Swimming with wild dolphins, even off a beach in the UK, is a dream many have, but having had this experience shows that hidden, almost fatal hazards are involved…
I had been touring in my car with my partner Debbie around the Isle of Wight, UK, the small island off the Hampshire coast unique for its abundant flora fauna, glorious panoramic views, dinosaur beaches and superb blood-red sunsets. We had reached the south west part of the island on our tour. This has always been my favourite part, with shallow beaches stretching away between ‘chines,’ where natural ancient streams had cut away the rock creating ravines leading down to the sea.
Cliffs of chalk and mixed clays project out from land over the sea here and the occasional entrance to a beach path leading down to the sea is reached from the main coast road. We chose a beach path with a large parking area on a field where we could park directly at the top of a small cliff over-looking the sea and enjoy the view while eating a picnic. After parking, immediately in front of us we noticed surfers on their boards here as usual at this shallow beach, a common feature along this particularly popular wind swept coast line.
Scanning the sea I quickly spied a fin at the sea surface which was following one of the surfers. I was very surprised and even shocked not having seen this before and excited at the same time, not sure what I was seeing. “Did you see that – should we warn them?” I asked Debbie. There it was again – I thought it could be either a shark or a dolphin, but from over 120 meters away I was not sure. I saw the curve at the top of the dorsal fin and knew it had to be a dolphin. Basking sharks have a dorsal fin than ‘bows outwards’ each side of its triangle and a great white’s bends inwards at the rear edge, but such a fin is normally pretty big compared to most other shark species, like porbeagles and blue sharks which have especially been known to frequent this area of coast.
I noticed bathers and sunbathers all along the beach who did not seem to have noticed the dolphin, and even fellow motorists parked at our higher elevation had not seemed to notice the unusual proceedings. On the spur of the moment I thought “Well there are swimmers in the water and surfers out there and the sea state is pretty calm and it’s not too cold, maybe I might get to see the dolphin a little better if I swim out there with the surfers.” So I quickly changed for swimming and made my way quickly down the slippery sandy path to the beach and waded in, feeling carefully for rocks projecting out underfoot.
The tide was quite low and the water level at this point was very shallow. On stretching out to swim out, I was shocked to suddenly graze my chest on rocks below me in the very murky water, which reared up unexpectedly as I began to swim away from the beach. But this was just a small introduction to the shocks and vivid experiences about to follow…
It took a while to swim out against the grey briny swells to reach the area of the surfers I had seen, as they kept moving and drifting, correcting for the current running parallel to the beach. I looked around for the dolphin and looked back towards the beach. Even without my glasses on, I could see the beach looked a long distance away now and the cold of the sea water suddenly hit me. Then the reality of my situation hit me for the first time.
I had been a fisherman for decades and had recently hooked something very big and extremely fast swimming at 3 am in the morning while fishing on the beach on this island under 10 miles from this very spot. The unusual thing about this fish was the way it pulled on the rod so viciously and hard it made me ‘water-ski’ down the shingle beach straight into the e water still holding the heavy duty fishing rod bent double!
The fish had ‘spat the hook’ straight away then as I actually entered the water and I ran back up the beach as fast as I could sending shingle flying. I was shaking all over and had never experienced such terrifying power and speed from any hooked fish ever before. Having hooked fish previously to well over 100 pounds, I knew what I had very likely hooked was a shark, and my body was trembling all over from the shock of my experience of being dragged into the water by an unseen monster, getting wet feet and feeling a massive ‘adrenaline dump’ throughout my body.
My research had shown that the porbeagle shark record for the UK had been landed pretty close by here, and added to the fact that other sharks like the mako and blue sharks were recorded from this area, my mind was wondering just exactly what kind of sharks were really visiting this area in addition… Immediately in front of me now were the surfers and without knowing how, I suddenly became absolutely aware that something big was in the water below me and I could not hold back the cold shudder that ran right through me now. I slowed the movements of my feet, aware they looked bright in the murky water and a potential target. Knowing the chances of a shark attack in 99% of beaches around the world is ridiculously low did not help me emotionally at this time.
Just then a pointed hard angled thing struck me sideways across my stomach as I swam very slowly along the surface and I froze with fear afraid I had been struck as I gingerly felt my stomach for any damage. Just being able to see over the tops of the waves and swells did not increase my confidence and feelings of insecurity; it’s tough to look around without getting a mouthful of seawater and stinging eyes unexpectedly and not like the deceptive calm of a swimming pool at all!
I gladly discovered all was intact and knew then that this must have been the dolphin spotted from the car saying hello. I reached the 2 surfboarders and quizzed them about the dolphin’s whereabouts. My focus shifted back to being aware of the dolphin and respecting it, its behaviour and environment. Being into ‘Reiki’ I send it loving intent so it would know I meant it no harm. As I did so the hard sharp thing came up from below and struck my leg and I could just see through the murky green – grey seawater the pale white and mottled shape of the dolphin disappearing below me. I carried on swimming and again it came up, lifting me up with its broad body, I just fully relaxed being very careful to be calm and try to match its energy .
