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by Susan Dawson-Cook

May 10, 2019

Open water swimming can provide great experiences

When I introduce myself to someone new, I could as easily say “I’m a swimmer” as “I’m Susan.” The water is almost always on my mind. Swimming calms me when I’m anxious, balances me when I feel out of touch with myself, and gives me the strength to cope when I lose loved ones. The water is my sanctuary, the one place I always feel safe. 

For more than 50 years, the pool was my training ground. When my husband and I started living part-time in San Carlos, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez, I discovered open water swimming. After two years of almost daily sea swimming, I find it difficult to return to black lines and flip turns. The pool can’t compete with the wild unpredictability of the open sea.

The smell and taste and supportive sensation of the salty sea rushing over my skin delivers that multisensory outdoor experience I thrive on. But it is the flash of a dark, wet dorsal fin in the early morning sunlight that raises my heart rate one more notch, that transforms a Sea of Cortez swim from enjoyable to unforgettable.

I first spotted this pod of nine or 10 bottle-nosed dolphins from my kayak. One dorsal fin surfaced and then five dolphins breached before diving back into the depths. I stopped paddling and waited. A few seconds later, I heard loud exhales as the dolphins surfaced again, spewing air and water from their blowholes. A male dolphin dived beneath my boat. My eyes widened, and my pulse pounded when I saw his immense size—at least 10 or 12 feet long. He could overturn my boat with one flick of his powerful tail. Instead, he remained underwater until he was well past me before surfacing. I slowly paddled alongside the pod, watching its playful jumps and dives and the way the dolphins curiously circled around me. Soon it became clear that the dolphins had no interest in harming me. They merely seemed curious. I watched them with silent wonder, imagining what it would be like to actually swim with them.

The first time I encountered the dolphins while swimming, I raised my head to sight in front of me and spotted a line of four or five large dorsal fins directly in front of me. These enormous, powerful creatures were headed straight toward me. My heart beat faster and faster, thundering in my ears. These magnificent creatures were right there. An up-close dolphin encounter was what I’d wanted, though, right? I glanced anxiously toward shore. What if they didn’t see me? Maybe one would crash into me with its 400-pound body. I swam a slow breaststroke, anxiously waiting to see what would happen next. I saw and felt nothing and when I swung my head around, I saw the group of dolphins surface several meters past me. I released a long, relieved breath. They’d obviously been aware of my presence and steered away from me.

I began to trust the dolphins the more I swam near them, especially after reading Susan Casey’s Voices in the Ocean and learning that their echolocation capabilities are superior to sonar on our country’s most sophisticated naval submarines. The only dolphin collision that could happen would be intentional.

One morning during a swim, I’d reached that blissful in-the-zone state I experience after at least 30 minutes of continuous swimming. Suddenly, seven dolphins glided directly underneath me. I didn’t want to blink. If I did, I’d miss a second of this incredible experience. It felt too amazing to be imaged. The dolphins must have followed me and decided it was time to pass. I’m sure my less-than-3-mph pace must have seemed ridiculously slow compared to the 25-mph top speeds their hydrodynamic bodies are capable of.

After almost two years of swimming with this pod, I know these dolphins and they know me. Up close, I see their white bellies, the cross patterns of scratches on their blubbery gray and white skin. Algae hangs from the tips of their dorsal fins. One dolphin has a pink circle of skin on its head where it met a boat propeller. I’ve named one of the large male dolphins Nick because of the missing chunk from his dorsal fin. His fin isn’t quite vertical—it’s slightly skewed to one side. Battle scars make each dolphin unique. Nick always swims with one or two other male dolphins. Often two of them circle around me, whistling and clicking and squeaking before they continue on to their destination with the rest of the pod.

I try to imagine what they’re saying when they circle around me, chattering, with those perpetual smiles on their faces. “Oh, that’s the new female human swimmer here.” “Her skin is so pale. Like a dead fish on the beach.”

