I should have been born on a beach. Never mind that my native Wisconsin is better known for its green pastures than its deep blue oceans. And so what if the state can claim only three seasons—July, August and winter? I'm the sort of person who swan dives into everything; the water bug of my family; the kid who grew up on inner tubes and water skis; someone who still takes two showers a day.
I was born on July 15, under the sign of Cancer—the Crab. My mother was a synchronized swimmer; my father was a lifeguard and a freestyle man. I got my first bikini when I was two, a hot little blue number that my grandmother sent me from New York. I shot through all the swimming levels at the pool in Neenah, Wis.—through guppies, minnows, advanced beginners; through a billowy skirted one-piece and a yellow two-piece with a matching petaled bathing cap. By the time I was 12, I had conquered junior lifesaving and was leaving all the 15-year-old boys in my wake.
Next I churned through senior lifesaving. And a Mark Spitz poster went up on my wall. Then it was on to long-distance swimming. With my father in a rowboat at my side, I'd swim from shore to shore in a nearby spring-fed lake, through the lily pads, the leeches and, according to my little brother, right past the woman-eating northern pikes.
After graduating from high school I went to Stanford, spent a lot of weekends at the beach and became the swimming writer for The Stanford Daily. I bought a water bed. I found my way to Hawaii, got into underwater photography and fell in love with mahimahi.
So when a friend who works at Marine World/Africa USA in Redwood City, Calif. asked if I wanted to take the plunge in a long, wet search for my roots, I didn't flinch. I dived right into a 430,000-gallon tank of salt water inhabited by four Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins and a 20-foot, two-ton pilot whale named Koko.
Encased in a navy blue wet suit to protect myself from the 60° water, I wasn't about to be mistaken for a mermaid. I looked more like a cross between Lloyd Bridges and Wonder Woman. I hooked on a 10-pound weight belt, slipped on a pair of flippers and grabbed a face mask. Because the tank was only 57 feet in diameter and 21 feet deep, I opted for an airhose instead of air tanks.
I didn't want to upset the fish any more than necessary. Even trainers who've worked with marine mammals a long time can't predict their moods and their possible reactions to an amphibian like me. Said Allison Seacat, one of the trainers, as I got ready to hoist myself into the water, "About all dolphins do is eat, swim and mate.
"They've been a little feisty lately," she added. "You wouldn't want to go in if it were mating season. We think it's over, but we never know for sure...."
My face mask fogged up. In simple terms, the trainers had warned: Not all dolphins are as friendly as Flipper.
"Look," said one of the two trainers who as a precautionary measure would swim in the tank with me, "we'll take it easy. We'll feel out their moods." That sounded safe enough. I jumped in flippers first.
The dolphins went crazy. First they charged and then they veered away; their big, black eyes focused intently on me. The whale, on the other hand, just trudged along on the bottom, looming even larger than I had imagined.
The dolphins were surprisingly easy to tell apart. Their head shapes, eyes and the way that they moved made each an individual.
Bayou (7 feet long and 300 pounds), an 8-year-old male with a narrow head and a hooked jaw, was the John Travolta of the tank. The macho man. He had scratch marks on his sides and nose, battle scars from tiffs with the other dolphins.
Schooner (same size as Bayou), a 7-year-old female, had a pointed jaw and big, bright eyes. She was exuberant and curious, like a puppy.
Stormy (7 feet, only 250), a 7-year-old female, was slow-moving and laid-back, the one with the droopy, mellow eyes.
Shiloh (8 feet, 300), an 8-year-old female who ruled the roost, was the Mae West of MarineWorld.
And, of course, there was Koko. He was aloof, lackadaisical and always trying to outguess me.
Almost immediately, Bayou swam up, circled and spewed a dark, liquidy substance into the water in front of me. My head popped up. "What was that?" I asked the trainer.
"Either a mating dance," he said, "or he went to the bathroom." Swell.
The four dolphins came closer and gradually spent more time with me. I swam slowly, so as not to rile them. They must have sensed I was no threat, that I couldn't possibly live under the water without my air hose. I could hear them speaking in quiet squeaks and puckering sounds. A dolphin makes its sounds by passing air from one of its two vestibula sacs (nasal sacs located just below the blowhole) to the other. The vibrations range from high frequencies (a dolphin's whistle can make the hair on one's arms stand on end, even underwater, even under a wet suit) to very low, thumping frequencies (sort of like those heard from the woofers at a rock concert).
After about 20 minutes, Stormy shimmied up and coaxed me to hang on to her dorsal fin and go for a ride. A breakthrough. I waved to Schooner as we went by, and she waved back, nodding her head in time with my hand motion. She smiled at me, flashing 90 teeth.
Shiloh darted over. Everything was going so well, I figured she wanted to play, too. I waved. She snapped at my hand, flipped her tail and scooted away.
"Shiloh hates women," the trainer said after motioning me to the surface. "You're invading her territory."
Now you tell me. So, Shiloh knew I was a girl? Even wrapped in the wet suit? At first I wondered if she had smelled my perfume. But dolphins have no olfactory sense. She had used echolocation to sonar me. Dolphins send out sounds that are reflected off objects and return to their sensory system through their lower jaw. The vibrations travel through a thin, oily substance in their jaw, and, via something called the acoustic window, reach the inner ear. The sonic image created enables the dolphin to discern the size, density, speed and direction of another object in the water. My curves, when sonared, gave me away.
Shiloh danced past and flicked her tail again. Talk about moody. She has even been known to play tricks on kids who are watching her MarineWorld show. She'll be playful, urging them to stand near the edge of the tank, and then she'll soar out of the water, wrap her nose around their legs on the way back down and pull them onto their fannies. Shiloh convinced me I had spent enough time with the dolphins. It was time to explore life as a whale.
Koko, who had been moseying around the bottom, decided to check me out. He circled, his massive body filling the tank. He was ugly, with dark, bulging eyes and a round head that had earned him the nickname Bowling Ball. Definitely not a looker. He moved closer. The trainers spun around cautiously.
"I've been in the lank with Koko hundreds of times in the past two years," said one of the trainers, "and I still never know how he'll act."
Koko slowly swam toward me. Three feet from my face, he opened his mouth. Out rolled a tongue the length of Highway 101. The trainers decided my search for myself was over. I agreed. I didn't want to write my first novel from inside the belly of a whale. Somebody else had already tried that angle.