Dances with dolphins
Up close and curious with denizens of the deep in French Polynesia ADAM MCCULLOCH
OUR divemaster Nicolas warns that if we see dolphins, we should not ‘‘lose our heads’’. I am on Rangiroa, northeast of Tahiti and the largest atoll in French Polynesia’s Tuamotu chain, hoping to encounter some of its famed pelagic residents: sharks, whales, rays and our oceanic soulmates, dolphins.
Earlier that day I dived with sharks and, despite their fearsome reputation, they didn’t give me a second glance. ‘‘Don’t try to follow the dolphins,’’ continues Nicolas. ‘‘They can swim faster than you and dive 200m straight down. If you follow them, you might drown.’’
My three dive companions nod in solemn acknowledgment. Nicolas continues: ‘‘You’ll forget all this if we see them. You’ll do this.’’ He flaps in a frenzy around the dive shop, sending masks and wetsuits squeaking in rubbery agitation. When he finishes, he claps his hands. ‘‘OK, let’s go.’’
We haul our gear to the boat and head out to Tiputa Reef, a coral plateau where we hope to spot whitetip sharks, barracudas, wrasses, groupers and, if we are lucky, dolphins. Scuba diving, it must be said, is largely about luck. On land, we can quickly reposition ourselves for a better view of some unusual animal. Underwater, we can barely outpace a jellyfish.
I cross my fingers as we approach the reef and think of the seafaring annals filled with tales of shipwreck survivors being met and saved by curious cetaceans.
To say that dolphins use sonar to communicate is like dismissing all human language, poetry and song as mere sound waves.
Dolphins do more than talk with sonar. They can detect your heart beat and tell if you are healthy or pregnant. They can even use the sonar of other cetaceans by listening in on their transmissions. In fact, in San Diego, a beluga whale named NOC lowered his sonar to mimic human speech in an attempt to communicate.
We put on our face masks, check our gear and tumble backwards over the gunwale.
As we do, I spy a fin punching through a distant wave. The champagne fizz of our entry begins to clear as we head down into the fathomless blue ocean. Suddenly a dolphin streaks beneath me. I spin around to point out the rapidly receding silhouette to my fellow divers.
They haven’t noticed, but I can immediately see why. A pod of 12 dolphins is swirling among us. One comes so close I can read the numbers on the tag on its pectoral fin.
I shriek with glee into my regulator and do exactly what Nicolas told me not to — I lose my head. Without realising, I descend rapidly, following a dolphin that has eyeballed me from barely 1m away. Only when my dive computer beeps incessantly do I realise I’ve gone far beyond a safe depth.
I ascend and watch the dolphins above swim rapidly towards the choppy surface before vanishing into the sky. A moment passes before they land with a splash and barrel down towards me for another look at our strange party.
On land, I have a whole repertoire of sounds I use to attract domestic animals. Underwater, I’m completely unprepared. What sound do you make (indeed, what sound can you make with a regulator clamped between your teeth) to attract a dolphin? I squeak, chortle, yodel, bark, scream and sing. Eventually I fall silent, watching the splendid ballet unfold.
Turns out the dolphins are curious about us, too. They click and chirp, remaining motionless and upright. They have the entire ocean in which to swim, yet they decide our group is worth further investigation.
I watch my fellow divers flailing their arms and legs in vain attempts to connect. We look and sound utterly ridiculous. I laugh and find I can’t stop. Great streams of bubbles obscure my vision. If this is how we humans behave in the company of cetaceans, they must think we’re absolutely bonkers.
Cetaceans must wonder whether divers are bonkers