Everyone knows that dolphins are the most clever and friendly creatures on the planet; how they glide through the oceans spreading peace and harmony wherever they go: but tell that to the fish.
Every dolphin has a face that a human recognizes as smiling. They are the opposite of the poor dog with no tail who always has to fight because he can´t make friends. But not every smiling dolphin face is happy.
Morton was a young bottlenose dolphin who never seemed to be cheerful, although she did not have anything specific to be miserable about. The other dolphins in her pod thought that she was moody. Morton would say that she just had a lot on her mind, except that she wouldn´t actually say it because dolphins don´t have language as such, but they can explain to each other perfectly even quite complicated ideas, like why I just need to be left alone for a while, with sounds and signs.
Morton liked the other dolphins well enough. They were all females and little ones. The grown up males joined the pod only once a year and, since Morton was still only seven years old and not quite grown up, she thought of them as being completely stupid. They spent all year out at sea on their own, playing, and when they did show up they were always fighting all the time and banging heads, getting in the way of hunting and generally causing a disturbance.
Even worse than the stupid males were the scavengers. Though they thought that Morton was too proud, the whole pod looked down their snouts at them. The scavengers were cousins who shared the bay with them; bottlenoses who had forgotten the way of Tursiops and lost their dolphin pride. It was said that they hardly remembered how to catch their own fish any more. They were worse than bottom feeders: they lived on what men threw away from their fishing boats, staying close to the giant nets that would kill you if you became caught up in them, waiting for the humans to throw away all the dead fish they had killed and didn´t even need.
Tursiops was the Great Ancestor. It was from her that the dolphins had the Rule, which was always to share the knowledge of what it was to be a dolphin. Every dolphin learned when she was very young all of the wisdom of the pod, passed on through generations of dolphins, right back to great Tursiops herself. And because it was important to be curious and find out new things about their world, every dolphin who discovered something new must share with the rest of their pod.
The scavengers had discovered something new, but it had nothing to do with the way of Tursiops. It was true, Morton could remember, that when she was very young there had not been enough food for all the dolphins in the bay and that had been a bad time; but they all knew that the cause of it had been the men who were taking all the fish for themselves. Just a few men in their big boats and they took so much fish. More than they could eat in their whole lives. Who could know what they wanted so much for?
It was wrong to pretend to be friends with a species that took all your food, even if you were hungry. And anyway if you turned away from the Rule so far that you didn´t even catch your own fish, one day you would wake up (because dolphins like to sleep, except they automatically come to the surface to breathe while they are doing it, like sleepwalkers) and find that you were no longer a dolphin at all.
The scavengers were like that, at least Morton´s pod believed so. They had become fat and lazy only following the fishing boats and eating what came over the side. Fast food they called it; but the dead fish didn´t have all the goodness that dolphins needed and swimming behind the fishermen so long, the scavengers absorbed diesel and other poisons that leaked into the water from their giant boats. The scavengers were unhealthy, sad creatures compared to the dolphins of Morton´s own pod.
The rest of her group just accepted that the scavengers were dolphins who had gone bad. They shook their snouts and clicked sad noises when the subject came up in conversation, then they went back to surfing the breakers or seeing who could jump furthest out of the water. Morton was different because she spent so much time thinking about problems like the scavengers and all the things that were wrong in the dolphin world generally. That was why she needed to spend time on her own to think.
Most of the problems seemed to have something to do with the humans. All the dolphins she knew liked humans. It was so interesting that they were always inventing new things to do, especially closer to the shore which was the best place to watch them. They managed to find pieces of wood that were the exact shape and size to help them skim across the tops of the waves, despite their weak, oddly shaped bodies being practically useless in the water. Even without the planks of wood, they had invented ways to propel themselves through the water, almost as if they had learned to swim. It was funny to watch but a little bit pathetic as well. Morton liked humans too, although she wasn´t sure about the ones on the trawlers, but still she felt that somehow all the dolphins’ problems were linked to them.
