Deena of the Dolphins
Robert Allen Lupton
After my father, George Wolcott, passed away, I found the following manuscript in his safety deposit box with a note asking that the contents not be disclosed until twenty years after his death. I observed his wishes and after enough time passed, I submitted it for publication to various journals and magazines, but were no takers and ultimately I decided to publish it as a fictional adventure. The year my father wrote this manuscript is unimportant, but it was several years ago in a September, early spring in the southern hemisphere. I edited the manuscript. Any mistakes are my own.
We found the man draped in seaweed on New Zealand’s Ninety Mile Beach. He was unconscious and naked except for a tattered net encrusted with dozens of fishing net floats made from foam, glass, and wood.
My wife, Joan, and I rushed to his side. I felt a pulse; he was still alive. His face and arms were burnt red from the sun, hundreds of small cuts and scars covered his legs and body, and his lips were dry and cracked.
Joan forced a mouthful of hot tea and brandy from her flask into his mouth and he gagged, sputtered, coughed, and spit it out. He opened his bloodshot eyes and croaked, “Where am I? Who are you people?”
“I’m George and this is Joan. We live near this beach, Ninety Mile Beach. We’re beachcombers. We search the beach every morning, but we never found anything like you. We found a Maui dolphin once and helped him back into the water. Did you fall off a boat?”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that,” said the man and he took a small sip of brandy and tea.
“Leave him alone, George. There’ll be time enough for questions later. Let’s get him to the house, feed him a proper meal, and put some ointment on his sunburn.”
Joan and I helped him to his feet and supported the young man across the sand. We rested a few times on the stairway from the beach. I drank some brandy and tea, myself.
None of the neighbors were awake and no one saw us escort the naked young man the two blocks from the beach stairway to our house. Joan prepared a proper breakfast, eggs, scones, a rasher of bacon, and more tea. I helped him wash up, put lotion on his face and arms, and gave him some clothes to wear. I’m a small man, but my clothes covered his thin wiry body like a tent.
“George, let him eat. You fetch the net and fishing floats. Put them in the garage.”
I started to object about leaving my wife alone with the castaway, but he’d passed out before he finished his meal. Joan and I moved him to the couch and covered him with a blanket. He mumbled a few times, but didn’t wake up.
It took me three trips to carry the fishing floats from the beach, I’m not as strong or as fast as I once was. There’s quite a market for old floats, especially the multicolored glass Japanese ones. Joan and I sell the ones we find to an antique dealer in Auckland.
The man woke up around noon. Joan fed him some more scones with clotted cream and jam washed down with hot brandied tea. She asked, “What’s your name?”
His voice was hoarse from the brandy, the seawater, and lack of use. “Martin, my name is Martin. Thank you for helping me, but I need to leave. I have to go back. She needs me.”
He tried to stand but was too weak and fell back onto the couch. His eyes filled with tears and the frustration was clear in his raspy voice. “Deena, I have find Deena. She’s still out there. I have to go back.”
“You’re in no condition to help anyone. Tell us about Deena and we’ll have the authorities send the Coastal Patrol to find her.”
“No, I’m the only one who can help her. I’m the only one.” he coughed, jerked himself upright, and promptly passed out. Thank goodness, he fell on the couch; I don’t think I could’ve lifted him again.
He slept through the afternoon and after a small dinner meal, Joan and I tended to his sunburn. “I suppose I should tell you about Deena and how I met her. It’s a bit of a story within a story. There’s my story, Deena’s story, and lastly, there’s the story of us both. I know that sounds confusing, but I don’t know any other way to tell it.”
I said, “Tell it however you want.” I filled my pipe and offered my tobacco pouch to Martin.
He refused with a shake of his head to clear his long brown hair from his eyes and pulled the blanket up to his neck.
“I was a teacher on the South Island. A few summers ago, I built an outrigger canoe and embarked on a solitary trip from the South Island to the North Island. I figured if my Maori ancestors could do it, so could I. What’s today’s date?”
I told him and he said, “My God, it’s been three years. Anyway, on the third day my canoe began to leak. It was buoyant enough it would still float when full to the gunwales, but I couldn’t steer it once it completely awash. I had no control, it drifted with the wind and tide, and I only had food for eight days. I paddled and bailed and paddled and bailed, but didn’t make any progress.”