One overcast February morning, the sun was masked by laminated layers of clouds. From the beach, I saw the dolphins just off shore and shouted, “Wait for me.” Some days they wait, other days they’re a half a mile away by the time I make my clumsy way out into the water. In the winter, the water plummets to the upper 50s and low 60s. My dolphin look-alike suit is welcome in this cold.  The visibility that particular day was poor, so I heard a dolphin before I saw one. I imagine the lead dolphin’s whistle was his warning the others that a human had been spotted at one o’clock. I soon saw his slick dark dorsal fin surface. Later, his white nose glided by so close, I could have touched it.

Another morning, the rising sun had ignited all the arid volcanic mountains in the distance a brilliant pink. A super moon slowly descended toward the jagged mountain peaks. Despite all this beauty, the dolphins in the sea captured most of my attention. They leaped from the water at regular intervals—one in front of the other—moving at a rapid pace. As they leaped, their slick, wet bodies glowed orange under the rising sun light. They leaped so close to their companions in this long line, so powerful and graceful, without a single collision. I’m not sure if there was a reason for their unusual energy. Maybe the super moon keyed them up. Or they’d had an especially tasty meal and felt hyper.

After observing this pod of dolphins for hundreds of hours, I can see they work as a team. A lead dolphin watches for danger. Behind the pack, another security guard dolphin appears keenly aware. Moms and babies swim so close—as if their bodies were connected—and usually surface simultaneously. The dolphins zoom fast when chasing schools of fish or stun fish by slapping them with their tails or flukes. On days when large swells rise and fall, sometimes the dolphins get distracted from fishing tasks to enjoy a minute of body surfing.

Diana Reiss discusses the complexities of dolphin relationships in The Dolphin in the Mirror. The research she shares demonstrates that dolphins are self-aware and adaptable. They recognize themselves in mirrors and go with the flow in changing circumstances. The dolphins I know play in the wakes of boats and entertain audiences by leaping from the water and turning flips. A day after a tropical storm where a day ago, the sea had been a foaming, tumultuous angry mass of enormous waves, the pod glides along the coastline chasing fish as if the storm never happened.

The mouth of the El Soldado Estuary is where the dolphins often interact with me. Their favorite game is hide and seek. A dorsal fin appears, then disappears again. And the next thing I know, the teasing dolphin is releasing a watery exhale right behind me. Tricked me again. The dolphins circle around me on their sides or backs or swim close enough to peek at me face-to-face. One of the babies veers near and the mother nudges her away, perhaps warning the youth about the unpredictability of humans.

I hear a squeak, or a series of clicks, and I wonder if the dolphins are trying to communicate with me or are speaking to each other. That day, as always, they play gently with me, but rougher with one another. Some of the dolphins zoom through the water at great speeds, creating large wakes of water. Then leap into the air and splash down. I watch one smack the water with his tail and then two engage in a tail slapping game. But the dolphins never move fast around me. They seem to know I’m too fragile for rough play.

Once the dolphins are out of sight, I see a tern dive into shallow water just in front of me, clumsily thrashing around in the water before lifting off with a sardine in its mouth. I approach a mass feeding of thousands of pelicans, gulls, terns, and cormorants. I try to keep a low profile and quietly swim further from shore around them, but all at once, hundreds of panicked birds squawk and fly around, blocking most of the sunlight. So much for me trying to blend in with the waves and the water. Yet, it’s just one more new and unique experience out in the wild sea.

During my open water Sea of Cortez swims, I wear no watch that tracks distance or pace. I swim for 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the temperature of the water, the sea conditions, and whether I encounter the dolphins. I thrive on the adrenaline rush of sea swimming and the encounters I often have with my dolphin friends. I still wish I understood them better. Maybe during tomorrow’s swim, a dolphin will blow a bubble ring, or I’ll hear an utterance that’s comprehensible. I know for sure, I’ll be dashing into the water early in the morning to find out.


  • Open Water


  • Open Water