TiBE 台北國際書展 2025.2.4-9

A Patterned Life (Excerpt from Life of Whale)

7 September 2019 /
    Several times we came in close contact with Risso’s dolphins. I found that the pattern styles on their body were different for each one of them. They have big and small circles, crossing stripes like tree roots wrapping around them, and so much more. It makes me think of the words from a commercial for camera film, “Use film as your diary.” Risso’s dolphin’s use the skin of their body to write a diary.

    1. The first time I encountered Risso’s dolphins was about five years ago.

    That year I was driving a boat by myself at the mouth of the Sanzhan River dredging for striped bonitos. They were in a group of about 30 or more and surged up on the front starboard side. Unhurriedly and systematically, the colony swam past in rhythm.

    During that period of time we had gone out on the ocean for the main purpose of catching fish. Under normal circumstances when traveling en route for a fishing spot, even if you see dolphins you will seldom purposefully stop to observe them. But this pod of dolphins, that unhurriedly passed the side of the boat, attracted my attention. I remember that at that time I not only brought the vessel to a stop but rotated it all the way from bow to stern and followed them for a short while.

    Under the waves they presented a white silhouette that looked like beams of flickering lights on an azure blue screen as if they were dissolving, white-clothed apparitions wafting along without rest. Their refined movements were unhurried with a kind of venerable grace. It felt as if they weren’t bothered at all by our following ship.

    Sagacious, simple and honest, steady. Their qualities are notably distinct from the behavior of other animals.

    After I got back to land, I inquired about them all over the place, flipping through information to find anything I could. Older career fishermen, for the most part, call them “monk dolphins.” Their rostrums are short and not prominent with a rounded end that is quite thick and solid. When they emerge from the surface, their white heads drenched in the water’s glistening reflections actually looks rather like reflections from the ample scalp of a monk. Later on, I was able to locate their entry in the book Guide to Cetaceans of Taiwan and confirm that it was them—Risso’s Dolphins. Their body length is about two to three meters and their body weight is about two to three hundred kilograms.

    Their main defining characteristic is that their body surface has a great deal of white scratches. Those are the vestiges leftover from rubbing against, comforting, or fighting with each other. The more aged the individual the more scratches and the paler white their body color becomes. They record the patterns of their existence into the body skin like the luster of years passed, medals of a well-lived life.

    This time, while engaging in the “Hualien Coastal Area Cetacean Ecological Research Project,” there were several times we came in close contact with Risso’s Dolphins. I found that the pattern styles on their body were different for each one of them. They have big and small circles, crossing stripes like tree roots wrapping around them, and so much more.  Like a network of rivers and streams and as white as fresh snow on the mountaintop.  One of the members of our team, Yang Shizhu queried, “Could it be that they are playing a game of tic-tac-toe on each other’s body?”  It makes me think of the words from a commercial for camera film, “Use film as your diary.” Risso’s Dolphin’s use the skin of their body to write a diary.

    This was the first species of dolphin I was able to identify. Perhaps, that time five years ago when we made contact, I had already intuited that this kind of dolphin would have a profound intersection with my life. I wrote this in my journal at the time: “I feel that they have extended another door, opening a greater perspective of the ocean to me….”

    As it turned out, while conducting the first voyage of this research project, I met them. There was more than a 100-meter gap between them and the boat, but before we even reached them, I had already called out their name. Furthermore, during the several following voyages they essentially never showed up absent, like a group of lingering souls, calm and silent they appeared without ceremony on the right and left of the boat. Since our work boat was without the necessary detection instruments, we had no way of verifying whether or not the Risso’s Dolphins that kept showing up on the sides of our boat were from the same colony. Yet when I string together all the information about our contact from my notebook and when I carefully think back on each one of the cases and what happened during contact, their interactive relationship with the boat was actually like a dramatic series, constantly moving in waves, to the point that you could infer an exciting plot. These kinds of results gave me great excitement and continually surprised me.

    The first four voyages that we contacted them, they were obviously purposefully maintaining about a 20-meter distance from the boat. When the boat attempted to close in, they swam to a depth and distance where they had effectively defused our approach. That was a separation from which there was no room to haggle.  On the fifth contact voyage the boat was permitted to get within 10 meters. And after that, with every voyage and every day, the space between them and the boat was reduced little by little. From the ninth voyage on they were almost leaning against the front of the ship and not swimming forward. This patterned yet plain pod floated on the water surface at the front of our boat. You could almost reach out and touch the very splendor of their body markings.

    Thinking back, it was like a well-planned rhythm. The process of their contact with the boat had some strategies which were easy to see through and others which were not. After probing us out and confirming who we were, they finally revealed their good-natured manner in complete trust. In the end, they neither had the least bit of wariness, nor the least bit of estrangement. To us, this was like already being embraced in a close relationship.