I stopped Martin and asked if he minded if I made notes. He said he didn’t. The next morning I typed up Martin’s story based on my memory and my poor ability to decipher my own wretched handwriting. For reasons I’ll explain later, I never submitted Martin’s story for publication.
I fell into an exhausted sleep sometime during my fourth night adrift. The rising sun woke me the next morning and my canoe was completely filled with seawater. My canteens had floated away and my food stores were waterlogged and inedible. I had no idea where I was. I couldn’t see land anywhere and I drifted aimlessly for most of the day. Occasionally, a seagull or tern flew over and I frightened them away whenever they tried to land. I was hungry, but it didn’t occur to me to catch and eat a bird.
The next morning the sharks found me. There were four mako sharks and they circled me for at least an hour. They were ten to twelve feet long and from time to time one of them bumped and shoved my canoe. I used my paddle like a cricket bat when I could reach one of them. During the afternoon, the largest shark propelled himself out of the water and on top of my canoe. I pounded his face and shoved the paddle into his mouth. I broke off some of his teeth and gouged his sandpaper skin. I shoved him off the boat and his blood stained the water.
I’d heard the term, feeding frenzy, but I’d never seen one. The injured shark tried to swim away, but the other three attacked it. As they fought and thrashed, the commotion attracted more makos. The sharks ripped the bleeding one into pieces. Hundreds of seagulls, drawn by the scent of blood, skimmed across the ocean, descended like locusts, and fought over the pieces of shark that floated to the surface. They looked like a tornado of seagulls as they circled, screeched, and battled each other in the air. Whenever one snatched a choice piece and tried to fly away, a dozen others tackled him and tore the food from his mouth. It reminded me of an un-officiated playground rugby scrum.
The melee lasted less than five minutes. The seagulls flew away and the sharks turned their attention back to me. There were more of them than before and they were still excited from the feeding frenzy and more aggressive than they had been earlier. They ripped pieces of my canoe away in huge bites. The oars were torn to pieces and the outrigger floated away. I swung a broken oar like a Maori war club and I spun around to hit the sharks who came at me from every direction.
One propelled himself partially out of the water and swamped my canoe. I shoved my paddle down his throat and he bit down on the wood and rolled under the water. I didn’t let go fast enough and the shark pulled me from my overturned canoe.
I dropped the paddle, kicked to the surface, and tried to watch in every direction at the same time. The sharks didn’t attack immediately, but they circled closer and closer. They rubbed their rough skin against my legs like housecats. I touched my leg, lifted my hand, and my blood dripped into the water. The sharks were going to attack.
One did a flip turn, exposed his dorsal fin, and started his final run. Before the shark reached me, a young woman borne between two small dolphins leapt above the water. She used the power of the dolphins’ jump to propel her above the shark. She flew through the air holding a knife overhead with both hands and dropped onto the shark like a Valkyrie. She timed her attack perfectly. She stabbed the shark with the combined power her strength and body weight. They went under.
I treaded water for a few seconds and warily searched the suddenly quiet and sun-dappled sea. In a few seconds, the shark floated belly up and the girl surfaced; her long sun-bleached golden hair floated like a wedding dress train behind her. Her teeth were bright and her face unblemished. I confess for a moment, I thought she was a mermaid, but then remembered her strong legs flashing in the ocean spray. She smiled at me, whistled, and made some clicking sounds.
Something pressed against my side. I was afraid the sharks were back, but it was dolphins, Maui dolphins. I recognized their small size and distinct coloration, mostly white with random black markings. They’re the smallest breed of dolphin, weighing less than five stone, and they only live near New Zealand’s North Island.
The dolphins supported my weight and I didn’t need to keep treading water. Several of their pod mates harassed and chased the sharks away. The girl swam close to me. Her eyes were blue and her arms and shoulders were smooth and muscled. She reached out one hand and gently touched my face.
I said, “Thank you for saving me. Do you speak English?”
“Not good. I haven’t talked to anyone since I was five years old.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Deena. We can talk later. Let’s go somewhere safe and get you food and fresh water.”
