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Day of the Dolphins

Just six feet below us in the crystal-clear water, a massive shape cruised menacingly.

Rob Howes

Saturday, October 30, 2004. The half-mile crescent of Whangarei’s Ocean Beach glowed white in the early morning light. January and February—the high months of summer in New Zealand—were still far away, and the water was cold on my feet from the winter just past.

With me were my fellow lifeguards Karina and Matt, my daughter Nicky—also a lifeguard—and her friend Helen, a novice. This was to be Helen’s first official summer lifeguarding at Ocean Beach.

That morning, we were going to show her one of the beach’s most challenging features: the jagged lines of rocks that jut far out to sea at the north and south ends of the beach.

Each summer, we rescued swimmers who got picked up by the beach’s powerful rip currents and swept into those razor-sharp rocks. You can’t be a good lifeguard at Ocean Beach without being comfortable among them.

The five of us swam out and soon found a spot where the rip was running. A strong rip current at Whangarei is like a conveyor belt. In seconds, it can carry a hapless swimmer—or a lifeguard intent on rescuing him—hundreds of yards out into the sea.

We were far offshore in no time, floating by the tip of the half-submerged line of rocks at the northern end of the beach.

Helen swam out of the pull of the current and watched as it swept Nicky, Karina, Matt and me toward the rocks.

“See?” I said as we ducked and bobbed around them. “It’s not as dangerous as it looks. Keep your arms and legs close to your body. The rocks can cut you without your knowing.” Helen swam in and gave it a try herself. “You’re doing fine,” I encouraged her. “Now let’s tackle the south end.”

“That’s too much of a swim for me,” Matt said. “I’m on duty.” He signaled to the patrolling lifeguards on the beach, and someone whizzed out in a boat to pick him up. Karina, Nicky, Helen and I started for the distant line of the southern rocks.

Ten minutes into the swim—and a good 150 yards offshore—the boat buzzed past again. Matt was in it.

“Flipper!” he shouted.

The girls and I stopped swimming and scanned the waves. Pfft! A few yards away, a big gray fin popped out of the water. Then another, and another. A half-dozen bottlenose dolphins circled us. Dolphins often came in to Ocean Beach to surf. I swam with them all the time.

Typically, a pod checking out a group of swimmers like us would circle once or twice, then head off to play in the waves. But these guys weren’t going anywhere. Pow! One of the dolphins slapped the water with its tail flukes. “What are they doing?” Helen asked.

“Just having some fun,” I said. I hoped it was true. The dolphins circled in closer and closer, moving in tight, fast formation. They corralled Nicky, Karina, Helen and me so close together that we were practically touching.

“What’s happening, Dad?” Nicky asked. My daughter knew dolphins as well as I did. This was definitely not normal dolphin behavior.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m going to see if I can break out of the circle.”

I lay on my back and kicked hard, determined to break through whether the dolphins wanted me to or not. Helen stuck close behind me. The dolphins didn’t try to stop us. When we were clear of the circle, I stopped and looked back. The dolphins zoomed around Karina and Nicky, making the water roil. What were these guys up to?

Suddenly, one dolphin broke away. Was their game over? No—the dolphin charged at Helen and me! An attack? I swam in front of Helen to try and protect her. From what, I couldn’t imagine. I braced for the impact.

At the last second, the animal shot down underneath us. I turned in the water, anticipating where it would break the surface.

My blood froze. Just six feet below us in the crystal-clear water, a massive shape cruised menacingly. The sheer bulk of the creature identified it right away: a great white shark. It looked to be a good 10 feet long.

One of us must have gotten cut on the rocks. The great white had picked up the scent of blood, detected us swimming and stalked us. Now the dolphins behavior made perfect sense. When Helen and I swam out of their protective ring, the shark must have followed.

One of our rescuers immediately broke away in a last-ditch attempt to divert the shark from the two of us.

The dolphins were doing everything in their power to keep the shark from attacking. But how much longer could they keep the killer at bay?

“Have you ever known dolphins to act this way?” Helen asked. She was much too calm to have seen the danger we were in.

“No,” I managed, stealing a glance underwater. With horror, I watched the huge form turn beneath us—and head toward Nicky and Karina.

I gulped back the urge to shout. If they knew, they might panic and splash the water. That would make them more attractive to the shark.

The dolphins are here for a reason. God, please help them do the job they’re meant to do. Almost as if the dolphins heard my plea, the circle churned the water even more violently. They’re trying to confuse the shark, I thought. They know he wants the girls.

A buzzing sound made me turn my head. Matt and another lifeguard were in the boat. They sped toward us. We were safe! The boat slowed down near Nicky and Karina and the wildly agitated dolphins. Matt jumped overboard. The boat sped off again. They didn’t know about the shark, either!

The waters around Nicky and Karina died down. The dolphins slowed some, their circle widening. They seemed calmer. They stopped slapping their tails. The shark must be gone.

“Come on,” I told Helen. “Stay right behind me.” We swam over to where Matt, Nicky and Karina treaded water. The rest of the pieces fell together in my head.

Great whites like the element of surprise. They’d much rather attack a wounded or unsuspecting animal than a healthy and alert one. The dolphins had a clear message for the enemy shark: Its presence had been detected. So move on!

“Let’s head in,” Matt said. I could tell he knew more than he wanted to let on. Sure enough, back on shore, Matt told me that he had seen the shark. “When I saw how long the dolphins were staying,” he said, “I decided to join in the fun. I hopped overboard, the boat left and then I saw the shark.”

Like me, he’d kept the knowledge to himself for fear the girls might panic. And as we explained to them, panic is the worst thing you can do around a shark.

Did what happened that day scare me? You bet. Do I still lifeguard at Whangarei’s Ocean Beach? Do I allow my daughter to do the same? And encourage her friend Helen to keep at it? Yes on all counts.

Whether it’s the unusual danger of a patrolling great white, or the more common problem of rip currents and rocks, the surfers and swimmers at Ocean Beach rely on us. I like to think we do an even better job of looking out for them, now that an angelic pod of dolphins has proven once and for all that someone’s looking out for us lifeguards as well.

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