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Dolphins think I'm dumb

... and they may have a point...

I know something you probably don't. But I don't know as much as dolphins.

Even so, I know that dolphins think I'm stupid. I don't take it personally because it's not just me, it's you, too. All of us.

As they glide effortlessly through the water, perfectly suited for their world, they watch us clumsily flail through the water wearing unflattering swimsuits, expensive, uncomfortable, leaky masks, breathing through snorkels that fill with water, and trying to propel ourselves with plastic flippers.

All they can do is sigh. I know, I've heard them. Their sigh sounds kind of like a fast exhale, but it's different than their normal breathing. It's more sigh-like.

I know all this because I spent last week swimming with wild dolphins, trying to hold an intelligent conversation that would convince them that I had something worth sticking around for. Something novel they hadn't seen before from some other desperate eco tourist, sleeping in a bunk the size the trunk on a 1970's Dodge Dart and being dragged behind a boat like so much human chum in the lame hope that dolphins would be intrigued.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, because first, the dolphins had to be found in the vast expanses of ocean. And that's become more difficult as dolphins have decided we're boring.

I have a feeling that years ago, when people first started seeking out dolphins just to say "Hi," dolphins found us rather interesting, at least in a freak-show kind of way. Here were these ugly creatures from the sky, a place that was necessary but sure seemed like an uninhabitable place if there ever was one. You couldn't swim through it. There were no fish in it. It was just this giant desert-like expanse of air that was only there for dolphins to breathe between swimming, eating, and playing with each other in ways that certain religious groups would find distasteful at best, immoral at worst..

These humans had to come from somewhere and it seemed unlikely they were from Mars because, well, they just didn't seem smart enough.

Still, for a while we were fun. "Look at those creatures," they'd think. "What are all those little bits hanging off them making them so very un-hydrodynamic." We were funny and sad at the same time, unable to dive, unable to snag a fish in our small mouths, and too embarrassed to relieve ourselves in the water like any aquatic creature with half a brain--no wait, there were some with almost no brains that knew that much.

But these poor pathetic creatures (remember, they're talking about us) were only interesting for a few years, and then they all kind of looked alike. Some of them would turn a rather delicious looking red while others sank quickly. But other than that, the poor things lacked sonar, couldn't communicate telepathically, and were just, well, boring. And stupid, don't forget stupid. The dolphins felt like, "Been there, done that, don't need the T-shirt.."

I never realized this until I was in the middle of a pod of dolphins who absolutely couldn't care less than I was there. I was thrilled but they displayed obvious signs of ennui.

I had nothing to offer them, other than a selection of highlights from "West Side Story" which they seem to have heard before, and sung better through a snorkel.

I moved on and tried other songs, including such rodent favorites as "I could have danced all night," and the ever-popular, "hey hey we're the Monkeys" and moving onto elaborate improvisational song stylings, complete with squeaks, clicks and whistles. One actually looked me in a way that implied, "you must be joking," before shooting away with a simple flick of its tail.

I was crestfallen. I'd dreamed of this moment all my life. Of communing with these creatures whose bodies so perfectly suited to their environment they needed nothing but themselves. They didn't need to invent the wheel or the iPod (they had their own pods naturally). They didn't need to have electric lights or cars or chicken pot pies. They didn't need to burn fossil fuels--they didn't need any fuels other than fish. They are, in short, pretty darn near perfect. And you're not. Me, neither.

I thought I'd be face to face in the wild with one of these beautiful creatures, with brains larger than ours, and I'd be able to ask them the meaning of life, which they seemed to know but so far hadn't let us in on.

But instead, my marine mammal idol inferred I was unnecessary.

I decided to use whatever part of my brain I actually use (some say humans use 10%, my wife says I use around 5%) to come up with a way to pique their interest.

My solution--sonar. That's right, I figured they'd never met a human with sonar before. My challenge, other than the fact that unlike them we humans don't have the physical parts to produce sonar, was that I had no experience with any kind of sonar--other than my family's "RadarRange" (an early microwave oven), and once being buzzed by a bat on my front deck.

But I thought it might be like when you go to France and you at least try to speak French and the French first laugh, then the nice ones think, "Well, at least he's trying" as I squint and say "toilette?" figuring that the one single word would be obvious, and knowing that I've known what it meant when French bicyclists wearing those unflattering shorts are in my little town, waddling like their bladders are going to burst.

So I closed my eyes, put my left hand up to my head and I concentrated on sending out sound signals from my brain that would bounce off the surrounding terrain, then bounce back into my brain allowing me to see (and, I thought, communicate), as dolphins do.

I saw a pixelated star fish. I opened my eyes and thought I had just imagined it until, a few seconds later, the star fish I sonar'd appeared.

Not long after, a pod of dolphins appeared, too. They must have heard me and thought, "What the ???"

One baby dolphin swam through my legs with such precision it didn't touch me, but I could feel its little wake. I could hear their squeaks and clicks underwater, as if they were saying, "What's with the guy with the sonar?" or perhaps, "Oh no, he did'n !"

And I thought, "It's now or never, I'd better ask them the meaning of life before they get bored."

I asked.

They surfaced, and sighed, and dived and rubbed each other's tummies and finally my sonar seemed to hear one of them reply, "Enjoy!" (verbatim reply at the bottom of this e-mail) right before they sped off, looking for something fun, like a jellyfish or perhaps a bikini top.

Their reply seemed at once too simple and absolutely right. I was enjoying every second. I was having fun. Being dragged behind a boat. Having wild dolphins swim around me. Learning how to use my sonar and getting words of wisdom from the best-adapted and smartest animals on the planet.

A dolphin communication expert who was along on the trip didn't make fun of me when I told her this story. "Anything's possible," she said. And when I saw dolphins swimming happily in the wild, that's what I thought, too.

(Thanks to Geoff, Tita and Mark at Dolphin Expeditions for the wonderful trip!)

Daniel Will-Harris

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P. S.

If you've read this far down the least you deserve is the meaning of life from the dolphins. Here it is, verbatim: "Click. Squeak. Whistle." Deep, I know. Sigh.



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The SchoomozeLetter is ©1998-2008, Daniel Will-Harris, all rights reserved. If you'd like to use any article on the web or in print, please ask for permission. If you're an agent or publisher looking to publish these pieces, just drop me a note.