Note: Sometimes even astronomers come down to Earth. Clay Sherrod is an old friend and an observer of nature, human and otherwise. This story occurred at Pensacola Beach Florida on September 29 – LS
Like one surviving briquette of charcoal getting its last burst of flame from a rush of air, the brilliant rising crimson sun began to illuminate an inky darkness of the Gulf waters. The beach was empty, save a few shell-mongers whose silhouettes moved about against now-still waters. All seemed right with the world from my balcony five floors above the soon-to-be warm sands. The previous day had ended for me with many disappointments that had landed me thinking poorly of human-kind and the way that we treat one-another. Once again, the world seemed changing, with fellow man showing little or no compassion for anyone but himself.
Such thoughts seem to overtake us more as we age, I think.
As daylight progressed a larger silhouette on the beach caught my eye…..a dark mass of objects in motion, slowly emerging into view as a group of people at water’s edge, just a few hundred yards from me; some were walking restlessly back and forth and some bending over as if to catch handfuls of incoming waves. Nothing was certain in the poor perspective of dawn, so binoculars were called into play revealing the reason for such a meeting of bodies on the beach.
At some point before the sun’s debut a collection of people – beachcombers, joggers, shell-scoopers – had all stumbled across the same thing that had washed ashore from the rough chop of the previous night: a lone female dolphin of great size and beauty. She was at death’s door, beaten by the surf and succumbed to the fate that she had been dealt.
From my distance I could see the variety of reactions to this: two women, joggers based on their uniforms, were crying while cyclically turning to look at the ailing fish*, then spinning away covering their eyes as they did; an elderly man stood with hands on hips, head downward as if giving last rites to this stranger he had just met; and then, amidst the crowd of on-lookers, three rather large fellows caught my eye moving around in ways unlike the others. Each of these guys had something in common: large bellies that no doubt had bragging rights, either T-shirts on or no shirt, and ball caps (worn with the bill pointed in the direction that God intended). A young lady had her iPhone up to her ear, I was thinking wishfully to call 9-1-1 or some other appropriate agency.
"Alabama," I whispered aloud from my high altitude perch. "These guys have to be from Alabama." I have been to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico for so many years that you know when someone is from Arkansas, or Louisiana or Georgia.
"Alabama….no doubt about it."
Meanwhile, down in the breakfast nook of the hotel, a fine hot meal was being eaten by guests, all who had one hand on a fork while cell phones were being punched by the other. Among all those feasting waffles and eggs was one Escambia County Deputy Sheriff who frequented the hotel about this time every morning. He, too, had a cell phone but it was in the holster, where it is supposed to be when food is being consumed. That is a topic for another day.
Unknown to these folks while enjoying their meal, some reading the newspaper, some watching The Weather Channel, but most tinkering on their "devices", a crisis for a living creature was unfolding on the beach, only a few hundred feet from their tables. A magnificent creature was dying.
The Deputy’s phone rang from dispatch; someone from the beach had reported a beached Dolphin in distress and did not know what to do with it. Reholstering his phone, he immediately left the dining area and it was only seconds before I could see him struggling through the dry sand, over the dunes and onto the location where the fish was beginning to slowly suffocate from breathing air out of water.
Immediately words that I could not discern were exchanged between the three guys who I had anointed to be from Alabama (by then I had Christened them all "Bubba") and the Deputy. Once spoken, the Deputy again retrieved his cell phone and made a call. Later I learned from him that the call was to the biologists at the Environmental Protection Agency’s offices only one mile west of our location. It was a quick call that ended with the Deputy pointing at the Dolphin and waving his hands toward "The Bubbas" as if to instruct them on some type of emergency techniques. Perhaps this was not the officer’s first Dolphin 9-1-1.
My three Bubbas removed their ball caps and began filling them rapidly and pouring the water across the Dolphins’ slick skin; each poured a capful and pointed to the others as he did, directing where the next tiny dose of life was needing to go. Several minutes went by and no one from EPA arrived; the ball caps were going limp by this time and the Deputy was clearly anxious for someone to come and help, turning from the duty in front of him to watch for any sign of a "fish person" to arrive to save this creature.
And what a magnificent creature she was; out of water they appear so much larger than when you see them performing at Sea World; this blue-gray beauty of a woman, weighing in at over 300 pounds and measuring nearly 9 feet from toe to tail. There are not too many women that you can say that about….and get away with it.
She had been hit by a boat at some point during the night and her struggle to stay afloat had apparently ended with her simply giving up and beaching as so many of these fine creatures do. She had come to grips with her fate and was allowing God and nature to take over from there. When later learning about her injury from the Deputy, he also noted that the biologist from the Fish and Wildlife never arrived, but had instructed him to "Never attempt to get it back into the water….it will surely die."
Well, without further instruction and information the magnificent animal was going to die anyway. So the Deputy did what he thought was the right thing to do.
Being in full uniform and polished boots, he instructed the Three Bubbas to "….get her back into the water and head her out….." away from the wash of incoming surf.
These were big guys….but this was a much bigger fish. But they went into action for the next eight to 10 minutes, nearly passing out from exhaustion.
Somehow, as I zoomed in from above to memorialize all this action, these guys somehow turned this 800 pound mammoth so that her head faced the Gulf of Mexico and slowly began moving her gently – yes, they were as gently as if they were holding their babies back home – into deep enough water for her to float. Twice, three times, they pushed against her, prodding her into deeper waters, sometimes over their own heads and each time she washed back ashore.
"C’mon" dang it!" I could clearly hear one of them shout in frustration with what little breath he could muster. "C’mon, you can DO it!"
And, finally she DID do it….she flapped that huge tail like an oar on the waves and off she went with bullet speed…..only to return or seemingly so. "Oh NO!" one of the other Bubba’s hollered. "Get on back out there!"
And, then, to everyone amazement – and a memory that I will never forget – it became evident that she was not washing ashore She was strong, she was powerful and she was thankful. She passed up to the waterline just as close as she could safely pass and literally jumped out of the water, arching gracefully in front of my Three Bubbas, flapping her tail twice as she once again entered the water. I am convinced that she regained the will to live because of the efforts of those three men…three strangers who never gave up on her.
Gratitude….she was showing gratitude and thanks for these three guys and one Deputy. They never gave up and it renewed her will to survive.
And from this day since I am still wondering why we do not take the same compassion with our fellow men and women we walk among with every opportunity.
Thirty minutes later I waited by the elevator doors en route to join the texting breakfast crowd below; the doors opened and out came a very wet, very large fellow with extended belly, spent hat in hand still dripping wet.
"You guys did good," I told him as I put my hand out to his. "You should be proud."
"You bet I am," he beamed, "…I saved a Dolphin today."
Watching the dripping but smiling Bubba walk on to his room, I sent him a resounding "Thank you….by the way, where are you fellows from?"
So, in retrospect, you may sometimes be able to judge a book by its cover after all….but sometimes the contents may go deeper than what you see.
*In deference to local vernacular, the dolphin is referred to as a fish. While in actuality there is a genuine fish called a dolphin, the animal here was a mammal.