The Heart of What Matters by Elizabeth Eidlitz

Nothing ahead is man-made. Behind us, sailboat masts are matchsticks at the Key West wharf. The bow of our catamaran creates a windy monotone as it crosses turquoise ribbons on a sea of royal blue. Cumulus clouds hang low in a sky with frigate birds, and flying fish jump like skipping stones.
Six of us are making a journey in silence and bleached sunlight to swim in the Gulf of Mexico with wild bottlenose dolphins, to meet them on their terms. Unlike captive creatures in concrete pools, rewarded for paying tourists any kind of attention, free roaming dolphins are neither impeded nor enticed. Totally present in their chosen way of life --traveling, fishing, loving, playing, resting, and teaching each other --they may choose our company, or not.

Plutarch wrote, “to the dolphin alone nature has given that which the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage.” Those who have experienced changes in spiritual awareness among these creatures are convinced that dolphins consciously heal us, support our full awakening to who we are.

That is what I, too, wish to believe. But my skeptical left-brain won’t get out of the way. I diminish these limited Cetaceans: I dismiss Tursiops Truncatus, though a mammal, as merely a fish.

A triangle of fin breaks the surface ahead. Then another. Those brown patches are not seaweed. The captain counts twenty dolphins in this pod. Two of them lift off from ocean, sleek bodies glistening as they arch in air to dive in perfect mental, physical, and spiritual balance.

The boat slows, eases forward. Wind drops to soundless air. Now we can hear flat tail flukes spank water and Bronx cheers exhaled from blowholes on dolphin heads. They are all around us. We gather by a ladder in the stern, put on fins and snorkel gear, ready, at the captain’s signal, to enter their habitat respectfully.

I slide into water saltier than tears. The ocean, amniotic warm, a centered world of open sea and vast silence, is conducive to rebirth into a more natural way of life.

Why am I anxious? Frightened of surrendering to the moment, like a novice skydiver staring into open space, but clinging to the doorway of the plane? I look below. Between my submerged face and starfish on the sandy bottom twelve transparent feet away, swim a pair of dolphins.

I long to write about looking into the eyes of my first free dolphin, recognizing a fellow sentient being, feeling love, understanding and certainty that at some evolutionary stage our pathways have crossed.

I would like to describe their creaky door sounds as they spiral round me, the initial tingles and sensuous soothing of their high-pitched squeaks. But I never make eye contact with the dolphins. I neither hear nor sense their sonar clicks. They pass beneath me without looking. I stare at their legacy of empty space, my underwater heart telegraphing them to turn around, come back, and give me another chance. Please.

They are gone.

From the boat, ninety feet away, the captain’s hand is signaling that to engage them I should have dived, to indicate my wish to play.

There is lesson here:

This is not the first time I have forgotten to ask for what I want. Nor the first time I’ve resisted letting go of foolish inhibitions.

Tomorrow, we six travelers in a human pod will return to obsessions with past and future. But today, critical selves suspended, we are profoundly connected by what we’ve been shown: how to be in the moment.

Before I am drawn back to an existence where love is conditional, where it matters if my tee shirt is inside out, I want memory to fix images from this wilder, more authentic world, where dolphins, with flicks of flukes, permanent slight smiles, joyful leaps, intuitively choreographed, bring non-obligating gifts--inquisitiveness, joie de vivre, altruism and a sense of play.

On the way to the harbor, I feel yearning and envy once again. In a boat anchored just offshore, sails furled, an uninhibited man sits in the stern, his head thrown back, mouth open, and fingers on guitar strings.

Though wind mutes his words, he is singing to his companion--a tail wagging, chocolate colored Labrador--and I apprehend the body language of unselfconscious pleasure.


Elizabeth Eidlitz is a writer, teacher, and studio potter who lives in Concord, Massachusetts. She discovered that amazing and transformative travel is accessible close to home as well as foreign places, just as significant journeys are individually, not geographically defined. 

Judge's Comment: A dip into an 'amniotic warm' underwater realm in which dolphins reign: '...they may choose our company, or not.' But there is much more than that to this story of unconditional love: we are drawn into a mindful world in which we rediscover the value of 'unselfconscious pleasure'.

Photos from Key West Dolphin Encounters and Por el Planeta


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