Dolphins or Bust
By Cade Hagen
Ours was the only boat off Kealakekua Bay coast that day. Maybe the only boat off the entire coast of Hawai’i. The Big Island. Normally, boats littered the Pacific’s rich, phthalo surface like spilled jasmine rice, dancing and weaving, fishing and parasailing. But not that day. That day, nothing but still, ruler-flat panoramic for two-hundred-seventy degrees, a distant coast for the other ninety. An eerie still, an eerie quiet.
The hurricane scared most everyone away.
We wondered if it should have scared us away, too. Hurricane Iselle, her gusts spiraling north of a hundred-forty miles per hour, pressed ever closer. She wouldn’t reach the island for another few hours, at least, but onward she marched, steadily devouring her path. And we bobbed impotently before her.
We assumed the trip would be canceled, had called the boat’s captain the night before as a formality—and a means to ensure we’d be receiving a refund. I’d been with my wife, Jess, on The Big Island for almost a week at that point, and we’d already spent far too much money. The next day was to be our last. A minor part of me thanked Iselle for facilitating at least this return, a small reduction in the new cavern of credit-card debt. But the captain, a hard, salty, leathery woman with too-blonde hair and an easy, almost audible smile, said no. No refund. We launch bright and early, she said. Onward and forward.
Dolphins or bust, she said.
So there we sat, Jess and I, with three other families, all of us sharing uneasy smiles and forced niceties. Where you from, I hear it’s nice there, no, it’s more of a dry heat. Unsubstantial, nervous chatter. All of us meanwhile wondering if Iselle would strike before we docked, before we hunkered back in our hotel rooms, where, per island-wide instructions, we’d filled the bathtub and all the sinks with potable water, where we’d stashed a backlog of bread and spam, and where management had posted warnings on every door in case any resident had somehow escaped knowledge of Iselle’s impending destruction.
The captain, whose name I’ve forgotten but whose name I’d like to, for reasons unknown, remember as Sally, rattled history as we drifted. “Captain Cook’s Bay,” she said, pointing to the barely visible coast. We looked over the railing; the sun caught the caps of the water’s lilt, illuminating the peaks like a million cat eyes out of the jungle darkness of the ocean. “Captain James Cook died right there with his face in the water. Cracked in the back of the head by Chief Kalaimanokaho’owaha and then stabbed by Nuaa.” Though cowhide-white and born in Minnesota, as she’d explained, she pronounced the names like a true indigene. “They say his blood floated across the top of the water like an oil spill and that bits of his brain dropped to the ocean floor. Great snorkeling over there.”
We nodded and smiled and munched the food her crew had prepared. Sandwiches on white bread with too much lettuce and too little of everything else, a platter of sliced local fruit—papaya, lychee, dragonfruit, starfruit—and a few rows of cookies. The family across from us, a non-English-speaking Japanese couple with a boy about eight years old, nodded even more vigorously, though I knew they didn’t understand. The boy ate cookie after cookie, his snorkel mask suctioned to his forehead and tube bouncing like a reed next to his chocolate-dusted cheek. He ate more than his share of cookies. This upset me. His parents didn’t seem to mind, didn’t even seem to notice, that I wanted more cookies. This further upset me. If Iselle took us down, I wanted my stomach full of Oreos.
Another passenger, a girl of about sixteen, visibly embarrassed by everything her parents did, spotted something over the side of the boat. “What’s that?”
Captain Sally poked her head over, along with the rest of us. It was big, whatever it was. Maybe fifteen feet long with a fin whose tip just punctured the water’s surface. Its deep gray body, obscured beneath the Pacific blue and wet rays of sun, glinted a moss green. Like a ghost or shadow, a mist in the water, the shape faded. As quickly as we saw it, it vanished into the depths, scarcely more in any of our memories than a lithe tube.
“Wow,” Sally said. “Hard to say for sure, but I think that was a tiger shark. Don’t see those often.”
Jess, despite a lifelong unrealized desire to become a marine biologist, dreaded the ocean and its toothed denizens, and we’d together researched types of sharks, where we might encounter them, and what to do in the event of an attack. In so doing, we’d learned that tiger sharks, so-named due to the semi-frequent tiger-like stripes along their bodies—though often more dappled or speckled than striped—is second only to the Great White in its purported danger to humans. Its abundance in Hawaiian waters nearly prevented Jess from snorkeling or even swimming, but I reminded her that a few shark bites per year, considering how many thousands of people swim in Hawaiian waters every day, left her with similar risks of getting struck by lightning as she lay crisping on the sandy coast. She still feared, but swimming with dolphins was a bucket-lister for her. I’d even bought an inflatable dolphin for her parents’ pool as a cutesy emulation early in our relationship. With a little nudging, I’d convinced her that the juice was worth the squeeze. Now, with the world’s second-most-dangerous shark listing mere feet below, Iselle on her way to upend us at any moment, my statistics lecture meant little—to Jess or to me. The glinting whites of everyone else’s eyes confirmed we weren’t alone. I double-checked for more cookies.