She whistled and the dolphin pod swam in a tight formation toward the north. Deena and I held the dorsal fins of the dolphins who swam on each side of us. The pairs sped us through the water faster than I could run on land. The dolphins changed out every few minutes so that we were always carried through the water by fresh dolphins.
Soon, we arrived at a small coral island. It was less than fifty feet across and barely six feet above the ocean’s surface. The dolphins stopped a few feet from the narrow beach and we waded ashore. Scattered grass dotted the sandy soil, and one very immature coconut palm fought to survive. I collapsed on the ground and Deena sat beside me.
I tried not to stare. The only clothing she wore was a faded nylon belt with a heavy diver’s knife on each side. The knives were positioned to balance their weight when she swam.
“Does it bother you I have no clothes? It doesn’t bother me. I remember clothes. I wore clothes before I came to live with the dolphins. Clothes slow me down.”
“Is this where you live?”
“Yes, I sleep in a cave beneath the island. The entrance is under the ocean. I keep fresh water and other things in there.”
She brought me fresh water and raw fish. Fresh sushi is good when you’re hungry enough. I’d never eaten octopus before. It’s a little chewy and doesn’t taste like chicken.
She helped me through a short underwater passage into the cave. I’d be able to swim it myself, once I got my strength back. The inside of the cave was magical, the walls and ceilings were covered with glowworms and there were chests, blankets, clothing, knives, spear guns, diving masks and hundreds of fishing net floats piled across the floor. There were bottles of all shapes and sizes. She collected fresh water from nearby islands and stored it in the cave.
I wondered how Deena ended up with the dolphins. Her English wasn’t very good, she hadn’t spoken to anyone for fifteen years, but she learned quickly and I pieced together her story.
Deena’s parents were marine biologists focused on the protection of Maui dolphins and Hector dolphins. These endangered species live in the shallow waters off the coast of New Zealand’s North and South Islands. They’re threatened by sharks, fishermen, and offshore oil drilling.
The government never enacted legislation to protect the dolphins and Deena’s parents became increasingly angry and decided to take matters into their own hands. They couldn’t stop predation by sharks and the oil companies were too big to fight. They decided to fight the fishermen.
Dolphins follow fishing boats and are attracted to fish caught in the nets. The commercial fishermen use gill nets, a fish can get its head through a net grid, but then it can’t swim forward and it can’t back out. A dolphin caught in a gill net drowns in minutes. Her parents patrolled the dolphin habitats by night and destroyed commercial fishing gill nets whenever they found them.
They wore scuba gear and black wet suits, swam up to the stationary or slow moving trawlers, and cut their nets loose from their moorings. Once the nets drifted free, they’d cut away the floats and the weighted gill nets would sink. This was dangerous, if they became entangled in a net, they’d drown just like a dolphin.
The fishermen eventually figured out what was happening and one night while her parents were on a net cutting soiree, Deena woke to the sound of footsteps on their boat. She hid and watched a fisherman set fire to the boat. She grabbed a facemask and snorkel and jumped overboard. She swam away and treaded water while the boat burned. During the night she heard distant gunfire echo across the water.
She was exhausted and ready to give up when the dolphins found her. She’d been swimming with the dolphins every day for over a year and most of the mature members of the pod knew her. The dolphins wanted to play, but she was too tired. She held on to an adult female who brought her to the small coral island.
Over the years she became fluent in the clicks and whistles that make up the dolphin language. I learned every dolphin has a name, but I never learned how to pronounce them. I called the two dolphins I knew best, Jack and Jill. Jack, because the black mottled markings on his dorsal fin looked like a Jack Russell Terrier and Jill, because every Jack should have a Jill.
Deena hunted and played with the dolphins every day. They taught her a better way to swim. Instead of fighting the water to pull herself forward, the dolphins taught her to embrace the sea. The sea worked as her partner and propelled her forward like the wind rushing through a tunnel. She told me repeatedly to let the water do the work. I tried to learn to let the water flow around me and propel me forward a cork popping out of a bottle, but I never did.
She added to her treasure trove of abandoned equipment and supplies whenever she found something. Whenever she found anything she liked, she brought it to her cave.
