an area with lots of patches of seaweed like small hillocks in the water. This time the dolphins do stay. I think, I am just going to chill and see what happens. I practice my underwater spins that I learned from the spinner dolphins in Hawaii, far away in the Pacific.
I perform the first spin from a backward surface dive, right into the face of a trinity of dolphins! I come up laughing. It starts to go faster: I’m diving again, and again, and the dolphins stop their progress to swirl around me. I feel their curiosity, as though they’re saying, You are doing something dolphin. Something I learned from their cousins. I come up so fast and dive again so fast that I can barely empty and fill my lungs. Atmo appears near me, gripping his great underwater camera and commands, “Dive!” I do another back surface dive, with a backflip underwater. My heart is beating, and it is intense and exhilarating. Everything with dolphins moves so fast that you can only assimilate it afterward. There are so many of them around. When this blur of time passes, I surface, pull off my mask, look out into the distance over the garden of seaweed, and weep.
On the way home, one of my podmates, Michael, tells me that at one point there were five pairs of dolphins constellating around me. “Each pair was so close together that the outline of each looked like one dolphin,” he says.
It’s Not Down in Any Map; True Places Never Are
Over the week I gained the skill to tell apart the different species of dolphins from a distance—from the shapes of their dorsal fins, their size, and often the number in their pods, but something else as well, about how their activity in the water is different, how the spotteds and bottlenoses move and relate somehow differently to the space around them in a way I wouldn’t be able to explain.
There were also many times when I knew something without knowing how I knew it: awarenesses, passages from songs or poems arriving my head, premonitions of things before they occurred. One day on the boat Amlas told us “dolphin stories”: dolphins have sensors in their conical teeth that refer to organs in their “melon,” and it is postulated that the clicks of their echolocation and communication resonate with these organs to produce dimensional images that they can transmit to one another. Dolphins also can perceive, down to the cells of your bloodstream, when they are sonaring you. A scientist once did an experiment in which he isolated two captive dolphins from each other. He would teach one a task and then teach the same task to the other, who would learn it in half the time the first dolphin took. Then he would switch with the next task, with the same results. So how were the dolphins communicating through barriers of concrete?
There are other modes of communication, other ways of knowing, that humans may once have had and forgot, and are only beginning to relearn. Minimizing my electronic activity for a week made this idea real to me as I felt other senses, ancient, deep, and hardly used, surging to the fore.
One of the myths of Atlantis is that its people lived in harmony with Earth until they became addicted to technology. This addiction brought about Atlantis’s downfall: the implosion of a majestic culture and the collapse of the great landmass that supported it. Although there are many variations on specifics, this is the essence of the myth. The hurricane, its ferocity perhaps a harbinger of climate change, also put me in mind of it.
When Amlas discouraged us from going online, initially I felt the anxiety of resistance. Yet I realize how appropriate the limitation was to where WildQuest is, which is in the real world, as opposed to the virtual one. Over the week, I became aware of how often I use media as a pressure valve, to escape from whatever I am doing. Yet when I am somewhere that I truly want to be, why would I go into that virtual world?
Even after I came back to the mainland, I felt a reluctance to engage with social media. It was an aversion that bordered on distaste. I noticed how often we get involved in battles that we believe are action and expend intense emotional energy on something entirely mental. I began to notice people posting more about what they hated than about the things they profess to love. I re-evaluated the content I shared according to what I am trying to bring about in the world.
I am still figuring out what the balance is. Social media could be a transitional stage to a pod-like communication that is much more like what dolphins have with one another. Yet it is also important to ground what we are expressing in the mental sphere in physical action—to immerse our body in an environment and submit ourselves to its laws, to learn those laws with respect and implement them in practice in the way we move through space. Part of this current time of learning to appreciate other creatures in their native environment is identifying with them by reconnecting to ours.
I ended up being glad of what I had surrendered, even for a time. I found myself opening up, reopening, expanding to the space I was in, cleansed by this hurricane, vibrated and danced by these dolphins.
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