Wednesday 2 February 2011

REVIEW: To Touch a Wild Dolphin, by Rachel Smolker (4.5*)

(Souvenir Press, 2002)

Sometimes a book comes along that manages to balance a range of genres with such perfection that you close it having smiled and cried, experienced new places and lifestyles, and learned more than you realise, all without ever having left the comfort of your sofa. To Touch a Wild Dolphin definitely fulfills that description.

Monkey Mia, in Shark Bay, on the West Australia coast, is known for its friendly wild dolphins, who come right into the shallow waters and interact readily with humans. These days they are a huge tourist draw, but when Rachel Smolker first discovered them in the early eighties, hardly anyone knew about them. For Smolker, a marine biologist, they provided the perfect opportunity to study dolphins in the wild, learning to identify individuals, recording dolphin communication, and observing all the different elements of dolphin life, from courtship to hunting. For fifteen years she and her fluid team of colleagues and assistants spent huge swathes of time at Monkey Mia getting to know the dolphins, sharing their joys and sorrows, and reaching ground-breaking conclusions about their previously mysterious existence.

Reading this book and sharing the dolphins' lives felt like a real privilege, and it was utterly absorbing from start to finish. Smolker is a wonderful writer, moving effortlessly from lyrical descriptions of the beautiful Shark Bay area, through profound thoughts on the links between humans and dolphins, to accessible and concise information on all areas of dolphin society, without ever losing the thread of her narrative. She superbly captures the nuances of each of the key dolphins' personalities so that the reader grows as close to them as they would to any character in a novel, and experiences their happiness and their losses all the more deeply. She describes life in the rough camp by the beach, and offers anecdotes about interaction with the dolphins that range from the sublime to the horrific. And alongside all of this, Smolker distils everything she and her team learned from their time with the dolphins of Monkey Mia, from foraging techniques and courtship rituals to communication and male bonding, offering a complete and reverential picture of the wonder and complexity of the dolphins' lives.

This is a tour de force of nature writing, bringing together elements of science, natural history, ecology, autobiography and travel writing. It will make you laugh and cringe and cry, and leave you with a new respect both for dolphins and for the people who have dedicated their lives to studying them and working to develop our understanding of these amazing creatures. Read it!

  • "My mind still in that floating, receptive state of the recently asleep, I settle down on the deck to admire the spectacle: the phosphorescent comets below and the Milky Way above.  The magnificence of the scenery pulls me far above and beyond myself.  Shark Bay is a tremendous, wide-open expanse, jutting out into the Indian Ocean.  Distant from any city lights, it is a place where the night skies offer up a slowly rotating banquet of constellations, pulsating multicolor planets, bright clouds of star clusters, and dark, eerie nebulae."
  • "I reached out slowly and tentatively and touched her side.  She watched me intently but did not flinch or move away.  I was stroking the side of a wild dolphin.  Her skin was silky smooth, slightly rubbery, and surprisingly warm for a creature living in the ocean and resembling a fish.  I felt suddenly aware of how odd my long, gangly arms, with all those independently moving digits, must seem to her.  She was sleek, a torpedo."

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.