She never heard from her parents and believed they’d been shot or drowned the night her boat burned. The fire had made her afraid of people. She avoided ships and boats, except for fishing vessels with gill nets. She looked for those.
I swam with her and she was fast. She wasn’t as fast as a dolphin, but she could swim faster and longer than I could run. Once she held her breath for ten minutes while she freed a dolphin from a fishing net.
Fleshy webbing extended from her palms to past the first knuckles of her fingers. I wondered if she’d been born that way, but then I considered how the human body can adapt. Competitive swimmers develop large and strong shoulders and back muscles. A barefoot runner grows callouses thick enough to be impervious to thorns. The fingers of a guitarist become hard and strong. They can play the thin strings with speed and endurance that would leave me with tears in my eyes while I bandaged my torn and bleeding fingers. Her body had adapted to living in the water. The Sherpas in Tibet develop lungs that allow them to survive on Mount Everest where the air pressure is only one third of the pressure at sea level.
I’d read Tarzan of the Apes and the legend of Romulus and Remus. I knew about feral children, but I didn’t believe they were really possible. I don’t have a clue about the science, but she’d survived with the dolphins for fifteen years and her body and mind had changed to help to her flourish in her oceanic existence.
The fishermen were her enemies. She didn’t lead a nocturnal life, but at night she and her pod swam to any fishing boat which had invaded their territory and they shredded or cut away its nets. The local fishermen knew to stay away from the shoals and reefs where the Maui dolphins lived, but occasionally one would stray, deliberately or otherwise, into her dolphins’ feeding ground.
I stayed on the island for the first few weeks. I was slow to recover from my ordeal and it took a while for me to adjust to a diet of raw fish. During the days, I helped her learn more English, she had a child’s vocabulary. She tried to teach me to speak dolphin, but I never mastered the clicks, whistles, and squeals. I couldn’t make the sounds and I couldn’t hear them properly. Eventually, she quit trying to teach me.
We became close, but I carefully avoided letting our relationship become romantic. It wouldn’t be fair, she had the emotional development of a five year and the body of an Olympic swimmer. I planned to return to civilization when I was strong enough. I tried to talk her into coming with me, but wouldn’t discuss it, I’m not saying I didn’t have strong feelings for her, I did, but I never acted on them.
She provided me with a facemask and snorkel from her cave and I started swimming with Deena and the dolphins. I wasn’t as fast as they were, but I improved every day. I regularly checked for webbing between my fingers, but it didn’t change.
One morning she woke me after she returned from a net raiding expedition and said, “We wrecked the nets of two boats we found in our feeding grounds, but there were a dozen or more boats in the area and they all had the same picture on their sides, a seagull with a fish in its mouth.”
“Those boats belong to the Hungry Gull Corporation, a huge fishing conglomerate based in the Far East. They have hundreds of fishing boats, but I didn’t know they fished in New Zealand waters.”
“There’s so many that I can’t stop them by myself,” said Deena. “I’m afraid for the pod; the dolphins are attracted to the fish trapped in the nets and no matter how many times I tell them, they won’t leave the nets alone. Jack got entangled twice last night, but I was able to cut him free both times.”
“Do you think I can help?”
“You can’t swim very fast and you can hardly hold your breath, but Jack and Jill can tow you through the water and you could cut the top ropes on the nets while I cut the bottom ones. We’ll both cut the floats loose. Four hands are faster than two.”
I agreed to try and she explained a couple of fairly obvious rules. Don’t work the net from between the net and the boat. The boat is pulling the net slowly and relentlessly. If I worked from the inside, the boat would pull the net toward me. I could be trapped like a fish and drown within seconds. Next, don’t entangle your legs or arms in the net while you cut away the floats.
We cut the nets from one boat the first night that I helped her. The seas were soft and there was no moon. We swam easily behind the slow moving trawler. I cut the top tow line on one side of the net while Deena cut the bottom. We hurried to the other end and cut the ropes so the net drifted free from the boat. I cut the floats away, pulling myself hand over hand along the top edge of the net, while Deena did the same thing from the other side. The weighted net sank to the bottom before the fishermen knew it was gone.