The most important discovery about humans had been made many generations of dolphins earlier, that they were separate from their inventions. A boat was not a single creature with its own brain and some spindly organisms with arms and legs attached to its upper surface; it was a group of men riding across the sea on one of their inventions. This discovery made everyone believe that the humans must be very intelligent, perhaps as intelligent as, say a sperm whale, though obviously nothing like so clever as a dolphin. But the second important discovery was that even if humans were intelligent, they were completely stupid as well, so you couldn´t blame them for anything any more than you could blame a one day old calf for not knowing how to catch fish.
For example, in the bay the humans had some really powerful boats that could travel fast even by dolphin standards. They only used them to go up and down the shoreline with as much speed as they could manage. Lately they had started to attach sails to these boats which enabled the humans in the boat to pull a human holding the sail so fast that they flew in the air. It was a clever invention that dolphins could appreciate. They loved to swim fast through the waves that broke up and down the beach, diving under and over them; and they enjoyed the sensation of flying through the air like a seabird when they made their giant leaps out of the water.
The problem was that the humans didn´t have a way for their fast boats to avoid everyone else who was in the water, and anything that got in the way of their fast turning propellers was churned up into mush. Only a week before, they had lost old Schumple.
Schumple had been the oldest and slowest turtle in the bay. He was respected by all the dolphins because he was supposed to be wise, on account of his eighty years of age. There was no way to test this because turtles and dolphins didn´t speak to each other. Morton became impatient with turtles because they took so long over doing anything; and she suspected that maybe they were not wise at all, but only old and very slow. Even so she was sad when she heard that Schumple had not pulled his body into his shell quickly enough when the speedboat went past and his head had been turned into mush. His poor dead body drifted in on the tide and lay on the beach where some of the humans spent a long time looking at it in a sad way.
Morton was drifting by herself, thinking about this problem, after finishing off a hunt and a good feed with the pod. They always enjoyed corralling a school of fish: it was fast and exciting and everyone had to join in. You swam round and round them not letting them escape, so that the stupid fish crowded together in panic. Gradually you drew the circle smaller so that the fish were all squeezed into a tiny space and then you took turns to drive through the middle of them and catch a few. It was delicious; like diving into food. Perhaps she had eaten a few too many fish though and now she was feeling a little sleepy.
Suddenly she became aware that there was danger approaching. There was a clicking in the lower part of her snout.
Dolphins can see just as well as humans out of water and much better in the water because they have two sets of eyelids and each one works to let in just enough light, depending where they are; but at long distances under water no-one can see very much, so they use sound radar. They send out clicks that bounce off whatever object is in the water and come back to them. When the sound comes back they send out another click and in this way their brains are able to build a picture of everything around that is just as clear as what the eye would see on land. They feel the clicks through their lower jaw in the same way as a human might feel that a very loud sound was setting their teeth on edge.
The clicking that was coming back to Morton now, and the shape it was making in her brain, told her that she´d been stupid to ignore the rule of Tursiops that said that dolphins should stick together after a big meal. It would be hard for her to swim fast just now, but she needed to do it, because a tiger shark was coming towards her, drawn by all the fish blood in the water and the taste of feeding. And the clicks were coming faster now, which meant that an object was getting closer.
Morton knew that the tiger sharks were always fierce and always hungry. Dolphins had always hated sharks and if the pod was together one would not be a problem. Some of them would confuse it by swimming around and close to it while others would ram it with their hard snouts. Because the dolphins could see under skin with their sound radar, they knew exactly where to hit a shark or any other enemy to cause the most hurt and after a few minutes the shark would be driven off or dead. But one dolphin alone attacked by a tiger shark was likely to end as shark meat.
Morton quickly judged how fast the shark was moving and knew that with the fish inside her belly she could never outswim it. Her only advantage was that she knew exactly where the shark was but he was relying on smell and couldn´t see her yet. The only thing to do was to dive to the bottom and find somewhere to hide. The problem was that she had not surfaced for a while to breathe and she didn´t know how long the shark would stay around or how long she would be able to hold her breath.
She pointed her nose to the bottom and made her dive. There were some rocks down there with a little overhang that made a dark shadow. It was not quite a cave but it would have to do. She settled as far into the space as possible and made herself very still.
