First, to avoid a common confusion of terms: There are dolphin fish—called dorado in Spanish-speaking countries and mahi-mahi in Hawaii—and there are also several species of dolphins that are relatively small mammals of the whale family. Dolphin fish are lovely, ferocious fighters on rod and reel, and delicious on the table. But the other dolphins, the mammals (sometimes called porpoises, adding yet another element to the confusion), are even more special.
For centuries man has felt friendship toward mammalian dolphins, even a kinship with them. In Homer's Iliad the sea is portrayed as an old man with four dolphins radiating from his hair and beard. Also, the Greek word for dolphin is delphys, which is directly related to delphis, the word for womb, suggesting that the dolphin is the living womb of the sea, symbolic of the source of all life. Then there is the Greek myth about Dionysus, the god of wine, sailing incognito to the island of Naxos, where the crewmen of his ship planned to sell him into slavery. But Dionysus changed the ship's oars into serpents, grew vines from his loins and filled the ship with the music of invisible flutes. The understandably crazed sailors jumped overboard and would have drowned had not the sea-god Poseidon turned them into dolphins, thereby earning their eternal gratitude.
Despite all this anthropomorphism, until recently I had little interest in dolphins. They never struck me as any more exciting or intrinsic to the ocean scene than pelicans or gulls. Then, last March, I took a 13-foot kayak to the village of Loreto in Baja California on the Sea of Cortes, and in a week's time my attitude toward dolphins changed profoundly.
It happened by accident. I borrowed the kayak from a friend and took it to Baja to avoid having to hire a boat and guide to fish while I was there. On my last trip to Loreto, six months earlier, I had explained to a guide that I wanted to release the fish I caught.
"They'll die sooner or later anyway," he said.
"We will, too," I told him, "but I still want to release my fish."
"They'll die right away," he argued, "and pollute the water."
I couldn't help laughing at that absurdity, and I decided then and there that, for better or worse, I'd do my fishing on my own. What the guide really wanted, I finally figured out, was to avoid coming in after a day's fishing with an empty boat. Apparently, releasing fish in Baja is an unknown and inexplicable practice.
I saw the dolphins about two hours out the first morning. In those two hours, between 6 and 8 a.m., I had hooked and released several good fish, trolling large bucktail and feather lures on a long line behind the kayak. The reel was tied securely to a rubber grommet near the prow of the boat, and if it hadn't been, the rod, which was angled back across my left thigh as I paddled, would have been yanked overboard with many of the strikes. There were jacks, sierra, bonito and a couple of good-sized barracuda.
At about eight o'clock I looped in toward shore to follow the rocky coastline back toward my hotel, three miles to the north. Though in deep water, I was only 100 yards from shore. I was watching the brown pelicans and the black-crested terns diving for fish when, no more than 50 yards ahead and slightly to my right, toward the open sea, a cloud of little silver mackerel exploded from the water, churning the surface to foam. I swerved toward them and paddled hard to intercept the thrashing cloud of fish and drag my lure through the middle of them. The mackerel broke the surface every few seconds in their panic, so obviously something big was feeding on them, probably a school of something big, and whatever they were, I wanted to hook one.