Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I was reflecting tonight about emergent phenomena, and how one thing about emergent phenomena is their unpredictability. I’m in the process of writing up a post on emergent phenomena in climate, so they’ve been on my mind. I got to thinking about something I saw thirty-five years ago, a vision that is as fresh today as the day I saw it. I’m going to write it up and post it, be aware that there isn’t much sciencey stuff at all in this post. So get a cup of your favorite hot beverage, there’s nothing contentious here, it’s just a seaman’s tale about the unfathomable nature of emergent phenomena …
One charmed afternoon, as the result of a series of misunderstandings and coincidences, I found myself on a small sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles and more from any land. The day was lovely, blue water, blue sky. A light breeze was blowing, just enough to keep the sails full and drawing. I was on the afternoon watch, so I was … well … watching, that’s what sailors on watch do. Watching the course, watching the sails, watching the taffrail log, watching the black bumps on the horizon, watching the compass, watching the clouds, watching the … wait, what? Black bumps on the horizon? What makes black bumps on the horizon?
I watched and watched, and although the bumps got bigger, I couldn’t make out what it was. Clearly it was alive, I could see it splashing and moving in the far distance. Strangely, as more of the mystery creature became visible coming over the horizon, it started to look like the mythical sea serpent.
Or maybe it was two sea serpents, long ones, with parts of their bodies underwater and parts above water, I watched it for the longest time … and then suddenly, you know how the picture shifts, it all became clear. I was looking at a huge pod of dolphins swimming in a long thin line, that’s why it had looked like a couple of sea serpents. But the pod was gigantic, it was already well over a mile long, and heading towards the boat.
Nothing happens fast at sea. And so slowly, slowly the members of the pod moved in line towards us, with more and more of them appearing over the horizon as the first among them neared the sailboat. And amazingly, when the first dolphins drew even with the boat, dolphins in the back of the line were still coming over the horizon.
Now, for those of us stalwart citizens of America and Liberia fighting the lonely rearguard action of the good fight against the insidious foreign menace of metric measurements that would drain our precious bodily fluids, the rule of thumb in Imperial measurements is that distance to the horizon (in miles) is the square root of your eye height above sea level (in feet), rounded up. (The corresponding rule of thumb in metric is, three times the square root of eye height in metres (rounded up) gives distance in km to the horizon. But you can only have our feet and inches if you pry them from our cold hands …)
The deck of the boat was about four feet above the waterline. That put my eyes about ten feet (3m) above the waterline, meaning it was about four miles (six km) to the horizon, and the dolphins continued to stream over the horizon unabated.
The line of the dolphins passed maybe a quarter-mile from us, pretty close but still hard to make out. I was hoping that I would get a closer view of them, when I saw two dolphins leave the pod and come rocketing over at an incredible speed to check us out. They were large, obviously males. They went all around the sailboat for a few minute, eyeing us, checking out the boat, and then they rocketed back to the main pod … I was sorry to see them go.
But after they got back, they must have given us a good report … because in a little while some of the females came over with their young, including infants. I lay on my stomach on the bowsprit, the spar that sticks out forwards from the front of some sailboats, so I could look directly down on them from a few feet above them. The tiniest ones were unbearably cute. They were perfect miniatures of their moms, identical in every detail. The moms and babies came and swam under the bow of the boat. The babies swim right under the moms, for protection. Then when the moms come up for air, the baby pops out from under and swims alongside of the mom to the surface, in a gorgeous symphonic ballet of synchrony. They both take a breath at the same instant, I could hear the big breath and the baby breath like the palest petal of air, then the baby pops back under the mom, and off they go again.
Amazingly, I saw the moms trade off the childcare duties. I watched one mom and a kid for a bit. They were doing the pair breathing, they went on for a while.
And then, another mom came up to the bow and said something to the first mom. The kid ducked from under the first mom to the other, and the first mom celebrated her new-found freedom and lack of responsibility by indulging in a whole long series of jumps and dives and turns, it looked like she just got off an eight-hour shift … she was one happy lady, she never did come back to the sailboat, she was done with childcare for a bit, she went tailwalking across to join the ladies in the main dolphin parade.
And all the while the unending stream of dolphins was passing by. Different groups of them came to play around the boat, and then retired to join the pod. The leaders of the group were halfway to the opposite horizon, and still dolphins came to play … and when the leaders of the pod had made it all the way to the horizon, and had finally disappeared from view, there were still more dolphins coming over the horizon, still more dolphins coming to visit us, while still more dolphins disappeared over the horizon more came into view. Eight full miles and more of dolphins making their slow way to … where?
And then with an almost tragic finality, the tail of the huge long pod came into view, wending its deliberate way forwards. Those last dolphins still had three miles to go just to get to the boat. As they approached, a few last visitors came and gazed at us through the two-way mirror of the ocean’s surface, and then left to join their friends. I sadly watched them join up with the tail of the pod and then slowly, slowly, the tail of the pod shrank towards the horizon.