Jack and Jill carried me behind Deena back to our island. It was just another day at the office for her, but it was exciting for me. I felt like an eco-warrior or a member of the New Zealand Navy’s Operational Dive Team. I couldn’t wait for the next night.
We sabotaged the nets on two Hungry Seagull boats the next night. It wasn’t quite as easy as the first night, the sea was choppy and I kept sliding one foot or the other into the nets as the water tossed me around. The second boat finished turning around and searched for its net with spotlights. Deena and I ducked under water as the light played across the surface. When the lights swung to one side, we freed the last four floats and net sank to the bottom. We swam a short distance and floated in the darkness. We watched the two boats crisscrossing the choppy water with their searchlights for an hour or more and then we went home.
The sky was red when the sun rose the next morning and the first streaks of sunlight across the ocean were crimson. A storm was coming. Clouds roiled and built through the day and it rained softly in the late afternoon. The wind built steadily, the seas grew rougher, and the wind driven waves crashed several feet inland on the windward side of our island leaving strands of seaweed and debris at a new high water mark.
Deena didn’t care about the weather; she cared about fishing nets and dolphins, so we fought our way through high seas to the small fleet after dark. The clouds hid the moon and the only light we could see across the rain and wind tossed seas came from the trawlers working in the miserable conditions. I couldn’t believe they were fishing tonight; their captains had to be as crazed and driven as Deena.
I wasn’t worried about being seen, visibility was less than ten feet. The trawler lights shone brightly to attract fish, but they bounced uncontrollably in the rough waves. My dolphin escort carried me to one end of the first net and Deena dove to cut the bottom rope while I sawed through the top one. The end of the net drifted loose and I grabbed a dorsal fin and Jack towed me to the other end. After I cut it free, I drifted with the loose net and began to cut away the floats. It was difficult to hold onto the net and cut away the floats while I rode up and down the valleys and crests of the surging waves.
I cut the third float and I saw Jack struggle in the net below me. I shouted for Deena, but she was at other end of the net, at least fifty feet away, and she couldn’t hear me over the howling wind and rough waves. I hooked my feet in the net for leverage and slashed at the net cords holding Jack underwater.
I cut through four pieces of netting and Jack lunged forward into the larger opening, but his fins caught again. The seas bounced me almost completely out of the water every few seconds only to let me crash to the bottom of a trough between the waves and then carry me upward and repeated the process. I hooked one leg into the net and sawed at the grid section of the gill net that held Jack.
I rode the roller coaster a few more times, but I clung to the net with one hand and both feet like a rodeo bull rider and finally cut Jack loose from the net. When he squirmed free and jumped for air, he hit my hand and I dropped my knife.
Deena had continued to cut the floats away from the weighted gill net and when Jack swam free, the net began to sink, I stroked backwards with both arms to swim away and realized my legs were caught in the net. I struggled, kicked, and fought all the way to the bottom.
The water was shallow, less than thirty feet, but plenty deep enough for me to drown. The rough waves jerked me back and forth every few seconds. I couldn’t gain control of my body and the fast ebb and flow of the water shook me like a ragdoll. The net undulated like a snake and one fold draped over my head and trapped me completely.
I grew light headed and needed to breathe. I was about to exhale and surrender to the sea when Jack swam up to me. Deena released his dorsal fin, pulled herself close, put one hand on each side of my face, and kissed me. I didn’t understand until she forced my lips open and breathed air into my mouth. I exhaled and she gave me another breath. She signaled thumbs up and darted toward the surface.
She returned in seconds with another breath. She handed me one of her knives and sawed away the strands with her other one. She’d cut two strands, surface, and bring another minute’s worth of air. I slashed at the strands except for when she brought me air. It wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, the rough wind-driven seas rolled the net and me across the ocean bed, the rocks, and the coral. The tumbling net tore sediment loose from the bottom and the silt clouded the water.
It was like I was wrapped in a sheet inside a washing machine and trying cut myself free. I had to breathe once a minute and the only way to take a breath was to find a single bottle of air tumbling around at random.
