A Bad Day for Dolphins
This is Bubbles. She’s going to entertain the school children of Texas—whether she wants to or not.
“I really believe,” says Ken Beggs, “that dolphins in captivity are a lot more intelligent than dolphins in the wild. I mean what do they have to do out there? Eat, sleep, and mate. That’s all. They don’t have any problems to solve or anything.”
It is Beggs’ job, then, to make problems for dolphins. As the director of training at Galveston’s Sea-Arama Marineworld, it is his responsibility to make something serviceable and seemly from all that random intelligence going to waste right now out there in Copano Bay.
He looks the way an animal trainer is supposed to look—tan and lean, with a languid, grudging way of dispensing information, as though the mystique of his profession is threatened with dilution by every commonplace question that is asked of him: “Isn’t it true that dolphins are incredibly intelligent?” “How exactly do you go about catching one?”
Beggs endures it, replying patiently to the reporters as he gazes up and down the length of the big banquet table in search of a distraction. It was clearly not his idea to invite the press down to Rockport to observe him and his crew abduct four more trainees for the Sea-Arama Porpoise Show; but he is, after all, an expert, and he might as well talk. So he tells us, in a slightly bored way that is nicely contrapuntal with the near-grisly details of his story, how the jaws of the late Mamuk the Killer Whale once snapped (in jest? in earnest?) a few inches from his torso.
A neurophysiologist seated next to me is drawing a schema of a dolphin’s sonar receptor on his place mat. The commentary he provides for this sketch is soon lost, though, in a plethora of simultaneous conversation from the other guests, observations about a snow-white and slow-witted beluga whale, about a shark that was swallowed by a jewfish, about the postoperative recovery of a seal, about the feasibility of getting laid in Rockport.
The neurophysiologist, who has been invited along by Sea-Arama for his erudition and experience with dolphins, is named Ken Dormer. He may be about 30, but he has a furtive, innocent face that has never lost the sheen of its precocity. He raises his ice-tea glass now in a toast directed to Ed Moore, the shambling, gregarious general manager of Sea-Arama who is yukking it up far away at the other end of the table.
“Here’s to a successful hunt, Ed,” Dormer says.
Moore smiles, lifts his own glass, and generates a toast that travels sporadically down the length of the table, mercifully playing out before it reaches me and I am forced to decide whether I will drink to this enterprise or not.
I have some reservations, yes, but I am not in a position to be righteous about them. These people are merely bringing to fruition the dream I had when I was fourteen and treading water in Corpus Christi Bay, holding a homemade padded lasso and more or less expecting a dolphin to come up and put his head into it. It was, granted, a rather wistful attempt, but I believed I was behaving in accordance with certain standards my prey would expect to be met. I had it meticulously planned: a friend of my father had agreed to loan me a blocked-off canal from his failed resort development; Marineland of the Pacific had provided a Dr. Harrigan with reams of behavioral data on cetaceans, and I had all but memorized John Lilly’s classic Man and Dolphin.
All the peripheral details were taken care of, all the groundwork laid on which my status as a “delphinologist” would flourish or flounder, but there was a gaping hole in the center of my plan: I had acquired from somewhere the conviction that capture must occur only at the dolphin’s option.
No dolphin chose that day to take me up on my offer, though several did seem to consider it, swimming close enough for me to realize, with some exhilaration, that I was a genuine object of curiosity for them and not a threat. It was enough—it was more than enough—just to be in the water with them, to watch them raise their heads just above the surface, evaluate me for a moment, and swim out toward the Gulf.
Now here I am, at the restaurant of the Sea Gun Motel, waiting patiently for my complimentary fisherman’s platter and talking to trainers, publicists, administrators, VIPs, veterinarians, groupies, reporters, photographers, and scientists about a small-toothed, whale, about Tursiops truncatus (how I used to love dropping that name!), better known as the Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin, and better still as the porpoise.
Dolphin or porpoise—the great debate has lost some of its passion in our era of reconciliation, but I find myself flinching a little still when Ken Dormer passes over the airy and gracious “dolphin” to sputter “porpoise,” an unlovely word that is also a semantic time bomb, since once it is entered into conversation or print it is only a matter of time before it is punned on the word “purpose.”
In any case, you know the creature. Think of Flipper, The Day of the Dolphin, think of the animals who jump through hoops and play baseball and sing “Down by the Riverside” at places like Sea-Arama. There are scores of species of dolphins and/or porpoises, but Tursiops is the most famous and the most common and prosperous in coastal waters.
