Sea Eyes Chapter 5

3 08 2007

‘Private aquariums may not be expected to sacrifice profits except

for the sake of public relations. Their much publicized research

programs or financial assistance to projects outside the

aquarium itself are geared toward promotion, which is profitable

for them, or for knowledge which may help protect their

sizable investment in expensive, hard-to-acquire animals

such as orcas.’

 

A Meeting of Nations

Randall Eaton, PhD 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                       

 

Chapter Five

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

                                    Ben waited another two days before calling as if delay would grant him a last minute reprieve. Not that he didn’t want to help, because after hearing about Project Morning Glory who wouldn’t want to?  No, it wasn’t that. The difficulty lay with him believing he had anything sound to contribute. Sound into vision. And not just any sound – an alien sound.

 

                        “Conor McHugh.”

 

                        “Doc – Conor, its Ben. Ben Galloway.”

 

                        “Ben, how are you?”

 

                        “Fine. I was calling to let you know I’ve thought about what you told me and if the positions still available I’d like to accept your offer, even though, to be honest – I’m not sure of how much of a contribution I’ll have to make to the project.”

 

                        “That’s great news Ben and I appreciate your honesty. But with your background in software development I’m confident we’ll sort out the Eye’s teething troubles in no time.”

 

                        Ben remained less convinced. “I’ll do my best, sir,” he replied cautiously.

 

                        If McHugh noticed his hesitance he didn’t react. “I’d like you to come up here tomorrow and introduce you to the rest of our team. I need you to start as

            soon as possible. At the moment we’re still trying to find a suitable volunteer on which to test the Eye and I’d like you to be involved in the selection process, especially as you’ll be the one working most closely with them. And another thing, you’ll need to learn basic signals to work with the dolphins so you’ll need to spend some time with Flip, our dolphin trainer.”

 

                        “I won’t have to work with that killer whale, will I?” He knew his fear was irrational. All the same, there was no way he was going anywhere near it even if it would benefit mankind and win him a Nobel Prize.  He was after a salary, not sainthood. On the other end of the line he heard McHugh chuckle.

 

                        “No Ben. There’s no need for you to go anywhere near him even though I can assure you he’s perfectly harmless. Saamri is part of another research project that doesn’t concern you. I don’t have to remind you that all our research is extremely sensitive. I’m relying on your discretion Ben, not to talk to anyone about what we’re doing up here. Whatever you see or hear while you’re working at Seabourne can’t leave these gates, either by land or by sea, do I make myself clear?”

                       

Cafe Latte. Nothing quite like it to jump-start the creative motor first thing in the morning. Leigh bought hers from the part-time musician who operated a cart under the awning of their building. Sometimes he would favor customers with a recital, whipping up a tune on his violin as easily as froth on a cappuccino. But not today. He handed her cup and change without so much as a ‘Have a nice day’.  It was if he, like the city had caught Leigh’s mood. Even the sun was affected, peeking glumly past the clouds as if undecided whether to polish up its act or remain sulking.

 

                        Upstairs the creative she’d been working on the night before sat on her desk like some metaphor for her present state of mind. Unfinished business seemed to be the order of the day. For appearances sake she picked up her pen and glancing briefly at her watch wondered what time Lennie might appear and if he appreciated the state of high anxiety in which she’d spent the past sixteen hours.  But when he finally stuck his head around the door at 10.30 she was too relieved to reprimand him. His expression told its own story. Her only thought was how could we have read it so wrong? She’d never lost a pitch before, but then there was a first time for everything.

 

                        “It was a disaster,” Lennie said, confirming her worst fears as he slumped into the chair opposite, his eyes downcast before she could summon up the right degree of sympathy.

 

                        “Lennie ~” she floundered around for the right words but they proved elusive. “I just don’t know what to say. I don’t know how we could have got the brief so wrong. I feel it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have been so insistent on that stupid strap line. You should know what I’m like by now. I get an idea and I just don’t know when to let it go. You needn’t be afraid of shooting me down in flames when I get like that.”

 

“I’ll bear it in mind,” came the muffled reply.

 

Lennie was pointedly staring at the wall. He obviously did blame her if he wouldn’t even make eye contact. She wanted to ask who’d won but somehow it seemed like rubbing salt into an open wound. No doubt he’d tell her later or else she’d read about it in Ad Week.

 

                        “A complete and utter disaster.”  His voice trailed away. He buried his face in his hands. To her utter dismay she realized his shoulders were shaking. Incredibly he was crying. Torn between sympathy and embarrassment she got up and placed a hand on his arm.

 

                        “Lennie, it can’t have been that bad …”

 

                        “It was. Complete and utter annihilation.” He lifted his face from his hands and gave her a wink. “For the other agencies.”

 

                        It took a moment for what he’d said to sink in. That plus the fact that he was smiling. “You mean – we didn’t lose the pitch? You mean, we won?”

 

                        He nodded. “Sent the rest of them home to where the deer and the uninspired play.”

 

                        She went forward to hug him then suddenly withdrew the impulse. “You bastard. Have you any idea what you just put me through?”

 

                       

This time Ben drove to the institute both to familiarize himself with the route and time the commute even though McHugh had told him that employees could make free use of the jetcat should they wish. It was an option however, he was sure he would make good use of in the future. After all, they didn’t have either gridlock or radar traps on Puget Sound.

 

                        McHugh was in his office, surrounded by faxes, emails, letters and constantly ringing telephones. All the result of ads placed on the net and in newspapers around the nation, asking for volunteers. Ben stood waiting in the doorway until McHugh looked up and beckoned him forward to sit on a chair opposite.

