Sea Eyes Chapter 3

2 08 2007

Chapter Three

  

         It is impossible to describe that which you have never experienced. It is foolish to yearn for that which you cannot have. If something was never in your possession, how can the loss of it be mourned?

 

            The darkness was all Bethany had ever known. But the darkness was not a thing to be feared. Inside the darkness all was warm and well. And even though this was the sum nature of her experience ever since her soul flickered into being in the night of her mother’s womb, neither was she abandoned to it. Sounds and touches joined her in the dark and it was from their company that she learned how to define her world.

 

            The most familiar was the touch she knew as mother. A voice who guided her blindfolded through the maze of her existence. A presence that would gather her up, safe and cocooned in the nest of her arms and sing her songs and tell her stories of the world that she had entered but never seen. Mother’s touch was soft and reassuring, like that of the breeze who often paused, cajoling her with summer’s breath, to run with it and play. Breeze was the friend of wind, who rang the chimes that mother had placed in the eaves outside Bethany’s bedroom window, through which shone sun whose light she did not recognize but whose warmth tickled her every morning when she woke.

 

            Astoria, her mother told her, was where they lived, at the mouth of the Columbia River, in the state of Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. For Bethany, the town, and indeed her world, most of which the town encompassed, was not just a tactile experience but defined by the sounds it made. Such whistles, trills, rings, beeps, barks, rumbles, yelps, rasps, thumps, pings, natters, bangs, purrs, hums, rattles, chimes, squeaks. Tweets, crunches, exclamations and shrieks. Jangles, chugs and roars. Cries, sighs, helloes and good-byes. A veritable encyclopedia of sonic experiences whose auditory portraits provided Bethany her only pictures.

 

            Then there were the particular sounds that were unique to Astoria. The slap of a fish being thrown upon a slab at the market. The whisper of snowflakes falling through the pines in winter. The swish of water lapping against the foreshore. The mournful wail of a ship’s siren as it plied the Columbia River.

 

            Bethany’s mother had brought her a toy boat to sail in her bath. The ships whose sirens called out to each other across the water must be much larger to make a sound that carried so far, Bethany reasoned. Bigger than car. Much bigger even than house. In fact, her mother explained, the ships were so huge an entire block of houses could easily fit upon their decks. She could picture them, vast floating citadels whose turrets and steeples dwarfed those of their landlocked counterparts. Perhaps their sirens called ‘Follow me! Follow me!’ to those left behind on shore. And homes strained at their foundations in an attempt to uproot themselves so that they too could sail away to find out what lay beyond their neighborhood.

 

            To Bethany, all this sounded nothing short of miraculous. To think one could set sail in something as large as a town. No wonder the noises they made were so intriguing. Almost as mysterious as the strange, lonely songs the sea sang to itself. Lately Bethany had begun to suspect that it was not sea that was doing the singing but something else entirely. Something that lived in sea like Bethany lived in house. Fish lived in sea, she knew that. Perhaps it was they who sang, melodies without words that would sometimes drift up the channel of the river at night and echo about her room like ghosts. Perhaps it was a mermaid who sang, calling out for a mer-man to join her in a duet. Bethany tried to follow the songs as she lay listening in her eternal night, but just as she thought she had managed to make sense of their lyric she would be carried over the crest of sleep to wake the next morning with their rhyme forgotten.

 

            “McHugh contacted us about three weeks ago, looking for some volunteers to take part in some kind of experimental research they’re involved in. For some reason none of the candidates quite measured up although he never told us exactly why not. When he told me they were also looking for a sound technician I gave him your name. It was the least I could do. I’d hoped to be able to talk to you before he called. I didn’t want you hearing the news from anyone else. I feel bad enough as it is. If it was up to me …” Coop’s voice trailed off and he made a helpless gesture. “As our funding’s going to be cut this places a big question mark over the entire talking book program and I just have to make up the shortfall somewhere.”

 

            So there it was. As of next month Ben was out of a job.

 

            David Cooper, or Coop as he was affectionately known to his friends leaned back in his chair and studied the big, bluff, sandy-haired man seated opposite him. Not your average recording industry type, he thought. But that had been his first impression the day Ben first came in to be interviewed. Unlike the other candidates who appeared born to be wired instead of hired, Ben had seemed genuinely interested in contributing to the work they were doing. It had been a refreshing change to answer questions about what the job entailed rather than having to listen to a resume of highly fictionalized album credits that read like the MTV Top 30. “There’s not much more I can tell you. McHugh comes across as a decent enough guy. What I can tell you is that whatever it is they’re up to up there they’re being pretty close-mouthed about it.”