    We brought a sincere purposefulness with us to this sea visit and thus we were permitted to get this close. Due to the interaction we had with the Risso’s dolphins, I felt, quite emphatically, a beautiful camaraderie with the world of whales and dolphins begin to sprout.

    If we take the process of this contact with the Risso’s Dolphins as an analogy of the romantic relationships among humans, then Risso’s Dolphins are obviously the ones who took the initiative. They controlled the rhythm and melody of our contact and they were indeed that precise and meticulous in employing the skill of holding on and letting go. They divulged their emotions with a little bit here and a little drop there, and yet they captured the feelings of every one of their human counterparts in prodigious quantities. That really is a high-level skill equal to the task of making the other side fall into fascination and obsession.

    2. On the day of our maiden voyage we kept pace with them, swimming together 20 meters apart. Now and then, their round, blunt foreheads would emerge up from the water surface like thick pieces of wood floating on the current and then popping up whenever one end got unbalanced and at the same time they were like a group of professional breaststroke swimmers popping up their heads now and then to take a breath. Our boat was trying to glide in closer and it wasn’t that they were panicked but they’d just slightly amend the direction of their swimming so as to maintain a 20-meter distance with the boat.

    While following on their heels, the shipmates began to discuss the dolphins. “They eat different kinds of squid and other soft-bodied animals. The maxilla doesn’t have teeth and the mandible has only two to seven….” It made me think of a group of old grandfathers and grandmothers with shriveled chins and no teeth swimming at the side of our boat. In fact, they do carry themselves after the manner of the elderly, slowly and steadily taking in breaths and advancing forward.

    One individual had a body which was blacker, and so probably younger, who was attempting to leap up, but it wasn’t like other species of dolphins whose entire body leaps out of the water. It wasn’t even like the larger cetaceans that can at least get eight to nine tenths of their bodies above the surface. Risso’s Dolphins are evidently quite pleased with themselves acting old and jumping just for the show of it. Only one half of their body rigidly and clumsily came out of the water, tilted slightly in the air and then, like a big iron hammer—a hammer that cannot bear its weight anymore—they heavily smacked the water’s surface.

     In the middle of the colony of Risso’s there were at least five pairs whose body-size difference obviously showed that they were mother and child pairs. The mothers guarded their children, swimming fin to fin. It genuinely came across like a scene of mothers leading their children, donned in uniforms, to the gates of school.

    They were remarkably calm. The boat followed them, staying nearby, for over 20 minutes. I could sense that they carried the slightest bit of vigilance and the slightest well-intentioned desire to welcome us with open arms while still pretending reluctance.

    3. In the surging waves around the Risso’s dolphins a dazzling purplish-green spotted fin, stood up straight out of the water.

    The captain and I saw this, shouting at the same time, “Sailfish! Sailfish!” That was an Indo-Pacific sailfish that had just been frightened terribly. This pod of Risso’s swimming past had scared the sailfish stupid and stunned it to stillness.

    Like a startled cat arching its back with hair standing on end, this sailfish raised its dorsal fin like a sail out of the water. As the ship turned back and approached, this sailfish, still immovable in the water, didn’t dare to rush into even the slightest bit of action.

    This brought an experience the captain had shared previously to my recollection. About 20 years ago he was just outside of Hou-pi-hu Fishing Harbor in Pingtung, spearfishing the Indo-Pacific sailfish. The ship sailed out of the harbor and was anchored, waiting at sea. While waiting, dolphins chasing a sailfish swam by. The sailfish would get panicked to the point of confusion by the dolphins’ chase and its dorsal fin would come high out of the water and, like an obedient child, it dared not rush into any action. When the boat drove over, they didn’t have to make a vigorous chase, but rather it was like they’d received a gift from the dolphins and they merely had to calmly retrieve the fish.

    The captain told this story so all the fishers working in that harbor came to respect the dolphins.

    After more than 10 working sea voyages, one time on the return trip, it seemed that something had just occurred to the captain. “Have you noticed that every time we run into the Indo-Pacific sailfish we also run into Risso’s dolphins?” he asked me quietly.  I thought back on the dozen or so work trips. This was absolutely true! I pondered carefully on the three-part relationship between the dolphins, the sailfish, and the boat. Could it be that Risso’s dolphins are able to understand the occupational needs of a fishing boat spearing sailfish? I felt as if my all my thoughts on the matter had been scooped dry. Could it be that Risso’s dolphins are capable of deciphering the wants and hopes of those working the fishing boat?

    One time, an Indo-Pacific sailfish floated up behind a pod of spinner dolphins. I teased, “Hey, spinner dolphins must’ve learned how to give gifts too…” but before I’d even finished talking, a pod of Risso’s dolphins and spinner dolphins were both rushing to the ship’s bow. The Risso’s acted as though they were not willing to fight with the spinner dolphins over who would get the glory, yet at exactly the right time they floated up to the front as if to say to our boat, “Are you paying attention? It’s us, the Risso’s.”

