Dances with dol­phins

Up close and cu­ri­ous with denizens of the deep in French Poly­ne­sia ADAM MCCUL­LOCH

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

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.

top­dive.com

ALAMY

Cetaceans must won­der whether divers are bonkers

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