 

            As one of the few sighted members of the institute, Coop prided himself on being able to sum up a person’s character within a few minutes of being introduced. And genuine was a description that summed up everything Ben Galloway was all about. And while he was sure the man had his own agenda, he had seemed to derive real satisfaction from his work with them, a consideration that made what Coop was having to do now all the more difficult. He was unable to hazard a guess at exactly what kind of research Seabourne were currently undertaking, but he knew enough to know it was extremely sensitive. Which was why he hadn’t hesitated in recommending Ben for the position.

 

            “Look Coop, don’t apologize. If it’s the choice between paying my salary or giving a blind kid a seeing-eye dog it’s no contest.”

 

            Coop smiled, relieved that Ben was making an unpleasant task so easy. “So you’ll talk to McHugh?”

 

            “I’m not sure. Maybe I should take a couple of weeks off and just review my options.”

 

            “It’s a pretty amazing set-up they’ve got up there. You been?’

 

            Ben shook his head. “Watching dolphins jump through hoops isn’t my idea of entertainment.”

 

            “Mine neither. In fact I’m normally totally opposed to that kind of thing. I only went on sufferance to silence the kids, but take it from me, this place is different. For one thing, the animals are kept in an environment that’s as close to their natural habitat as it’s possible to recreate in captivity. You know, all the pens are tidal and they’ve got the run of the entire goddamn cove. They can even continue to hunt, just like they do in the wild because fish can swim in and out of the Seagate. What’s more after a couple of years they let them go.”

 

            “Very green and friendly.”

 

            “Right. Look, talk to McHugh, what harm can it do? He’s really keen to meet you. The fact that you’ve had experience working with the blind is an added bonus as far as he’d concerned and they can certainly afford to pay you more than we ever could. Besides, it’ll make me feel better.”

 

            Ben hesitated before replying. While it was certainly true he couldn’t really afford to be without a job he wasn’t at all sure that this was a direction he wanted to explore. What on earth had dolphin sonar got to do with building his brilliant career as a record producer? It seemed to him that his goal was getting further away instead of nearer. At least Zed got to lay down a few tracks, work with some real musicians once in while. All he got offered was the chance to record Flipper’s greatest hits. He was about to refuse when a Navajo saying that Zed was overly fond of quoting popped into his head. ‘All roads lead to the top of the mountain but some take longer to get there’. Maybe he should opt for the more scenic route instead so instead of a flat refusal he found himself asking Coop another question. “Why’s he so interested in my work with the blind?”

 

            “All I know is the code name: Project Morning Glory. But like I said, I really don’t have a clear idea of what they’re up to. If you want to know the answer to that one you’re just going to have to go up there and find out for yourself. You can even get this special deal – combined admission to Seattle Aquarium and Seabourne plus return trip on the jetcat – just twenty two seventy five. The jetcat’s great. Does the trip in just under an hour. Beats driving hands down. You really ought to try it.”

 

            He took the jetcat. A service operated by a private company who had been quick to realize the economic benefits to be gained from operating a door-to-door service between the two ‘aquatic wonders of the northwest’, with plans to extend the service as far as Vancouver. Washington Ferries, having quite literally missed the boat, were planning on introducing a rival service operating from Colman Dock the following spring. Meanwhile, the Water Tiger and it’s sister ship, Surf Leopard, whisked tourists effortlessly northward, twin-propellers churning through the fifty mile trip in less than an hour, making the round trip four times daily during the summer months.

 

            Situated approximately halfway between Everett and Anacortes, Apollo Bay’s mild marine climate ensured forty per cent less rainfall than Seattle and an average of 247 days of sunshine each year. But it was not just climatic considerations alone that made it such a choice location for ‘The Northwest’s Premier Aquatic Attraction’, as did its unique and uncommon geography. Ben had seen the tourist posters of the Apollo Bay development, but nothing prepared him for the remarkable facility he found there. Not just a theme park. Not just a research station, but the most innovative and environmentally conscious marine research and entertainment facility in the world.

