The Wild Dolphins of Abaco

“A place is wild when its order is created according to its own principles of organization –when it is self-willed land…modern civilization, being largely about control –an ideology of control projected onto the entire world –must control or deny wildness.”

-Jack Turner-[1]


We passed close by to Disney’s private island in The Bahamas.  From the boat we could clearly see a line of perfectly placed umbrellas on a preternaturally white beach.  Mostly white tourists lazed about this vapid, sun drenched fantasy world.  Beyond the beach, out on the open sea where we sat in a small motor boat was a different world.  The ocean was almost perfectly clear but tinted with that hint of aqua marine you can’t quite believe in photographs.  Below the shallow water was more white sand.  There are also rocks and coral in abundance covering the rocks.  For the cost of a short snorkel trip starting right on the beach of Abaco Island one can obtain a feast of miracles for the eyes.  Rock lobster and conch are common food items in the Bahamas; the enormous shells of conch are relatively easy to find, in size the envy of any common snail.  The Rock Lobster is not so easy to find; true to its name the arthropod seems to become one with rocks.  Locals have a knack for finding lobster, explaining you must look in the cracks but really just a matter of a hard earned intimacy with the marine environment.

Out on the water, we passed by the Disney Island without much fanfare and were soon rid of its lurid diversions.  On the boat I road with fellow parrot conservation volunteers but that day we were tagging along with a female cetacean biologist.  The whale scientist explained to us that off the coast of Abaco is the world’s steepest but not deepest canyon; a chasm hidden in the sea floor below.  Soon those cerulean shallows gave way to blackish depths and a microphone was dropped in the water to listen for the vocalizations of sperm whales.  Soon it became apparent that the whales weren’t making any noise that day and we gave up on the task, the boat was pointed again for shallower water.  Dolphins were seen then, before lunch, my memory of the moment is somewhat insubstantial and my diary entry even more so.  There was a pod of five dolphins and later a pod of eight.  There was a small, infant dolphin I estimated to be three feet long.  The baby was close to its mother, shy, clinging to the one piece of safety the small mammal knew.  The dolphins glinted in the sun, coming in a shimmer of moving skin beneath waves and leaving the same way, like mirages.  The dolphins took no notice of us; they didn’t run in our wake or pop up to look at us, to them we were nothing special.  Between dolphin sightings, the boat stopped to a metal cylinder tied to a cinder block could be retrieved from below about ten feet of water.  The cylinder was a device left to record dolphin vocalizations, to monitor them, to spy on them.  I volunteered to collect the recording device since the biologist in charge of the operation was running the boat and would have to circle around to pick me up due to water currents.  Not accustomed to free diving, it took me three attempts full of burning lungs, thoughts of drowning and mutinous muscles to retrieve the recorder and cinder block.

On Abaco there were many other incidents to drive home the point I’m making here.  There was the flamingo that was blown in with a storm from some other island.  A solitary pink bird that was stranded alone by wind on Abaco, where there is no population of flamingos; confused and flustered the bird found a pond.  Eventually the flamingo left the adopted pond and who knows?  Maybe the bird found its way home.  There are sea turtle tracks across public beaches to hidden egg caches and there are caves with bats and strange troglodytic arthropods just feet from residential streets.  I still like to think of the dolphins.

What most people call ‘nature’ is, I believe more appropriately referred to as wildness.  Wildness is that state where humans aren’t in control but just one small piece of a greater whole, where the whole itself is moving together as one.  Wilderness is of course the full embodiment of wildness but it is not the only place in which it can be found.  No one would call Abaco Island or probably any part of the Bahamas a wilderness, yet wildness can be found.  Despite the Disney Island, despite the curious harassment of biologists, there are dolphins moving of their own volition to the call of their own Poseidon.  Wildness seems to be the rule rather than the exception.  We humans like to order and organize and categorize and yet dolphins show up or don’t with or without Sea World.  Flamingoes get blown to islands where we would say they don’t belong yet who are we to say?

