Monday, March 4, 2024

Speaking Without Words

The strangest thing about going on a cruise is how much effort goes into making it seem like you’re not on a cruise. I mean, here you are, right smack in the middle of the ocean, the vast deep of our two-thirds Water World suddenly very much in evidence. In every direction, our little planet stretches all the way to the subtle curve of the horizon, and beneath you lies a deep that…if the shipboard sonar reporting is at all valid…extends for thousands upon thousands of feet.

The surface of the ocean is ever changing, going from near-mirror-smooth one day to great rolling swells the next, to thirty foot seas and spray that dances over the roiling foam-flecked chaos in a driving gale.

Inside the contemporary floating city, though, there’s often no evidence that this exists at all. Instead, there are off-Broadway shows and cabarets, shops and restaurants, bumpercars and lasertag and pickleball and hot tubs and arcades. In the belly of the ship, a casino straight out of Vegas, windowless and sharp with the scent of nicotine. It’s all bright lights and amusements, and unless the seas are high, you’d never know they are there.

I find the lights and the endless overstimulation a little much.

Out on my balcony late on the second night of the trip, I was looking out across the blackness. It was still cold, in the low forties, and as I looked out at the honeycombed expanse of other balconies, I could see no-one else outside. I was reflecting on this when a loud, slapping splash caught my attention. It sounded like someone had flung themselves from the sixteenth level of the ship in a bellyflop, and I peered into the waves to see what might be going on. The slap came again, a wet percussive report, and staring out into the darkness, I spotted the cause.

Racing alongside the ship at nearly twenty knots was a single large bull bottlenose, whose streamlined form was visible beneath the surface, lit ghostly by the false daylight of the ship.

It wasn’t riding the wake, but running fast and close and amidships. Every five or six seconds, it would fling itself from the water, soaring for a sleek moment in the night air. When it reentered the water, it would strike the surface with the flukes of its tail, and the sharp crack of tail on water would echo against the side of the ship.

It was clearly a display. It was clearly meant for us. Not that we were paying attention. 

As best I could tell, of the nearly seven thousand souls aboard the ship, I was the only one seeing it.

I’d read enough about dolphins to understand what that bull bottlenose was saying as I watched it race across the water. A tailslap, among dolphins, serves a number of purposes. It’s forceful enough to stun prey fish, so it can be used in hunting. In male dolphins, the tailslap is a territorial and threat display, a warning to unwanted intruders…dolphin and otherwise…that the dolphin is not pleased with their presence, and a show of force.

That big bull was not just any of God’s creatures, but an animal that is scientifically recognized to be more intelligent than most of the humans in congress. It wasn’t putting on an impromptu Seaworld performance. It was letting us know that our 175,000 ton ship did not impress it, and that we were disturbing the peace.

We weren’t listening, of course. We are so good at not listening, particularly when creation speaks without words. As I let myself back into my cabin, I found myself wondering just how loudly creation needs to speak before we start listening. How fiercely does the wind need to roar, how swift do the flames need to burn, how quick does the water need to rise, before it catches our attention?

I suppose we’ll find that out.