Playing with Dolphins

by Abby on October 20, 2017

It’s not every day I find myself on a standup paddleboard in warm, turquoise waters. But one morning last week, that’s exactly where I was, three days into a girls’ trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida. The trip could not have been better timed, stress-wise or weather-wise. I pushed for the paddleboards, having done it a few times before and loved it. To me, the perfect vacation is a mix of relaxation and outdoor activity, preferably somewhere near or on the water.

Me, stand-up paddle boarding in Siesta Key

It took me a few minutes to get my sea legs after we dragged the long, heavy boards through the sand and into the waves. But before long I was standing up and gliding along in the shallow water. Schools of small, silvery fish shimmered just below the clear, blue-green surface. Billowy, white-cotton clouds scudded overhead. This might sound strange, but I knew what was about to happen next.

First, I thought I saw a dark flash out of the corner of my eye. But no, that was just a wave. Then, unmistakable: one, then two, dark, triangular fins broke the surface of the water. Dolphins! And look, a third! I could not contain my excitement as I watched these playful sea creatures leap and circle, dive and splash. I waved frantically to my friends back on the beach. Look! LOOK!!

Dolphin fins in the ocean

The other friend who was paddleboarding with me and I decided to get a little closer. But not TOO close. Silently, we paddled toward the dolphins. They saw or sensed us and swam over to check us out. Only then did a spasm of fear grip my chest, and my knees buckled slightly for a second. Miraculously, I did not lose my balance as one of the dolphins swam underneath the surface, just a few feet away from me. Close up, their sleek, dark bodies were massive, nearly the size of my paddleboard. I was in awe. Actual AWE.

I have seen dolphins in the wild maybe twice before. Once was off the coast of Delaware, and the other time was also in Florida, when a pair of them frolicked next to the Naples Pier at sunset. Those dolphins like to put on a show.

What was the most significant part of this experience for me? Was it the thrill of seeing dolphins? Was it the calm certainty of knowing that we would see them just before we did? Or was it the fact that I was happy, steady, and balanced until fear threatened to knock me off course?

I am not a person of strong faith. Perhaps I was more so when I was younger, but that is no longer the case. Interestingly, though, one of the women on the trip was a person of very strong faith. This made for interesting conversations, as I always appreciate someone who can articulate a different perspective without being judgmental or sanctimonious. When we were out shopping, she bought a print for a friend: “Be still and know” was part of its message.

It’s from the Bible, even I know that. I will leave the scriptural interpretations to others. I do think it’s an interesting phrase to consider, though. Many people struggle with the “be still” part. They text, scroll, and socialize their way through life, anything to avoid being bored or alone with their thoughts. Then there are those for whom the “and know” part is the challenge. That’s me.

I don’t “just know” anything. Even less as I get older. Well, except that I love my kids unconditionally and that the third glass of wine is usually a bad idea. Gretchen Rubin would call me a Questioner. My tax return says I’m a writer and researcher. I may not know stuff inherently, but I know how to find people who do. All the more reason why knowing we’d see dolphins that morning was so unusual for me.

If I knew that, what else might I know? What the next right steps are in my life? How to help my children avoid unnecessary suffering? The answer to world peace??

I think the secret lies in the “be still” part, at least for me. Those quiet, rare moments of solitude when I can think my own thoughts, dream my own dreams, listen to my own instincts. Give me some more time with the dolphins, and I’m sure I can figure it all out.

Florida sunrise over the water

P.S. Several people I shared this story with asked, “Did you think they were sharks at first?” No! Never! Thanks for making me retroactively terrified, though. And stop watching Shark Week!

Present Over Perfect, by Shauna NiequistREAD O’ THE WEEK: Yet another example of the right book finding me at the right time. I really enjoyed Present Over Perfect, a collection of essays from author and mother Shauna Niequist. Also a fellow water-lover, clearly. To get a sense of the book, see her recent discussion with Oprah on SuperSoul Sunday.

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Angie October 24, 2017 at 8:16 pm

“If I knew that, what else might I know?” LOVE that. Also, you look hot. I see dolphins a lot here in Charleston, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been as close. It sounds amazing. I love the quiet calm you write about, the knowing that you would see them before you did.

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