Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Dolphin

I’m lying on Fort Myers beach, making deals with the sea and sky. When the clouds part some, and the sun shines on the beach, I will go for a swim. I look up. Even though the air is perfectly warm and comfortable, I won’t put a toe in the water until I have heat on me, like a coating. The clouds have thickened and I can’t estimate when the next break will come. Maybe if the bit above me cracks, I’ll have several good minutes of hot sunshine. I lay back down with my book and try not to think about it. When I look up again, the clouds have loosened, the light is stronger. I’m tired of waiting, and who knows, maybe this will be as good as it gets.

I get up and walk into the sea. It’s shockingly colder than I expect. I didn’t think it’d be warm, but expected the kind of cool I could warm up to. No, this is cold. I compare it to other cold waters: not as cold as the frigid Pacific I grew up with, or as cold as the rivers of fresh-melted snow I dip in all summer. All right, I can deal with it. Just a quick swim, then back to the beach mat and sun.

The sea is relaxed as a lake, and quite shallow. I’ll have to wade out a good distance before I reach swimming depth. Some hundred feet in, where the lapping water reaches my knees, I notice, out past two young boys with boogie boards, a dark, curving fin poke out of the water. Dolphin!, I think, and then, shark!

I know it isn’t a shark – wrong fin shape, plus sharks don’t come up for air – but can’t help thrilling at the idea of being nipped by a shark, right here in the cold, knee-deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I’m imagining the pain and blood when I realize I better pay attention to the water if I want to see the dolphin again.

And here it is: beak, head, back, fin, and then gone again without a splash. Effortless.

Maybe you’ve ever started to feel like you’re not such a bad swimmer, like you have some moves in the water, and then a dolphin flicks past you with all it’s powerful ease and grace, and you have to console yourself with the thought that at least the dolphin would be a putz on land. Of course, then you see a pelican glide smooth and quick a few inches above the water’s surface, then beat its wings and climb up, and then fold its wings and drop like a missile into the sea, and you have to console yourself with “well, at least I don’t have that ludicrous beak.”

The dolphin curves up out of the water again, not far from me, and I realize its big, and it seems to be alone. Maybe it will swim up to me. Maybe it wants to swim with me.

It breaks the water again, casually, just a few yards past the waders. We all watch it, our eyes locked on its path.

The dolphin has an odd skeletons for a legless sea creature. Down its spine about two thirds the way to the tail, each dolphin has residual hip and leg bones, souvenirs from the age when it’s forbearers were four-legged land critters. Same with the whale. Life was born in the sea, and then some creatures beached themselves on the shore, and learned to thrive there as well. At one point, dolphins and whales were tree shrews. This was many millions of years ago.

Back in the age when dolphins lived in tress, the Gulf of Mexico was dry land, vast and expansive. Then a meteor came crashing though the sky and smashed into the land. Dirt, rock and dust exploded into the air, and water torrented into the tremendous crater. The sky blackened, the sun grayed out, and life both in the sea and on the land suffered and straggled and died. Without sunlight, plants died; and without plants, herbivores died; and so on, up the food chain. So passed the dinosaurs.

But the meteor also brought life. Other kingdoms, like the furry one, were out from the reign of the reptile kings. They climbed down from their tree nests and walked the lands. The dolphins walked into the sea and didn’t look back. Their forbearers walked out, and they walked in. They walked into the crater left by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, the very same crater I stand in now.

Please don’t quote me on this, of course. That’s mostly how it happened, but not exactly. It’s somewhat third hand at this point, like a game of telephone. And I changed a few of the details intentionally. Taking license. Like that whales were already giant sea monsters before the meteor hit, giants among giants, but that’s beside the point.

The point is: the dolphin and I are here together now because of this great crater in which the dolphin lives and I vacation. We would not be here were it not here; if it wasn’t here, we wouldn’t be here. Maybe we would be monkeys and tree shrews still, or squawking birds, or lazy alligators, or bacteria.

Soon enough I see the dolphin for the last time. My eyes keep straining past the spot, trying to get one more, but that’s it. I give up the watch and dive shallow across the bright surface. My scalp tightens reflexively when it hits the water. I paddle around a bit, flip, float on my back and look up into the sky with my eyes closed. I could stay like this forever, except the water’s cold and the sun is finally full and hot, so I wade back to the beach to lie on my mat in the heat.