I am out on the SUP this morning about an before dawn, a short three-mile paddle from the house up and around the Point Defiance light. It’s one of my normal morning routes, part exercise, part meditation. With a dark sky and not much artificial light interference, it’s addicting to watch the phosphorescence below me as my board moves through the water. This morning, it seems like an exploding curtain of light beneath me, a million sparkling pinpoints shimmering in cold intensity as the small fish, otherwise completely invisible, scatter at my approach. I lift my head from time to time to make sure I am still on an acceptable course but most of the time, my eyes are on the underwater show.
And then I see a shape below me in the dark water. A white blob at first, that seems to vibrate and change shape as it gets closer, up from deeper water, approaching the surface. My legs begin to wobble with the uncertainty… what is it? What is going to happen? Why is everything scarier in the dark?
The shape cuts sharply to the side and hits the surface about 4 feet from the right side of the board. A massive exhalation and the distinctive dorsal fin gives me my answers in a flash. We’ve had a white-sided dolphin in the area for the past few months and although there are quite a few others that have been treated to a visit while they’ve been out kayaking and paddleboarding, I have never been so lucky. Until now. In the dark, with no one else around, at a time when I can reliably expect to be completely on my own, I have company.
The white I am seeing is the light colored sides of the animal and I am struck both by its size and its speed. It is twice as long as the local harbor porpoises and while that more common species tends to be somewhat aloof and inscrutable, this fellow is anything but. He surfaces again right alongside me, then shoots forward, his head right there at the tip and his entire body almost completely hidden by the board, keeping pace easily as I paddle. I up the tempo, get to my sprinting speed and stay there for as long as I can, and the dolphin stays with me effortlessly. I worry a little about what might happen if he should surface there and knock me into the water but he never does. He dives, jumps and follows along with me for a mile, until I reach the Point Defiance light.
I turn a little early, wanting to stay in the deeper water to see if he’ll go back with me the way we came, and he does. Out of sight for a minute, then bursting back onto the scene, right there, close enough to touch. I wonder how he stays clear of the paddle as I dig into the water – but he does. It seems like some sort of collision is inevitable, given all the energy being expended in such close quarters, but we never touch. At one point, the dolphin is cutting quickly back and forth, directly under the nose of the board, to the extent that the water is splashing and the board is tipping first one way, then the other. I don’t feel like there is any danger; on the contrary, I feel like I am receiving some sort of blessing.
And that slides into the metaphysical, difficult to comprehend and even harder to explain. I have seen my share of whales and porpoises and more while out on Northwest waters, but I have never had an experience like this. Like some kind of primal moment of clarity when the scales fall away and the idea of interspecies communication seems not only possible, but necessary and unavoidable. This is not a case of simply seeing an animal, not just being in close proximity to it, but being involved in a give-and-take that doesn’t happen often.
Pacific white-sided dolphins are relatively rare in these waters, though certainly not unheard of. It is odd, however, that he’s been here so long and is, as far as I can tell, flying solo. These dolphins are a social lot; it’s unusual that there are no others around, that this one is cutting his own path.
At some point along our route he is gone, although I can’t tell exactly when he leaves me. I wonder when we will meet again, and what we might say to each other.