 

                        “I hate this,” he said finally replacing the receiver. “Anything that takes me away from the dolphins for any amount of time. Instead of a scientist I end up being a goddamn personnel manager. That’s why you couldn’t have arrived at a better time. I hate to throw you in the deep end but you’re going to have to muddle through without me as best you can, at least until I’ve dealt with these inquiries. Why don’t you go look for Lily?”

 

                        “Lily?”

 

                        “Or should I say Doctor Johns. She’s somewhere down by the orca pool.  She’ll show you around. This afternoon, God willing, I’ll take you down and

            introduce you to Flip, our dolphin trainer.” The phone on his desk, silenced momentarily, began to ring once more.  He glanced at it clearly annoyed. “I can see it’s going to be one of those days.”

 

                        The orca pool. Great. The last place he wanted to go. Ben made his way down the steps from the institute towards the lagoon. The gate to the enclosure had been left open. He walked through onto the boardwalk. Water slapped through the slats in the decking as if to deter him from going any further. He glanced out across the pen to try to ascertain where the Killer whale might be. Hopefully on the other side of the pen but there was no tell-tale dorsal fin or even any sign of blow to mark its whereabouts. Neither was there any sign of the elusive Doctor Johns. Nothing, not even a guardrail separated him from the hissing water at his left. It moved sullenly as if it was a living thing, waiting for something or someone. The tide had stirred up a great deal of sediment reducing visibility to zero. Ben could only speculate how deep the water was beneath his feet or what lurked in its oily depths.

 

                        “Hello?”

 

                        Even to his own ears his voice sounded strained. You’re going to make a great first impression sounding like a hysterical queen, he thought. He cleared his throat in the hope it would steady his voice. “Is anyone here?”

 

                        As if in answer to his question the water next to him seemed to come alive. He had no time to react as a massive black and white form erupted from the depths like a missile not ten feet away from where he stood. He watched as the Killer whale launched itself skyward, climbing higher and higher into the air. The animal heaved itself out of the lagoon, reached its zenith, then fell back with the force of a depth charge. Displaced, the water rushed over the side, soaking his feet while spray hit him like a tempest. Ben shot backwards, shocked. From nearby came the sound of laughter. I’m glad someone finds it amusing, he thought as he looked down at the water rushing out of his Timberlands. He sat down on the decking as the wash subsided and began to remove his shoes and socks.

 

                        “You must be Ben I take it?”

 

                        The woman walking towards him was in her mid-forties. Stick-thin, her body afflicted with the desiccation that seems to sap the life force from so many middle-aged women who have chosen to make abstention of food and sex a way of life. Wispy blonde hair shot with gray surrounded her like a halo, permed to the point of annihilation. Whatever else about her might seem insubstantial there was no arguing that her voice was a palpable one. As rich and resonant as a Gregorian chant. She held out a hand to Ben who was busy wringing out a waterlogged sock. “Lily Johns. Conor told me to expect you.”

 

                        He shook hers apologetically. “Ben Galloway. Sorry, the Welcome Wagons awash at the present minute. That monster had planned a little greeting of his own.”

                       

She smiled. It had the effect of momentarily making her appear younger than she was.  “He does have rather a sense of mischief, I’ll agree.”

 

                        Ben glowered to where the black dorsal fin sliced through the water like the warning of an approaching storm. “That’s not quite how I’d describe it. If I didn’t know better I’d swear he’d been lying in wait for me.”

 

                        This seemed to cause her even further amusement. “I wouldn’t put it past him. Saamri enjoys playing tricks on the unwary.”

 

                        Ben wondered if his next one would involve turning him into a light snack and why on earth she would think the animal possessed a sense of humor. If it did, he was sure it was at his expense. Before he could comment on her apparent anthropomorphism however, she changed the subject.

 

                        “If you’d like to come back with me we can dry those in my office,” she said indicating his sodden footwear. He got to his feet and followed her back towards the institute, pressing himself against the far wall of the orca enclosure as if at any moment he was about to be abducted by the Kraken.

 

                        Lily’s office, located just along the corridor from Conor’s, resembled a red-spot special day at Radio Shack. A splendid disarray of amplifiers, tape decks, DVD players, computer terminals and speakers joined by a jumble of spaghetti and microphones to a sound spectrograph in one corner. In the window, two potted impatiens, both afflicted with the same aridity as their owner, silently withered away their existence. On the wall behind her desk a cross-stitched sampled urged the reader to ‘Just Do the Damn Thing’.  Next to a map of the Pacific Northwest coast, the noticeboard behind the coffeemaker was pinpricked with cartoons of PMS sufferers, an entry form to the Ms. Cyberspace contest, two tickets to a R.E.M. concert and details of a course on Reclaiming Your Feminine Power. Lily took Ben’s shoes and placed then on the window ledge and rung out his both socks into the pots of the grateful Bizzy Lizzie’s. These she laid out next to his shoes before pouring them both a coffee.

 

“Don’t worry, you’re not the only landlubber around here. Before I joined Seabourne the closest I got to one was the occasional glimpse from the Bremerton ferry.”

 

                        It took him a moment to realize she was talking about the orca. He took the cup from her and nodded his thanks. “So where did you work before?’”

 

                        “Language laboratory at the University of the Northwest. I was there for four years. Before that I taught linguistics for ten years at UCLA until I got tired of the insincerity and the smog. Conor tells me you were working recording talking books for the blind – pardon, visually challenged.”

