When a Dolphin says "hello"...

Dave Burns - Island LIFE - February 8, 1990


It was almost Christmas and I still hadn't figured out what to get for Lucy. I was looking for something unique - a surprise. Then on the night of our Christmas party, I found it.

The party was in full swing, and around 11 o'clock who waltzed in unexpectedly but attorney/environmentalist Henry Morgenstern, his daughter Patrice, and charter captain Victoria Impallomeni. I knew Hank and Patrice, and had heard a lot about Capt. Victoria through mutual friends, but I'd never met her. We got chatting and somehow we got on the subject of dolphins.

Not long into the conversation, Vicki mentioned that she "knew" a pod of dolphins and had been visiting them regularly since 1978. I asked what it means to "know" a pod of dolphins. She went on to explain that she knows most of the 17 dolphins, if not all, individually and had given them names like Dasher, Port, Starboard, Raggedy, and Choppy, names more or less descriptive of that dolphin's dorsal fin.

It got better. She told me that she can sometimes "call" the pod in and other times they come looking for her. It got even better. "I've been in the water with them doing a sort of water ballet."

Is this woman doing a number on me, or could this really be true? The wheels were spinning already. I quietly hustled Victoria into the other room and told her how much Lucy had always wanted to be in the water with dolphins. Would it be possible to take us out there? Could she really find the dolphins? "If they're around, we'll probably see 'em and maybe she can get in the water." "Great. Let's do it." "Done."

The arrangements were made, a date set and Victoria wrote a Christmas invitation to Lucy on the back of her business card. That went in an envelope and straight under the tree. Merry Christmas, Lucy.

I got a call from Victoria on New Year's night. "They're not around. I haven't seen them since Christmas. And there's a front coming through tomorrow. What do you want to do?" We agree - let's wait. I'm a little disappointed, but there'll be another time.

Then last Saturday night I got another call. It was Victoria. "They're back!" There was real excitement in her voice. "I saw them three times this week. Right up to the day before yesterday. It's going to be beautiful tomorrow. Can we go?" Sure we can. See you a 9:00.

We met in the morning and in very short order, the boat, Imp II, was in the water loaded up, and Victoria had us out of there. Across Boca Chica Bay, under the bridge and down the backside. Under the Fleming Key bridge, through the harbor and then due west. We're going to look for dolphins!

All the way out, Victoria is explaining how to navigate the tricky channels of The Lakes. What markers to shoot for, what islands to go through, and other bits of local knowledge.

Somewhere west of The Lakes, we come to a stop. Capt. Victoria announces that we have arrived. This is where they live. She begins to "call" them. No hydrophones in the water or anything like that. Victoria has her own very individual, personal method of calling her friends. I don't even know if it really works or not, but as far as I'm concerned, her little secret will remain just that. I do know it didn't work right away. There were no dolphins. We drift and wait. We play the Turtle Island String Quartet for them. No dolphins.

It's a little warm and a swim sounds like a good idea. We cruise for awhile and Victoria puts us right on top of a patch reef which is absolutely beautiful. Victoria asks us to enter the water as quietly as possible so we don't disturb the feeding fish on the bottom. I'm starting to learn more about our captain. The snorkeling is magnificent, thousands of fish, beautiful coral. The water is still fairly cool and after an hour or so, we're ready to resume the search.

Victoria cranks up the motor and heads off towards "the place." We're looking for dolphins. Once again we come to a gradual stop and once again, we're looking in every direction, eyes peeled for the sight of a rolling dorsal fin, ears straining for the faintest sound of a blow hole. The dolphins aren't here.

Victoria says sometimes the pod responds to Polka music. You know I must be desperate at this point because I say, what the hell, give it a shot. Somehow I can't envision a pod of dolphins dancing on their tails to the sounds of Frankie Yanknovic. I guess they couldn't either, because three or four polkas later, they hadn't shown up and we decided to head for an island to do some shelling and walk around for awhile.

As the day goes on, it becomes very clear just how much our captain cares about this environment which is both her workplace and playground. She is very much a part of this spirit of every living thing here. She derives great pleasure from sharing her intimate knowledge and her personal feelings about this wilderness with her guests. She even shows us which plants make the best toilet paper. Very interesting, but not exactly what we came for.

We leave the island and run back to "the place." It's getting a little late and this is our last chance. Strains of Vivaldi are wafting across the water and we wait. Now paranoia strikes! Is it me? Are they not coming because I'm here? Should I have stayed home? Is my spirit not pure enough for them? I mean, I used to try to astral project. I couldn't do it no matter how hard I tried. People were doing it all around me without even trying. I never have psychic dreams. I've been told my spiritual side needs work. Maybe that's it.

Oh, my God! Could they possibly know I ate a tunafish sandwich yesterday? For whatever reason, they're not coming around. It's been a great day anyway and we decide to give it up and try another day.

I pull the anchor up and I'm stowing it up forward when Victoria lets out something between a scream and a childish giggle. She's jumping up and down. "They're here! They're here!" I turn around and sure enough, there is one dolphin astern of us and he's swimming fast.

"It's the young one," says Victoria. For the next few minutes, we circle around watching "the young one" feeding. Silvery fish are flying all over the place trying to avoid being eaten. Lucy is dragging her right hand in the water all the while, hoping the dolphin will click her before she gets in the water. Just sort of a "Hi, I'm Lucy" introduction on her part.

The dolphin turns and swims right beside the boat with a fish hanging out of his mouth. Lucy grabs her mask and fins and Victoria cranks up the Turtle Island String Quartet again. When I look around, I see Lucy on the surface, some distance now from the boat and waiting for the dolphin's approach. But alas, he's too busy with lunch and doesn't come close so in a few minutes, we circle around and pick up Lucy. We content ourselves with just watching "the young one" chasing fish all over the place and soon a second dolphin appears.

"It's Dasher," Victoria informs us, and both dolphins take off and are hard to keep track of for awhile. Then the young one comes back and swims close to the boat. That's it. I can't stand it any more. I'm in the water. No mask, no nothing. I can see his dorsal fin about 25 yards away.

I dive and try to swim under the water like a dolphin. Pretty lame. When I surface I can't see him. From behind me I hear "He's coming right at you." Now a very strange feeling comes over me. One of peaceful quiet and total surrender. He's coming and I can't see him. He knows exactly where I am and I hope he likes me! I dive under to meet him. I can't see him, but I hear him squeak a hello. It sounds very close. When I surface Victoria says he swam right under me, I want to be able to see so I grab my mask as he begins to circle around and head towards me again. I dive once more and sure enough, here he comes. I can see him and my heart is pounding. Then he veers off to my right about ten feet away and stops, turns his head towards me , so I can look right into his big beautiful eyes. He squeaks and heads off into the blue. Then he and Dasher are gone.

On the way back to Boca Chica Bay, I felt sort of guilty that Lucy didn't get to experience what I did. After all, this was supposed to be for her. But I couldn't help think about my own encounter. What had I expected? Sure I guess it would have been great if a dolphin had swum up and kissed me on the cheek, but this was no tank and there were no trainers. It was open ocean and just he and I. He was where he wanted to be and doing exactly what he wanted to be doing. He chose to come see me twice and give me a very definite "hello," What more could I want? I thank Capt. Victoria for a wonderful day and an experience I'll never forget.

Lucy's birthday is coming up soon and I was thinking. . .
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