Swimming with The Porpoises
One day in the Arabian Sea, we came very close to the porpoises. The wind had died to the merest zephyr and we were two weeks out from India and still a week or two away from the entrance to the Red Sea. We were hot and dirty and tired and the sea had suddenly turned from a leaping, pounding adversary to the quietest and warmest and most welcoming of bathtubs. So off came our clothes and into the beckoning sea we went.
We were able to look down towards a thousand fathoms of blue water beneath us. The sun, high in the sky, traced converging tracks of crystalline light pointing to some unmeasurable depth. We were drunk with the freedom, intoxicated with our lack of fear. We were returning to the warm, amniotic bath of the childhood of our species.
It was in this bemused state that the porpoises found us, outlanders in their land, visitors never seen except in their fantasies. We were, finally with them, not peering blindly at them through a curtain of air, but there, alive, bathed in the same water that flowed across their flanks.
Porpoise are not incautious. Rash mammals do not get to be so numerous nor so ubiquitous as porpoises by forgetting that discretion is the better part of fishy valor. So they reconoitered us. One lone scout circled, a bit closer each time and each time rolling up as he, or perhaps she, passed to let an eye sweep the length of us. After five minutes of careful observation some dolphinic headquarters sent in two more to give us the same going over. This time closer with the big, round and sentient eyes yearning for us to be OK, to be playmates.
And then, suddenly, someone said that we were OK and the sea around us boiled with the joy of communion. Were we a Messiah that they had been promised? Were we the answer to their loneliness? Were we the strange children who would swim and play with them in their world?
What ever we were or what ever they thought we were, I have never felt so welcome, so much pleasure in my presence, so much joy in the sharing of life as in their aqueous world that day. They did everything they could to please us and the smiles (which some unfeeling cynics claim are an accident of physiognomy) on their clowny faces lit up the sea and flooded our hearts.
My pleasure in being with these great beasts in their own world had much to do with a pervasive cosmic loneliness, a need for some other specie with which to intercourse. Any other specie would do, any other being, any stranger who could help me avoid the stale cheese of humankind, to give me assurance that I am more than a stochastic event.
The evidence has long been in that man, in his present configuration, would prefer to talk to any specie other than his own. It is as if, driven by the millenium old Babble-onian imperative, we avoid by disinterest and obfuscation, the conversations of our off specie brothers, as they, in their turn avoid ours.
Time was, in the days after the Tower, when we obeyed His exhortation that easy communication among peoples led to hubris, and was thus bad for His children. We accepted the many tongues of man He imposed on us as one more way by which He sought to remind us of our mortality, one more device by which He enforced His hegemony. But those were the days when we believed in Him and accepted, more or less unquestioningly, His right to rule and direct us.
The present fiction, as compared with the fiction of the past that God was alive, is that God is dead. When God died He seems to have left a will stating that, although He was no longer with us, we still had to carry some of His baggage about with us. The particular portmanteau with which we are still burdened is that He did not quite complete his job. Since He invented us (or we Him) we had always expected that He would, in the vastness of His universes, find us some other kids to play with. Absent other kids, He had always been our company and our playmate. Now that He has gone the way of the DoDo, there is growing a disquieting suspicion that we buried Him a mite too soon.
Hence my pleasure in the porpoises and my feeling that they might well be His last bequest, a kind of cousin to keep us company, some being to help us whistle in the endless, primordial dark. And since His ways were always mysterious to the extreme, the playmate he left us is shrouded in almost as much mystery as He Himself was. It would have been much too simple to arrange for a playmate we could speak to directly, or at least one on this side of the watery curtain. But no, the cousin had to be pelagic and His gift mute and baroque.
Not knowing, or much caring, about the scientific studies that have been mounted to prove the sentience of porpoises (or the opposite), I still allow myself the luxury of my uninformed but powerfully held opinion that porpoises are intelligent, verbal, capable of love and affection and, if they felt like it, could write Henry the Fifth (both parts). The key words here are "if they felt like it", for it is within the scope of my belief that they do not do so because they do not feel like doing so. A marine biologist, with more humility than most, was recently asked why, if porpoises were so damned smart, they did not communicate with us. His answer was that they probably had better things to do with their time.