 

                        “That’s right, but my backgrounds in computer science. One of the reasons he picked me I suppose.” He took a sip of coffee before continuing. “So what does a linguistics expert have to do with developing a sonic Eye?”

 

                        “She doesn’t. I’m in charge of an altogether different area of research.”

 

                        “Which is?”

 

                        “Orca whale dialects.”

 

                        Ben nearly choked. “You mean you’re trying to talk to that thing out there?”

 

                        “Don’t sound so surprised. You know they’re really very intelligent.”

 

                        “I’ll take your word for it.”

 

                        “Not just mine. Researchers over the years have found them to be highly social, even gentle animals.”

 

                        “So why aren’t you trying to accomplish this with the dolphins? I mean, as far as I know a dolphin never hurt anybody but from what Conor tells me these things can be really aggressive.”

 

                        “First let’s get one thing straight. There has never been a single recorded instance of a killer whale in the wild attacking a human being.”

 

                        “But wasn’t there a case a few years ago of a pair of killer whales at an aquarium in Victoria that killed their trainer?”

 

                        “Unfortunately, yes. However, we think it was either play that got out of hand or else the result of psychosis brought about by their captivity. If the latter’s the case then that could never happen at Seabourne with our closest-to-nature Sea Pens. That kind of behavior is completely abnormal. Like I said, there has never been a verified unprovoked attack on a human being by an orca in the wild. They’re no more than the victims of extremely bad press.”

 

                        “Conor mentioned there’s been instances of them attacking other whales. That hardly seems like bad press to me, more like out and out cannibalism. What kind of creature feeds on its own kind?”

 

                        Lily walked over to where a chart of the northwestern seaboard hung on the opposite wall. The coastline from Puget Sound, through the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, down to Grays Harbor on the Pacific Coast and north as far as Johnstone Strait was shaded pink while a route from the western coast Vancouver Island to Ketchikan, Alaska was marked in blue. Yet another band transversed the entire area, arrowed north to south. While the ocean beyond was dotted with question marks. “You must beware of attributing them with anthropomorphic qualities, especially if you’re going to be working closely with sea mammals. Big fish eat little fish, it’s as simple as that. Killer whales only attack other whales and dolphins when food is in short supply. Even then, there’s only one particular group known to do that. You probably already know that Killer whales are like dolphins in that they live in close-knit family groups or pods. These units fall into two main categories that we’ve classified as Transients and Residents. Resident pods, as their name suggests, always stick to the same coastal areas. The southern resident community,” she indicated the pink area on the map, “who live in Puget Sound and the Juan de Fuca strait, and the northern community which ranges from south-west Vancouver Island in the south as far as Alaska in the north. Dispersed along the coast are separate, smaller groups of whales which we know as Transients. Transients range over a wide area and show no loyalty to one particular region. In addition, their family groups are smaller, resident groups containing up to 50 members while transients usually have five or fewer members in the group. Research has found that it is the transients who tend to prey upon other whales and dolphins and not the residents. Transients also tend to be slightly smaller in size than residents and they also tend to be quieter, communicating only when hunting, unlike residents whose pod members maintain a constant dialogue with each other as they travel. Interesting enough we’ve also found that members of the two groups are genetically distinct.”

 

                        “You said a constant dialogue. You make it sound like they’re having a conversation.”

 

                        Lily retrieved her coffee and returned to her desk. “For all we know they are.”

 

                        She switched on a small tape recorder on her desk. All at once the room was flooded with pulsing clicks, whistles and short piercing screams. Ben listened intently, trying to find a pattern amongst the noise. No siren song, no underwater sonnet sung by a musing Humpback, it nevertheless had more rhyme and resonance to it than the staccato chatter of the dolphins. It was like being in underwater room where all the occupants were talking at once.

 

                        “And they expect you to make sense of all that?”

 

                        Lily turned off the tape. When she smiled it had the effect of making her seem younger than her years, Ben thought.

 

                        “It’s not as hard as it seems. Unlike Humpback whales whose songs evolve from year to year, Killer whale dialects remain unchanged. We’ve already identified many of the calls and what they’re used for. The clicks you’re hearing are for echolocation although most of them are beyond the range of human hearing and you need a sound spectrograph to record and analyze them properly. The whistles are heard amongst resting and socializing whales while the pulsed sounds appear to be a way for pod members to keep in touch with each other while out of sight and can be heard at least five miles away. The really interesting thing we’ve discovered is that every pod, including Transients, shares a number of these calls with other pods in the community. Each pod or group has its own unique versions of these shared calls as well as unique and distinctive calls of their own, some of which we think may be greetings, or even names, although personally I don’t want to stick my neck out that far. Many of the pods have similar vocal dialects that seem to reflect a common heritage and they in turn form larger communities, where pods from one community travel to visit others. So we have structured community and language based around a local dialect. A trait shared by only a few other species, one of which is man. One of the purposes of this program is to try to discover whether there is any interaction between the transient and resident groups. In other words, we want to find out if they’re talking to each other.”

 

Zed would love this, Ben thought. However, he was yet to be convinced.

 

But surely even if you do manage identify the patterns and translate them, communication would still be next to impossible? Even if they’re intelligent enough to understand what we’re saying, Killer whales don’t have the vocal apparatus to form words,” Ben pointed out. At least I know that much, he congratulated himself before continuing. “And despite what we’ve seen on Seaquest, and that dog and pony show you put on for the tourists, the technology to translate human language into whalespeak just doesn’t exist yet. May never exist. If you want my opinion Dr Johns, this is one whale of a fish story you’re throwing me.”

