They look like they are smiling. I’m sure I’m anthropomorphising, helped by the shape of their mouth and eyes, but the smiling goes well with the rest of their behaviour. Laughing would go even better.

I am on a ferry, from a coastal island back to the mainland. The sun is out, the water is a clear green-blue, the waves are merry. On the way out I’ve already seen a few dolphins and been amazed by what their beautiful bodies can achieve in the water. And the ferry crew clearly know the game to play as well– they slow down in the area where they know the animals are and we enjoy for a little while the show put on by about four to six dolphins, and then as they ferry prepares to move on, the dolphins actually swim with the boat for a few minutes, going at a good 10 miles an hour, a bit like dogs chasing after cars, only many times more charming.

We again see a handful of dolphins on the return. Those are bottlenose dolphins, we are told, and appear a bit bigger, and are apparently seen less often than the common dolphins seen on the way out. (Wikipedia puts this in doubt, but oh what the hell.) The same games are played again, the animals are amazing once again. At the end I subconsciously assume that we are done with the dolphins.

How wrong I am. When they announce some 25 minutes later that there are more dolphins to be seen, I dutifully stand on the bow again, happily looking forward to more of the same. Reality is far more spectacular though. There are at least thirty dolphins to be seen in a glance. Literally and figuratively, it is a whole other order of magnitude, and my eyes are scrambling to take it all in.

There is no way one can track the activities of them all at the same time. But there are oohs and wows from my mouth every few seconds. The biggest ones are for when I see three or more leap out of the water together, all following a gentle curve that matches the curves of their snouts perfectly. Sometimes the acrobatic trio is even nicely lined up in a diagonal, as if to maximise dramatic effect. They must have learned that one from our synchronised swimmers, I feel certain.

Then there is the whooshing sound and the little spout of water out of the nose, or blowhole on top of their heads when they come up to breathe. I think of my old science textbooks, of course — dolphins are mammals, they can’t breathe in water, and have to come to the surface to breathe, like normal people. It feels funny to see all this up close. As always, I feel reassured that the science textbooks weren’t lying. (My internal jury is still out on radioactivity and the moon landing though.)

I wonder if the leaping and the breathing are synchronised, and they sometimes seem to be. I can imagine the dolphin saying to itself, “I have to go on up to breathe anyway, might as well do a nice leap while I am at it. These humans seem to be tickled by it as well.” It’s a bit like a jazz or Indian musician: “I have to go over those notes anyway, might as well riff on it a bit or throw in some ornamentation.”

That dolphins are intelligent seems obvious now, there is so much playfulness and interactivity about them that they couldn’t possibly not be. I am also reminded of toddler antics. Just as (little) humans play or show off to get a reaction, or to make people laugh, the dolphins seem to be trying to play with us. A tiny part of me is tempted to jump right in and hang out with the cool folks, but that is about as far as it goes. As the ferry starts to speed up again, once more the dolphins give chase, their sleek bodies producing great speed with apparently no muscular effort. A smooth glide is the last I see of their grey-white shapes.


A friend showed me some cat photos once, or maybe it was cat videos. I think it was some cat meme, and he was perhaps surprised that I did not know about it already. When I said that knowing it would not have improved the quality of my life a whole lot, the question was raised whether anything did. It sounds like a cynical question in retrospect, but equally, the first answer that came to my mind was a cliched and drippy one. I’m good at cliched and drippy. So good, in fact that I resisted answering for a while, but finally couldn’t help myself. I said that knowing some nice poem or song can improve the quality of life. (I -said- it was cliched and drippy.)

I’d like to officially nominate the seeing of thirty plus dolphins out in the ocean on a beautiful day to the list of things that improve the quality of life. It is good to have seen them, it is good to know that they exist. If I had to wax lyrical and come over all Wordsworthian (which I don’t, but I will), it is basically what Bill writes about in Daffodils. It is interesting how one can replace daffodils with dolphins and much of the poem still works literally. But the killer last several lines are what matter, of course. And just as the daffodils filled Bill’s heart with songs, so the dolphins did for me.

They looked like they were smiling.