I should have been born on a beach. Never mind that my native Wisconsin is better known for its green pastures than its deep blue oceans. And so what if the state can claim only three seasons—July, August and winter? I'm the sort of person who swan dives into everything; the water bug of my family; the kid who grew up on inner tubes and water skis; someone who still takes two showers a day.
I was born on July 15, under the sign of Cancer—the Crab. My mother was a synchronized swimmer; my father was a lifeguard and a freestyle man. I got my first bikini when I was two, a hot little blue number that my grandmother sent me from New York. I shot through all the swimming levels at the pool in Neenah, Wis.—through guppies, minnows, advanced beginners; through a billowy skirted one-piece and a yellow two-piece with a matching petaled bathing cap. By the time I was 12, I had conquered junior lifesaving and was leaving all the 15-year-old boys in my wake.
Next I churned through senior lifesaving. And a Mark Spitz poster went up on my wall. Then it was on to long-distance swimming. With my father in a rowboat at my side, I'd swim from shore to shore in a nearby spring-fed lake, through the lily pads, the leeches and, according to my little brother, right past the woman-eating northern pikes.
After graduating from high school I went to Stanford, spent a lot of weekends at the beach and became the swimming writer for The Stanford Daily. I bought a water bed. I found my way to Hawaii, got into underwater photography and fell in love with mahimahi.
So when a friend who works at Marine World/ Africa USA in Redwood City, Calif. asked if I wanted to take the plunge in a long, wet search for my roots, I didn't flinch. I dived right into a 430,000-gallon tank of salt water inhabited by four Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins and a 20-foot, two-ton pilot whale named Koko.
Encased in a navy blue wet suit to protect myself from the 60� water, I wasn't about to be mistaken for a mermaid. I looked more like a cross between Lloyd Bridges and Wonder Woman. I hooked on a 10-pound weight belt, slipped on a pair of flippers and grabbed a face mask. Because the tank was only 57 feet in diameter and 21 feet deep, I opted for an airhose instead of air tanks.
I didn't want to upset the fish any more than necessary. Even trainers who've worked with marine mammals a long time can't predict their moods and their possible reactions to an amphibian like me. Said Allison Seacat, one of the trainers, as I got ready to hoist myself into the water, "About all dolphins do is eat, swim and mate.
"They've been a little feisty lately," she added. "You wouldn't want to go in if it were mating season. We think it's over, but we never know for sure...."
My face mask fogged up. In simple terms, the trainers had warned: Not all dolphins are as friendly as Flipper.
"Look," said one of the two trainers who as a precautionary measure would swim in the tank with me, "we'll take it easy. We'll feel out their moods." That sounded safe enough. I jumped in flippers first.