 

            The jetcat delivered its passengers to a dock built on the ocean side of one of the bay’s peculiar horseshoe shaped heads. From there it was short stroll along a floating boardwalk, past the dock for the floatplane which ferried VIP’s and those too impatient to take the jetcat from Lake Union, then through an arch between the massive Seagate which barred the cove like a giant brace across the mouth of the lagoon and the rock, and then out into the bay beyond which lay sparkling in the sunlight like recycled glass. Opposite, bleachers straddled the beach behind which dense pines marched away up the hill without so much as a backward glance at the sea.  The boardwalk ran directly under what Ben surmised to be the main research building which clung like a barnacle to the cliffs, cantilevered out over the water. Seaward, waves broke upon the breakwater like smiles while inside the cove the occasional glimpse of a dorsal fin or mist-laden spout was all that disturbed the tranquillity of the water.

 

            The path now headed around the bay towards the entertainment complex. The guide who had met them off the boat taking great pains to alert them to the location of the restaurant and gift shop. Beyond the main entrance half-concealed by trees, the parking lot was already filling with early morning arrivals. As they got closer, Ben noticed the buoys that divided the bay into sections with one central channel giving access to each pen, the performance lagoon in front of the grandstand, and the Seagate. Slightly set-off to one side was a giant video screen. It seemed incongruous and hardly necessary, as even from his present perspective, it was apparent to Ben that the seating was arranged as to afford matchless views of the lagoon. Maybe it was for the benefit of the smaller members of the audience, he concluded. But it seemed an unnecessary affectation nonetheless, as if they were about to attend a rock concert instead of what to Ben’s mind was nothing more than an elaborate circus.

 

            The sound of the PA system drifted up to welcome them to Seabourne and urged them to take their seats for the first performance of the day. Having paid his admission and with an hour to spare before his meeting with McHugh, Ben decided he may as well act like a tourist and followed the rest of the day-trippers towards the arena opposite.

           

To Norberto, La Sirena’s second mate who occupied the bunk below Kyle’s, masturbation was not so much a solitary vice as a spectator sport. Every waking moment that did not require his presence on deck was spent in constant self-gratification, and he would proudly display his engorged member to anyone who happened to be present as proof of his unflagging prowess. After their second night at sea, Kyle took his bedroll and slept on the galley floor. Above his head, saucepans suspended from a wire rack rasped together like barnacles with every pitch of the boat, a sound infinitely more soothing that that of Norberto beating the beef bayonet in the bunk below.

 

            Dolphins rode their bow wave as they plied the Eastern tropical Pacific, an eight million square mile area of water stretching from Baja California to Chile, and the major migration route for the yellowfin tuna. It was in the 1920’s that fishermen first noticed that the migrating fish would often swim just below herds of dolphins, particularly the spotted and spinner dolphins common to the area. And for reasons that science has yet to explain, the tuna that swam with the dolphins were of a greater size than those which swam alone. So the task became simple: locate the dolphins and you were assured of a big catch.

 

            At first, the dolphin-tuna-fishermen relationship was mutually rewarding. Using small coastal vessels, fishermen would first locate a dolphin pod. Live bait was then thrown overboard, driving the tuna into such a feeding frenzy that they would snap at anything, including the hooks cast to catch them. The dolphins were never in any danger as their sonar was able to detect the hooks and they were rewarded as they too fed on the bait. But in the 1950’s all that began to change as small scale fishing gave way to large-scale commercialism with the introduction of the purse seine net. A change that was to prove fatal for the dolphins.

 

            Rather than baiting hooks and hauling in tuna individually, the development of a hydraulic pulley known as a ‘powerblock’, enabled large nylon nets over a kilometer in length to be deployed around entire herds of dolphins and the tuna that accompanied them. The ‘purse’ was then closed at the bottom, thereby trapping dolphins and fish alike. The result – record catches of yellowfin tuna and millions of dead dolphins.

 

            It was not until 1967 when a young scientist named William Perrin signed on with the US tuna fleet to study dolphin behavior as part of his doctoral dissertation that the plight of the dolphins received widespread attention.

The outcry resulted in the Marine Mammals Protection Act (MMPA), which offered, on paper at least, protection against killing, capture or even harassment for all marine mammals in US territorial waters. It’s most pressing and urgent task to reduce the number of dolphins killed in yellowfin tuna fishing to ‘insignificant numbers approaching zero’.