And finally, in the long slanting rays of the late afternoon, the last of the gorgeous, mysterious dolphins slipped over the far edge and were lost to sight … I sat in silence, almost dazed by the experience. After watching them laugh and play for those few mercurial hours, I felt like I do when friends depart after too short a visit. And I wondered how the world appeared from their side of the silvery mirror of the surface.
What did we look like to them? What did they think of us? Clearly, they were intelligent. They sent out scouts to gauge our intentions before they allowed the women and kids to visit, just like any wandering tribe in an unknown country. They moved in a conscious, purposeful manner, with the women and kids in the middle of the pod, and bigger males ranging widely back and forth along both sides, clearly watching out for the tribe as they steadily moved towards … somewhere.
But where were they headed, and why? I realized that the afternoon had vanished, how had it suddenly become evening? My watch was over, I put my head back on the cockpit cushions and watched the stars come out and drifted in a half-sleep, considering the question of their mystery hegira. After picking up and discarding a variety of hypotheses, the picture started to become clearer. As my head sank lower, I could almost see how the word had come skittering down the oceanic spinal telegraph, an eclectrical spark that went quantum tunneling through the aquatic mental telepaphone, wailing a long saxophone growl about there was gonna be some seriously shaking dolphin party down the way, the whole tribe was invited, there was gonna be fins and sins over at the corner of what almost sounded like Water Street and Ocean Avenue, but I couldn’t make out the words, they sounded strange and squeaky.
And yet I somehow, as the motion of the boat gently lifted and soothed me, I knew exactly where that party was going to be, and it was a warm and happy place, with lots of friends and plenty of fish-heads, I could almost taste the sweetness. And I could see how the boss dolphin ladies notified all of their aunties and cousins in that part of the ocean, and then they informed their husbands that they needed to clean up and get respectable, and they got the kids lined up, and they called in the distant relatives on the deep sound channels from where they were fishing in small groups around, and when they all were ready in their thousands and thousands, they all started to move, disordered at first. Then the first ones started their dolphin-dance, in and out of the water, and one by one they picked up the music and began line-dancing down the slanting wave-faces to the party somewhere over the horizon.
And then somehow my point of view shifted, and I could see it all from far above, and my boat was a tiny toy below me, and I could see a tiny man sleeping there, and weeping for the beauty, but he was a stranger, I was not interested in him, so I turned, and oh, I saw that the tribe that had laughed and frolicked past us were just one of a dozen dolphin tribes that I could see converging on some golden section of the ocean. And I could shift my eyes back and forth, and one moment see all the converging tribes of dolphins, still miles and miles apart but already singing and chattering to the unseen shadow-shapes of their alters in the blue-black deeps. And then shift my eyes and see them close up, the single dolphins ready to get down and boogie and become risqué, the moms eager to see their friends and tell lies about the orcas that they’d seen and boast of their grown children …
And I had the feeling that I could watch them forever, they had a purity of companionship that was infinitely inviting … but then somehow the time lurched and shifted like the needle picked up off an old vinyl record and set down in a new groove, and I could see all of them arriving together in the moonlight, laughing and frolicking, old friends from the different tribes telling their stories, young ladies and gentlemen dancing on their tails with the refulgent moonlight transmuting the splashing drops into tiny blazing-white stars like diamond-dust flung into blackness, the drops falling and skittering across the midnight velvet face of the moonlit ocean.
I wanted so much to join them in their dance that I began to weep, because I knew I was too clumsy and heavy to ever dance with the dolphins. But then you showed up, and you said I just had to unzip my bodysuit, and I could take it off and join the dance. And I was overjoyed, and amazed that I had never noticed the zipper before, but the surprise quickly faded and I unzipped it and stepped out of it just like I remembered doing so many times before, how could I have forgotten? And like always before it gave me a miraculous feeling of joy and lightness and energy. I knew I could dance all night with the dolphins, and I danced the first few steps and watched the colored energy roll through my body, the wings of my lungs beating like feathered clouds with my breathing, and the dolphins surrounded me and I could understand their singing, the dolphins shining and flashing and glowing to my new eyes, the dolphins dancing on all sides, walking on water, dancing on air … but before I was barely begun, a cold wind blew up without warning and spun me round and round, I didn’t have the energy to hang on and I felt myself spiraling down, I was gaining weight and losing speed, moving slower and slower, the fog was setting in to caress my face, I saw the tiny man passed out on the ship, he had stopped weeping, and without a trace or a shiver I was lost in a profound and dreamless sleep in that dark sea of awareness that surrounds and comforts us all.
As I said at the beginning, there’s not much sciencey stuff in this post, that will go in my upcoming post on emergence. Instead, consider this sailors tale a paean to the ungraspable, a celebration of things we don’t know, a rejoicing in not understanding the dolphins, a plea for an acknowledged lack of understanding, a shout-out to the unseen undersea power of family and friends and tribes, and a reminder that when it comes to the emergent phenomena that pop out of nothingness to surprise and amaze and bedevil us with things like lightning bolts and dolphin parties, the science is never settled …
My very best wishes to you all,