After another hour of fruitless floating, Captain Sally relented and suggested gunning us toward Captain Cook’s Bay for the remainder of our trip, claiming that some time in the water with coral was better than time in the boat with no dolphins. Jess and I had explored Cook’s Bay a few days earlier. We’d seen its cerebral mounds of pale yellow lobe coral and finger coral rising like Captain James Cook’s undead stalagmitic hands. We’d seen the bullethead parrotfish, neon-blue and –green and –red, like something that would be more at home in a warehouse rave than in the ocean. Pinktail triggerfish, ink-black bodies and multicolored fins, but most memorably their faces with dopey and disinterested expressions. The cove was probably worth a second visit, but not today. Today, we braved Iselle for a singular purpose.
Today was dolphins or bust.
So I said to Captain Sally, “I thought it was dolphins or bust.”
“There’s still time.” I looked at the horizon, Iselle not yet visible, the sky cloudless, pure opaque blue, a humid, misty stillness heralding the storm. I looked at Jess, seasick, afraid of the unseen tiger sharks, disappointment legible across her face. Jess, her thoughts continuously drifting to her father’s recent mesothelioma diagnosis. Jess, who the day before had learned that the prescribed chemo had done no damage to the cancer, which had instead spread to nearby organs. Jess, who had spent more of our Hawaiian vacation in tears than in a bathing suit and sarong. Jess, who, if I had anything to say about it, was going to swim with goddamned dolphins.
“There’s still time,” I said again. “We’ll find them. We didn’t bust.”
Captain Sally paused, hand on the throttle, eyes on Cook’s Bay. She looked at me, briefly studied me, and I, in return, studied her. In her face, in that moment, I learned her, as she did me.
I learned that she’d been doing this for years, perhaps decades. She’d boated sunburned tourists across the Pacific, told the same hackneyed Captain Cook story hundreds, thousands of times to semi-interested listeners. I learned that on those voyages, she’d actually found dolphins a small fraction of the time (as the brochure’s disclaimer had already informed me). That she and her tourist-cargo had meaningful encounters with dolphins a small fraction of those times. Those small spinner dolphins, always second in public interest to their bottle-nosed cousins. But in those rare moments of true encounters, those fractions of fractions, she’d seen what those dolphins could do. How they could make our teenager with the staunchest opposition to quality parent-time turn into a giddy giggling adolescent, how they could make our cookie-grubbing little boy forget his reservations about taking off his shirt and revealing his chubby and pale belly in front of strangers, how they could make uptight mainlanders forget about mounting credit-card debt and mortgages and teach them to recognize and embrace exceptional experience, to forget the underwater home, to crash into the air, to just fucking spin—just spin for no other reason than because it’s fun.
But most importantly, she’d seen how those spinners could render terminal disease distant and, if only briefly, secondary to the extraordinary moment.
While I learned Captain Sally, she learned me: primarily, that Jess and I needed those dolphins. That “we busted” wasn’t acceptable. That, at the very least, we needed to continue trying.
So that’s what we did. We scooted across the Pacific while Iselle scooted toward us, while whitecaps inched closer, minor tremors arousing anticipation of the real show they foreshadowed.
In the onset of the storm, we looked for dolphins. We needed dolphins.
And then, with only twenty minutes remaining before we had to dock, we saw them. Rather, my small cookie-eating nemesis saw them.
He exclaimed, pointed. None but his parents understood his words, but we all understood his meaning. We looked, and sure enough, there they were. Fifty yards or so west of us, they broke the surface and ducked back beneath. I lodged my goggles and snorkel in place and prepped myself for the throttle push that would bring us next to the dolphins, but it never came. The grumpy teenage girl—whose face, in the wake of the dolphins, was the picture of unbridled, unembarrassed, unambiguous excitement—asked Captain Sally why we weren’t heading toward them.
