Dolphin Reflections – “Perspectivism”

Dolphins _The Big Island

Perspectivism – Seeing through the eyes of the Dolphins!

I’d been frequenting a  particular beach for a few days as I explored the Big Island and, one day I summoned the enthusiasm to take a swim in the ocean on the advice of a local named Poulama I’d met there. She assured me it was safe and that if I stayed left I would be able to manage the current with reasonable skill and not be swept out to sea.

I entered the sea. All seemed well. I peered beneath the water for the images of dolphins that Poulama had promised I’d see.

But not before long I was much farther from shore than I had intended to be. When I realized, I began to panic, which was very unusual for me because I was a bronze strong swimmer. Something had overtaken me. Pure fear. Had the current shifted, and I hadn’t noticed?

The waves began to make larger swells than I was comfortable with. The waves felt like they were overtaking my head. I was bobbing in the swell of the wave. I was struggling in the valley of the wave. Too far out from shore, I felt. I needed to resist the current, which was pulling me to the right. I needed to be swimming left – not just treading water or sitting still. A sense of disorientation had overpowered me. I could feel myself being knocked about by ever-increasing white caps. I sank beneath the surface.

I had lost the ability to swim, somehow. So tossed about I did not know which way was up and which way was down. I was scrabbling about. At that point I truly believed I would drown. When all of a sudden (whilst under the water) I saw through my goggles; to my amazement; that I was completely encircled by Dolphins. More than 10 dolphins! And with the noses pointed up! They were all, in vertical position in a circle and, me in their middle! I almost passed out with incredulous amazement. Extraordinary, to the point that I felt like they were trying to save me. With all those noses pointing up I realized which way was up. (They told me it seemed to me) and in that moment I regained my sense of orientation; I was contained and protected; able now to move out of my panic zone. It was as if this family of Dolphins had picked up on a distress signal and positioned themselves to aid me to regain my equilibrium.

The thing about it was, as I began to swim (less panicked now) toward the shore – the Dolphins moved with me. Though I moved, and was clearly swimming forward, I somehow remained, and was retained in the dolphin’s circle. I moved; they moved. They moved the circle as I moved. I wept with exhilaration and wonderment. I was stunned by their act of saviour hood. Creating a space around me that I could comprehend, I overcame fear of the vastness of the ocean which had overtaken my equilibrium.

I reached shore because they created a form for me from which I could re-establish my boundaries.

I survived that day and it was because of the dolphin’s literal circle that they had formed around me. I trusted in that circle – a circle of trust – literal and metaphysical.

Everyone comes to identifying with nature differently but it was this event which changed the way I saw my human relationship to other living creatures –  a trans-species experience!

Putting this experience to a written form as an example of sensory experience is most worthy in my humble opinion.  The experience, itself, comes to mind when I read Eduardo Kohn’s (2007) reference to ‘interspecies communication – its having occurred that fateful day. I wish Khon had been there to unpack it anthropologically. I haven’t gone as far as to write a trans-species ethnography as he has done, but I believe I know what he is talking about.

Application of knowledge – Key concepts:

  • An ‘Apprenticeship with nature’.
  • Apprentice with dolphins.
  • The sensory experience
  •  Apprenticeship and Anthropology
  •  The vivid memory I have of swimming with dolphins in the ocean  just a couple of miles from the town of Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii

This experience happened a few years ago but still feels like yesterday. It is a sensory experience. But was my ‘dolphin-swim’ an apprenticeship?  A kind of apprenticeship with dolphins, in nature? Are these even allowable anthropological questions?

I’d been reading Eduardo Kohn and delving into Perspectivism and Kohn’s notion of a trans-species ethnography – what I’d heard referred to by a classmate as an Amazonian ontology of ontology. My reaction  “wow I need to check this stuff out!”.  The works I’m somewhat acquainted with, are, How Dogs Dream (2007) and Kohn’s book, How Forests Think (2013). In describing his experience with the Runa and their dogs in the Upper Amazon, he makes a case for human-animal inter-subjectivity and a communication system-based semiotics (signs) theory.

Was Khon the apprentice in his experience? Indeed I believe the answer is yes. A similar brief but meaningful apprenticeship was taking place when I was in the presence of the dolphins. At least that is what I am proposing. This is a not a push for a seemingly new-age or childlike theory of human-animal relationship. I ask you, the reader, to withhold judgement until you’ve internalized the story.

My story of the dolphins was worth recounting as it ties into the theme of ‘intimacy with nature’, which I’ve tried to introduce here as a valid, anthropological, sensory observation. In terms of Kohn, it speaks directly to his ideas on the human-animal relationship. I can’t speak for Kohn or his analysis; whether he would claim to have had a ‘transcendental’ experience (with the Runa and their dogs).

However, my sensory-experience ‘event’, which I described above, was a life-changing  sensory event –it was a one-on-one experience with Dolphins in the ocean surrounding The Big Island.

This is not ethnographic writing.  It is a description of was an extended camping adventure in Hawaii – simple as that. However, I do make the case that it may have had something to teach me. It was only when I was introduced to Kohn’s ideas and guide toward Perspectivism, that I began to contextualize it and ‘take from it’ something new and inspiring.



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