Happy Dolphins

Happy Like the Dolphins

We’ve seen lots of wild critters on the road so far.

Just from memory: those adorable camp-mascot kangaroo rats, stoic desert bighorn sheep deep in a Canyonlands arroyo, abrasive wild burros, a coyote walk-chasing a woodpecker, a brief (but long enough!) glance at a bobcat, bats skydancing at dusk, and that one threatening rattlesnake in our path.

Not to mention the most notable birds: condors aloft at the heights of Zion, fields of sandhill cranes and wheeling clouds of Canada geese at Cibola, casual feral peacocks where we’re staying now, and many, many dozens of others that Rachel checks off on her Merlin app.

But of all the wild animals we’ve seen, I like these best.

Elusive Mama

Dana Point, California is one of the premier whale watching venues on the Pacific coast. Whales migrate along the sudden depths that occur just a couple miles offshore, in their annual circuits chasing warm water and good feeding. Blue whales and California Grays mostly, but others too.

On our afternoon jaunt, we were hoping to see at least one of the giant mammals. “It’s been a slow start to the season,” our captain warned us, over the boat’s loudspeaker, to properly set expectations.

But half an hour after launch, we spotted whale “footprints,” glassy patches of ocean that our guides said were made from the vortex of a whale’s fluke as it dives underwater. Those footprints painted a leisurely course, roughly south. The captain, his voice an amplified hush: “At this time of year, likely a pregnant cow heading south to calve in the tropical Baja lagoons, 1000 miles from here.” 

He tiptoed our craft around the smooth surface markers at a respectful distance, trying to anticipate where the whale might breach. We zigged, she zagged. She breached shallow in the distance for a breath, barely visible against gray whitcaps, and we nudged sideways to keep pace.

After a twenty-minute dance, to the delight of us and the other dozen passengers on board, the elusive mama whale broke the surface once and quickly, 200 yards off port and then dove straight down, her fluke waving to us as she disappeared. Rachel was quick on the camera.

Mama whale waves goodbye

And that was the last we saw of her.

Then Dolphins!

Our captain raced the boat to our next sighting, skipping over waves under a cloudy sky. Bouncing along in the cold wind at the prow’s rail, we had to take turns saying, “I’m king of the world!” It was a delightful roller-coaster experience, our stomachs falling away between the crests and catching again in our throat as we hit the next rise.

Layered up for the wind and spray

And suddenly a few minutes later we were surrounded by dolphins. “Common dolphins,” explained the naturalist on board next to us, still not jaded after what must have been hundreds of such excursions, “but there’s nothing common about how energetic and playful they are.”

For half an hour, dozens of gray and white playmates escorted us around their home waters. They paced the boat, slipping under and ahead its bow, as if leading us on leash. They jumped in picture-postcard arcs off port and starboard. They swam with such ease and delight it made us wish we had fins to join them. 

They made us as happy as they all seemed to be.

So Many Pictures

Without missing the experience, we tried to catch some of their play in our lenses.

See the pictures and brief videos for yourself, and, like us, be happy like the dolphins.


  1. Thanks for the great share and the memory it evoked in me. We all have those days that will forever be etched in our brains. One such day occurred in either the late ’70s or early ’80s. The date didn’t burn into my brain, so much as the actual experience. It was a cold and rainy Christmas and Eden telephoned in the morning to ask if I’d like to go out sailing with her dad and siblings. Of course, I was out the door in a hot minute with my mom worrying about me being out in the cold and rainy weather. Nevertheless, we all boarded Judge Bentley’s sailboat and took off. My mom was right in that the weather was horrible, but we all had on the appropriate gear to handle to thwart it. The wind was definitely cooperating as we sailed along making the best of a rainy and cold Christmas Day. We weren’t out on the water very long before, we too, had a pod of dolphins dancing alongside of our boat. It was truly magical as we watched them play and jump in the wake of the boat. I can’t tell you one thing I received for Christmas that year among the more than likely mountain of gifts I received, but I can tell you that memory went down as one of the best of my life.

    1. Mary, thanks for sharing that! I too have fond memories of the Bentleys’ beach house, but I sure never saw dolphins in the wild back then.

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