 

                        Lily’s laugh indicated she was far from offended by his lack of faith. “Conor said you were a skeptic. It’s one of the reasons he wanted you for the project. The last thing we wanted was some new-age airhead looking for an out-of-mind experience. I think I’m going to enjoy having you around, Ben Galloway.”

 

                        He pointed to the question marks on the map. “What do these represent?” he asked.

 

                        “They represent a third distinct whale population known as Offshores. It’s a group we know very little about as they appear to live solely in the deep ocean and are rarely seen close to land – aside from the fact the whales seem to be smaller than either residents or transients but travel is far larger groups.”

 

                        Ben looked at the question posed by the map.

 

Here be dragons, he thought.

                       

‘Hey! Carson ~’

 

                        Leigh looked up from her computer screen and the half-written copy for the Dapple tuna casserole ad due to run in the next issues of Woman’s Day and Redbook. She’d have to go out later to approve the choice of place settings for the product shot later this afternoon, and also to check on the food stylist who was at this minute preparing enough tuna casserole (made from fresh tuna steaks, not canned), to feed the entire population of Spokane. This entailed a drive across town to where the photography studio was located in an industrial unit in Redmond. Something she hardly relished as by the sound of her exhaust she needed a new muffler. Now just might be a good time to ask Lennie if she could borrow his Beemer.

 

                        “You better get down to the garage. Somebody dinked your car.”

 

                        Great. That was all she needed. A new muffler was one thing. Body work something else entirely. “Did you get their registration?”

 

                        Lennie shook his head. “Long gone. I only noticed it when I pulled in next to you. Probably some rep visiting one of the other offices. You know how it is.”

 

                        Sure. She knew. “How bad is it?”

 

                        “A real fender bender. Probably clipped you backing out. Well, not so much clipped, mangled is a more appropriate term. Tore the whole front bumper clean out.”

 

                        Wonderful. Just when she was beginning to get ahead she goes and displeases the Great God of Bumper-Crunchers. She rummaged in her purse for her keys. “I can’t find my car keys. My life is falling apart and now I’ve lost my goddamn keys.”

 

                        “Maybe you left them in the ignition?” Lennie suggested helpfully.

 

                        “Anything’s possible. Besides, if somebody stole it they’d be doing me a favor. I’d get more for the insurance on that junkheap than if I actually tried to sell it.”

 

                        On the way down to the garage she tried to estimate how much the repair bill would cost. Of course, there was always insurance but at this rate her rating would be shot to hell. Next to her Lennie rocked back and forth on his heels whistling tunelessly. She glanced at him with a mixture of surprise and irritation. Somehow she’d expected more sympathy but it was almost as if he found the entire situation amusing. As if he had discerned her train of thought he winked. She was about to make some scathing remark when the car stopped and the doors slid open to reveal the bunker-like interior of the parking lot.

 

                        To make matters worse, her car was not merely dinked, it had vanished. And to add insult to injury, somebody had parked a dark green Range Rover in her usual slot. Now that which she had joked about had come to pass it was no longer funny. Be careful what you wish for, a little voice taunted her, you may get it.

 

                        “Shit!” In frustration she kicked the Range Rover’s rear tire. It hurt her a great deal more than it did the Range Rover. “Great. Now my fucking cars been stolen. Oh no ~ “ she turned to Lennie in a panic. “My house keys are on the same chain.  We’d better get back to the office and call the police. This is turning into one of the truly unforgettable days of my life for all the wrong reasons.”

 

                        “Are you absolutely sure your car has been stolen?”

 

                        Leigh looked at him like he’d just lost his mind. What kind of question was that? “Lennie! This is no time for humor. They could be ransacking my home even while we’re standing here.”

 

                        Lennie withdrew a set of keys from his pocket and dangled them in front of her. Even distraught, she recognized the Anne Klein dolphin key chain that she’d carried for the past seven years. “This,” Lennie intoned with some degree of pomposity and satisfaction, “is the key to your old car which is presently parked on the other side of the lot and is still in one piece, at least it was when I moved it.” He held up another. “This however, is the key to your new car which is sitting where it should be in your reserved parking space. Congratulations, Carson. You’ve earned it.”

 

                        Leigh could only stand there, for once, totally lost for words. Lennie opened the driver’s door and helped her up behind the wheel like he was guiding in a somnambulist. The interior smelled of new leather. Leigh took in the dash, the touch screen TV, the SATNAV, the hands-free station for her mobile phone. It was not so much a car as a mobile headquarters and contained everything the upwardly mobile young advertising executive needed. She turned the key in the ignition. It started first time. As if she expected it not to. This is a new car you dope, she reminded herself. “Lennie, I really don’t know what to say. I mean, nobody I ever worked for ever did anything like this for me before.”

 

                        Lennie shrugged as if to forestall her thanks. “Like I said, you earned it. Besides, that clunker of yours was a real embarrassment. We’ve got a corporate image to maintain.” He glanced at his watch. “You’d better get moving if you want to make your two o’clock. I’d say a little trip to Redmond’s just what she needs to run her in.”

 

                        Lennie closed the driver’s door then rapped on the glass. She pressed the button. Electric windows – what a luxury! “By the way, it’s a V8 so don’t break any speed limits,” he cautioned.

                       

                        She burned rubber all the way to Redmond.