 

            The road to hell however, is paved with good intentions. Even the development of ‘backdown’, a process whereby the far end of the net is dipped below the surface to allow captured dolphins to escape, did little to alleviate the problem. Now almost a quarter of a century since the act was passed, between 80 – 100,000 dolphins were still being killed every year in the nets of the ETP fleet. These however, were just the official figures and did not include mortally wounded animals, such as dolphins which may have had their beaks, tails or flippers torn off in the nets, or nursing infants whose mothers had perished, but who nonetheless were still ‘alive’ when released.

 

            Kyle stood in the galley chopping onions. From where he stood he could look out the porthole to the deck below. Priestly strode down from the wheelhouse to observe the catch being winched aboard. He glanced upwards towards the galley then cupped his hands around his mouth to make himself heard above the din of the winches.

 

            “Hey Cookie! Fire up that frypan – here comes the catch of the day!”

 

            Kyle raised the hand holding the knife in a salute to show he had heard as

Priestly turned back to the net, its contents spilling out over the deck and into the hold. Others, still suspended in its deadly embrace, cried out in agony as they strained against their bonds. Kyle watched, while continuing to chop the onions. The onions were strong. Their pungent odor made his eye smart. This was good.

 

            Inside the oil container, the hidden camera silently turned over, the tape recording the scene below.

 

            Kyle found himself thinking of his parents. Good, honest Quaker people who had instilled in him the importance of bearing witness. Now it had become his duty to bear witness to the inexcusable. He paused and put down the knife, first wiping his hands on his apron and then lifting up the eyepatch to wipe away the moisture that had gathered there with the back of his hand.

 

            Ridiculous really, that even a glass eye could shed tears.

           

Ben had never seen anything quite like it. Whatever his preconceptions, it became abundantly clear the moment the show started that they should have been checked in at the gate. If he or anyone else present had been expecting to see dolphins jumping through hoops they were in for a big disappointment. It was not so much that the dolphins were performing for a human audience. Quite the reverse. More like the humans had been captured to put on a show for the dolphins.

 

            “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the Seabourne Institute. Now, put your hands together for the hosts of today’s show – Dottie and Oscar.”

 

            Opposite, the video screen snapped to life, revealing an underway scene as two perfectly streamlined bodies swept past camera to rocket from the water just seconds later. The crowd let out a collective gasp as the dolphins turned end-over-end before cannoning back into the lagoon. Novel, thought Ben. But that was just the warm up.

 

            After the animals had made their entrance and performed a few more pre-requisite leaps and tail-walks, their display was brought to an end by a rash blast of a whistle. A man appeared poolside and the animals turned and headed to greet him. He rewarded each with a fish from the bucket he was carrying, then, removing a microphone from the back pocket of his shorts, turned to address the audience.

 

            “G’day ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of Dottie and Oscar here I’d like to welcome you to the first of today’s shows here at the Seabourne Institute.”

 

            He spoke with an accent Ben couldn’t quite place, his vowels too drawn out to be British, too flat to be American. “Now as you might have sussed we like to do things a little differently up here at Seabourne. Let’s just say that we require a little more audience participation than is usual for a show of this kind.” His arm swept towards the lagoon, indicating the dolphins jostling at the water’s edge. Directly opposite a large keyboard had been set up. From where he was sitting Ben could just make out the icons on each of the over-sized, brightly colored keys. “We’ve arranged for you to be able to talk to our dolphins and for them to talk to you – and that’s the purpose of the big keyboard that you see in front of you. It’s kinda like a dolphin translator. So now I’m going to hand you over to Dottie and Oscar and let them run the show from here on in. Over to you, guys.”

 

            Another shrill blast of the whistle and as if on cue one of the animals raised itself halfway out of the water and with its beak depressed one of the keys. Above them, the video screen had been interfaced with the keyboard below, and as the key was selected the icon flashed, Ben almost leapt from his seat as a single word issued from the speakers.

 

            Man.

 

            Even though he knew the sound had been generated in a studio, as the word died away Ben felt fingers of unease brush his spine. To each side of him he felt people shift in their seats. This was not what he had been expecting. That one word had an eerie quality that was positively otherworldly. It was if he were listening to the transmission from an alien race.

