Originally posted November 2010
At last I’ve seen dolphins in the wild for the first time in my life! On an Island Packers catamaran trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park, I experienced the long-awaited pleasure of seeing a pod of common dolphins leap through the waves toward the boat. Over and over, they crested and dove beside us.
You see, I’ve been to islands, coastal areas and oceans all over the world, and yet I have never spotted a dolphin in the wild. From the cold waters of British Columbia to the warm seas of Belize: no dolphins. From the Caribbean to the Mediterranean: no dolphins appeared to me. fFrom Alaska to Florida; from the Galápagos Islands to Singapore to Fiji. No dolphins. I was beginning to think I was cursed, despite a life-long adoration of the sleek animals.
I’ve stayed at beach resorts where the staff tells me, “There are usually dozens of dolphins just off-shore” Yet when I was present, the marine mammals were noticeably absent. For years, I’ve sung “I-I-I-I am calling you. Oh, can’t you hear me?” from every ship, dingy, beach, and ocean-cliff overlook—to no avail. (The lyrics I still sing are from the Jevetta Steele song in the 1987 movie, Bagdad Café.) Yes, I literally sing to dolphins, and at last they answered.
The Magic of the Sea
I was standing at the boat’s prow, keeping watch for the glorious marine mammals and reveling in the sunshine and ocean spray—all while hoping that my dolphin jinx would be broken during my stay in the town of Ventura, California. Bounding and zipping through the Pacific, these Santa Barbara Channel dolphins played with our boat for about 10 minutes. I hung over the rail as their silvery backs streaked through the water and watched them leap in and out of the waves. They seemed to be racing our boat and zipping beside us, in front of, and under us. Sometimes they were no more than 10 feet from my outstretched hand!
I didn’t run to get my camera—that would have required that I take my eyes off the dolphins for too long. Instead, I laughed and cried in wonderment. And anyway, I don’t really need a photo, because I’ll never forget this moment, this place.
The National Park Service says that groups of dolphins often come to a boat and ride the bow wave for long distances. Why? Simply for fun—or maybe to allow them to conserve energy. No one really knows, but I like to think they were saying hello and inviting me to play.
Supporting Wild Dolphins in Their Natural Habitats
In honor of the dolphins, I’m suggesting a gift idea: “Adopt” a dolphin in the name of someone you love (including yourself). Several nonprofit organizations such as the Oceanic Society and the World Wildlife Fund offer these types of programs.
For a donation, you receive a photo of the dolphin you’ve “adopted”—plus the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped support research and protection of these sea mammals. (The Oceanic Society works to connect people to the ocean and to build a movement dedicated to solving the key ocean problems of our time: plastic pollution, unsustainable fishing and aquaculture, and climate change. Its goal is to improve ocean health by addressing the root cause of its decline: human behavior.)
P.S. One of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is set on the Channel Islands during the mid-1800s. I was fascinated by the survival story of a young, Indigenous girl stranded on the island of her birth after the rest of her people were forcibly relocated to the mainland by white missionaries. (It’s loosely based on a real story.) One thing I loved about the book was how close the fictional girl, Karana, was to the ocean and her island, and how she survived by learning to hunt and fish. That connection to the natural world—and to dolphins—inspired me.
—Laurel Kallenbach, dolphin watcher
What’s been your most significant wildlife siting? Or, what species do you dream of witnessing in the wild? A rare bird? A mountain lion? Howler monkey? Tropical fish? Leave a comment below if you wish.
For more on California’s Channel Islands, read: “Sea Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park”