I consider this a paranormal experience, because it involves unquestionably clear, wordless communication between humans and another species. In this case, though, unlike “intuitive” animal communication, all understanding was achieved through direct physical gesture. No intuition was required, on either side.
This happened quite some time back, when Six Flags in Vallejo, California was still known as Marine World/Africa U.S.A. At that time, the place was neither a conventional zoo nor a thrill-ride park. It was mostly devoted to human-animal interfacing, and there were no carnival rides at all. The only rides available were on a couple of elephants. but the place was rich with opportunities to see trainer/caregivers hanging out with tigers or chimpanzees, to hand-feed giraffes, or watch elephants stack logs. There were also marine mammals, all trained to perform — sea lions, orcas, and dolphins.
The place was so informal and public-friendly, that it was possible to wander over to the fringe of the site, to where the dolphins lived and were bred and trained, and to just hang out and watch them being themselves in their residential pools, rather than performing elaborate tricks. We enjoyed doing that. There was a dip in the pavement, leading past a below-water-line window on the side of a pool where two lady dolphins and their two young ones resided. There was a structure there by the window, kind of like a bus shelter — open, with a simple roof.
One day we got there shortly after opening, probably on a weekday; there were no other tourists around. Nor were there trainers or other staff on hand. We went and watched the four dolphins through the window, and soon they came over and watched us. They had some toys in their pool, including a big plastic ball, about the size of a soccer ball. Almost immediately, one of the adults spiked the ball right up and out of the pool — not only over a netting fence that surrounded it, but also over the roof of the visitor-shelter. They gathered around their window, and gave us a most communicative stare. “Please, mister and ma’am, can we have our ball back?”
We had no trouble discerning that this was what they wanted. So we picked it up, and heaved it back over the netting, into the pool. They were delighted. So delighted, that they spiked it out to us again. And we were in turn delighted to gratify their wishes, and pitched it back in once more. We found ourselves suddenly playing volleyball with dolphins who didn’t even know us. We figured it had to be pretty dull for them, going round and round in that featureless round pool. Clearly, interaction with other beings of nearly-equivalent intelligence, was their major relief from deadly boredom.
Unfortunately, after six or eight back-and-forth tosses, one of the dolphin’s spikes sent the ball onto the shelter roof, where it hung up on something. It wouldn’t roll down, and it was unreachable from where we were. It would have required a ladder, or a very good climber. We had neither with us. All four dolphins now gathered again at the underwater window, gazing at us with a slightly puzzled, accusatory air. Once again, we had no trouble understanding them — they wanted to know what we had done with their ball, and why we had cut short such an enjoyable game. We felt just terrible for them. And we also felt bad for ourselves, thinking that the dolphins would be left with an impression that visiting humans were at best, no good at keeping up the game . . . at worst, unreliable toy-thieves.
We did a lot of “empty hand” gestures, along with pointing up to the roof of the shelter. The dolphins weren’t buying it. They continued to give us the same look our dogs always gave us, if we tried to end a backyard ball-throwing session too early. So, we did the only thing we could think of to do, to compensate them. We made up a dance. It wasn’t a brilliant dance — it consisted, as I recall, of mostly running steps, and square-dance figures, particularly swinging each other around by hooked elbows.
However, it played brilliantly to our audience. The dolphins were glued to their window, and made us feel like Fred and Ginger. While both the moms and their kids watched us with those happy dolphin smiles, we danced around for them until we ended up breathless. They were clearly thrilled with the discovery of a totally new, hitherto-unexpected, form of human behavior. When we couldn’t dance any more, we stopped and bowed to them . . .
And they applauded us. This was obviously a behavior they had been taught for their shows — only the two adults knew how to do it. They surfaced, and each of the lady dolphins lifted one flipper out, and repeatedly flapped it against the water. We knew they were clapping for our performance, thanking us just as any appreciative audience would, in the most culturally appropriate way. They knew we had danced solely in order to entertain them, and they knew exactly what to do, to express thanks. And in this situation, they were not being cued by a trainer, or rewarded with a tossed herring. They were just communicating.
We had always known, of course, but it was wonderful to experience this truth so directly . . . that they are no different from us. No different in any way at all. They understand just as we understand. They have a sense of humor and of fun, just as we do. They appreciate what is done for them, and they feel gratitude. (In this, of course, they do differ quite dramatically from the majority of homo sapiens.) They care, they enjoy, they love. Those few minutes — maybe fifteen of them — comprise one of the most beautiful, cherished episodes of my life.
Of course, that was many years ago, and as our understanding has evolved, my husband and I have long since sworn off going to places of public amusement where animals are held captive in cages, enclosures, and pools, to serve as entertainment. It was sadly clear to us even then, that those dolphins’ lives were dreary at best, or they never would have been satisfied with such a mediocre offering as that dance of ours. But at least, we threw our tuppence-worth into the balance scales, and once, for a little while, humans provided entertainment to dolphins.