When the shark arrived, it was confused. It had smelled a large and tasty meal in the waters ahead, but the trace seemed to have disappeared. A shark can sense food from a long way off, but because the water was full of the traces of panicking fish and leftovers and because Morton was keeping very still, she had a chance.
But the shark knew, more or less, where the trail ended and it prowled around the area, flicking its powerful tail angrily. As the minutes went by, the supply of air in Morton´s lungs began to turn bad and she had a feeling that felt like burning inside her. She remained silent and still, but if she didn´t get to the surface soon, the lack of oxygen would kill her as surely as the tiger.
Finally the disappointed predator was ready to admit defeat. There were still plenty of half-chewed fish to hoover up and the remains of the school of fish were still not organized. The shark knew that it would have to compete with other hunters for these morsels, so it could not afford to hang around even if a whole dolphin would have made a much more satisfying meal.
From her hiding place, Morton watched the shark go. It was safe to leave, but now she was too weak. Her muscles would not move as she wanted them to and the world was turning black. She only hoped that this kind of death would be just like going to sleep.
A lone male dolphin cruised around the edges of the bay. He and his friends didn´t belong to a pod at the moment. Sometimes they hung out together but they were solitary a lot of the time. He knew that there had been a pod hunting together in this area recently and he had decided to check it out. A single dolphin couldn´t corral fish so you had to be prepared to take whatever you could get. He wasn´t exactly hungry because he got all his meals easily off the back of fishing boats, but there might be some tasty tidbits left around and you never knew what you might see. He had an enquiring nature, like all dolphins.
He sounded a tiger shark that was circling around in the distance, but he didn´t think of that as a problem. If you had your wits about you, the shark would always be one step behind and anyway he thought that he had a pretty good turn of speed if he needed it. He waited till the shark moved off and then decided to investigate what had interested it.
He found the female dolphin floating on the underside of a rock that was preventing her body rising to the surface. Like him she was not quite fully grown; younger than him in fact. She would not have been any match for the tiger shark. He nudged her clear of the rocks and she began to float a little higher, but there was no sign of life and he thought she might sink to the bottom again.
He got underneath and started to swim in a tight spiral under her, pushing her gently to the surface, knowing it was probably too late. The work was hard and he was likely wasting his time, but he kept at it. When they reached the surface he checked that the blowhole on her back was out of the water and then he thought that he could do no more.
The limp dolphin floated on the water but there seemed to be no life in her. He nudged her gently a few times and hear a few spluttering breaths come from the blowhole. It wasn´t much, but he thought that maybe if he could get underneath and give her belly a squeeze by lifting her up out of the water, perhaps that would get some more air into her lungs. He tried it once and as she sank back down there was another spluttering breath, so he tried again.
Now she was breathing but still not fully conscious. There was nothing to do but stay with her and see what happened.
He said his name was Morgan, which was a stupid name and nothing at all like Morton, but Morton was too polite to say so. When she awoke and found that instead of being dead she was floating in the shallows of the bay with another dolphin at her side, her first thought had been to be grateful. Then she realized who had saved her life. It was bad enough that he was a he, but dolphins recognize each other instantly so Morton knew straight away that this one was a scavenger.
Her first instinct was to swim away as quickly as possible, but well bred proper dolphins value courtesy and it was only manners to have something of a conversation before getting out into the clean water as quickly as possible and never thinking of him again.
She asked him what he did. Morgan said that mostly he just hung around. He supposed that she knew that even though he was older than her, male dolphins matured later (Obviously, she commented) and so it would be a few years before he could start to think about mating. He would have to learn to fight first and he guessed he would be okay at that even though he was on the small side.
Morton forbade him from making any further reference to mating while in her presence. He was embarrassed and to change the subject asked if she was hungry after her ordeal. He said that he knew a jetty nearby where there were usually some humans ready to feed a dolphin. Morton was too disgusted not to show it.
She asked him how he could bring himself to eat leavings and waste. She said it was horrible that his people followed the fishing boats for days, bathing in the poisons from the engines and if they were not killed by the nets their reward was old dead fish that no-one else wanted, with all the goodness bled out of it.
