Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands
This post was the winning entry in the 2017 ‘Independence Travel Writing Award’ hosted by the travel writing website ‘We Said Go Travel’ (http://www.wesaidgotravel.com)
“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.
“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.
As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.
We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore. Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.
Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.
Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.
I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.
As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.
The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.
The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.
For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.
As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free.