Friday, July 30, 2010

Fish Stories

There is a pod of dolphins living in our marina. It took us months to see them; we thought (Mr Tabubil interjects: "Ahem - you thought. I had faith!") they were a tall story locals sprung on new arrivals in town. Then one autumn evening, we were on the jetty and there they were - three long gray backs sliding lazily through the water. And eventually we learned that if we wanted to see them we needed to go down to the shore in the evening, when the dolphins follow the boats in and bum fish from the sailors.
            These aren't my fish stories. Simon, the man who owns the tutoring business where I teach maths to highly-charged seventh graders, is a teacher by profession, and by vocation - a waterman. He has found his bliss here on the edge of the gulf, tutoring in the evenings to pay for boat fuel, and spending his days on the water.
            And he knows the dolphins. "The mums and the babies follow the boats in every evening. " Simon told me. "Right now the pod is made up of two mums- and their babies, and one male that comes and keeps his eye on them from time to time. The babies - there's a new little one there now, and an older one - he - or she - is almost a year and a half old. Almost time for Mum to kick him out."
            Simon feeds them from his boat out in the open water. " I don't mess about with them, like the other fishermen do - holding the fish up really high and making them jump for it. That's just not - it's not courteous. And the dolphins like me for that. We have a good relationship- there's respect between us. When Mum has a baby, she leaves the marina and has it out in the gulf, but once the baby's born, she brings it back in with her. All the ladies help to raise the baby - there's always an auntie around looking out for Mum and the new one until it's old enough to keep an eye on itself. This new little one, the one that's there now - when it was born I was out on the water in my boat and I saw them, the mum and the auntie and the new one, coming up to my boat. Auntie took the baby between her nose and her tail and she brought the baby up to me. It was so new it still had creases all down its side from where it was all curled up inside of its mum." Simon looked at me, his face quiet and shining. "What you think of that?
            There are little pods of dolphins all up and down the coast. There's one pod in our marina, and there's another just a few miles east down by the lighthouse and another pod just past that- all the way up the gulf. Every year, the dolphins have a big party for themselves out in the middle of the gulf. In open water - nobody in particular's territory. When they're having a party, they display for each other - they jump and they jump - all day - ten feet out of the water! Not ten feet - thirty feet! You'd never see them jump like this at Sea World. They're not doing it for us.
            Last year in November, they met for two days. I was lucky enough to see that. I missed the year before, but I saw the year before that - and the one four years ago. The one thing I wondered about - how do they all know to get together at the right time? They've got no telephones. Or email. Do they swim laps? Send runners up and down the coast from pod to pod? Do dolphins use sonar?
I had no idea - and then last year I met an engineer from the American navy - he was up here learning about the dolphins and he told me that when they talk, they click. The clicking is very loud and, depending on all of the different currents and thermal layers in the water, the sound can travel for miles.
            So that's how they do it. They wait for just the right conditions, and then they send invitations all the way to the ends of the gulf and back so that everyone knows when to come."
            Simon talks to sharks as well. Specifically, he talks to one particular shark - a white pointer "as long as the boat - seventeen feet - and half as wide. She must weigh three times as much - she could capsize me in a minute if she wanted to. But she doesn't. She'd rather talk to me. She only approaches me when I'm alone. She stands about thirty meters off from the boat and slaps her tail in the water to let me know she's coming. Then she comes up and she rubs against the boat - like a cat, and I lean over the gunwales and I talk to her. And she looks up at me and listens. For three years, I didn't tell anyone about it. I didn't want anyone to come out after her."
            Simon is a snapper fisherman. He sets his lines, and when the fish bite he reels 'em in and "Snap! Gone! The shark's taken it - right off the line. But she's polite. She'll take one, then she'll let me have the next one. She takes one and I take one and she takes one -She never takes more than half, and when she's had about nine fish and I've had about eight- that's it. She's done. And she goes.
            I thought they caught her last year, but the pointer they caught was a meter and a half too small. Now every time I hear about a shark being caught I go and look, but it's never my shark. I only ever told people about her when I heard that they were starting to go after the big white pointers. I hope they never catch her."
            "About a year and a half ago" I said "The South Australian Museum had an exhibition on shark hunting in Melanesia. There was a video about a shark caller. He was an old man; he'd been doing it all his life, and had a relationship with one particular shark. There was a video - he went out with a boatload of marine biologists and reporters, and called the shark, but nothing showed up. They went out a second time and nothing happened and the scientists left. There was one reporter who didn't intend to give up and when the old man went out in the boat with just her alongside him, this time the shark came up to them. Maybe the shark wasn't interested in coming near a boat full of people. Anyway, the old man leaned down to the water and spoke to the shark, very quietly, and the shark turned and swam away. The reporter asked what he had said. The man said "I told him to go away and never come back. If you come back, they'll kill you." The shark never came back.
            Simon nodded solemnly. "I don't know if I could do that." He said. "I talk to her, but I don’t know what she hears when I talk. Maybe it's just my voice she likes. Did you know that dolphins love kids? When adults go swimming in the marina, dolphins will come up to them - but they'll keep themselves at a bit of a distance - at arms length. But, if you have a child in your arms, the dolphins will come right up to you - twelve inches - even less! But you have to be holding a child. If it's a small adult in their arms, and people have tried, the dolphins know the difference. And I have only, in all my years on this water, ever seen on exception.
            When I first started out fishing, I knew how to fish- I mean, whiting and flathead and mullet - but I was lousy with snapper. Just didn't know how to find them, or get them when I found them. So I went and found a man who had been a professional line fisherman all his life andI asked him to take me out and teach me. We fished together for seven years, and now I'm not allowed to enter the annual snapper competition anymore. They say that because I learned how to fish from a professional - it's cheating. I told them that I've never sold a single fish I ever caught, but now there's a rule that says that I can't enter the competition because I run my own charter company. It's all silliness really - the chairman of the competition has his own charter company - half the fishermen out of this marina run charters if they can! He's just jealous. That's all it is. He doesn't know how to get the big fish - and I do. Now I take my grand-kids out, and they're the first names on the list when enrollment opens! I only take them out for small snapper, but I'm teaching them every thing I know and pretty soon they'll be going after the big fish and then that man can watch out!
            The man who taught me how to fish for snapper, Michael is his name - he has a very good relationship wit the dolphins, and he always fed them very low down. That's how I learned not to make them jump - to show good manners. He was the most polite man you ever met. Two years ago he broke his back. He was hosing down his boat one afternoon and the door of the boat fell on him. He's all right - he made a full recovery. He spent three months in rehab, then came home and as soon as he could stand up again I brought him down to the marina with all of my grand-kids. He'd been away from the water for almost six months and he was missing it. He was missing it badly. We went out onto the water and because it was my boat a dolphin came up to the boat. Everyone fed her; first the grand-kids, then their parents, then I gave a fish to Michael, and when he held his fish out over the water, the dolphin ignored it. She came right up to the edge of the boat and she reached out of the water and touched her nose to his. Every other fish we offered her she took. But not this one. She touched his nose instead. She'd missed him - and she wanted to know where he'd been. "

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