Illustration by Brett Affrunti
Shaded under the palm-frond roof of a tiki bar, one old boat guy asks the other two, “Did you hear the latest from Richard Branson—apologies, Sir Richard? His companies won’t sell tickets to SeaWorld or any park that keeps whales and dolphins in captivity.”
“Good for him,” says Boat Guy No. 2. “About time,” adds No. 3.
No. 3 wasn’t finished, however. After taking a long swig from his mug, he asks, “Did I ever tell you the story about my delivery to the Virgin Islands?”
Thus began a new round of the familiar Florida boaters’ pastime, “First Liar Doesn’t Stand a Chance.”
There were four of us on a 32-foot sloop. Even so, thank God we had an autopilot. We were somewhere north of Bermuda when one of us noticed something going on up at the bow. The captain, a young punk (but I guess we all were), sends that guy forward to have a look.
He gets up by the pulpit, and he hollers back, “It’s a whale, an effing whale!”
The rest of us scamper forward. We’re on autopilot, right? And there it is. There’s a whale riding our bow wake, like a dolphin but bigger and in the middle of the damn ocean. We’re looking at him, hardly believing it, when he rolls to the left and looks back at us with his big right eye. And he stays under the bow for about 20 minutes. Every so often, he swims off a hundred feet or so to blow, which is very polite of him because whale breath stinks.
He isn’t a big whale. We figure about 22 feet or so. We think he is a minke, which looks a lot like a small humpback. They don’t get much bigger than 30 feet, so we figure this is a young one. I read somewhere that they can swim faster than 20 mph, so keeping up with a 5½-knot boat is nothing.
I’m sure you’ve had plenty of dolphins on your bow. I always figured they liked it up forward because it felt good, with the water pushing against their backs, like jets in a hot tub. So why not the same for a whale?
But no matter how many times I tell the story, no one has come back with a whale of their own. Never forget it: That big eye looking up at me.
On cue, Boat Guy No. 1 speaks up. He takes his elbow off the table, which rocks and threatens to tip the bottles because no one has any damn matchbooks anymore for shims.
There’s a place in the Dominican Republic called Ocean World, a mini-version of SeaWorld, and Sir Richard doesn’t like that place either. I was anchored in Luperon and working the tourist cats in Puerto Plata around the time Ocean World was opening.
Just a few miles to the east of Luperon is a fabulous little day anchorage called Cambiaso, and next to Cambiaso is this tiny cove that rock cliffs overlook. I heard from my friends in the tourist industry that Ocean World had stretched a mesh enclosure across the entrance, and was keeping three young dolphins there while the water park was being finished.
It turns out that Ocean World, which was owned by a German billionaire, had bought the dolphins for $50,000 each from Cuba. Havana needed cash at the time and was engaged in a worldwide dolphin trafficking scheme. I forget where I read it, but by the time Ocean World was coming online, Cuba had sold more than a hundred dolphins, and the program was being run by none other than Che “the Beret” Guevara’s daughter.
Of course, I decided to go down to Cambiaso to have a look. Cambiaso was so isolated that you could hardly get there by road, even with the dirt bike I borrowed. I parked the bike and walked toward the little cove, and there they were—the army of the Dominican Republic. The place was cordoned off like Area 51. I guess they were worried about animal rights protesters.
So, I told the soldiers that I was all by myself, and I wanted to go see the dolphins.
“I am sorry, sir, you may not pass. No one may go further than this place.”
Meanwhile, a college-age woman wearing shorts and a white blouse sauntered right past us toward the cove.
“What about her?” I asked.
“She is the Cuban woman in charge,” a soldier said. “She may pass.”
Sometimes there’s a way around a police cordon, especially out in the country. As I was walking back to the bike, I saw a Dominican guy about my age who looked like a fisherman.
“Amigo,” I said, “the Army won’t let me look at the dolphins. Is there a way around the blockade?”
He said he thought there was, and I said I’d take care of him if he could get me to where I could have a good look.
We went to the shack where he lived with his family, and this fisherman came out with two fishing rods; one of them, he gave to me. “Let’s go,” he said. Turns out, there’s a path to a good fishing spot that the Army by law cannot block—something like aboriginal rights. And this fishing spot happens to be on a cliff overlooking the dolphin detention center. Rods in hand, we sauntered over and pretended to fish.
There they were: three dolphins fenced in, swimming in circles. Sad—that was going to be their life forever.
Then we heard the shout, a woman. The mighty Dominican Army couldn’t stop us, so they sent the fisherman’s mother. The jig was up, and at her insistence we retreated back down the path. I thanked my man and paid him $15 for his help.
What you need to know is that this cove faces north, so it has protection from the prevailing easterlies, but when a frontal system rolls down from the United States or there’s a far-off storm over the ocean, the waves will roll right down its throat. Apparently, according to my tourist industry friends, Ocean World was warned about this but didn’t listen.
One very fine day, that’s exactly what happened. The waves rolled in, completely submerging the fence, and all three $50,000 dolphins got inside the waves and swam over the fence and out of the cove, never to be seen again. They lived happily ever after. The end.
ROUND 3 AND MATCH
Boat Guy No. 2 had been pretty quiet until now. He signaled for another round, exuding beery confidence.
We were in Down East Maine one summer, sailing a course from the Fox Island Thoroughfare to Camden. We were in light air, drizzle and fog. And I had to have a pee. In those days, of course, we peed over the side if no one else was around. I hope that doesn’t shock you.
On my boat, the best place to pee from, at least if you were a guy, was the bow. The bowsprit was not really a sprit, you see; it was a platform made of Douglas fir that you could step out on. That’s what you did: You’d go out on the platform, hold onto the forestay with your right hand (if it were a port tack, which it was) and pee in front of the genoa in complete privacy, though it turned out not to be.
I’m standing there peeing away, happily staring off into the wet, when suddenly I am face-to-face, snout-to-snout with a dolphin—a big bottlenose. He had jumped straight up out of the water to the exact level of my face, inches away. I was never so surprised then or since. Today, I’d probably have a heart attack. Then, I just screamed, although I’m sure it would have been a sincere, manly scream, but nonetheless…
As I’m screaming, I am jumping back onto the foredeck. But I had left something behind, or forward, as it were. My shoes were still on the platform exactly where my feet had been. I rushed to retrieve them before they slid into Penobscot Bay.
If you doubt such a thing is possible, I would invite you to attend a pedestrian traffic fatality. The victim might be in the morgue, but his shoes are sometimes still on the pavement where he made his last stand. At least I got tossed out of my Top-Siders by a Flipper instead of a Ford. And it’s a good thing I was already peeing, or for sure I would have peed my shorts as well.
Actually, all these stories are true, and they all happened to me. “First liar doesn’t stand a chance” is a real thing as well. An old boss, a Florida native, introduced me to the game. It is played not just in Florida, but anywhere that combines sailors and alcohol.
However, some of the best stories about dolphins never happened to me; throughout history, the animals have saved sailors from drowning and sharks. Little Elian Gonzalez, for example, would not have survived long enough to become the center of an international custody battle were it not for a pod of dolphins that took turns keeping his head above water until rescuers arrived. His mother and the rest of the Cuban rafters all drowned.
Maybe Sir Richard is right. What do you think?