Far from the ocean and islands of the Bahamas, near my hometown in Western Colorado there is a trail winding to the top of a prominence in a desert cliff.  This rather small hump of a peak is called Mount Garfield.  The base of Garfield and the trail leave from the edge of Palisade, a small community of orchards, vineyards and farms.  The trail is all mud when it rains and rough, hard packed or loose and crumbling desert soil when it’s dry.  As you ascend the trail, you might be lucky enough to see wild horses but you probably won’t.  What you will see is the streets of Palisade all laid out in perfect little lines bordering perfect little squares of peach trees, grape trellises, alfalfa fields.  As you climb higher though, the town becomes smaller.  From the top of Mount Garfield you see the rolling desert hills; you can see a large mesa, maybe with patches of snow amidst the trees.  From the top of Mount Garfield Palisade starts to look small compared to the land all around it.  I reflect on how small humans are, how little we know when I see the open land around Palisade.

We control so little yet can destroy so much.  As humans we can capture Orcas and make them perform as circus freaks but we can’t prevent an Orca from killing a human trainer.  We’ve dammed rivers and poisoned them with pesticides and fertilizer yet we haven’t learned to stop floods and droughts.

A wild dolphin swimming within sight of the Disney Island is like a flower growing under the very boot heel of civilization that threatens to crush it.  A sea turtle crawling painstakingly across a beach to lay eggs that will almost certainly be destroyed by human ignorance or greedy hunger is like watching a protestor beaten for asserting dignity and self-determination.  The wild and uncontrolled actions of animals within the most developed places are claims staked to our moral goodness.  Deer lying by the road like so much gravel is certitude of their presence under our unseeing eyes.

In Tasmania as in much of Australia, the white controlled, official government made a campaign out of eradicating the indigenous people.  Eventually it was declared by the government that this campaign had ended in victory.  The last “full blooded” Tasmanian native died.  The Tasmanian native people became a museum exhibit.  No one in the official government seemed to notice that in fact there were many mixed raced Tasmanians that held onto elements of native culture, in fact identified themselves as native Tasmanians.  There are still native Tasmanians today.  The government of Tasmania it seems would rather apologize for genocide than recognize it’s mistakes and work to right an ongoing horror.

There are many mistakes we can make in conservation but two seem of profound importance.  First we can pretend like everything’s ok.  We can look and say, “See, dolphins can live next to an enormous resort island, they can survive anything.” The second mistake we can make is to deny the importance of there being dolphins at all.  We can say that all the wild dolphins are gone, “These are not wild dolphins, they’re monitored by scientists like paparazzi snapping photos of a dying Princess Dianna, it’s too late to do anything now.”  It may be in fact too late to solve many of the problems we have but there may be pockets of wildness out there waiting to surprise us.  Joy Williams in Ill Nature talks about the migration of wildebeest stopped short by an enormous fence for cattle,

“The wildebeest plodded along the fence, dying…turned away from water they had been smelling for days…Their heads hanging, they tottered and fell, their eyes plucked out by vultures while they still lived, their ears and testicles chewed off by scavengers while their legs still moved, as though they were still moving toward the water.”[2]

Yes, this is horrible.  It’s not time for us to apologize.  It’s time to tear down a fence.  Now is the time to turn back and fix our mistakes.  The wildebeest, the dolphins, the sea turtles, every wild creature shows us that there is still wildness in the world, even where no wilderness exists.  We need to fight for what’s still out there and make it better not apologize for what is gone. We need to see the small pieces of wildness still clinging to that crushing boot of civilization.

[1] The Abstract Wild; 8 Wildness and the Defense of Nature; The University of Arizona Press, © 1996 John S. Turner

[2] Ill Nature, Wildebeest, Joy Williams; Lyons Press


    1. Thanks Tom, I’m glad there are people out there reading what I’m putting up here and that it’s resonating with some.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s