Her first name
Hanli Prinsloo is a South African freediver and ocean advocate. She is the founder of I AM WATER, a Durban-based charity that seeks to reconnect South Africa's underserved urban youth with the ocean.
I have swum with these dolphins hundreds of times before. I’ve been coming here for more than twenty years. I recognise many of them and many know me too. Slipping off the boat into the crystal blue Indian Ocean to be met by clicks and whistles and friendly faces would usually be nothing new. But today is different to any other day with my bottlenose friends. Today, they get to see what nobody has seen before. Nestled deep inside of me is my small daughter, seven months old and swimming in her own small ocean. The sounds of my heartrate, pulsing blood flow and the muffled sounds of the outside world have been her only soundtrack for as long as she has existed. But today, she gets to hear something I had always hoped for when I dreamt of what I would like to share with my future baby: the meeting between dolphin friends and an unborn child.
Dolphins have a highly evolved ability to see through sound, called echolocation. On the front of their head, where our forehead would be is their so-called melon, a fatty liquid organ that serves as the lens for their underwater third eye. Sound waves are focused through the melon, directed at what they are investigating (a fish hiding under the sand, a small human huddled in a womb) and then bounced back, like an echo, to be absorbed by the lower jaw, travelling to the inner ear and on to the nerves connected directly to the brain. Here in their very large and complex brain, these sounds are translated into an image. Seeing with sound, one of the many fascinating special talents of these highly intelligent beings.
Back to sitting on the boat in the middle of a sparkling blue Indian Ocean with a small swimmer inside me waiting to meet her friends. The dolphins jumping and playing in the pounding shore break, leaping high out the water behind the waves as they show off their surfing skills. Speeding towards us I slow my breathing and pull on my mask and fins, deep breaths into my belly, I feel my lungs expand above the bump. I gently rub my belly, hoping my small swimmer is ready for this moment. I am shivering with excitement, struggling to keep my heart rate down as the dolphins start circling the boat. Dad-to-be Peter gets in first, quick check what’s down there and how the waves and currents are before I slip in.
Sleek grey bodies are zooming about all around me and below me. Speckled bellies, wide eyes, rippling sunshine on perfectly streamlined shapes. I slowly feel gravity mercifully disappear as the ocean holds me and the extra watery world I carry. A mother and calf approach and start circling me, the calf coming so close I could reach out and touch her. Intense eye contact as they start circling me, the calf darting in and out between me and its mother, transfixed by something only they can see. Dizzy and out of breath I gasp for air as they join a small group and come back for further investigation. Taking one big breath I hang quietly in mid-water as the curious dolphins come closer. I hear the intensity of their clicks and whistles change and their heads start bobbing up and down as they scan. This time there is no eye contact, all their attention is focused through that inner eye on my bulging belly. I am suspended in this connection, watching and listening as they swim slowly around me, looking at the life inside of me. Each new visitor or pod member gets given its own signature whistle. Somewhere in all the sounds I hear below the surface these mothers and their babies are giving my daughter her first name.
Dolphins are highly social and family-oriented creatures. Mothers carry their young for twelve months and nurse for another 12-18 months, and calves stay with their mothers for up to six years. During the first months together, you will see the young calf stay close to their mother, often having a flipper or fin touching, swimming in perfect synchronicity. Dolphins have a complex language that researchers have been trying to decipher for decades. So far, we know that they have great intelligence but we haven’t figured out how to ask the right questions in order to fully understand the range of their intellect. We know they are self-aware (can recognise themselves in a mirror), we know they have names for each other and even family names within a pod (like surnames) and when two pods meet they whistle and click sharing both their family and first names with the new acquaintances. But this is just the tip of the iceberg – our minds are unable to explore the ways in which they navigate their world.
Surrounded by dolphins, my heart swells as my every sense and whole being is present in this meeting. A dream I had harboured for many years coming true at last. My mask is fogged with tears as I pull myself back onto the boat. Burying my face in Peter’s shoulder I cry. I cry for the privilege, I cry out of overwhelming gratitude, for the beauty our oceans offer us, for the threats facing my kind and my curious sleek friends below the surface.
For a week we spend long and magical hours at sea with the dolphins, deepening our understanding and relationship with them and each other, capturing magical moments to be shared beautifully one day.
Today our daughter is one month old and as I stare at her wide eyes I wonder if she will remember those hours suspended in the great ocean nestled inside her small sea. One day I will take her back to the same pod of dolphins and tell her the story of her first name.
This column appears in ISSUE 13: This is Hvaldimir of Oceanographic Magazine
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