Tuesday, April 14, 2009


We sailed with little wind, but Captain Mike was determined to find something to look at. I was with a crowd of climbers on the foretop when he announced a large shoal of dolphins off the bow.

Two hundred yards before us we saw a patch of boiling water in the tranquil sea, the dorsal fins of a hundred dolphins running all directions at once. The space of 30 feet was sufficient to contain dozens of fins. I have seen dolphins cruising languid as yachtsmen up the channel in San Pedro, but today they had found something exciting. There were no bait fish in the area, nothing to drive them to a frenzy like this. There were probably more than 1000 dolphins in the shoal.

They seemed to notice us approaching and now in front of the boil they came leaping towards us in twos and threes, sometimes in larger groups, and in no time we had 20, 30, 40 swarming at the bowsprit, flying in wing formation 60 feet on each side of the martingale and crossing before the cutwater.

From the top we had an all-around view of the surface down 30 or 40 feet to where the sunlight dampened away and the indigo void began. This space was filled with dolphins.

We could see them breathing out with the quick expulsion of air just before they popped above the surface, and then diving again to the depths. For a long time there was no sound but the startled gasps of hundreds of dolphins taking air. In the depths sometimes they would roll to one side and then the other turning their white bellies almost upright to the sunlight. Though the traffic around us was high-velocity mayhem in three dimensions, I saw not one accident. They touched each other often when swimming alongside, and once or twice I saw a quick course correction and brush-by of dolphin bodies going contrary directions. But this too seemed like part of a game.

I should not have been surprised by the speed of their maneuvers below, for you hear about these things. Captain Mike in fact is an encyclopedia of marine biology. But from my perch on the mast I could finally see it, and it went beyond anything I could have pictured. Even such a modest little soul as the harbor seal, one of which we saw as we circled outside the dolphin shoal, had a life beneath the surface you’d never guess when watching their plump little persons lolling on the harbor rocks.

This little fellow popped up about 100 yards behind us, and the crew sang out about him. He went down again and surfaced 25 yards closer and off to port, and the crew sang out again, happy at his steady approach.

What they didn’t see was that as soon as he went below, he rocketed at a 45 degree slant down to 35 feet, cast about for a fish or something he saw there, rocketed another 20 yards to the left, and then flew back to the surface, where he paused for a moment to notice our pitiful speed, and then dipped under again and flew off east out of my sight.

The dolphins showed exactly this character under water, with their loops and rolls and twists. I could see them all, suspended in mid air as it appeared, and easily moving at six knots with the slightest movement of their tails. They would idle along at twice our boat speed without any apparent movement at all. Never was the shape of a creature more congenial to its element. Every so often one or two would—in a transport of happiness, for I could see no other reason--put on speed below and leap clear of the water to go sailing over their friends, in a way more graceful for being completely thoughtless.

I had thought this was a kind of reconnaissance, a way to scan the sea for approaching threats. Now I think it’s just a way to impress the hell out of people.

We stayed with them until the captain, getting a tip from another boat, sped off west in search of some finback whales, which indeed we found 15 minutes later.

Unlike the dolphins, these two seemed wary of company, as every time they rose they came up far from the scrutinized patch of sea. They were no doubt having an important discussion and needed privacy, so we left them alone.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Danger on the High Seas

Irving got out first, with a big headstart.

But, owing to their neglecting to set the topgallant sail, we made good time on them.

Davy readied the cannon.

While waiting to reach them, First-Mate Laura posed for publicity photos.

Not long afterward, Irving came about and fled downwind in a cowardly fashion, cunningly waiting until we'd shot off our single round after we'd grown impatient with the chase.

Next time, we'll have more cannon shot AND water balloons.