When you think of a holiday in paradise, what does it conjure up for you? Beautiful villas with flower petals scattered on the pillows and views of a turquoise sea? The gentle swaying of your hammock as the palm fronds clacking together above you as you? A scrumptious meal under the stars?
Here, in my tiny little vacation—three days in paradise with Michael—there is little of that. This villa (each individually owned, so who knows about the rest) is mouldy and a little tacky. The beds are freakishly hard. The cigarette smoke from the neighbours wafts up through our windows, and the walls are thin enough that I can hear them scolding their children to bed at night. The food is standard high school cafeteria fare: cardboard pizza, rubbery chicken, slimy lettuce floating in oily dressing. You can choose to sit on the sand or on the grass—there are no hammocks, no lounge chairs, no outdoor furniture at all, really.
But there is a thing that makes Tangalooma on Moreton Island (off the coast of Brisbane) paradise: Dolphins.
In the 70s, the couple that bought this resort noticed a couple of dolphins hanging out under the lights on the jetty some evenings. They would toss food to the dolphins, and one would come back night after night. When this one, whom they called Beauty, had a pup, she and her baby would come each evening. Eventually, they began to see whether she’d take the food out of their hands. She did. And she brought more pups as she had them, and then eventually some of her friends.
And so it is, 40 years later, her children and grandchildren and great grand children (along with some of their friends) come each evening after sunset to the Tangalooma harbor. There, throngs of tourists stand in line on the beach to wade into the water and have the dolphins brush up against them and take a fish from their hands. And last night, wading into the water with my dead fish in hand, I found it transcendent.
Michael and I fed a fish to Tinkerbell, Beauty’s daughter, a 27-year-old dolphin and the alpha female. Calypso, Tinkerbell’s youngest daughter, mirrored her mother’s movements, occasionally taking a break to nurse (Calypso doesn’t get any fish until she’s shown that she can competently catch her own dinner and use these nightly feeds as a kind of dessert). Tinkerbell, who has been coming to Tangalooma most nights for all of her 27 years, rode the surf in, circled and played with the other dolphins, and patiently watched the tourists wade into the water, one slivery fish for each pair of chilly white or brown legs. When it was our turn, we waded in, trembling with delight, and Tinkerbell circled us a couple of times, Calypso holding tight to her mother’s side. I put my fish in the water and Tinkerbell gently took it out of my hand, her teeth grazing ever so softly over my pinky.
It is totally unclear to me who has tamed whom in this nightly ritual. One of the rangers and I were talking about other human/animal pairs, and the way people often are cruel, at least at first, as they tame their animal companions. The Bedouin sewed shut the eyes of their falcons; the Chinese fishermen tied nooses around the necks of their cormorants. We break horses, take the babies away from cows so they’ll continue to produce milk, and generally do miserable things to the animals we want to harness.
But these dolphins—who are the whole reason to come to this particular resort and pay these resort fees and eat this mediocre resort food—choose every night to play along. In fact, so happy are they with this arrangement that we often see them by day, splashing in the shallows along the resort or porpoising far off in the distance. Tonight the dolphins lined up for their little fish from the hands of all these people, and chased big fish (who got away) and eels (who didn’t) while they waited for the next line of people to arrive in one of the 7 lanes the people and dolphins have trained one another to use.
For more than an hour each night, there’s another line of people who wait and wait in their appropriate lanes, shivering at the late autumn wind, blinking as they are pelted with rain. And they remove their jewelry and disinfect their hands and listen carefully to the rules of engagement (No touching the dolphins! No flash photography! No one with a respiratory illness! Remove all lotions and creams and anything that might hurt the dolphins!). And then these tame people wade into the sea, dead fish dangling, for the chance to be in contact, just for a moment, with these wild and magnificent creatures. We have tamed each other, these lines of people and lines of dolphins. And as Michael and I pack to go back to Wellington tomorrow, I have to believe that a world where dolphins and humans can train each other to be gentle and good to one another must be a world where kindness matters, and where we can ultimately save one another, and save this fragile planet of ours. That would be paradise indeed.