Why Dolphins?

Most people that have known me for the last 20 years will look at the novel I’ve written–The Built-in Smile–and ask, “Why write about dolphins, Kip?” Most of those people know me as an outdoor adventure athlete–adventure racer, marathon kayak racer, orienteer. Some know me as an environmental educator–but that reaches back a few more years.

The people who might understand (other than my wife and my immediate family) are the people who knew me in junior high or high school–their the ones who thought that somehow, in my adult life, I would be the second coming of Jacques Cousteau. My interest in dolphins was nurtured by National Geographic Magazine and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteautelevision series. I spent some vacations in Florida–Anna Maria Island–and relished the idea of swimming with the bottlenose dolphins that traveled along the beach from time to time. I’d stand on the beach at the ready–wearing my dive mask, snorkel and fins.  I’d spot the dolphins up the beach and hit the water–but, by the time I was close enough to sneak a peak, they were gone.

Even at that early age, I read everything I could on dolphins–including the challenging Man and Dolphinby John Lily. I was intrigued with their theorized intelligence, their grace in the water and the possibility of inter-species communication.

In eighth grade, my parents got me one of the best Christmas gifts ever–SCUBA lessons at the local dive shop. I completed the certification with my friend and dive buddy, Jack Hueston, and we proceeded to dive whenever we could scrape together the cash for our air fills and gas to the ocean. The diving just fed the dream.

It was a long time ago, but I still went to college with the dream of becoming a marine biologist in the back of my mind. My first year at New College in Florida, I even got to see a presentation by the famous Dr. John Lily–though after the talk I thought the term infamous might be more appropriate. I was unimpressed by the shaking old man and by the rumors of his methodologies spread by other students. I never really looked hard to find evidence to support those rumors, but it still diminished the man in my eyes.  In retrospect, Lily’s unconventional approach was stimulating and refreshing and did much to mold my view of dolphins.

Still, I struggled with the hard science and mathematics I needed to move forward in the world of marine biology and I faltered. I made the decision to move forward in another Cousteau-inspired direction–environmental issues and communication. I moved back to New Jersey, entered the journalism program at Rutgers and concentrated in environmental studies.

At Rutgers, I got a little more sidetracked–submersing myself in the obsessive world of collegiate rowing. But, at least rowing eventually brought me to Florida and put me out on the water. In Melbourne, where I coached on the Indian River Lagoon, I’d see dolphins from the coaching launch, a single scull or the floating dock. Living on the water–the proximity to that environment–started to awaken the intimate bond I’d had with that world while growing up.

I bought a sea kayak (with the help of my future wife) and I started to do some freelance writing about the Florida environment. I started to learn more about the Florida environment. I started to see more dolphins.

I remember paddling off of the northeast shore of Anna Maria Island–I think Jessica may have been rowing her single scull–and having a pod–an unusually large pod of bottlenose dolphins surfacing as they traveled in a path parallel to my own.

One year we camped on a small beach deep within Everglades National Park. There was no wind and we hunkered down in our tent to avoid the swarms of mosquitoes. But, because there was no wind and the air was still, we could hear everything. Over the background buzz of the mosquitoes we could hear the repeated blows of a lone dolphin. It must have been fishing in our area–because we could hear it for hours.

Why write a novel about dolphins? First, because every time I see one–from my kayak, from a dock, or from shore–I’m still entranced. The animals themselves–intelligent or not–amaze me with their comfort in the water. Second, in some ways The Built-in Smile allows me to revisit and reevaluate–through certain characters–some of the life diversions/life choices I’ve made.  Finally, through other characters, I also might look at some of the choices I didn’t make and say, “What if?”

~ by kipwkoelsch on April 9, 2009.

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