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Day of the Dolphins

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

By Rob Howes, Whangarei, New Zealand

As appeared in

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.

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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.

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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.