 

            The trainer was quick to resume his patter. Like a vaudevillian of old, a mixture of corn and ham, couched on a level that would have insulted the intelligence of the average five-year-old. Predictably, the audience loved it. “Now Dottie, there are a hell of a lot of men out there. Besides, you’re a married woman. I think the single ladies in the audience deserve first pick if there are any available blokes in the audience.” Laughter.

 

            The dolphin selected three keys in quick succession.

 

            Man. Second row. Right.

 

            On the giant screen the camera began to zoom in on the row directly behind Ben.

 

            The trainer paused. “I’m afraid you’re gonna have to get a lot more specific than that, Dot. After all, there’s a lot of guys sitting in the second row.’

 

            Man with glasses. Blue shirt. No hair.

 

            A collective ripple of amusement and awe ran through the spectators as the camera zoomed in on the unfortunate gentleman, whose hand in a reflex action went straight to his balding pate.

 

            “That bloke, right there?”

 

            The dolphin kicked its head back and forth in a parody of the affirmative.

 

            Man do tricks.

 

            “Oh, I’m with ya!” the trainer responded in mock surprise. “You want the bloke to come down here and do some tricks with you?”

 

            More frantic nodding accompanied by an eager trilling. The trainer beckoned the luckless conscript down. With some reluctance, the man got up to a smattering of applause. Ben could only feel a welcome sense of relief that he had not been thus favored.

 

            “What’s your name, mate?” the trainer asked once the man had joined him poolside, his muttered reply informing those present that this was Kirk Michener from Spokane, Washington.

 

            “Kirk?” echoed the trainer. “Maybe we should call you Captain Kirk, how’s about that?”

 

            Kirk from Spokane shuffled his feet uneasily. A regular fish out of water, his embarrassment as plain as his face broadcast on the fifty foot screen above his head. His ordeal however, was far from over.

 

            “Now come boldly with me Captain Kirk, and meet our friends.” The trainer half led, half dragged, or so it seemed to Ben, a reluctant Kirk over to the waters edge. “This is Dottie and Oscar. Go on, say hello – they won’t bite.”

 

            Kirk knelt down and reached out with a hand that was visibly shaking. Just as his hand was about to connect with the smooth, water-slicked flesh, the dolphin spat forth a stream of water, causing the unfortunate Kirk to recoil with alarm to the predictable accompaniment of laughter. No matter that the whole routine was as precisely engineered as a ride in Disneyland, the audience was clearly enjoying the show. Even Kirk, standing up to brush the water from his shirt, hardly seemed to mind being cast in the role of fall guy if his expression was anything to go by.

 

            Man wet.

 

            Nothing like stating the obvious.

 

“Now then Dottie, what tricks would you like Kirk to perform for us here today?”

 

            Ball. Dolphin throw ball, man catch.

 

            “Ever play footy, Kirk?”

 

            Kirk responded with a shake of his head that would have done a dolphin proud.

 

            “Don’t worry my Captain, the dolphins are new to this too. Now Dottie’s going to take the ball out into the lagoon and she’s going to throw it to you and you catch it. Think you can do that?”

 

            He blew his whistle and picking up a soccer ball, tossed it into the water. The dolphins began to toss the ball too and fro between them as they took if further out. Finally, the female dolphin stopped with the ball about fifteen feet out.

 

            “Okay, Captain. Here she comes. And don’t worry – she throws like a girl.”

 

            Kirk assumed a half-crouched receiver’s position poolside.

 

            The trainer blew his whistle. “Play ball!”

 

            The ball was tail-flipped at Kirk with the velocity of an intercontinental ballistic missile. To give the man credit, he caught it, only to land ignominiously on his backside in a puddle of water, propelled backwards by the sheer speed of the thing.

 

The trainer blew his whistle, tossed the dolphin a fish and helped the flame-faced Kirk to his feet.  “Packs quite a punch, doesn’t she?” he added, unnecessarily. “Never mind, mate. Let’s try that one again. Maybe you’d better stick to playing with the blokes, this time so Oscar’s gonna give it a go, okay?” Kirk was again shaking his head but the trainer took no notice, punching the ball back towards the waiting dolphins. This time it was the bigger animal, the male that took it. Grabbing the ball between his jaws he started to swim towards where the hapless volunteer was waiting, arms outstretched to net his prize. Then all of a sudden the dolphin and the ball vanished beneath the surface.

