A Deadly Encounter off Anacapa Island

A pod of dolphins near Arch Rock off Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park. | Photo: Courtesy Munch Photography/Latitudes Gallery

I saw my friend Steve Munch recently and it reminded me again of the surprise and raw beauty in this world, not to mention the lovely unfoldings and potential for visceral heartbreak that exist right off our noses.

Let me explain.

First, let me say that my friend Steve Munch is many things, many of which cannot see print, but above all he is a man who cares deeply about our oceans. He is also a supremely talented photographer. Steve photographs many things, but most of his photos center around the waters off our Ventura County shoreline. My friend Steve is not lackadaisical in his efforts. He spends over 200 days a year out on his boat shooting. This allows him some special moments.

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I have been out on the water with my friend Steve (not often enough for me, but perhaps too often for him) and I will tell you there is no finer way to spend a day. The waters of the Santa Barbara Channel are rife with life, and it is not unusual to encounter this life the instant you leave shore. The last time I went out with him, pulling out of Channel Islands Harbor, we came upon a nursery pod in less than five minutes, an achingly beautiful assemblage of common dolphins. The little ones -- and I mean little, some looked to be about the size of an overinflated football -- executed the same scimitar leaps, barely a splash exiting and entering the morning-still water, as their parents, making you wonder if they exit the womb knowing how to leap perfectly.

We drifted. Steve shot. The only sounds punctuating the quiet were the exhalations of the dolphins, the sound like a snorkel being cleared, and the marveling exclamations of two men.

Drifting only a few hundred yards off shore, looking east we could clearly see the single thumb that is our county's only high rise blemish: the 21-story Topa Financial Tower, I think it's called, but frankly it doesn't matter to me for I care little for buildings. It was odd to think of men and women tucked in cubicles beneath artificial light, while we floated on a skein of ocean as dolphins streaked and leapt, the morning sun playing off their sleek forms.

Whenever I leave any shore I am struck by this abrupt, yet perfectly obvious, juxtaposition. Two different worlds, yet, of course, not different at all. Raw, beautiful surprises but, of course, not surprises at all.

Which brings me to the visceral heartbreak. My friend Steve's encounters with the wilderness of our offshore waters are not always fairy tale moments of infant dolphins and ethereal light.

On this particular day the dolphins surprise my friend Steve first, exploding from the milk-smooth Pacific waters like fistfuls of birdseed scattered; a pod maybe a thousand strong. Wildlife photography is a frustrating business, but there are rare times when the natural world aligns itself for the photographer. Hundreds of dolphins fleck the surface. Behind them, Anacapa Island's Arch provided the perfect backdrop. It is a gift of timing and luck, and my friend Steve throws himself on the deck of the boat, getting as close to water level as possible, firing off shots of sleek forms rocketing from the water all around him.

This is when he hears another noise, different from the raucous cavorting, something more measured and perhaps clinically efficient. He looks off the stern. The orcas, five or six of them, move almost as one, each separated from the other by a little over an arm's length. Steve breaks photography's first commandment. He lowers his lens.

Oh my god.

Photo: Courtesy Munch Photography/Latitudes Gallery

All playfulness disappears from the day. This is no game. The whales move with lethal power. Slipping beneath the surface they make a sound like a whisper, no more.

The bull explodes from the water, a dolphin in its mouth. The panicked pod runs, undulating for the relative safety of the island. Steve recovers his wits and his professionalism. He brings the camera up again, steering the boat with his feet. Still his hands shake. It takes all his skill to keep the lens level.

Photo: Courtesy Munch Photography/Latitudes Gallery

It is beautiful in a dark fashion. The orcas separate four or five dolphins from the pod and begin their work. The culled dolphins break left. They break right. Their shadows flick beneath the water at astonishing speed. The orcas are often invisible, but it is clear what they're doing. It's terribly simple. They are exhausting the dolphins. The female orcas chase, herd and confuse the dolphins. Then the bull comes up from beneath and finishes them.

At the end there are two dolphins left. They come to Steve's boat, the only refuge in the savage water, pressing against the hull. There is nowhere else for them to go.

In the quiet the dolphins pant. Biologists believe dolphins are one of the few mammals that recognize impending death. Their fear is clear. As the orcas rise to the surface, Steve feels the water boiling through the transom.

Another dolphin disappears.

Wounded and exhausted, the last survivor lays just off the boat's swim step. My friend Steve could reach out and touch the dolphin. Its panting is nearly human, a desperate runner at the end of great race. Steve is torn between helping -- would it even be possible to roll the panicked dolphin on board? -- and doing what photographers do.

There is nothing dramatic in this end. The bull surfaces and rolls over on the dolphin, gently taking him down into the sea.

Photo: Courtesy Munch Photography/Latitudes Gallery

The boat settles. Steve waits. The dolphins and the orcas are gone. There is only pure silence.

Now and again my friend Steve talks about this encounter. As you can see he got the shots, but in quiet moments my friend Steve will tell you there is no joy in this success, only the haunting of loss and an odd sense of betrayal.

We are not at all separate.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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