Slipping into shock, using all my strength just to keep my head above the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean, I couldn’t muster up the energy to climb back onboard the boat. I just clung on to the ladder, making a sound quite similar to a shouting goat. The tour guide leaned over the side and called out, “Up you get! Come on, nearly there, you’ll be fine!” in a chirpy but anxious tone, the one you’d use to coax an aging relative back into the nursing home. I couldn’t move. She climbed down the ladder and hauled me up on deck herself, tiny and all as she was.
I lay there for a minute, curled up like a fern. A vomiting fern. “Are you pregnant?” she asked, and I shook my head. “It’s just that dolphins are the midwives of the sea and it seemed like they were trying to help you.” “No, they weren’t,” I said, coughing up seawater and my lunch. “They were trying to kill me.”
You see, I once swam with wild dolphins off the coast of New Zealand. If I told you that, and nothing else, how would that statement make me sound? Am I a chill girl, a surfer, not just on the waves but on life itself, someone who just goes with the flow, happy wherever, a lithe beauty laughing in the flickering light of a campfire, ankle bracelets glinting, sun-bleached head of hair thrown back? Do I love nature, treasure all the creatures of the sea, and commune with Mother Earth as seamlessly as a sunflower, as fluently as a fish? I would love for that to be the case, but that is absolutely not the case. It’s dead wrong. It’s purely aspirational, and does not match the truth even a little bit.
Here on dry land, I blunder around the place making mistakes all day long, misunderstanding others, managing to over- and underestimate my own motivations and capabilities as I go about the endlessly tricky business of being a regular human being. So why should I be any different under the sea? Particularly when I’m surrounded by dolphins—the most malevolent creatures known to man.
At that time, I was coming to the end of a three-month stint of comedy festivals throughout Australia and New Zealand. I ask you again, how does that statement make me sound? Like a world traveler, a touring artist, shuttling between airplanes and hotels and theaters with a host of funny and charming friends, taking things global? There is truth to that, of course—I was getting opportunities to work and travel that I had never dreamed of. I mean that. It was never my dream to stay in a hotel in Bundaberg with an older English comic who closed the show every night with a routine that never failed to bring the house down, comparing his child’s birth and wife’s body during said birth as akin to watching his favorite pub burn down. I’d just kind of followed along a string of various successes and failures and found myself here; I was on the road, a job coveted by many, but one I never quite chose. And this was the reality—lots of checking in, to flights and hotels and venues, lots of time spent with people I’d never voluntarily choose to spend time with, and plenty of bewildered, if not hostile, audience members waiting for the big loud boys they preferred.
Please understand, there were occasional bursts of magic too, like the time I saw electric-green frogs hopping around in a thunderstorm outside the theater in Cairns or the time in Wellington when I felt like the audience, and I merged consciousness when I was discussing the merits of pineapple upside-down cake. Perhaps it was one of those gems, some bewitching nugget of connection and magic, that I was hunting for that fateful day I booked myself on a tour to swim with dolphins.
The last time I went to an aquarium, in 1999, I fainted. I can’t bear to look at fish, and I hoped I wouldn’t see any that afternoon.
I doubt that, though. I believe that it was something a little more mundane. It was a laziness on my behalf, a reluctance to figure out my own dream, and a tacking on to other people's dreams, that made me decide I simply had to swim with dolphins. All my life I’ve meandered around, wondering what I should do with myself. Aside from getting champagne in your eye, or being snapped at by your pet toucan, bemoaning a lack of purpose is the most privileged problem in the known universe, so I won’t drone on about it. Suffice to say that when my friends dreamed of moving to Paris or running the Grand Canyon or having a baby with Jake Gyllenhaal, and set about achieving those dreams by respectively learning French, running, and finding a different brown-haired guy, I peered into my own future and saw only fog. Not having a dream didn’t bother me, until someone would ask where I saw myself in five years, or what my dream was, or some such hideous question. And then I’d say, “I’d like to swim with dolphins,” and they would mercifully leave me alone.
Now, here I was taking the necessary steps to make this dream that was not mine come true. At seven in the morning, I boarded a minibus driven by a blocky, scowling woman. I was the only one on it for the first fifteen minutes but that didn’t stop her from using her microphone headset. “Just got one more hotel pickup and we’ll be off to Rotorua,” she boomed. I asked her how many people were coming. “Just two, because it’s off-season now, mate, it’s unusual for people to still be hanging around.” We stopped and collected a very old American couple. I helped the lady in and her hand was soft and tiny, like a chick. It took the pair ages to get on and settled. The driver rested her head against the steering wheel for a second, then said, “And we’re off.” In a menacing way. The old lady made a “here we go” face at me and I was very glad she was there.
We exchanged small talk for a minute or two but it was difficult to hear over the amplified sighs of the driver. Also, I reminded myself, this was their holiday and I shouldn’t inflict my company-starved self on them too much, so I sat two seats away from them and looked out the window. The driver reeled off information in a bored tone that bounced off the minibus walls. “Quick fact about glow worms for you guys. The fellas that burn the brightest, well, they are the hungriest fellas.” In the beginning, the Americans and I encouraged her by saying, “Oh,” and nodding at each other, but that seemed to irritate her. We piped down and let her get on with it. Two and a half hours passed in a long, slightly nervous heartbeat.