                       

After lunch a drier Ben followed Conor down to the dolphin lagoon on the far side of the bay. At Ben’s behest they took the upper path avoiding the orca pool. As they approached, the mammal’s excited chatter drifted across the water to greet them, punctuated by the shrill sound of a whistle. Upon entering the enclosure, Ben saw a figure kneeling at the edge of the platform, whistle clenched between his teeth. He started to his feet, arms raised high and blew three short blasts. Both dolphins responded by tail walking backwards across the water in unison. Another blast from their trainer’s whistle and they fell back into the water before returning to the pontoon to collect their reward. The trainer blew the whistle once again before handing each of them a fish. He turned as McHugh and Ben stepped onto the deck beside him.

 

                        “Ben, I’d like to introduce our marine mammal trainer. Ben Galloway – Flip Williams.”

 

                        Flip stood up and smiled, allowing the whistle to drop from his mouth and revealing teeth so white they looked like a flash of neon. He stuck out a hand so tanned that it, like the rest of the body it belonged to, looked like it had acquired it’s patina on the beaches of Waikiki instead of the Northwest Pacific coast.

 

                        “G’day Ben. How’s it goin’?”

 

                        Up close Ben recognized him as the man he’d seen putting the whale and dolphins as well as Kirk from Spokane, through their paces the previous week. He shook the proffered hand briefly. “Flip?” it was more a question than an acknowledgment.

 

                        “Barry. Bazza to me mates. But Flip’ll do fine.” He indicated the dolphins milling about the water. “Flipper, Flip – geddit?”

 

                        Ben nodded.  “You’re Australian?”

 

                        “Bloody oath. A true-blue dinky-di Aussie through and through, although this is about as far as Bondi Beach as you can get.”

 

                        “Flip’s been with us since we opened and he’s yet to get used to our more er-temperate climate,” McHugh explained.

 

                        ‘Temperate? Give over. You blokes don’t know the meaning of the word. Temperate’s when the mercury’s sitting on forty-two degrees Celsius. I’ve been here three years now and I’ve yet to see it creep above thirty. It’s like Melbourne. All the bloody seasons in one day.”

 

                        “At least here if you don’t like the weather you’ve only got to wait half an hour for it to change,” said McHugh pragmatically.

 

                        “Yeah, more often than Madonna changes her image. Listen, I could be back at Surfer’s Paradise, working on my melanomas instead of being driven barking bloody mad by your schizophrenic climate.”

 

                        “Sure. Cleaning out the polar bear pens at Seaworld Nara. Sounds like a great career move to me.”

 

                        Ben gathered that the meteorological vagrancies of the Northwest climate was a long-standing joke between the two men.

 

                        “Ben needs a rundown on some basic commands. Just enough so he can summon the dolphins when he needs them,” McHugh said, explaining the purpose of their visit.

 

                        “That’s the easy part, you know that.” Flip turned to Ben to explain. “Dolphins have a very limited attention span. They need constant variety and stimulus. You can’t just expect them to hang around patiently while you conduct your little science experiments.”

 

                        “We won’t have the new hydrophones installed until next week so you’ve got until then to get used to working within their limitations,”  added McHugh.

 

                        Flip nodded. “It’s kinda like teaching kindergarten. You need to set them small tasks and give them plenty of breaks so they don’t get bored.” He reached into the pocket of his board shorts and withdrew a spare whistle which he handed over to Ben. “Only one way to get wet and that’s to jump in, mate.”

 

                        “Okay. Well, there’s not a lot I can do here so I’ll leave you two to talk about the weather.”

 

                        McHugh departed leaving Ben alone with the trainer. He looked out across the seapen to where the dolphins milled around, making a series of ratchet sounds like a pair of exotic parakeets. All of a sudden Ben felt nervous. He glanced at the whistle in his hand. Remembering his encounter with the mammals the other day did little to assuage his panic. Behind the dolphin smile was the innate strength of a powerful animal. Not a domestic pet bred in captivity. A wild animal. One that had a mind of its own and now Ben was supposed to tell it what to do. Fortunately for Ben, Flip seemed oblivious to his anxiety as he went about his explanation.

 

                        “Okay. Essentially the whistle is nothing more than a bridging signal that tells the dolphin it’s done what we want. We also blow the whistle before we hand the dolphin a fish. This way they come to associate the two events in that order. Whistle, trick, whistle, reward. If the dolphin fails to perform a trick the whistle’s not blown so –  no fish.”

 

                        “You mean they go hungry until they do it?”

 

                        “Get real!” By his tone it was obvious Flip was outraged by the suggestion. “Listen, mate. I don’t know what you’ve heard about other outfits but here training’s done by positive reinforcement only. They get their full ration of fish at the end of the day whether they’ve done their tricks or not. I know you’ve probably heard a few stories doing the rounds of dolphins being mistreated but take it from me, that’s all they are. Stories. Hippie shit spread by the Free the Mung Bean lobby. You know the kind I mean. The ones who think there’s a conspiracy going on between the government and aliens to abduct their fucking tofu.”

 

                        I know exactly the kind you mean, Ben thought. I live with one of them. However, he didn’t think right now was the best time to inform Flip of that fact. But if this was the famous Australian sense of humor he found it very much to his liking. “Do they get a reward every time, provided they do what’s expected of them that is?”

 

                        “Until they get used to you it’s a good idea. After you’ve been working with them a while you’ll probably find you’ll get better results if you vary it. In fact, once they’re fully trained we don’t always reward them at them at the end of every task. They seem to enjoy guessing whether they’ll be rewarded or not. Sometimes they are but other times they just have to wait for that whistle. We call this random interrupted reinforcement.  Other times we’ll give them a whole bucket of fish without them being required to do anything. You know, just for the hell of it. Like you’d treat a kid to a hamburger or an ice cream. Because they never know when that reward is forthcoming they seem to try harder. Anyway, if you’ve seen the show you already know that it’s impractical to reward them after every trick.” He handed Ben a beach ball. “Ready to give it a go?”