Well, my people don´t have a choice, because your people have always been better at fishing, and these days there isn´t enough fish for both, he replied.
Morton felt that she had gone too far. After that she was as nice as she could be, without becoming too familiar. She even went with him to his jetty though she waited offshore while he picked up his scraps. When it was close to dusk she told him that she had to be leaving; she´d be missed. He said he understood but he seemed sorry to see her go. She thanked him once more for saving her life, and headed back to the open sea.
As Morton got older, it became obvious that the characteristics that had made her unfriendly and unpopular were also her strengths. She needed to be on her own so much because she thought a lot and that was because she was the smartest of all of them. Unlike humans, dolphins are more interested in ability than politics; and so not long after she became an adult, Morton found herself leading her own little pod.
It was a good time for the dolphins. The humans had stopped coming in their big boats to fish the bay. Some thought it was because they had found better places to steal the fish; others said that the humans were not stupid and must have realized the damage they were doing. Either way the water was cleaner and food was more plentiful.
Morton was a good leader of her pod. Many young were born and weaned and they were all being schooled properly in the ways of Tursiops. But still she had never mated.
When the season came, the males arrived and began their usual tedious behavior, disrupting everyone and showing off their aggression. Morton found it all so boring. Soon it was time for the head butting and bad tempered clicking. The Rule was that only the winners were allowed to mate.
This year though, there was something unusual. Among the males were some strangers. They were smaller and not so well fed as the dolphins of her own kind. They looked hungry and they carried more scars from meetings with the dangers of the sea. Only one of them seemed prepared to challenge the bigger males while his more cautious cousins looked on. This was one of the smallest, no bigger than Morton herself, but it seemed that what he lacked in size he made up for in aggression.
The established males resented the newcomer, but they knew that it was not worth risking a serious injury in these battles. There were no doctors in the ocean. The aggressive male seemed not to care what happened to him. He was determined to win whatever the cost and the others saw it and left the victory to him.
He swam proudly up to Morton who was the lead female. Hello again, he told her.
Of course, Morton had known that the stranger was Morgan from the first moment she saw him, and once she heard him clicking angrily at the others, it was confirmed. Every dolphin has their personal frequency of sound which to another dolphin is as individual as a human fingerprint is to a policeman. At first she had been angry that he´d dared to come, then she became nervous in case he injured himself with his reckless behavior. After that she started to be sure that he was going to win and then she became angry with herself for realizing that she wanted him to win.
I suppose you think you are quite brave, she told him. Come with me now, he asked. Morton made a sound that was the dolphin equivalent of a sigh.
They swam a little distance away from the pod.
If you think you have earned the right to talk to me about mating now, you have to learn that there is more to it than fighting, Morton clicked. Come with me first, he responded.
He took her to a part of the bay that she never visited. It took only a few minutes to get there because dolphins are such fast swimmers. In a place where the current was gentle, she found a selection of the sorriest looking dolphins she had ever seen.
What happened to them? she asked.
Morgan explained that these were his people; the dolphins that she liked to call scavengers. After the fishing boats of the men had stopped visiting the bay there were more fish, but the poor scavengers had forgotten how to hunt for them properly. They managed to catch a few and there were still the jetties where the humans would throw food for them, but it wasn´t enough and they were starving in the middle of all the food that was swimming past their noses.
They need to be shown; to learn how to become dolphins again, he begged her. Will you help?
Morton considered this for a moment. Her own pod had more than enough food these days and there was plenty to go round. It was true that the prospect of being in water that was close to these unfortunate creatures made her shudder and the rest of her pod would certainly not be happy about it. She would have a lot of explaining to do. On the other hand, they were the same species and it was the Rule of Tersiops that they should share their knowledge.
She looked again at the sad little group and she was easily able to pick out the female who was in charge. She sent a few clicks to this one and the reply came back, yes we are all very hungry.
Of course we´ll help, she told Morgan. Get them ready to leave. I´ll be back in a minute. I just have to tell my lot a few things first.
And so the two dolphin colonies in the bay became one and lived happily in the water, which is how dolphins like to finish stories they tell their children.