Several years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity of living on a very small tropical island for the space of 6 weeks. The island was a part of the Islas del Rosario just an hour outside of Cartagena, Colombia. I was hired as a teacher to a 6 year old boy, Martin, whose parents wanted him to be taught in English. On this very small island (it was only about a block square), the family had an outdoor aquarium. They made their living off of tourists who would travel there by boat to see and experience the wonders of the animals living in their very own tropical ocean. They had everything from turtles to a hammerhead shark (which I made a point of staying away from.)
They also had 7 dolphins and had worked very hard to put together a dolphin show comparative to SeaWorld in California. Almost every day, Martin and I would take a break when the tourists arrived. Martin (who in some ways reminded me of a young Tarzan) loved to run amongst the crowds of strangers and I could never get him to sit still when something interesting was happening. So we would take a thirty minute break and I would eventually end up on the dock watching the dolphin show with all the tourists. For some reason, I never got tired of watching them leap and swim and interact with the trainers.
I had never thought much about dolphins in my life, but now that I had a daily interaction with them, I was fascinated. Rosie was, by far, my favorite. She was a bottle-nosed dolphin with a gentle and fun sense of humor. She had been with the family for about 10 years. Often the trainers would let me feed her and they would teach me how to interact with her. Sometimes I would attempt some of the same tricks that the trainers did. One of the activities I learned was to lean forward and kiss her nose. While practicing this one day, she twice came up from the water; I kissed her nose and fed her the fish as a reward. The third time I leaned in to try it again and she spit water in my face! She then opened her mouth and started laughing at me. I laughed back as I wiped away the salt water.
One Sunday night, as the sun was beginning its descent, I was again to be found sitting on the dock with my feet swinging in the water. It was the quietest day of the week as there were no tourists and the workers often headed to the mainland for the weekend. I had made a good friend on the island and we sat side by side and talked about life in general. Rosie swam up underneath us so that our feet were literally petting her soft, smooth, gray skin. She would circle around over and over again. It was deeply relaxing and peaceful as time slowed down on this tiny rock in the middle of the ocean.
As the darkness descended, my favorite hymn came to my mind and I began to sing “Abide with me, tis eventide”. While I sang, I noticed that Rosie stopped, cocked her ear out of the water and listened to me. She stayed almost motionless until I was finished. She then turned and began to sing back to me. My friend and I sat and listened amazed as she sang back to us for a full minute or more. When she finished, we clapped. She smiled (yes, dolphins can smile) and swam away, almost as if she were embarrassed.
I wish, to this day, that I could have understood what her song meant. What did she hear in my song which made her respond? What was it about the medium of song that allowed animal and human to communicate? Whatever it was, for a brief time, the beauty of music allowed two different species to speak to one another and to share a friendship that went beyond words.