27 January 2012

Dolphin Stories - Child Rescue

After watching David Attenborough on TV talking about the wonders of dolphins I thought I'd post my own stories of dolphins. These are taken from my memoir "One Foot After Another", part of which tells of some of the yachting journeys I've done with my climbing friend Jim Wilson about NZ and the South Pacific on his yacht 'Karoro'.

Most days on our journey about the North Island, dolphins visited us.  Once when I went below to pick up my camera saying, ‘It’s time the dolphins visited again’, there was a puff from a dolphin from beside the cockpit.  We came to expect them and revelled in the attention they were giving us.  We never ceased to become excited by their presence, running up to the bow, calling and waving at them.  Enthralled by their presence, we were always disappointed when they left to go about their business. 
They were Common Dolphins, small but fast in the water and we always marvelled at the effortless way they kept in the bow wave of the yacht.  After they had gone each day we talked about them and reminisced about our earlier experiences with them.  My favourite was about one night in Karoro when Jim and I were crossing Bream Bay in the dark after our return from New Caledonia. I was on watch in the cockpit and a line of phosphorescence showed a track racing straight towards the yacht. It scaring me into thinking we were being torpedoed.  It even had me bracing for the explosion.  I worked out what had happened and called Jim up from below.  Together we went up on the bow where we could see the whole outline of the dolphins.  There were two or three of them, riding just under our bow wave.  I suggested that, like trout, they could probably see us against the light of the night sky.  To show that I believed what I was saying I leaned out further and waved.  We could hardly believe our eyes. The dolphin rolled onto its side and one flipper came up out of the water to wave back at us.  The flipper was plainly obvious, black against the phosphorescent outline of the dolphin.  The sceptics in us had us thinking – coincidence.  So I waved again and again and each time the dolphin rolled on its side and the flipper came out of the water.  Not much was said and, after the dolphins left, we retired to our jobs on the yacht deep in thought.

But I’ve digressed.  The daily visits from dolphins changed as we headed up the Coromandel Peninsula towards Whitianga where we expected to replenish our fresh supplies.  As we approached Mercury Bay a new group of dolphins came alongside.  They were much bigger. a lighter colour and seemed to be covered with scratches.  These, we later learned, were Risso’s Dolphins.  They were a big group and they spent quite a while cavorting with us.  In particular they all seemed to be making their surface leaps upside down!  They must have been making some normal exits though to enable them to breathe.  Once again we marvelled and wondered if they had received training at Napier’s Marineland several days behind in our wake.  Finally they turned in ahead of us towards Whitianga and we lost sight of them as we followed them in.

About an hour later we made our way in past holiday craft and buoys to the marina and slowly came alongside the visitors’ berth, tying up behind a largish motor launch.  We intended anchoring offshore in the Mercury Islands after our shopping and busied ourselves getting packs out and checking our grocery list.  We were starting down the marina pier towards town when we heard a man behind us calling in distress.  “My baby, my baby girl, where’s my baby girl”.  We ran back and found a middle-aged man running about beside the motor launch just in front of Karoro.  “What’s wrong?” “I left her here” he indicated.  The only thing on the pier was a child’s bonnet.  It was in danger of blowing into the water.  There was nothing else.  The man, obviously the father, was becoming more and more distraught and for a moment we all flapped about uselessly not knowing if the child had toddled off somewhere or had fallen in.  The water on each side of the jetty looked black and ominous and I ran the few paces back to the yacht to grab a snorkel and mask.  No sooner had I got there than I realised that I had no idea where they were and ran back to the scene and a gathering crowd.  I was just in time to see Jim diving into the water.  He had seen a single telltale bubble rise to the surface and Jim was now heading down towards the origin of the bubble.  The fish that he is went straight to the spot and a pair of wide staring blue eyes.  In quite short time he was back on the surface, with a little girl tucked under his arm - still strapped into her pushchair.  He came up quite close to the jetty and several pairs of hands grabbed the girl from his arm.  The same hands unstrapped her from the pushchair. She was not an encouraging sight.  Dilated pupils, staring blue eyes and a patchy purple-blue skin over most of her face turned the surrounding faces grimmer.  Her father was beside himself with grief and self-recrimination.

I was determined that no one was going to start resuscitation until I was sure she was empty of water so I grabbed her and held her upside down over my knee. Each time I gently squeezed her, water just poured out of her mouth and nose.  Finally there was only some froth and we quickly turned her over and the guy in front of me asked,  “Shall I?” “Can you?” A nod. “Go for it - good luck” and together we tried - him gently breathing in and me gentle pushing back.  “Gently” we heard someone say.  After a while and no response someone else said, “Keep going”.  We continued.  Someone grabbed the father and led him away.  And then there was a slight cough and wheeze.  We stopped and nothing happened.  We started again and shortly there was another attempt at a long wheezy gasp.  We weren’t giving up now and continued until the wheezy gasps became more regular.  At this time an ambulance arrived and someone with a medical kit appeared on the scene. The guy and I stood up and looked at one another.  Nothing much was said except “Lucky girl”.  Jim and Mike White had gone back to the yacht and I joined them there.  There had been, I thought, an unseemly amount of emotion about the jetty and in the yacht.  I soon joined in.  Jim recounted the wide blue eyes on the bottom of the marina and Mike recalled the look of horror on the mother’s face as she returned from her shopping to see the crowd and her distraught husband.  They had all been shopping and Dad had returned early with Katie to tidy up the boat.  Katie had been left on the jetty for a few minutes and the wind had blown her, pushchair and all, over the edge, unobserved by anyone.  We had only been a few metres away but so busy with our berthing and shopping preparation that we’d seen nothing.  We heard the helicopter come to take her away to the childrens’ Starship Hospital in Auckland – to check her out. Her Dad called by to say thanks and more emotion spilled over. Days later we heard that she was 100%.

Finally we did our shopping, shouted ourselves a bottle of bubbly and headed out to sea again.  We anchored close under Great Mercury Island.  That night, just before dusk, gannets circled the yacht, diving down so close to Karoro that we could see the blue of their eyes and hear the wind in their wings.  All night the anchor chain rumbled on rocks and we slept fitfully dreaming dark dreams.  The champagne sat unopened in the sink.

Next morning we wound up the anchor and headed on northwards.  We’d only been going half and hour and glancing back saw them racing up behind the stern.  It was the Risso’s Dolphins again and this time they meant business.  All around Karoro they leapt clear of the water and once again we, forgetting our previous days drama, joined in the excitement.  We seemed have a special empathy with one another.  Suddenly two leapt together clean out of the water just beside the cockpit.  We roared approval and shouted “How about three” and almost immediately three simultaneously leapt from the sea, side by side.  It was all go now and we shouted “How about four” – it was a ridiculous request – whoever heard of such nonsense.

And four leapt from the waves together.  It wasn’t the four of them that totally gob-smacked us but the fourth dolphin – it was a baby dolphin about one third the length of the others.

Jim was on the tiller and didn’t see the final leap because of the boom and sail.  He looked incredulously at me when I told him.  I began to doubt what I’d just seen and we both looked at Mike.  He was beyond words.  He just nodded his agreement.   We were stunned, talked about coincidence, mass escapes of dolphins from Marineland, the powers of dolphins, the existence of strange forces – but mainly we were sceptical and silent.  That night, at anchor, we opened the champagne in a perfect sunset.