 

            The audience craned forward in their seats, trying to gauge from the surface where the dolphin might be. The trainer walked forward, beckoning Kirk to follow. To Ben it looked suspiciously like another set-up.

 

            “Okay Captain, I don’t know what he’s got planned but you’d better set your phasers on stun.” More laughter from the audience as Kirk started to weave to and fro at the waters edge in anticipation of where the dolphin might surface, leaning out further and further in an attempt to probe the depths.

 

            There’s Klingons off the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow,” sang the trainer tunelessly. Ben wondered why Kirk just didn’t push him in.

 

            Suddenly the ball erupted from the water right in front of him like a torpedo, shooting ten feet up in the air and showering the hapless Kirk with yet more water. Delighted, the audience broke into applause while in the pool the delinquent dolphin tail-walked backwards apparently delighted at the soaking the volunteer had received. The trainer grabbed the bucket and made to hand the man a fish. The audience roared with laughter. His five minutes of fame over, Kirk returned to his seat with obvious relief.

 

It wasn’t just Kirk who left the stadium wet. The show’s climax had come when it’s star attraction, a thirty foot long, six ton Killer whale named Saamri, leapt from the water to retrieve a fish from the hand of his trainer, perched upon a platform twenty feet above. The massive animal launched itself skyward, so massive its tail was still beneath the water even as it snatched the fish with a snap of his fearsome jaws that was strangely elegant, before falling back into the lagoon. The force of the breach drenching those seated in the front rows in a tidal wave of thrills despite the benefit of the Perspex splash barriers that separated them from the water, the little girl seated next to Ben squealing with delight at this impromptu shower. Moments before the finale, the whale had seemingly chosen her, much the way the dolphins had selected Kirk from Spokane. It too had operated the keyboard. Kiss had appeared on the vidscreen, followed by puckered lips and the appropriate sound.

 

            “Now Saamri, don’t tell me you’re getting fresh with me,” hammed the trainer.

 

            Not you, fish breath. Girl.

 

            “What girl, Saamri?”

 

            Girl. Pink dress. Blonde hair. Front row. Pretty.

 

The camera zoomed in, past Ben, the one summoned to embrace the whale squealing in delight at her good fortune. The trainer held her as the whale spy hopped out of the water and she leaned over to place a delicate kiss on his snout. Shutters clicked. Camcorders whirred. It was a Kodak moment.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, put your hands together for Seabourne’s star attraction – Saamri the Killer whale.”

 

            Despite the soaking many had received earlier, the audience broke into thunderous applause. As if on cue the whale slid out of the water and up onto the side of the pool, coming to rest inches from where Ben was seated, slapping its tail enthusiastically. His trainer bent down and gestured a command. The whale opened his mouth obligingly. The audience let out a collective gasp as the man stuck his head inside. A modern day twist on the old lion tamer trick. Withdrawing his head the man tossed the whale a tidbit. It slapped it’s flukes in the water in a gesture of self-applause before sliding back into the pool. The crowd went wild.

 

            From where he’d been sitting all Ben could see were rows of lethal teeth and a gullet that extended to oblivion. It didn’t take much imagination to realize how effortlessly those jaws could have severed the man’s head from his body, or worse, what they might have done to a child.  It was not a pleasant thought to take with him. Heading past the orca pool and underwater viewing area, Ben followed the boardwalk back towards the entrance to the research laboratory. It ended abruptly at a security gate. ‘No public admittance beyond this point’ proclaimed the perimeter signs. The presence of an armed guard hardly necessary to reinforce their message that this was where the fun stopped and the serious work began.

 

            Ben was clearly expected, the guard checking his name off a clipboard and directing him to McHugh’s office. “Third door on the right as you enter the main building,” he explained.

 

A kind of hush permeated the interior. An almost reverent silence usually confined to places of worship, broken only by the slap of water against the causeway below. It was not something Ben cared to disturb as he walked through the foyer with it’s giant Seabourne logo on the wall surrounded by those of their sponsors, and his knock on the door marked ‘Dr. Conor McHugh, Director’ was more of an apology than a request for admission.

