Little Compass Rose Caribbean Compass June 1998


The Dolphins of Man O' War Bay

by David Rooks

Charles, my friend from childhood, owns some land at Man O' War Bay, Charlotteville, Tobago. Man O' War Bay is an old fishing town at the far eastern end of the island in Tobago parlance, "behind God's back."

A community social event which takes place every morning is the putting out of the large beach seine net and pulling it back in to catch any fish in the bay.
A high percentage of the villagers get involved, some helping pull the seine, some there to get supplies of fish or bait, some there just for the social event. Talking and shouting continues incessantly. The men at the net discuss the topics of the day, such as who is sleeping with whom and whether he is capable of handling the situation. What is the latest cricket score, who is making a pass at who and what was her response? All the village gossip, jokes, local news, world news, sports, tease, everything is heard at the pulling of the seine and they may even catch fish.

One such morning Charles was having a stroll on the beach. It was a typical tranquil morning, bright sunshine, blue sea, green trees softening the light. Walking on the beach under the shade of the overhanging trees was deliciously cool, soporific. Sounds of fishermen shouting to each other wafted across the bay. It was magnificent enough to make God think that he had done a good job.
Suddenly a thunderous roar, shaking the tranquillity with a start, went up from the men pulling the seine. Charles ran nearer to see what all this excitement was about. To his horror he saw six dolphins bobbing inside the net.

Now, there was no law against catching dolphins, and as far as the fishermen were concerned this was legitimate catch, their good fortune for the day. Today they had really made it, they would make some good money and everybody would eat dolphin. Great anxiety and excitement at the scene. One would have to be a brave heart to interfere with their unanimous exuberant happiness.

Charles looked on in frozen horror. The fishermen were wielding razor-sharp machetes with which to kill the dolphins.

The excitement grew, adrenaline was pumping, people were running towards the net, shouting from all directions. The fishermen screamed instructions at each other. Planning how they will cook the meat and what they will do with the money. One says, "Ah goh spread some joy tonight; me girl go give me good." Great expectations.

In this tinderbox situation Charles wondered to himself how he could save the innocent, intelligent dolphins. He ran and got his diving mask and swam out to the outside edge of the net. He wasn't sure what he should do. For want of something better, he whistled and called to the dolphins, telling them, "Come to me, I will save you, come quickly."

To Charles' absolute shock, one of the dolphins came over to the net and lay against it, in front of his face. He reached over and gently stroked it and it felt calm as though this is what it expected. Charles then reached over, put his hands under the animal's belly, rolled himself backwards and brought the dolphin with him.

It was now outside the net.

The crowd pulling the net had been staring intently at this surprising activity. As soon as it was obvious that the rescue had succeeded there was an uproar from the beach. Dire threats were aimed at Charles, whom they all knew very well.
The rescued dolphin did not leave. It now snuggled close to its savior and chattered away in perfect dolphinese. Charles talked back in English, saying "All that thanks is gratifying, but it is wasting precious time; this will not save the rest of your family. Call them, tell them to come immediately so that they too may be rescued!" The dolphin turned and squeaked and clicked loudly to the others. They came and lined up in front of Charles. In succession they allowed Charles to roll them over the top of the net, one by one.

The threats from the beach were horrifying enough to have made Napoleon turn from the field of battle. But there were now two crowds developing. Word had spread by "coconut telegraph." One group was the fishermen and their cohorts. The other was a new group, urging Charles to continue his rescue.
Now there were five dolphins snuggled around Charles. He instructed them to get away from there fast, as the fishermen could still kill them, but they refused to leave. They kept chattering to him and diving down to his feet. He figured they were trying to tell him something.

Charles put back on his diving mask and dived with them. There he saw a sixth dolphin entangled and drowning in the net. He went to the surface, hyperventilated, then dove to the entangled creature. One by one he unhooked each tooth and fin from the mesh and out of the deep gash on its forehead. When this was accomplished they together shot to surface, gasping for air. The dolphin was in a state of hysteria and swam in circles in the now diminishing confines of the net. Everyone was screaming from all sides.

Charles, too, was screaming at the other dolphins to calm the remaining captive down and make it come to him. After what seemed an unacceptable eternity, in reality a matter of seconds, the dolphin lay in the net opposite Charles. He reached over and touched the animal. This alien touch was too much for its paranoid state. Its entire body made a violent tremble and it exploded away, torpedoed into the net and was entrapped again.

By this time the fishermen were sure they were getting at least one dolphin. A cheer of relief and happiness went up from them, and from the opposition team a sigh of regret. Charles dived again to his new charge and once more repeated the excruciating release. Charles was exhausted. By now the net was ominously close to the fishermen, who were pulling it with all their tired bodies could give. The five rescued creatures, understanding the dire nature of the circumstances only too well, clicked and squeaked at their ensnared sibling who obeyed and came to their rescuer and finally allowed itself to be rolled out of the net, at which point it sank to the bottom like a stone. Two others dived and locked their pectoral fins under those of the casualty and lifted it to the surface so that it could breathe.
By this time, they were almost on the beach. Fishermen brandishing machetes were rapidly wading to them. Charles yelled at the dolphins to follow him. Amazingly they did. They swam away from the beach with the Pied Piper in the lead. When their human leader could go no more, he instructed them to continue to open sea. He turned and swam to the beach. Luckily for him, his cheering crowd was now equal in size to that of the fishermen.

His group took him to a nearby shop for a rewarding drink. While they were recounting the extraordinary experience, they heard an exultant shout from the direction of the beach. They ran out to see what this commotion was all about, only to see that the dolphins had returned close to the beach because they appeared to be having difficulty carrying their injured companion. The fishermen had loaded the net into their boats and were attempting to drop it in a circle around the animals.

Charles hurriedly had his friends assist him in launching his rowing skiff and went after the dolphins. They came to his boat in a heart-stopping display of trust. He told them they had to get out of there or they would be killed. They followed him for their lives. This they did willingly, and he rowed past the net and kept going far out to sea.

He then admonished the beautiful creatures never to come back into that bay because, as much as he would miss them, there were other humans there who saw them as food for the cooking pot.

[Editor's note: The Compass often finds itself at the point where cultures collide. It would be interesting to hear an account of this incident from the viewpoint of one of the villagers.]
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