 

                        “What do I do?”

 

                        “Blow the whistle then throw the ball out onto the water.”

                       

He hesitated, remembering the hapless Kirk from Spokane, then reminded himself that least he didn’t have an audience to witness him making a fool of himself, so he blew, punching the brightly colored ball seaward as he did so. It settled forlornly on the water roughly fifteen feet away from where they were standing. Of the dolphins there was no longer any sign. “What did I do wrong?’ he asked, dismayed. “Why aren’t they bringing it back?”

 

                        Even as he spoke the ball vanished as if sucked under by a sudden maelstrom, suddenly to erupt from the depths with a pop like a champagne cork, pursued by the larger of the two dolphins that Ben immediately recognized as the male, Oscar. Dottie followed in his wake and the two tossed the ball back and forth between them in an impromptu jam session as they swam back towards the platform.

 

                        “They grab the ball and take it down to the bottom then let it go,” Flip explained. “We use it in the show to surprise our volunteers. Watch out!”

 

                        His warning came too late as Oscar headed the ball in Ben’s direction along with a sizable amount of water. For the second time that day, Ben found himself soaked to the bone. Oscar opened his mouth, revealing a set of teeth more perfectly white than that of his trainer’s. He threw his head back and emitted a high-pitched rippling that sounded suspiciously to Ben like laughter. It was becoming perfectly obvious that he was being cast in the role of fall guy to a couple of finny comedians.

 

                        “Dolphins just don’t seem happy until they make anyone who happens to be within range as wet as a David Hasselhof’s Speedo’s,” Flip explained, a trifle unnecessarily.

 

                        “It appears to be a common trait,” Ben replied, thinking of the drenching he’d received from the orca only a few hours earlier. At this rate he’d have to bring at least two changes of clothes to work with him each day.

 

                        “Okay, whistle and then fish and don’t forget to reward Dottie too. It’ll help with the bonding process,” Flip reminded him.

 

                        He blew the whistle and the dolphins came to him at once. Surging forward, clicking a greeting like scree falling down a slope. Oscar raised himself out of the water and placed his flippers on Ben’s shoulders. Almost involuntarily he returned the embrace, encircling the hard muscled body with his arms. Instantly his earlier annoyance vanished. It was almost as if the shower had been some kind of test. He handed Oscar his fish but the dolphin tossed it up into the air. He caught it, threw it out into the pen then swam after it, then subjected it to the same treatment as he had the ball.

 

                        Dottie was clearly the quieter of the two. She took the fish from Ben’s hand then rolled over, presenting her belly. He reached out and ran a hand along her underside. She shivered then flipped over following her mate back out into the lagoon.

 

                        “By far the best way to bond with them is to do it in their own environment. You done any diving, snorkeling, that kind of thing?” Flip asked.

 

                        “Some,” Ben replied. “At least I’ve got my Divemaster’s certificate. It’s been a while though,” he admitted.

 

                        “Divemaster? Well, stone the bleedin’ crows you’re full of surprises,” exclaimed Flip slapping him on the shoulder. “To think I had you pegged as another one of McHugh’s nerds too precious to get their lily white feet wet. This’ll be nothing more than a bathtub to you,” he said, gesturing across the water dismissively. “The lagoons about sixty five feet at the deepest part, but that’s over in the central channel and Saamri’s pen. Here we’re talking fifteen, twenty feet max. Tell you what, why don’t you meet me back here after the four o’clock show? There’s plenty of spare gear lying around.”

 

                        Ben’s office was at the north end of the building on the upper level of the main research division just along the hall from Lily’s. From his office window he could look out down on the causeway and the Seagate, and across to the dolphin pen on the far side of the lagoon. Like that of his neighbors, the room had been soundproofed even though Ben had already been informed that the bulk of his work would be conducted in the main laboratory just along the hall.

 

                        The main administrative department which handled the day-to-day running of the park and the facilities operations centre were located on the levels below with marine biology situated at water level opposite the isolation tanks where sick or injured animals could be cared for. Above, Ben was told was the bioacoustics lab where the Eye had been developed. Below that, was the conference suite which boasted an enormous observation window with an underwater view of the orca pen. According to McHugh one of the whale’s favorite pastimes was to press his nose up against the glass and watch the proceedings within. Whales watching humans watching whales. Ben wondered just who the observer was, or the observed. Such had been the orcas preoccupation with the proceedings going on within, that McHugh had installed a massive plasma TV screen facing the window on which was transmitted a continuous video loop comprised of everything from cartoons and news clips to the latest movie release on DVD, which was updated every week. If the whale could understand any of it Ben wondered what he made of the war in Iraq when contrasted with Happy Feet. Probably as baffled as the rest of us by the human condition, Ben thought.

 

 

                        A wetsuit doesn’t keep you dry. That’s what a drysuit does. A wetsuit traps water between the suit and the body of the wearer. The layer of water reducing the amount of liquid passing over the surface of the skin and thus reducing loss of body heat. At least that was the theory.

 

                        The largest wetsuit in the equipment store was still way too small for Ben. There was at least a two-inch gap between the end of the legs and his booties as well as at the wrists. Ben had been given gloves which served the dual purpose of keeping his hands warm as well as protecting the delicate skin of the dolphins from accidentally being scratched by his nails. Even so there was an equivalent amount of exposed, uninsulated flesh around his wrists. Ben realized that if he was going to make a habit of this he’d have to keep his own gear here, given that the waters at this latitude could hardly be described as the most temperate in the world, especially this early in the season. He was probably in for a short, chilly experience.