Then it was swimming upside down with my legs held by the pressure of the moving seawater just in front of its flippers. This was such a sudden and confusing behavioural occurrence I had no time to think as the swells, seawater and current all blurred as water streamed all around and I struggled to breathe without swallowing more seawater as I was forced along. I got rides on this incredibly gregarious and gentle creature’s back again and again and it appeared to want to carry me out to sea as this was its direction each time it pulled me along. It mostly ignored the surfers around us. Being lifted on to the back of a truly wild dolphin and being pulled along by its dorsal fin I just could not avoid resisting my hand gently on its base although I was very careful of how delicate it might be even though it felt strong and resilient.
Feeling this 9 foot dolphin powerfully kicking its tail and motoring you forward in and out of the surface of the sea just as ‘porpoising’ dolphins do was just unbelievable. This whole encounter lasted about 20 minutes, but more surprising things were to happen. I definitely felt this dolphin loved the feeling of my skin rather than a body covered in a wetsuit? This dolphin was a male dolphin and the encounter occurred about mid-September 2002. Seawater along this coast was not that cold but not hot either, with leg numbing colder undercurrents certainly occasionally apparent.
After spending half an hour in the sea, I had never understood how strong swimmers could seemingly drown so easily in seawater but I can tell you as a result of this; so take real good note! The sea was not that warm, and after half hour of swimming which I was not used to, I started to get the occasional shake. This was the start of cramp a potentially lethal condition while in the sea. It was only later I learned that contact with wild dolphins is not recommended as they can turn violent and bite without warning. But I felt at all times that if I intended it love and healing and great respect it would be fine. It was very friendly indeed and would not leave me alone.
The chills from the seawater had manifested into cramp in my right wrist and in my right foot which had suddenly ‘clawed-up’ in a very painful spasm of pain and which I immediately attempted to strongly massage away with both hands – very difficult while treading water! I had done my swimming ‘gold survival’ and trained for ‘honours’ too, so this phenomenon was not entirely new to me.
But that was years ago. Although I had the 2 surf boarders for company and added safety at this range of about 110 meters from shore, the sideways current had increased somewhat as the tide was changing and I felt the wind get up a bit as a result. I sensibly felt I needed to get to shore right now as my shivering was getting to the point of being much more prevalent and I was aware of my whole body feeling pretty cold. I really had been sidetracked by the dolphin and I knew my safety had been ignored for a bit too long now.
(I later read that a man actually drowned swimming near this beach and I now know just how easily and suddenly it could have happened!)
As I swam over to one of the surf boarders my right ankle suddenly went into a cramped spasm and it was pretty painful. It was moving up my leg. I did what I could to massage it again with the result that my wrist cramp extended up my arm and I knew I was in trouble. The bad cramps had appeared very suddenly. If you are swimming begin to badly shake from the cold, I recommend you leave the water immediately just in case!
If I had been on my own at this point I could have easily have drowned as the cramp was getting debilitating and spreading up my leg and my arm making even treading water in the swell very hard work indeed. The side current running parallel to the beach was an added complication, which although not strong, would lengthen my return journey to shore. But the dolphin would not leave me alone keeping trying to give me a ride but lifting me up from underneath and dragging me along. I got hold of the surfers board and explained the situation, asking if I could get on a board and maybe warm up out of the cold, but I realised it would be much safer to head straight for shore.
Having just managed with difficulty to crawl up onto the very slippery wallowing board with the surfer beside me, I felt I was going be OK as I tried to paddle the big board towards shore. But then something utterly unexpected happened and it really shook me up. Suddenly I heard a great splash and felt a heavy weight drop onto my legs. I turned to find the front third of the dolphin on my legs and board! The weight immediately up-ended the board, tipping me and I ended up right under water, the salt temporarily blinding me.
I felt very scared and panicked at this stage – I could not even see or feel where the surface was! I disciplined myself to relax and try and ‘drift’ upwards and luckily my body floated to the surface as my lungs felt fit to burst. Struggling to swim, I found the board very close by and dragged my cramped and badly shaking body back on board. The body cold was getting very bad as this stage and my head felt numb defying the recent sunny conditions and mild September air temperatures. Water can suck body heat very fast!
Again I aimed the board at the beach some 120 meters away and started to paddle my way forward slowly hanging on as a swell passed over the board. Suddenly the board lifted again and I was aware of the dolphin on my legs again as we both slid down off the board tipping into the sea again. I was really freighted by now knowing my body was ‘seizing-up’ the way it was. I had heard of dolphins saving people, but this kind of attention did was not helping me!