 

            Conor McHugh sat surrounded by banks of digitized audio equipment. Upon entering, Ben realized that his office, and possibly others on that level, were soundproofed, which accounted for the silence without. Synthesized noises erupted from speakers like the chatter of imprisoned birds. An oscilloscope provided a visual display of the frequencies which flickered across the screen like summer lightning. He was older than Ben had expected, the voice, with its hearty accent had supplied the illusion of youth. At 53, Conor McHugh’s hair had already slipped from his crown like the wig of a badly made puppet. His girth proudly proclaimed his appetite for life’s pleasures, as the lines about his eyes his appetite for laughter. But behind the merry twinkle almost hidden behind the thick bifocals, there lurked a razor sharp mind, obsessed since boyhood with a near mystical crusade to commune with and protect the only other creatures on our planet with large, highly developed brains.

 

            He rose as Ben entered and strode forward to greet his visitor. “Ben Galloway I presume? Conor McHugh. Welcome to Seabourne.” His grip was firm, at odds with his diminutive stature and as his hand was pumped up and down in this hearty vice Ben found himself wincing. But McHugh it seemed was not one to stand on ceremony. Grabbing his jacket from where it had been haphazardly cast over the back of a chair, he gestured Ben to follow. “Come on – let me show you around.”

 

            Ben had hoped for a tour of the laboratory. The sight of the equipment in McHugh’s office had given rise to more questions than it had answered about the nature of the work they were engaged in. He was somewhat disappointed when McHugh led the way out of the building and back down the boardwalk towards the public areas. Despite his short stature, McHugh was a fast walker and Ben found himself quickening his pace to keep up.

 

            “Did you manage to take in one of our shows yet? Quite a performance I think you’ll agree. Do you know anything about training dolphins, Ben?” McHugh added before he could reply.

 

            “Not really.”

 

            They arrived back at the security gate. The guard opened it to allow them through. McHugh waved his thanks before continuing. “Dolphins are social animals. Often they live in large groups of stable family units known as pods. They are incapable, in fact of living alone. It is this almost primeval need for companionship combined of course with their native intelligence that makes them easy to bond with their trainers once in captivity.”

 

            “I’m afraid it’s a subject I know very little about.” Ben stated his ignorance flatly.

 

            McHugh nodded as if this was nothing more than he had expected. “There are over fifty species of dolphin, all differing in shape, size and color, as diverse as the races of mankind. Here at Seabourne we have a pair of Pacific Bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops gilli and ~” he indicated the lagoon before them, “Orcinus orca, more commonly known as a Killer whale.’

 

            They had reached the orca pen. Spectators crowded down the steps to the subterranean viewing area below. To Ben’s left, a creature the color of winter broke surface then vanished again in a breath.

 

            “They’re not really whales in the strict sense of the word,” McHugh continued. “The term ‘killer whale’ literally means ‘the killer of whales’. Pods of orcas have been known to attack whales as large as a Blue. Whalers in Australia once used packs of killer whales like hunting dogs to bring down their prey, a practice also employed by aboriginal Indians of the Pacific Northwest. But orcas are in fact members of the dolphin family. The largest dolphins if you like.”

 

            Ben glanced back as they left the pool behind. The animal’s massive dorsal fin, as threatening as that of a shark’s which it would have easily dwarfed, sliced through the water like the conning tower of a submarine. It was hard to think of such a cannibalistic creature as nothing more than cousin to the playful Dottie and Oscar.

 

            McHugh talked as fast as he walked and thought and the subject could change in a nanosecond. Ben felt at a singular disadvantage and wondered, not for the first time, why he had consented to come.

 

            “Listen, Doctor McHugh, I’m not sure what Coop – David Cooper told you but I’m just a sound engineer. What I know about dolphins could be inscribed upon a microchip with room left to store the memoirs of Jacques Cousteau. If you’re looking for a dolphin expert you’re looking at the wrong man.”

 

            “That’s good because I’ve got all the dolphin experts I need. What I don’t have right now is a sound engineer, especially one with a background like yours in computers.”

 

            “May I ask why? I mean to say, you still haven’t given me any indication of what this job entails.”