Because dolphins are mammals, they come under the jurisdiction of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a remarkable piece of legislation passed in 1972 that actually protects most species of cetaceans before they become endangered. This law makes it unlawful to capture or kill a dolphin in U.S. waters without a special permit from the National Marine Fisheries Commission. Sea-Arama is in possession of four such permits, and they hope to cash them all in during the next several days. Their operation back in Galveston needs some new blood: sixteen dolphins died several years ago during a hepatitis epidemic, and Mamuk, the park’s headliner, succumbed to a virus infection some months later.
Once they catch a dolphin, Sea-Arama will have a 30-day free home trial before their certificate from the NMFC expires. During that time the dolphin will be watched closely, monitored by a resident vet and by trainers like Beggs who are accustomed to reading the moods of their charges. If the dolphin does not adapt, if it pines away and grows listless like a lonesome kid at summer camp, they will release it into Galveston Bay, 300 miles from where it was kidnapped. If it dies, well…
But let’s talk about pleasant things. This is, after all, a jovial gathering, and, to be fair, it is doubtful that dolphins would have ever become a protected species had not oceanaria like Sea-Arama slipped them into the public awareness by demonstrating how they could earn their keep (and the keep of their keepers as well) by performing anthropomorphic antics. The public was only too eager to protect a creature that was cute and benign and had no nasty habits, a creature that could become, with proper coaching, a good citizen.
But they are so much more. One of my most inviolate childhood memories is of standing on the deck of a boat and seeing a dark shape arching below me from the water. Before my more corrosive instincts took over and I breathlessly told myself “I want one!” I had a clear, calm vision of a creature that seemed raveled from the deepest longings of my own daydreams. I never for a moment believed it could be a fish.
The knowledge that came later—that their brains were proportionately larger and as complex as a human brain, that they seemed to have an intricate language capable of expressing abstract concepts, that they enjoyed inventing variations on their oceanarium tricks—these were for me a series of anticlimaxes that could not explain or amplify a strong subjective belief that dolphins had evolved through, or skirted entirely, the human dimension. They were something else, they were genuine aliens.
After dinner our gathering retires to the hospitality suite of the Sea Gun and separates into little orientation seminars. Ed Moore describes the capture technique. Two catch boats, each the size of a small ski boat and each carrying 500 feet of weighted net, will maneuver into the path of an oncoming pod of dolphins, tie the ends of the nets together, and take off full throttle in opposite directions, encircling the pod and dropping the net as they do so. The dolphins’ sonar will describe a wall descending in front of them: their immediate reaction will be to search its perimeter for a way out, but the time they lose in doing so will allow the boats to close the circle. The dolphins, their sonar reporting complete entrapment, will panic and hit the nets, entangling themselves so thoroughly that if the crew does not get into the water and immediately hold their spiracles above the surface, the dolphins will drown.
Is this not sort of haphazard?
“We’ve never had an accident where we’ve lost an animal in the water,” Moore says. “That’s why we have so many guys in the water. We’d hate like hell to kill one.
“But like I say, we might kill one tomorrow. It’s the chance you take.”
He briefs us on the kinds of dolphins—lactating females and calves under six feet—the government prohibits them to take.
“You know, you get one of those little baby dolphins up in the boat—hell, they’re just super cute. But we can’t keep them.”
The legislation causes Sea-Arama a great deal of paperwork, but Moore and his staff claim they are in favor of the law, if only because it forces them to concentrate their attention on the animals which have that Indefinable Something, and are therefore just right for Sea-Arama.
“Believe it or not,” Moore says, “all of these animals have personalities.”
It is hard to say what Moore means by “personality,” but it is a good bet it is a concept not far removed from “cuteness.” All dolphins are cute—they have that fawning look and that intractable smile that give them the perhaps unfortunate appearance of always having a good time—but it is up to Sea-Arama’s talent scouts to refine that appearance into illusion.
“So the porpoise doesn’t fight when, he’s captured?” a reporter is asking Helen Spangler, the publicist who put the press trip together.
“A little,” she answers, shaking her hand from side to side, “they thrash a little.”
By midnight the gathering has begun to disperse in anticipation of an announced departure time of 7 the next morning. The VIPs, the members of the Sea-Arama board of directors who have been invited along to catch a glimpse of the workings of the organization in which their money is invested, are the first to leave, followed by Beggs and his staff, reputedly in search of nightlife.
