It had been two months since Dirty Joe caught a wave. The last one broke his arm; another casualty added to a long life of surfing. His return did not go unnoticed. It was a Sunday morning, just after sunrise. There is something magical about early morning sessions: the water still fresh and crisp, the sound of nature awakening. Every wave holds the promise of the day ahead.
Joe’s return instantly broke the code of silence on the water. The scattered group of old men I happened to float among started cheering and applauding. Dirty Joe was back!
It didn’t take long before Joe popped up next to me and introduced himself: “Hi gorgeous. I am Dirty Joe.” I couldn’t help but smile: “What kind of Dirty are we talking?”He laughed: “It’s just a nickname I picked up in the Navy.” “You’re not gonna tell me, are you?” Another big smile, a wink and off he went, catching another wave. “You want to know something else I picked up in the army?” He asked when he paddled back up to me. “People call me the dolphin whisperer. I can communicate with dolphins.”
Just as I threw my most sarcastic ‘uhuh’ at him, three fins popped out of the water in the distance. “Let’s go”, Joe hollered, paddling away swiftly. Out of breath I caught up. Joe sat up straight, radiating an air of calm and patience. The high whistle-like sound he created with his hands folded to his mouth, carried over the ocean. We sat in silence, gazing at the surface. On his second attempt it happened: seemingly out of nowhere and with the speed of light, they flashed by. My jaw dropped. I just looked at him in joyous disbelief. With a big wink and a twinkle in his eye Joe replied: “You better believe it, gorgeous! It’s playtime.”
Time stopped there and then. I have no idea how long we sat out there but I knew it was just Joe, me, and the dolphins. They jumped up and down alongside when we paddled, dove under our boards when we sat up. They swam off to return just as swiftly, their cheerful dolphin sounds reaching us before they did. Our soundtrack played a frolic back and forth of Joe’s sounds and the dolphin’s reply. Just as quickly as they came, they disappeared. We paddled back and parted. Joe caught up with his crew of old men and surfed like nothing had happened. I just sat on my board, mesmerized.
It was one of those magical California moments; an encounter with a random stranger and the beauty of the unexpected. Every now and then I get lucky and see the dolphins pass from my board. I never saw Joe again. But every time I’m out there and see a dolphin, I think of him and smile.
Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.