But the dolphin came up right beside me and held its position next to me on the surface looking closely at me only a foot away from its left eye. I lay my numb hand against his broad side as I looked into his amazing intelligent and human looking eye and passed my thoughts and fears to him. “Thanks for playing but I’m really scared and in trouble. Please let me to get to the shore.” I got to the board again and with great difficulty got onto it. I started paddling for shore and focussed on my single goal, the nearest bit of beach ‘up-current.
I started to make good progress when I looked round concerned that the dolphin would try and get on the board again. But to my surprise, he must have ‘understood me’ because he had become my escort alongside the board and was porpoising alongside me. That was just incredible to experience really lifted my spirits. I genuinely feel there was some element of understanding going on between us beyond anything purely coincidental.
I soon approached the shore and as I stood up very stiffly off the board shaking from heard to foot, my teeth chattering and very glad to be on ‘land’ in the warm air which now felt freezing. I noticed a big crowd of people gathered in the water’s edge watching the sea and I realised they were all watching the dolphin which had come in with me. As I made my way up to the car at the top of the small sandy cliff, I looked back to see the dolphin playfully making his way between people standing in the shallow water closest to the shore. Everyone on that beach seemed in a trance, totally engrossed by the wonder of this creature and its interactions. I got dry using some clothes and took a quick photo of this somehow surreal scene. This photo never ‘came out’ and is emblazoned in my memory even stronger as a result.
The sun was beginning to dip casting long shadows as I then drove off for something to eat and drink with my partner Debbie’s’ friends, at a hotel in the north of the island. I will never forget the powerful impact of this encounter, it seemed to ‘permeate my psyche’ and awareness, somehow as if it was much bigger and more important than it appeared superficially. Very strange!
As it turned out, many people enjoyed sharing time with that dolphin that year, and it had apparently migrated across from France via the Channel Islands. It even spent time in bays on the Irish coast, playing with boats and divers. It was last reported in a harbour in the Netherlands. It may have met its end in one of the shallow water commercial fishing nets along the coast there, but who really knows?
This dolphin has a special place in my heart and made me far more aware of the vulnerability of all sea life and humanity’s impact upon it. From trawlers nets constantly disturbing the sea bottom where shellfish and fish can no longer breed effectively any longer, to low frequency sonar pulses from far distant defence systems disorientating whales which can cause whales or entire ‘pods’ of cetaceans becoming stranded in some very unusual locations, even up tidal rivers, which is happening more and more frequently.
Since finding out more about dolphins and cetaceans in general, I discovered the UK have laws about contact with them and just where to draw the line as regards approaching them by boat and so on. Also it appears that it can be hazardous to be in the water with dolphins as there are incidents of people being bitten and even kicked or rammed which can be very dangerous indeed. These are very powerful creatures and must be treated with great respect knowledge and awareness of their behaviour.
If they wish to approach you, that is completely different to trying to deliberately interact with them where their natural behaviour is compromised and this goes for all other wildlife. Dolphins are very gregarious and playful and far more intelligent than we give them credit for. It appears their brain is even larger than the human brain compared to body size or mass I forget which and they can respond intelligently to TV pictures and have even been trained to talk!
The US navy have trained them for ‘military’ functions too where it would be possibly too risky to use men, which to me is outrageous exploitation really. They can even detect and stun their fish prey, even when it is hidden covered in sand or silt on the sea bed, by blasting them with sonic emissions. It makes you wonder what we used to be able to do using the ancient parts of our brains…
I’ve observed dolphins within 10 metres of the shoreline in India, Scotland, and different UK locations and as a fisherman myself, I can say that due to the decline in fish stocks often the best concentration of them and shellfish is very close to shore in areas the trawlers cannot ruin, so that’s where I might hunt (or fish) too. Sometimes while fishing from shore on the East coast of the UK, trawlers have operated so close to shore when the cod run is on for example, that I could cast well past their wheel house as they trawled parallel to shore. Needless to say, angling catches are very poor or none existent once the trawlers have been through such an area! Our UK inshore areas need far more protection from exploitation, greed and law-breaking commercial fishermen, very often from Spanish fishermen – having totally ruined their own sea fishery.
The date as I write this is the 28th of July 2007. I had always believed that something ‘else’ apart from the dolphin that September day, but somehow I felt ‘protected’ by some force. Yes there certainly are different species of sharks frequenting the waters around the ‘Isle of Wight’ including documented catches of very large porbeagle sharks.
However, my whole attitude towards the dolphin was one of love and caring and a kind of ‘meeting of souls’ as it were. It was a very special and unique experience. I had lain hands gently on the dolphin’s side to give him ‘Reiki,’ a type of ‘healing love energy,’ (actually measured by scientists in Russia) expressing my loving intent without trace of harm or exploitation. Life will never look or feel the same after swimming with that amazingly human-like creature. Indeed there have been reports of healings of mentally and physically disabled people after such an encounter within the far safer environment of a purpose built ‘dolphin pool’ in the States. I’m not surprised!