“We don’t chase them down,” Captain Sally said. “We used to do that, but there are new regulations. Tuna fishermen killed half the spinner population over the past fifty years, but recreational boats haven’t helped. There used to be a few spots we all knew, basically like right above the dolphins’ houses, where we’d almost always find them. We’d park the boat above them and dive down, whether or not the dolphins liked it. But apparently the stress of always having a bunch of probing tourists and boats bugging them could be hurting their survival. Now, when we find them, we get close, but not too close. They know we’re here. If they’re feeling social, they’ll come to us. If not, they won’t, and this is as close as we get. It’s up to them.”
I peered over the boat’s railing at the spinners. At any given point, about ten dolphins were visible above the surface, but they’d duck back under just as a new ten would pop up. I begged them, willed them to come to us, to be feeling, as Captain Sally said, social. In the distance, above the horizon, the first inkling of Iselle’s gray began to show. The storm was coming, but the dolphins weren’t.
“You can jump out if you want,” Captain Sally said. “Sometimes, actually seeing people in the water will make them curious and interested.” So we jumped, Jess and the cookie-eater the only ones with floaty noodles, the rest of us relying on the Pacific’s saltiness to keep us afloat. I was shocked at how close the ocean floor was. We were hundreds of yards from the coast, but the sandy floor sat no more than thirty feet below us, ridged with the water’s movement like an underground Sahara Desert. Unlike Captain Cook’s Bay, this area had no coral, no fish, no plantlife. Surrounding us was an empty stretch as far as we could see, which wasn’t terribly far: maybe thirty feet in any direction. I bit down on my snorkel’s rubber mouth guard, took a breath, and dove under, propelled like an ocean native with my flippers. Unsettled by the calm and stillness surrounding me—and remotely certain that a tiger shark was always behind me—I turned in three-sixties, willing the dolphins. They had to come. Jess needed them to. I needed them to.
So they did.
A swarm at least fifty strong emerged from the depths and blasted toward us. The biggest of the pod were about human-length. Seems small from fifty yards away in a boat, but up close, in their world, it’s not. They broke apart and split at an invisible fork before me, flanking my left and right, my rear. As the only one fully underwater, I didn’t know if Jess was seeing what I was seeing. I looked above me, at pale human legs kicking, and saw her, our eyes meeting through layers of goggle-plastic and hundreds of pounds of water pressure. I pointed vigorously, but I didn’t need to. They were everywhere. I grunted at her, bubbles spewing from the broken suction between my lips and the snorkel. She nodded, gave me a thumbs up. If it weren’t for the ocean around her, I’d have seen the ocean of tears inside her goggles.
She was swimming with dolphins.
I turned my attention back to them. Still circling and weaving at random, they reminded me that, even with my flippers, I was not an ocean native. I ambled toward a group of three adults, clumsy and awkward in my strokes. Their grace was astounding in its fluidity; they glided through the water like liquid in liquid, their bodies undulating like a quetzal’s tail. Their turns were sharp, the angles impossible. Their synchronization was exact, the movements as if pre-planned. I was a fish out of water, an observer from within who had no business being within.
Except that they welcomed me. They welcomed all of us. They swam with us, as if trying to teach their agility, pass on their dexterity. They introduced us to their young—“calves,” a name that, even today, seems off to me—little football-sized replicas of the adults. One trio in particular—a mother/father/baby, I like to think—seemed particularly attached to Jess. She eventually abandoned her noodle to dive down deeper with the spinners, sharks be damned, and the trio stayed near. She swam after them, and they swam after her. She surfaced, and so did they, the calf tucked beneath and between its parents, as content a being as I’ve ever seen. All, that trio and the rest alike, wore perpetual smiles. We’d stopped, given them the chance to come to us, and they’d accepted our invitation, or so I’d thought. But I soon realized we had no business inviting the dolphins anywhere in the water. We were in their home. It was they who invited us.
Further extending that welcome, they talked to each other and to us in their supersonic squeal that surrounds and penetrates. Like an electric guitar errantly facing a speaker, but with intention, with meaning. Sharp pitches that you can see and feel more than you can hear, leaving you with the impression that if only you could decode the language, you’d find truth and beauty and poetry more profound than any we’ve ourselves managed. Through those squeals, they told us that everything at home would be waiting for us. Mortgages, debt, cancer. It might get better; it might not. But right now, they said, just swim with us.
So we did.
About Cade Hagen
Cade Hagen lives in Las Vegas with his wife and daughters. When he’s not writing or teaching, you might find him trying to do yoga with a three-year-old dangling from his neck and a Cane Corso pressing a wet tennis ball into his hand. His work has appeared online and in print in BULL: Men’s Fiction, After the Pause, Typishly, and other publications. You can find him at cadehagen.com.