I think of how a dolphin sleeps, swimming in a defensive circle with the outside eye vigilantly open, rising periodically to the surface for breath, like a sleepwalker.
“I want to call the first one we catch Bubbles,” says Jack Dismukes, vice-president of the board.
“Bad idea,” Ken Beggs says. “They’ve already got four pilot whales on the west coast named Bubbles. If we catch a boy I’d like to name it Lance.”
“I’d like to name it Hirkemer,” someone else suggests.
“I still like Bubbles,” Dismukes says.
The next morning the expedition stands around on the Sea Gun boat docks while the press photographers and the Sea-Arama board members take pictures of one another. We’re behind schedule, but whether it is due to a collective lethargy or the fact that the press boat is sinking is hard to pinpoint. The sky is overcast, and the shallow bay is motionless and murky, the kind of water in which the appearance of a dolphin’s fin has the ring of a supernatural visitation. A few VIPs wander out from their rooms and watch impassively as the press boat is bailed out.
The capture crew moves through the crowd servicing the catch boats and checking the nets, carrying the burden of their office with appropriate gravity. Trainer Ken Beggs will pilot one of the catch boats, and Terry Moore, the director of Sea-Arama’s ski show, who looks like Lee Van Cleef reincarnated as a surfer, is in charge of the other one. Neither seem to be in particularly good humor, being two hours late to get underway and saddled with a dock-full of photojournalists whose picture taking is becoming increasingly indiscriminate.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Helen Spangler announces, “here he is—the great white hunter: Buddy McLester!”
We flock quickly to this diversion, expecting something on the order of Bogart in To Have and Have Not. We find instead a genial man of about 47 wearing a long-billed baseball hat that juts forth like the beak of a heron. McLester is Sea-Arama’s guide to the Rockport bays and lagoons, a former charter boat operator and presently the constable of precinct three in Aransas County.
“The main ingredient in a successful hunt is just knowing your bay,” he says as he unrolls a fishing map and points to a tiny half-moon of water tucked into the backside of St. Joseph Island. This is Carlos Bay, our hunting ground.
In another hour we are underway. The catch boats, each manned by a crew of three, lead the way out the channel, followed by the transport boat which will carry the dolphin back to shore, which in turn is followed by the press boat (a new one has been commandeered). The press boat is the kind of thing people have in mind when they describe something as “Fellini-esque.” It plods along, the features of its inhabitants outlined in zinc oxide, looking like it may sink at any moment from the sheer weight of cameras alone. From a distance it gives off a constant, low-grade clicking sound, the sound of pop-tops and shutters.
I have been fortunate and have wangled a place on the transport boat, which is larger and perhaps a shade less surreal. On board are Ed Moore, wearing a baby blue panama hat with a bandana for a chin strap, Ken Gray, the veterinarian who is responsible for the dolphins’ health once they are caught, several board members, Ken Dormer, and an A&M graduate student named Suse Shane, who has been spending the summer observing dolphins in the wild near Port Aransas, and who may or may not be the official government observer for this hunt. She’s performed that role in the past, but she’s not sure if it’s expected of her today.
She, too, looks her part: rather short sun-bleached hair and the kind of extreme tan that can only be picked up in the line of duty. Her features are generally aligned on this trip in an attitude of fearful watchfulness that most of the crew seems to read as sentimentality.
I ask her what she thinks about the use of dolphins in places like Sea-Arama.
She looks about warily. “I don’t like it much,” she says.
By 10:30 the fleet is in Carlos Bay. The press boat pulls up to us for more beer while the catch boats skirt across the shoreline. But soon they’re back, having spotted only one small group of dolphins, all of whose members looked too big.
McLester decides to head back to Copano Bay and try around the channel.
“We’ll either catch some here or right over yonder.” He glances at the press boat. “Can’t make this thing look too easy.”
Half an hour later the catch boats are tied up on the shore of a small island on the edge of the channel, ready for an ambush. Ken Beggs stands on the bow of his boat and skims his binoculars across a line of reefs. A few fins break the water about a quarter mile away, but they’re not headed in our direction and the transport boat draws too much water to make it across the reefs to meet them.
So we follow the channel for a while. No luck. The boat carrying McLester pulls up once more and the Great White Hunter shakes his head. There is talk of breaking for lunch. Then an ancient, stunted barge strung with crab nets and stacked with crates glides by our stern. It is piloted by a man in goggles who is so encrusted with the briny residue of his trade that he looks like he has been submerged for decades.