 

            McHugh gave no reply. They passed the bleachers, already filling with spectators eager for the next performance, still half an hour away. Past seals clamoring like crows about an escarpment that rose from their pen like a stony castle. On the far side of the performance pool he unlocked a gate and Ben followed him down to a floating pontoon at the waters edge. He handed Ben a bucket filled with fish and blew three short, sharp ear-piercing blasts upon the whistle that hung around his neck.

 

            The water came alive at his summons. At Ben’s feet, two laughing snouts emerged from below the surface, each trilling a greeting. McHugh reached into the bucket Ben held and tossed each a fish.

 

            “Meet Dottie and Oscar.” He beckoned Ben forward. “You probably saw them at the show but now come and let me formally introduce you.”

 

            Putting the bucket to one side, Ben knelt down and reached towards the smaller of the two animals, the female, Dottie. Ashamed, he realized his hand was shaking just as Kirk’s had previously.

 

            “Go on,” encouraged McHugh, just as her trainer had with the unfortunate Kirk. “She won’t bite.”

 

            His hand connected with flesh as smooth as satin. She chirped and rolled on her back as if to encourage him further. Her belly was hard, all muscle. Aquadynamic perfection., the perfect submersible, thought Ben. She rolled gently back onto her front. He noticed how the skin around her beak and flanks was puckered with scarring. It was then he looked into the dolphin’s eye.

 

            What he glimpsed there surprised him. This was more than the feral cunning of a wild creature or the eagerness of a domestic pet to please its master. Instead an almost sentient-like intelligence seemed to appraise him, akin to another soul reaching out and touching his. Knowing, humor, compassion, qualities that up until this moment he had felt belonged exclusively to human beings. But now he wondered.

 

            Stunned he took a step backwards. McHugh, busy feeding Oscar glanced across, taking in Ben’s surprised expression. He nodded as if the reaction was one he expected.

 

            “You really get the feeling someone’s home, don’t you?” He tossed a fish in Dottie’s direction and she thanked him with a slap of her flippers.

 

            “It’s not what I was expecting. I guess I thought they would be like a super-intelligent dog or something.” Ben crouched back down, his earlier apprehension forgotten. The two dolphins jostled against the pontoon, anticipating the arrival of more fish. “But they seem more like us. More like us than apes even.”

            McHugh nodded his agreement as if happy to have found such a ready convert. “It’s good you feel that way. The beneficial effect of contact with dolphins is well documented. That’s why there’s such a proliferation of dolphin encounter tours springing up. Some of course call it exploitation. I would tend to agree.”

 

            “Then how do you justify what you’re doing here? It’s the same thing surely?”

 

            “We like to think of our animals not as prisoners but rather as our guests. Guests who are free to return to their natural habitat when their stay with us is at an end which is a term of no longer than three years. In return we give them food, kindness and a clean, safe environment in which to live. What they give us in return is something we will never be able to repay.”

 

            “I thought there were all kinds of problems associated with releasing captive dolphins back into the wild?”

 

            “Normally you’d be right,” McHugh agreed. “It’s an experiment that’s only met with partial success. In most cases captive dolphins have to be taught how to hunt and fend for themselves again. Also, for such large animals their lymphatic system is relatively small. We’ve discovered that prolonged captivity weakens their immune system making them vulnerable to infection when released. Something the ‘Free Willy’ do-gooders fail to appreciate. It’s only here at Seabourne that we’ve been able to overcome both problems simply by providing them with a habitat that’s a close to the open ocean as it’s possible to replicate in captivity. One that allows them to continue to swim, hunt and play just as they do in the wild.”

 

            “Of course,” and his eyes twinkled as he tossed the excited dolphins the last of the fish, “That doesn’t mean they’re not adverse to the odd free herring or two.”

 

            “But isn’t this all rather an elaborate set-up? Especially when you’ve got both the Seattle and Vancouver aquariums practically next door.”

 

            “Oh we’re not just a tourist attraction, Ben. Oh dear me, no. It’s what helps to fund our research in part but what you see here is just window dressing. What goes on behind the scenes is far, far more than any of our day-trippers can possibly imagine.”

 

            “You still haven’t told me what kind of research you’re involved with up here. Project Morning Glory – what is it, exactly?”

 

            McHugh was silent for several seconds. Ben wondered if his question would yet again be dismissed by one of McHugh’s rapid subject changes. When he finally spoke it was as if to impart a revelation.

 

            “Something wonderful.”

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