Wednesday, August 11, 2010



Having begun diving in 1954, written four books and built up a large photo archive of marine fishes and invertebrates, dolphins and whales were beyond my experience, as with most of most divers in those days. But that was all to change...

In May 1971, I had been sixty feet down where white sand lies in drifts at the foot of Rikoriko cave wall at the Poor Knights, New Zealand. Suddenly everything went black. I glanced up in fear - the cave portal, usually a blaze of blue fire, had dimmed. It was seething with huge sharkish shapes -sharp fins, fast tails and generous jaws. Dolphins!  One of them, in silhouette on the surface, smacked its tail and a pair of curving forms glided down in a spiral, circled me and rose. Each time the games leader smacked with his tail a pair spiralled down, curving on their sides to gaze intently as they passed me. Enchanted, for some time I forgot I had a camera: a large format Rolleiflex. Then with the last two frames left on the film I took my first dolphin picture: Tursiops truncatus, the bottlenose.

Subsequently I made voyages in the tropics aboard R.V. El Torito, about which I wrote two more books.  Then, in 1975, back in my old stamping grounds at the fabulous Poor Knights, having just revisited the vast Rikoriko sea cave, I was  driving my deep vee runabout homewards when dolphins moved to meet us.  It seemed I knew exactly what I wanted to do if I ever met dolphins on the bow. I would slow to a crawl, put the boat in a wide circle and leap into the centre. [In those days, as J.Y.Cousteau has said, dolphins usually avoided divers]. With my camera I wanted dolphin photos, perhaps to satisfy a publisher's request. Tony Ayling took the wheel and I plunged in. My strategy worked: dolphins were frolicking around the bow like circus ponies, with me as ringmaster. I fired off my dozen photos. Then I became aware that roles were changing.

The boat had stopped and I was now at the centre of a cyclone of dolphins. I called to Tony and the others to join me, but "one at a time; and let's all do the dolphin-kick". I can't recall why I should have said that, but it was probably an important factor in what ensued.

As an exercise in relativity it is interesting to imagine those dolphins' viewpoint. A diver bursts through the heaving mirror and points a third eye at them. He passes the camera up and starts to mimic the dolphin way of swimming. One after the other two more men join him, diving down in their wetsuits. Then - a subtle variation - a bikini-clad girl. Suddenly, a large nude male appears. Had this been planned we could not have designed a more effective introduction. Poor Les! He was supposed to look after the boat but our enthusiasm was too much for him. And the wind had died down. Almost! Barry and I saw the boat start to waft away - faster and faster. We only
just caught it, averting an embarrassingly long swim home.

During our dolphin games each diver in his sealed-off world became aware that the dolphins were demonstrating new tricks. I was weaving among them with a fluid dolphin drive, my fins undulating together like a broad tail in a movement that began at my head and rippled along my body. A dolphin drew alongside me. By counter-opposing its flippers, like the ailerons of a plane making a spin, it barrel-rolled right in front of my mask. Maintaining the dolphin-kick I imitated this corkscrew manoeuvre, counter-opposing my hands held close to my chest. The response was slow as my pseudo-flippers were tiny and my speed a fraction of theirs, but I found myself rolling wing over wing. Then something startling happened. The moment my spin was complete a formation of six dolphins, abreast of me and on the same side as before, repeated that trick, in unison, reinforcing my newly
acquired mimicry pattern. And so it went on, the sea wild with energy, a maelstrom of dolphins, their shrill echo-ranging whistles dinning in our ears.

We gambolled with them for about an hour until utterly exhausted. Then one by one we hauled ourselves in over the stern. Around us we could now see salvoes of dolphins leaping in symmetrical pairs and singly for a mile in every direction. We must have met a whole tribe of bottlenose dolphins on their passage along the coast.

As we towelled ourselves warm I said how marvellous it was that such huge, sharp-toothed animals, each as heavy and as fast as my boat, had not even buffeted us by their swirling movements. "Only once," said Dr Tony Ayling who had been the last on board. Just as he was approaching the stern one dolphin had rushed to within a metre of him, stopped short, vertical in the water, with flippers flung wide as if imploring us to continue. We felt we
had let them down. I gave the hull a resounding thump. From a short way off a tail smacked on the surface in answer. I thumped again. Eight times we exchanged signals, and that was it.

That episode was to change my life. I have now written four books about encounters with dolphins and whales.

Adapted FROM DOLPHIN, DOLPHIN by WADE DOAK; available on disc.

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