In the course of our sailing voyage around the world we had been visted almost daily by singles, pairs and schools of porpoise who delighted themselves, and delighted us, by playing across the front of the boat, weaving back and forth in a kind of russian roulette with our sharp and thrusty bow as it sliced through the seas. The danger to the porpoises was more apparant than real as it became evident that the power and agility and intelligence they displayed precluded any hurt to themselves. Roulette, of any kind, seemed beneath their enormous dignity. They were never in harms way, although it excited us to think that they were putting on this 'death defying act' just to please us.
It occurred to me that the porpoises, too, might have been promised 'cousins' to play with and were seeking us out to make some sort of close contact, even if it were only visual since we as yet have no way to translate the clicks and the squeaks and the squeals they use to communicate within their own species. Perhaps the porpoises have stale cheese too. Perhaps their curiosity about us is as itchy as is ours about them. However, as they have long since passed beyond technology and instrumentation, they now find, that absent a thumb, the watery curtain is hard to part. Is it not conceivable that they have waited patiently these million or so years for us to become aware of their minds and to create the machines needed to reach out to them?
I find that proposition eminently believable, if only because it assuages our terrible cosmic loneliness.
A small sailboat is the only route open to these beasts ("Beasts indeed"', I can hear them exclaim) by which they might relate directly to man. Small power boats are too noisy (and, I am sure, too icky) and the big freighters and ocean liners are more a part of our land than of their sea.
Since there are uncounted millions of porpoises, being a succesful and indestructable breed very much in charge of their world, and since there are only a handfull of sailing vessels tracking the great oceans, meeting a sailboat is, for a porpoise, a close encounter of a very rare kind. Each day and some nights, one or two would discover our boat and the news of the encounter would be squeaked and clicked into a billion cubic yards of sea and suddenly the water around us was alive with porpoise engaged in what can only be described as a traveling minstrel show, complete with blackface and clowns.
These encounters, in addition to being important to the porpoises, are welcomed by the sailor, either as a break from the routine of the passage or, I suspect in most cases, as a harbinger of good luck. I always get an irrational jolt of pleasurable connection when I see my first porpoise on a passage. Without a visit from those great mammals, so obviously in charge of the sea, I feel at the sea's mercy. After they appear I impute to them the ability to intercede between the ponderous and unthinking forces of nature on the one hand and my somewhat less than ponderous powers on the other. If they do not show on a passage, I feel a bit more naked, a bit less well equipped to deal with the thrust and parry of the sea.
At moments like this it is easy to sense the rush backwards into 5000 years of belief, to a time when all things were unknown and powers of objects animate and inanimate were sought for intercession. I suspect that system worked somewhat better, considering the frailty of human emotional material, than does its Judeo-Christian offspring. Making obeisance to a rock or a tree has a piquantly personal quality. It was your rock, it was your tree. They are and always will be my porpoises.
But we are so seperated from them. Language, geography, chemistry and pinquity intervene to make of our contacts mere passing glances. We barely touch on each other before we are turned away. Recently we have taken to placing porpoises in captivity in pools where they are fed and looked after. They respond to our requests for what must seem to them to be perfectly idiotic activities, much like the sort of aquiescence a doting grandfather will grant to a three year old who wants to ride on his back and hold onto his whiskers. The porpoises are clearly capable of so much more than the piddly little tricks they perform in return for the fish, otherwise absent from their pools, with which we reward them. I do not think that porpoises and people will ever be able to clutch at each others souls when one is restrained and captive and the other is masked and scuba-ed. We must biologically alter our breathing mechanism, gill ourselves if you will, and then we may enter into that other, enormous room of the porpoise.
And on that marvelous day when we swam with the porpoise in the Arabian sea, we were no longer seperated. We were no longer alone in His universes. We had found an intelligent playmate and sensed his unspoken wit and a promise of endless communion. We glimpsed a far off moment when our thumbs would make the machines that would allow our minds to flow together. There was no doubt left in me, no nagging suspician that human intelligence was an undesigned accident. One sentience could be stochastic, but not two.
The Good Lord may well have left this world to its own devices but He had, for that transcendent moment, kept His covenant of companionship. He had, indeed, sent us a cousin.
Should we ignore His gift, should we continue in the loneliness of our egocentricity to fail to grasp the offered flipper, then we very well may find that, on the last day of the world, in the midst of Armegeddon, all of the porpoises will have mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind, as a bard has said, only this parting message,
"So long Cousins and thanks for all the fish"