We got to Rotorua and were deposited underneath a sign with three arrows pointing in different directions, one to The Dolphin Experience, one to The Whale Watching Experience, and one to The Café Experience. I never found out what The Café Experience was, but I’d imagine it was a cup of coffee and perhaps a pastry in a mildly comfortable chair. The American lady smiled a goodbye to me, linked her husband’s arm, and I watched as they slowly walked in the direction of The Café Experience. I wished I could join them and take photos of scones and flat whites to show the folks back home. Instead, I waited alone on a low wall, looking out at the restless gray sea. I thought the Pacific was supposed to be a sort of turquoise color that came lapping gently up along white sandy beaches, but not so, at least not there. Annoyed, I threw some stones into the sea and tried my best not to think about what was rattling around inside there under the water. The thing is, even thinking about fish makes me shiver. I have ichthyophobia, self-diagnosed, and not rational. It started when I was 13, and my brother’s peculiarly athletic goldfish would leap at me from his tank and flop around my room for long minutes as I stood on the bed and screamed for help. The last time I went to an aquarium, in 1999, I fainted. I can’t bear to look at fish, and I hoped I wouldn’t see any that afternoon.
It began to dawn on me that I, a person who is terrified of fish, should probably not swim with dolphins.
At noon I went inside, paid my money, and joined the group. There were about twenty people, mainly backpackers from healthy socialist countries like Norway, and a few middle-aged couples with teen children. Hearing them all chatter away happily, I realized that nobody else was a lone comic. We sat and watched a short video about how great dolphins are and how we should behave around them. As I watched them swim around on-screen, I shuddered involuntarily. It showed them speeding along, slicing through the water like bullets, but giant fish-shaped bullets. I started to get knots in my stomach. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought about how much dolphins look like very big fish. They are mammals but they look like fish, in the same way tomatoes are fruit but look like vegetables. It began to dawn on me that I, a person who is terrified of fish, should probably not swim with dolphins.
I shook the feeling off. I would be fine! I reminded myself that dolphins are not fish, fish are mackerel and pike and . . . and goldfish. People love swimming with dolphins; it is a well-known dream, the ultimate bucket list item to be ticked off, a dying wish. Many people travel long distances and pay huge amounts of money to achieve this dream! Besides, it’d be crazy to turn back now, after the video and the safety talk and everything. These dolphin guys were charming and warm-blooded, not a million miles away, evolutionarily speaking, from Michael Fassbender.
By all accounts, they were very sweet creatures. The voice-over said that dolphins empathize deeply with humans. Apparently, they even adopt people’s emotions as their own sometimes, and when depressed people swim with them, the next day the dolphins wake up with an “oh, what’s the point anyway?” feeling. Upon hearing this, a couple of English girls crinkled up their faces and said, “Awwwww,” and their father squeezed his wife’s shoulders as they shared a look. Fortunately, continued the narrator, the dolphins we were going to hang out with were wild and therefore not overly exposed to human sadness, so they had a great attitude.
A woman wearing a dolphin experience T-shirt and flip-flops came and introduced herself as Kate, our dolphin guide. She opened with a warning. “I want to let you all know that there’s a very real possibility we may not actually see any dolphins.” My panic, which had been rising steadily since I saw a dolphin on-screen, began to subside. Kate explained that since the dolphins were wild and the area they roamed around was the actual ocean, the boat’s captain didn’t know where they were all the time. “If we can’t find them using our sonar and radar machines, you’ll get your money back, and in that case at least you’ll have had a nice boat trip.” I began to clap, but quickly stopped when nobody else joined in. I smiled through the rest of her speech. There was an out! The dolphins just needed to keep to themselves and us humans could all relax and have a cup of tea.
After loosing another couple of unnerving facts on the group—“Dolphins can see behind them” and “Dolphins have sharp, conical teeth”—Kate sent us off to change into wet suits. The English sisters shrieked and laughed at each other about how unflattering the wet suits were. Changing into a wet suit is definitely more fun with a group of friends. I found myself in that awkward position of doing an amusing thing with a group of people I didn’t know, but who all knew each other. I kind of laughed along aimlessly to show I was fun and relaxed and recognized the humor in situations, and that I certainly wasn’t some kind of dangerous drifter who studied human behavior so she could mimic it and pass as one of them, no, no, not at all.
With much difficulty, I zipped up the back of my rubbery onesie and waddled with the rest of the group to the pier. We boarded a wide, flat, dolphin-seeking catamaran. It was drizzling now, and the sea looked like she wanted to be alone. Kate, however, was full of optimism. As she handed out binoculars, she told us to shout if we saw any movement at all. We traveled far, far out to sea. The farther we got from land, the more I questioned my reasoning. Why was I doing something I did not want to do? It was never my dream to be a touring comic or to swim with dolphins. Why was I following this path that someone else had tramped down ahead of me, and what did I think I was doing, rushing to keep up with them and stay ahead of the person coming behind me? It was getting really cold, and my teeth began to chatter.