 

                        “Okay. A few ground rules before we go in,” explained Flip. “Number one, this is their territory. You don’t just barge in uninvited. We have to wait for their permission to come on in. Think of it like being invited into someone’s home. Number two, male dolphins can be extremely possessive when it comes to their mates. Put it this way, the last thing you want to do is come between a six hundred-pound dolphin and his significant other. Again, it’s a question of personal space. So once you’re in the water don’t touch or go near the female unless you receive a clear signal that you’ve got Oscar’s permission to do so.”

 

                        “What do you mean by a clear signal?” Ben asked.

 

                        “Let him set the pace. You’ll probably find that once you’re in the water he’ll make the first approach and she’ll follow. It’s a kind of dolphin protocol if you like. Reassure the old man that you’re not interested in making any moves on his old lady,” Flip explained. “However, if he swims between you and her or starts to shove you it’s time to back off. There’s no misinterpreting that kind of behavior in any species. And one last thing,” he added, “keep your hands to yourself. Don’t try to touch or grab either of them unless invited. Remember, these are big, powerful animals that weigh as much as three times as you and I combined and if you get into an argument with them you are definitely going to come off worse.”

 

                        So much for his theory that he was safe with the dolphins, Ben thought. Obviously he couldn’t rely on his past encounters with the animals as any guide. When it came to entering the world of the dolphin, it was a whole new ball game.

 

                        Following Flip’s instructions he sat down on the edge of the pontoon and let his flippered feet dangle in the water. He felt the icy fingers wrap around the exposed flesh at his extremities and begin to insinuate themselves under the suit. Spring might have ushered winter from the land but had yet to evict it from the water. The cold merely heightened his apprehension and not for the first time Ben found himself wondering just what he’d got himself into.

 

                        All at once Oscar’s snout appeared from the water directly at his feet. The dolphin threw back his head and kicked a greeting. He swam forward to where Ben’s flippers stirred the water, lifted himself up and grabbed one of Ben’s mittened hands with his mouth and gave it a gentle tug. He then retreated back a few feet and emitted a few staccato bars. Come on, let’s play! he seemed to be saying.

 

                        Ben glanced across at Flip to see if he had correctly interpreted the dolphin’s actions. The Australian nodded. Ben placed the regulator in his mouth, tasted the rush of compressed air, pulled down his mask then launched himself out into the world of the dolphin.

 

                        Human beings only inhabit a small area of the planets surface, 29.2% to be precise, which accounts for less than one third of the earth’s surface. The rest, the other 70.8% belongs to the seas and is a world that many of the land’s inhabitants will never see. We are not so much planet Earth as planet Ocean.

 

                        Here Ben found himself adrift. Considering that this wasn’t the Mediterranean, visibility within the cove was fairly good, probably due to the filtration units located either side of the Seagate, Ben reflected. Even so, it took him a couple of seconds to get his bearings. To his right he saw the water explode as Flip followed him down. He glanced about him. No sign of either of the dolphins.

 

                        Something jabbed him in the back, below his tanks, and he spun about in confusion. Behind him Oscar hung grinning. Made you jump, didn’t I? he seemed to be saying. He then hopped effortlessly over Ben’s head, coming to rest so his beak a couple of inches from Ben’s mask. Then in a whirl of water he took off. Ben followed, his own efforts slow and ungainly by comparison.

 

                        Below seagrass and kelp waved with the tide. The bottom of the cove was littered with starfish which resembled the amputated hands of a purple seamonster. Tiny anemones garlanded the rocks like castaway trinkets. Here and there a crab scurried along the bottom. Small fish darted in and out of Ben’s vision like slivers of light. He realized he had been joined by another dolphin, the female, Dottie. She appeared suddenly, corkscrewing through the water in front of him. He envied her aquadynamic perfection, her effortless cleaving of the water, his own movements clumsy by comparison. She slowed, keeping pace with him for a few strokes then with a disdainful flip of her tail overtook him again. Oscar appeared and both of them executed a series of perfect fly-bys while he continued to lumber along. Finally, as if in sympathy, Dottie slowed next to him, thrusting her dorsal fin into his hand. He took it gladly and she began to tow him, closing the gap between them and the fast retreating Oscar.

 

                        The water rushed past him. All at once he was freed of his limitations, slicing through the water as effortlessly as the current. They drew level with Oscar who slowed and arced his own fin towards Ben. He reached out and took it and suspended between them both, took off, a willing captive. Powerful tails pumping, bodies scything through the water which offered now less resistance than air.

 

                        All at once they stopped and hung motionless in the water, their way barred by an iron grille that rose from the bottom like a giant portcullis. Ben realized they had arrived at the Seagate. He let go of the dolphins, following the stream of bubbles from this regulator upward towards the surface where the great  thorny barricade left the water and leapt skyward. On his journey underwater he had completely forgotten its existence and now found the limits it imposed on his explorations somehow offensive, reminding him that no matter how close the open sea, those contained within were still prisoners.

 

                        It was something he had little time to reflect on, for before he could break surface, Oscar took hold of his hand again, and Dottie grabbed his other, and they firmly began to lead him below once more. Up until now Ben had thought of this as a random experience albeit an enjoyable one. Now, it was almost as if the dolphins were imbued with a purpose. Of course, this was probably his imagination, Ben thought. The dolphins towed him shoreward, back towards where the beach shelved upward, littered with smooth stones polished by generations of gentle rollers breaking overhead, where the water was still around ten feet in depth.

