The liveliest, the most distinguished, and the most eclectic of all the quarterlies published today.— John Hall Wheelock

Spilt Ink No. 8: Margot Demopoulos

DOLPHINS AND DISTRACTION
Margot Demopoulos

 

One cold winter morning in the coastal waters off Los Angeles, local researchers from UCLA were tracking a school of bottlenose dolphins. Their boat carried cameras, hydrophones, and computers.

Field biologist, Maddalena Bearzi, was photo-identifying the school, as she recounts in Beautiful Minds, the Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins, co-written with Craig B. Stanford. She was taking pictures of each individual in the group, using the dolphin’s dorsal fin as the identifier. Scars and notches in the fins are as distinctive as human fingerprints. The dolphins were foraging for prey, heading north along the Santa Monica beach, stopping on occasion to dive and search. Bearzi was recording their activities as they encountered a large school of sardines just off Malibu pier.

“The fish were trapped ingeniously,” she writes, “as if in a net shaped by a tight formation of nine dolphins. After they began feeding, one of the dolphins in the group suddenly left the circle, swimming offshore at a high speed. In less than an instant, the other dolphins abandoned their prey to follow their companion.”

This was odd behavior for the dolphins, Bearzi notes.

“Usually they moved back and forth very close to the beach, taking the time to entirely deplete the school of fish on which they were dining while occasionally milling at the surface like a bunch of oversized floating buoys. To abruptly stop feeding and take off in an unrelated direction was rather peculiar.”

*

Distractions matter, and not just to dolphins. Writers of fiction know about straying from purpose. Not the coffee break or to walk the dog when we need to push away from the desk, but distractions that are inexplicable, veiled in mystery—like the peculiar behavior of the dolphins. A shift from our piercing focus urges us to take an abrupt change of course. We resist the pull, get jerked back, and resist again. A sense of urgency escalates. The unconscious is trying to say something. We may just lose our way and waste time. Or we may not lose our way so much as find it.    

The phenomenon of being distracted while engaged in creative work has been studied by scholars at Harvard. Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor, calls this unconscious process “the incubation effect.” New ideas come to mind only when we take sharp focus off whatever it is we’re working on.

Going astray is never a single train stop. One stop leads to another. And another. Associations multiply. New connections appear.

But work is never out of mind. It is often just incubating.

*

Bearzi and her researchers left the schooling sardines at Malibu pier and followed the dolphins, still visible from the ocean’s surface.

At about three miles offshore, “the dolphins stopped suddenly, forming a large ring without exhibiting any specific behavior.”

One of Bearzi’s assistants noticed “an inert human body with long, blonde hair floating in the center of the dolphin ring. Breaking the ring, I maneuvered the boat closer to the girl and asked if she was okay, but she looked at us with no apparent response.”

Bearzi and her researchers continued moving closer. The girl raised a weak arm.

Bearzi and her team lifted her into the boat. She was pale, her lips blue, her body motionless, and she was fully dressed. The researchers contacted local lifeguards and helped the girl out of her wet clothes and warmed her with blankets and their own bodies.

But what about the dolphins?

Bearzi writes: “When we pulled her from the water, she was hypothermic. She began to respond and as we turned to go back to port I noticed that the dolphins were gone.”  

*

Later that same day, Bearzi learned more about the girl who had drawn their rapt attention and led them to speed off to her side. The girl was eighteen years old and on vacation in Los Angeles from Germany. When the dolphins found her, she had been “swimming offshore to die by suicide.” 

She had tied a plastic bag around her neck that contained all her travel documents. The bag also contained a letter. The doctor told Bearzi that if the dolphins had not found her she would have died.

The Roman writer and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, was first to document close relationships between dolphins and humans. Schools of mullet left a village pond each year in Lattes, France to head for the open sea. The mullet swam through a passageway so narrow that fisherman couldn’t use their nets. They called their dolphin friend, Simo, to help. Simo gathered a group of dolphins and prevented the mullet from escaping by driving them back to the waiting nets.

Jacques Cousteau filmed a similar alliance between dolphins and fishermen in Mauritania. Dolphins circled and herded schools of mullet into the nets of the waiting fishermen along the African coast. 

Of the behavior of the dolphins that winter day in the coastal waters off Los Angeles, Bearzi asks, was it sheer coincidence?

“Perhaps,” she writes. “But I still think and dream about that cold day and that tiny, pale girl lost in the ocean and found again for some inexplicable reason, by us, by the dolphins?”

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Margot Demopoulos has published fiction in the Sewanee Review, the Massachusetts Review, the Briar Cliff Review, Fiction International and other magazines. ​Her essays and book reviews have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, the Potomac Review, the Adirondack Review and others. She is currently writing a novel.