As the waves swelled, Kate shouted to us that we were in a reliable part of the sea now, and the boat was going to zip around to the dolphins’ favorite locations. I squinted at her. It’s not like there are libraries or Mexican restaurants under the sea, so I wondered why they’d prefer one spot over another. I didn’t ask; instead, I pretended to look through the binoculars.
I immediately saw a huge school of dolphins breaking through the waves on my side of the boat. I felt a rush of pure terror. I put down my binoculars wordlessly It began to dawn on me that I, a person who is terrified of fish, should probably not swim with dolphins.and began to plot a way of distracting a boatload of people from seeing the one thing they were longing to see. No such luck. My face betrayed me; that’s what always happens. My face is so expressive that my sisters can tell what flavor ice cream I’m thinking about at any given moment. One of the English girls looked at me, then straight out to where the dolphins were. She screeched. I cursed her.
The boat followed the dolphins, and we all took up positions along the back deck, ready to jump at the sound of the horn. Suddenly the water was alive with them, all around us. Everyone was giddy with excitement, but I absolutely did not want to jump into that gray water with its big, irregular waves. I was furious at myself for being so scared. So what if this wasn’t my dream? I’d gotten this far doing what I thought I should, hadn’t I? This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I was on the other side of the world, I was a grown woman in a wet suit, and besides, dolphins were just mammals.
I instructed myself to jump in with such authority that I did, immediately. I jumped before the boat had stopped or the horn had gone off. My first thought was that the water felt like a thousand stabbing knives; my second thought was, SHARK! I thought I saw a shark under the water: the fin, the flank, the flat eye on the side of the horrific head, taking me in. I was not thinking straight. There were no sharks. I couldn’t get a grip on what was happening, but I knew panicking was not the answer. Not realizing I was underwater this whole time, I tried to calm myself by taking deep breaths, but they quickly turned into large gulps of seawater. I managed to surface, getting my head above water just in time to see the boat disappear and realize I’d jumped too soon.
A wave tucked me under the quilt of the sea again, and I saw through stinging eyes that the creatures I was surrounded by were not sharks, but dolphins. They were standing up casually, smiling at me. Apart from the freezing cold and the intense fear, here were two things I hadn’t anticipated. That the dolphins would be vertical under the water, and that they would laugh as they tried to kill me.
A standing dolphin leveled itself and swam toward me, fast. It swirled under my legs, and I felt its firm fish body. Underwater, nobody hears you scream. Then they all rushed at me, brushing off my sides and turning me over, swishing past my hands as I tried to paddle. I kicked and spluttered and tried to remember how to swim. I totally could not breathe. I remember thinking how unfair it was that these dolphins were going to drown me, but everyone would think it was an accident. People would say, “What a beautiful way to go, she left this Earth guided by the angels of the ocean.” They may even etch a couple of dolphins on my gravestone, what horror!
In what I assumed to be my final moments, there was no Super 8 reel of beautiful moments flickering through my mind. I didn’t remember my dad going around the table and covering our small heads with his big hands and kissing us on the forehead, or my cat Edie’s slow blinks, or a brilliant boyfriend reading out loud to me one warm city morning. I simply thought, again and again, These psycho fish are going to drown me and get away with it.
At the last possible second, I remembered that, back at the presentation, Kate had told us that if we got into trouble to put one fist straight up in the air. “Just do the Black Power salute, and the boat will come and pick you up.” As the dolphins continued to ram me and giggle, I used one arm to hold up the other, and struggled between waves to keep it up. I hoped that, while I couldn’t see them, surely someone on the boat would see me. Those morons all have binoculars, I thought, fully blaming these strangers for my own stupidity, for my own failure to be the master of my own destiny, the captain of my own ship.
Thankfully, those sweet morons did spot me, and I heard the boat approaching. The dolphins, predictably, fled the scene. That’s when Kate hauled me onto the boat and asked me if I was pregnant. After she’d sluiced the vomit off the deck I lay there wrapped in a towel, face turned away from the happy adventurers who were paddling close to the boat and actively trying to lure the dolphins into any form of physical contact. I stayed there, lying on the deck and shivering, repeatedly counting the row of brightly colored life vests stacked under the seat, as we sailed back to Rotorua.
With the clarity lent to me by a recently emptied stomach and a blanked-out, restarted brain, I understood that I had to figure out what I wanted to do before I drowned doing something I thought I should do. Back on dry land, I got shakily onto the waiting minibus. My eyes were burning from the salt water, my hair was matted, and, understandably, I smelled terrible. Despite this, I sat one seat closer to the Americans. The wife peered over the seat through her huge bifocal glasses and asked, “How was your dolphin experience, little one?”
“Great, thanks!” I said, and started to cry.