 

                        Suddenly they let go of his hands. He followed them down to where they rooted amongst the pebbles and drifting sand, as if they wanted to show him something Ben divined rightly.

 

                        Both dolphins were prodding at something that lay half-concealed, buried in the seabed. There, hidden amongst the detritus and bottom feeders, a speaker was embedded in the ocean floor. Once they had exposed it for him, they moved on. Ben followed the mammals, curious. Eight feet away he found another. Then another. In fact, the entire bed of the cove was seeded with them.  Back on dry land he asked Flip what they were for.

 

                        “There’s hydrophones and underwater speakers planted all over the bottom of the cove. Mainly they’re to capture the sonar samples for the Eye,” Flip explained. “Nah – don’t look so surprised. I didn’t come down in the last shower. I know more about what’s going on here than McHugh would like to think,” he added, noticing Ben’s look of concern. “Sometimes at night we play them back the recordings, makes them feel they’re not alone – like their mates have dropped in to say ‘Hello’. Kind of like putting a mirror in the cage with a budgie – if you know what I mean.”

 

                        “What about the Seagate?” asked Ben as he unpeeled the wetsuit. “It’s a pretty impressive piece of engineering. Does it ever go up?”

 

                        “If we wanted to we could raise it and they could just swim right out of here. Not that we’re planning to anytime soon. Last time it went up was when we took Panda out of here, a few weeks back. The killer whale we had before Saamri,” he added for Ben’s benefit.

 

            “There’s no way the killer,” and despite himself, Ben knew he’d put particular emphasis on that word, “Can enter the dolphin pen, is there?”

 

            Flip shook his head. “Nah. See the dolphin pen and the orca pool are separated by a channel that runs from the performance lagoon to the Seagate. When it’s time for the show we just open the sluice gates to the individual pens which gives them access to the lagoon area. At all other times we keep it closed. Guess Lily told you about orca’s attacking dolphins, huh?”

 

            Ben nodded.

 

            “That’s why we keep them separate. More as a precaution than anything. Lily probably told you there’s two types of orca ~”

 

            “Transients and residents,” Ben remembered.

 

            “Right. Only the transient whales attack dolphins and our mate Saamri looks to be a resident – as far as well can tell that is. Mind you, we’re not about to take any chances.  Even if the whales in the channel or lagoon, there’s no way he can gain access to the dolphin’s section, so don’t worry – you’re perfectly safe from Jaws over there.”

 

            Ben wondered if Flip were joking about the Jaws appellate as he recalled a book he’d read about a month ago. Some adventure set on an ice station in the Antarctic. There had been a diving pool at the bottom of the station where Killer whales had surfaced to eyeball their next meal which, in the predictable way of plot developments, had turned out to be the bad guys. Funnily enough he thought the author had been Australian and mentioned the fact to Flip.

 

            “Yeah, I read that too, mate. Ripper read apart from the whale research. If you’d been trapped in an ice-station over run with blood-crazed mercenaries the safest place would have been in the drink with the Killer whales. Tell you what, I’ll prove it to you. We can go diving in Saamri’s pool tomorrow if you like.”

 

            It was an invitation Ben was only too happy to decline.

           

Ben couldn’t wait to get home that evening to share his experiences with Zed but upon arrival found his partner’s normal joie de vivre to be conspicuously absent. Zed was seated glumly upon the couch, eating Captain Crunch straight from the packet and watching a DVD of The X Files. Uh-oh, Ben thought, trouble.

 

                        “Remember that crappy canned fish jingle I laid down last month?” Was the question Zed greeted him the moment Ben stepped through the door, without so much as a ‘Hello’. “The one they had me working on day and night for the big presentation?”

 

                        Ben nodded. He knew exactly what was coming next.

 

                        “Yeah, well I just heard they scored the account and guess where they decided to go record the real thing?”

 

                        “Metropolis?” It was more a statement than a question. Zed’s subdued demeanor and the comfort food told Ben they clearly didn’t have anything to celebrate.

 

                        “I knew it. I just knew it all along. God, I hate it when I’m right. They get you to do them a favor because it’s a pitch but when there’s real money to be spent they take ass-kissing over talent any day. That’s the last time I take on a job at cost. The last time I take on any advertising job, cost or otherwise. They can go get themselves screwed at Metropolis. It’s the only bang they’re ever likely to get.”

 

                        “So what else is booked in?”

 

                        “There’s a band coming in tomorrow to cut a demo. After that it’s back-to-back radio for two weeks.”

 

                        Ben raised an eyebrow. “Commercials?”

 

                        “Okay, I know what you’re thinking. My scruples only last as long as a thirty second jingle. But after this there’s no more commercials and this time I mean it. The search for Zen Funk begins in earnest. They’re airing the crappy thing later,” he added gloomily, referring to the jingle.

 

                        Ben glanced at the TV. Scully and Mulder were in hot pursuit of lampryman of Chernobyl. He picked up the remote and switched it off. “Then why torture yourself? Let’s order pizza. We can go surfing. Let’s check out the Art Bell site or adbusters.com. Expose the latest UFO cover up.”

 

                        “Cool,” Zed visibly brightened. He enjoyed surfing the net as much as the other kind, especially when it came to getting interactive with fellow conspiracy theorists.  “By the way, how was your day?” he asked.

 

                        Ben shrugged as he crossed to the study and switched on his PC. “Ah, you know. Just another boring day at the office.”

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