When David Carmodel (red shirt on left) was spinning tales about Grand Isle and hurricane rescues, he spliced in a short aside that made my historicist ears prick up. Dolphins, he said, are great weathermen. When they slap their tails on the water, a storm is coming, Maybe not right away, but sometime soon, so it’s a good idea to listen to them and bring the boat in, gather the family, etc.
That claim — that dolphins are weather-signs, and more specifically that they presage storms — may or may not have much empirical truth behind it, but it’s an old and resonant story. Shakespeare alludes to it in Pericles, when a fisherman (who, like David and the residents of Grand Isle, lives in intimate contact with the sea) observes that dolphins “never come but I look to be washed” (2.1.25).
I don’t think that David was remembering his Shakespeare, or of the host of other authors from Lucian & Ovid forward who employ this metaphor. But I do think that this story, whenever it’s repeated, points to a deep and powerful human fantasy about how we want our bodies and our culture to interact with the ocean. If maritime mammals such as dolphins are communicating with us, and are in sympathy with human experiences, it may be that we needn’t be so merely terrestrial after all.
I’ve written about how dolphins figure an oceanic humanity recently in an article that’ll come out next year in a book collection, The Indistinct Human. Dolphins are bridge figures that thrive in a world of ceaseless change. They measure a fantasy of physical intimacy and connection to an oceanic world that’s mostly a place in which human bodies can’t survive.
Or, as I put it in the essay —
Unlooked-for allies and sometimes-reliable weather signs, dolphins are near-humans that remind humans of what their bodies cannot be (aquatic) and what their minds cannot do (foretell storms). Living in the inhospitable ocean, they are, as a Fisherman says in Pericles, “half-fish, half-flesh,” with their straight-and-crooked bodies astride the boundary between land and sea.