“They’s a lot of porpoises over yonder,” he calls out, “playin’ an’ all.”
We follow his advice and head back out to Carlos Bay, where we soon encounter the pod the crabber must have been talking about. The catch boats have joined their nets and are cruising side by side, trying to slip unobstrusively in front of the five or six fins that are breaking the surface with less and less frequency. The dolphins know they’re being stalked, and the Sea-Arama crew even believes that the dolphins have passed the word to one another about which boats to watch out for.
For twenty minutes the catch boats maneuver around the pod, then they abruptly lose it. But almost immediately they spot and take after two solitary fins heading toward the channel.
“Could be a little love session going on there,” Ed Moore speculates.
“Poor little ol’ porpoises,” Dismukes says as the boats draw into position. “They don’t know what they’re in for.”
Suse Shane’s face tightens. “Right about now I start feeling it in my gut.”
Suddenly the motors of the catch boats throw out a high whine and the boats plane out in opposite directions. I feel a surge of panic and guilt: it is suddenly so easy to imagine the terror the dolphins must feel as the whole tonal quality of their environment rises to a nasty pitch and a curtain begins to descend around them.
But the set fails. The net catches in one of the props as it is fed off the boat and the two dolphins swim out the gap.
There is mild consternation in the transport boat. Shane and I and the rest of the dissidents share a sigh of relief, but we’re celebrating a hollow reprieve. These two may have gotten away but there are plenty more out there.
The boats head back to Rockport for lunch. On the way a large group of dolphins crosses our wake and swims back toward Carlos Bay.
“There they are!” Ed Moore yells, taunted beyond his endurance. “Look at ’em! Oh you bastards! Come on, Baby Doll! Look at ’em! Oh, my achin’ back!”
We spend several hours in the hospitality suite eating bologna sandwiches while the catch boat’s prop is repaired. A few of the board members drift off to sleep; a few others go home. Buddy McLester, in response to a question someone has asked him about dolphin mortality rates, reminisces about past hunts.
“A while back we set on some and honest to God I didn’t know this one porpoise had a calf with her.”
The calf drowned. There was no one to hold it up.
“That hurts you,” Jack Dismukes adds. “Ten years ago the same thing happened. We hauled the net up and didn’t even know one had drowned till we got it in.
“I just hate to see an animal get hurt. I caught a rat the other day in a trap. Well, I don’t know, I kinda felt sorry for that ol’ rat.”
He looks glumly down at the carpet. “We want to make the children of Texas happy. That’s our only reason for being in business.”
The boats pull out again late in the afternoon. A hundred feet from shore a lone dolphin soars out of the water and seems to hover above our wake for a long time before reentering it. Further out in the bay a frigate bird sitting on a piling shuffles its wings and takes flight across our bow as though deliberately dispensing an omen.
Suse Shane tells me about a new method of dry-ice branding that she is considering using on her wild dolphins for identification purposes.
“I’m going to do it to myself first,” she says, “to see if it’s really painless like they say it is. I feel like I should take the responsibility for what I’ll be doing to them.”
Ken Dormer shouts that the catch boats are onto something. I look out to where he is pointing and see the boats pull away from each other almost as soon as I catch sight of them.
“Oh shit,” Shane whispers.
It is all very precise. The boats close the circle, the dark fins head for opposite parts of the net, where they hit simultaneously, flail briefly, and sink. The crew from the catch boats jump into the shallow water and half-swim, half-walk to the places the dolphins went down.
“I think this one’s a keeper,” one of the crew says as he lifts a dolphin to the surface. He holds the animal the way a swimming instructor holds a pupil who is afraid of the water. The dolphin strains against him with a tenacity that seems merely experimental. The animal’s real energies are focused on producing the distress calls—a constant wheet-wheet—that the other dolphin, surfaced now and locked in the grip of two humans, is answering.
For twenty minutes the transport boat maneuvers into a position suitable for lifting the “keeper” over the transom. The press boat idles constantly on the edge of the action, listing a little as all its occupants take their places on the rail. Finally the transport boat seems to be in position. Four human beings lift the dolphin up and over the stern, onto a foam-rubber mat which is slid with the dolphin onto the deck of the boat.