Deena freed one of my feet and I was barely caught by the other, but the tension created by the spinning net gripped my left foot in the netting. Like the last man on a giant crack-the-whip, I swung wildly above and over the net before I spun me back to the bottom, and crashed across the rough seabed. I never understood how Deena was able to find me with fresh air as I spun helplessly in the silt filled water.
She caught me as the spinning net lifted me from the bottom and gave me another breath. She held me, turned herself upside down, and slashed at the last loop. The tumbling net pulled me back toward the bottom. Before I crashed into the seabed, the pressure on my foot was gone and I was free of the net. Deena released me and I reached for her. Her head and one arm were entangled in the net and it pulled her to the bottom while I shot to the surface like a cork.
The salty air was the sweetest thing I ever tasted. Jack and Jill supported me. The storm was a full squall and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I shouted for them to go after Deena, but they never left my side. Whenever I dove, they dove with me. I couldn’t get more than ten feet under water before the rough ocean forced me back to the surface. I lost count of how many times I tried.
Eventually, I couldn’t fight anymore. Exhausted, I floated between my dolphins and cried until I passed out.
The storm blew itself out during the night and the sea was like glass when the sun rose. The sunlight was soft, syrupy, and almost magical. Jack and Jill were still with me. There was not a ship or land in sight and I had no idea where I was. The storm could have carried me halfway to Tasmania for all I knew.
Jack squealed and chirped and I heard other dolphins reply. Soon other Maui dolphins swam near us. Jack and Jill pulled me to a large piece of gill net torn free from a trawler by the storm. It drifted gently on the quiet water and was festooned with floats. I crawled onto the slimy waterborne hammock, not knowing it would be my home for the next few days.
The dolphins couldn’t bring me food or fresh water and I didn’t eat for a week. They stayed with me until we were separated by another storm.
I never saw Deena, but I never lost hope. She could hold her breath for ten minutes. She still had her knife and she could have gotten loose. I know she’s alive and I need to find her. When I find her, I’m never going to leave her. If she wants to stay with the dolphins, we’ll stay with the dolphins. I’ll do whatever she wants. I love her.
Joan and I didn’t know what to make of Martin’s story. Joan told him he certainly couldn’t go anywhere until he got his strength back. “There’ll be time enough to talk about finding Deena later. Let me bring some broth.”
Joan and I nursed him for another month. He spent his days the same way. Each morning he’d have breakfast, walk down the stairs to the beach, sit there all day, and stare at the ocean.
One Saturday, he didn’t come for dinner. I went down to the beach with my lantern, but I didn’t find him. Joan and I looked the next morning and the only thing we found were two pairs of footprints walking toward the beach until they vanished in the rising tide. We were upset at first, but told ourselves that Deena survived the gill net and came for Martin.
I brought binoculars when we went beachcombing. One morning, there was a pile of fishing net floats at the same spot where we’d pulled Martin from the water. This wasn’t pile of floats deposited by the waves, the floats, glass, cork, and ancient carved wood had been carefully stacked in a pyramid.
I picked up an orange and red glass float and while I was looking at it, I heard loud squeals from the ocean. Two dolphins floated with their heads in the air barely twenty feet from shore. I waved at them and they raised themselves up onto their tails and sped backward through the water like bicyclists doing wheelies. They twisted around and raced toward deeper water.
I followed their course with my binoculars until they were about a hundred feet off shore. They stopped and I saw two people, a man and a woman with long, flowing, sun-bleached hair, lever themselves upward with one hand on the dolphins and wave at us.
I touched Joan’s arm to get her attention and she said, “I see them”. We waved back.
They swam away and we never saw them again, but a couple of times each year we find a pile of floats, ornate driftwood, or other treasures from the sea on the beach.
I don’t want people to look for Martin and Deena, so when I finish this account I’ll put it in my safety deposit box. Don’t let anyone see it until I’ve been dead for twenty years.
I kept Dad’s story about the dolphin girl to myself. He always read too many fantasy novels. Years after I read about Martin and Deena, I visited an oceanic museum in Auckland and they had a map covering an entire wall. A large area of shallow water a few miles from the western shore of the North Island is called Lost Net Shoal. I asked the docent about the name and he said it was an unofficial dolphin refuge. The commercial and local fishermen stay away, they believe it’s bad luck to fish there.