I don’t think that ever in my life I will forget looking into that creature’s small, blanketed eye and finding my stare met, not by the plaintive, heartbroken look I would have expected, but by an expression so hard and unreadable yet so totally communicative that I physically recoil to the other side of the boat. I suppose I’ve been unconsciously psyching myself up for just this sort of epiphany, but that kind of rational speculation cannot mitigate its effect: it takes a few seconds of looking in the other direction for me to regain my composure.
The dolphin is a female. Bubbles.
“Hold this, will you?” veterinarian Ken Gray asks, handing me the end of a tape measure. I hold it over the end of her beak, where there is a small cut from her confrontation with the net. I look into her eye again and now see nothing more disturbing than the reflection of my body stretched across her.
“Seven feet two inches,” Gray says.
Beggs and his crew have by now hauled the other dolphin up into one of the catch boats. “I don’t want this animal,” Beggs calls to Moore. “She looks old to me.”
Moore defers with a wave of his hand and the men in the catch boat slide the second dolphin off the stern. As soon as her flukes hit the water she begins to propel herself away from the boat, submerging dorsal first and never surfacing.
Meanwhile on the transport boat Gray is spraying Bubbles with water from a garden spray can to keep her sensitive skin moist. He directs Doug Shimick, one of her captors, to lean across the dolphin’s middle and hold her down when she makes her periodic attempts to escape.
Gray then covers her with zinc oxide to prevent sunburn. The ointment gives the dark gray skin the look of a cloudy blackboard. Suse Shane leans down and begins to stroke the dolphin’s beak and whistle back to her.
“The name of this animal is Bubbles,” Ed Moore calls to the press boat.
She seems calmer now and her breathing is more regular than when she was first brought on board. Where I am sitting, near her head, I can see the deep chasm of her spiracle open and feel the dank, stale air against my face every time she takes a breath. Between breaths the blowhole purses to emit the incessant, even-pitched distress signals which Shane imperfectly responds to.
“Feel her,” Shane says quietly. I put my hand behind her eye, where the flesh is just beginning its modulation from the pinkish ventral surface. Her skin feels hard and slick, like a well-aired inner tube.
Jack Dismukes comes back from the bow and stares down at Bubbles for a long time. “Little lady,” he says, “we’re going to take care of you. You’re going to make a lot of children happy.”
There is a crowd at the dock, half of which are photographers from the press boat, which has beat us into shore. They all swarm on board to take pictures as Gray and Beggs direct Bubbles’ complicated transfer to a sling that will approximate the gravitational conditions her body experiences in the water. She remains passive during this procedure and when it is finished she looks dreamy and narcotized with her head slung down and her pectoral fins protruding from special holes in the sling.
She is then carried from the boat and her sling is fitted into a kind of hamper. At the suggestion of the photographer all of the participants gather into a pose behind the hamper. Suse Shane seems embarrassed, and has trouble deciding whether or not to smile. She does.
The hamper is placed inside a U-Haul trailer with the doors removed. Ken Gray steps inside with his spray can. It’s a five-hour trip to Galveston, to Bubbles’ tank at Sea-Arama where, if all goes well, she will be joined tomorrow by another dolphin. Hirkemer.
“Look at her! That is a well-adapted animal!”
I can’t tell which one is Bubbles. Beggs keeps pointing her out, but she and Hirkemer are continuously sidling into one another’s previous positions. Finally, though, I get a fix on her, and watch as she discreetly solicits our attention, swimming toward us and backing off, studying us with her eyes.
She and Hirkemer are bored. That’s a good sign; they’ve been in captivity for over a month, and now they’re ready to do something, anything. They are surely aware of and curious about the Bicentennial Porpoise Revue that takes place all day long in the big pool that is upstream from their small holding tank. Tomorrow Beggs will begin their “gate training,” teach them the proper techniques for entering and leaving the performance pool. They’re both bright—Hirkemer especially—and they’ll be out there soon enough raising the stars and stripes with their beaks and putting out the “fires” of the “revolutionary war” with their flukes.
There have been a few changes at Sea-Arama since their capture. Ken Beggs is now the curator, and he has assembled a hand-picked staff who he knows care about dolphins.
“If you are very considerate with the animal you end up with a very good show animal,” he observes. “Being captured has opened up a new horizon to them. You can’t tell me that those animals aren’t happy.”
No, I can’t tell him that. They look happy, alert, eager to get down to the business of delighting the school children of Texas.
Bubbles raises her head again and gives us a look I will have to describe as coy; but she will not come forth to be touched by a stranger, not yet. When she can do that she’ll be really cute..