    4. On another voyage, at 1:30 in the afternoon we were at the northern extremity of the Hai’an Mountain Range, just off the shore of Colline 77 in the shallow coastal water. We spotted a pair of fishlike creatures putting off a greenish-blue color. Originally, we thought they were a couple of giant manta rays, but as the side of our vessel leaned in closer, they hurriedly emerged. A pair of dorsal fins cut up through the water. I saw the patterns, but I couldn’t believe they were Risso’s dolphins because the color was wrong, the breathing rate was wrong, the swimming speed was wrong, and the depth of the water was wrong (they usually appear in waters of 1,000 to 1,500 meters deep). On the whole, they just weren’t the same Risso’s dolphins that over the past several days had burned a brand in my psyche with such profound intensity. These two dolphins neither swam with steadiness nor were their movements refined and unhurried.

    They were sensitive, sharp and agile in the waves twisting and turning happily. These two Risso’s dolphins didn’t float up very often to breathe. Our boat was full of speculation as we followed them. Sometimes we’d lose one of them in the pursuit and the remaining one, energetically nimble, cruised through the water. After a spell, and we couldn’t tell when, they became a pair all over again.

     From that day on, the impression of Risso’s dolphins in my head became impossible to unravel. Subsequently, each time we made contact it was like they were models on a runway changing their appearances just that quickly.  20 or 30 of them could crowd together like a cluster of white-crested waves on the side of the ship. And at other times, 20 or 30 of them could loosely configurate and circle round the ship. They could also jump completely out of the water. Jumping several times in a row made me believe, erroneously, that they were jumping experts, namely spinner dolphins. Apparently, they can move or be still, they can swim in deep or shallow waters, and they can act foolishly or wisely. They are a group of dolphins with a richly colorful life and flexible way of doing things.

    They are a profound mystery. With such calm composure they could grasp everything about me and that made me feel nakedly bashful. But I can only guess, using conjecture and speculation, to try and figure them out.

    After some time, our work boat had a famous saying: You don’t have to speculate. They can do anything.

    5. July 22nd was this research project’s ninth voyage. Our ship sailed south with a gentle southern wind; the wind blew on us directly, dissipating the heat of the sun.

    After so many consecutive days of work every member of our crew had been sunburned to the point of peeling skin. On this day, the boat had been sailing for close to three hours. The surface of the water was smooth and gentle without any news of activity. I sat, dozing, at the bow of the boat on the platform from where we’d spear fish. Occasionally looking back, I saw a few crew members at the control tower, leaning against the railing and continuously nodding off. Only the captain was awake, weakly spinning the helm without much enthusiasm. Every day the intense July heat on the sea was cooking all of us in the sun like fish jerky until we were all exhausted.
    “Over there! Over there!” the captain urgently roared, knocking us out of our deep dreaming with great force. In seconds everyone had awoken and turned alive. Just running into whales and dolphins made our passion glow equally to the garish July sun.

    Composing ourselves and concentrating we only saw three Risso’s dolphins. Comparing this to the captain’s loud bellow it was hard not to feel a little disappointed. Our ship continued to glide in closer. In front of the boat, at about a 10-meter distance, they raised their tailfins and dived deep.

    When they floated back up, one, then two, three, four, and five. Wow! It was just like magic. There were now two more. It seemed like they had arranged this beforehand. Then, several more times, 10 meters in front of the boat they raised their tailfins and dived deep. Every time they floated up, more came with them. “They’re pretty fertile after all,” Shizhu joked.

    It seemed like we were tied to them as they led us along. Following their lead, bit by bit we were reduced to a sluggish speed and they happened to show us the way into their main colony. In just a few moments of time, at the bow, the stern and the two sides of the ship you could see their dorsal fins surging up to the surface. The fins towered in the water and there was easily an excess of 50 dolphins lined up in ranks.

    Don’t think for a second that this was the climax of our main melody, the process of slowing down and being led by this colony was merely the overture. They didn’t pay the boat any mind but escorted it forward like rushing to an important event.

    The captain’s eyes were sharp and at the front edge of the Risso’s dolphins he spotted two dolphins with long rostrums, small triangular dorsal fins, and a reddish-brown body color. They were obviously a different species of dolphin swimming in front of the Risso’s.

    A southern wind blew in without warning and the sea began to convulse with white waves. Everyone on the boat held their breath and focused their vision at the front edge of the Risso’s dolphins.
    The entire pod leaped up as if to draw all of the seawater out at once. There were more than 150 individuals at close distance, and it was like they were ferociously exploding at the front of the boat, churning up a giant splash. “Fraser’s dolphins! Fraser’s dolphins!” Behind me on the control tower somebody was shouting loudly, sure that they were Fraser’s—they are a large-sized yet exceedingly shy dolphin. The emotions of everyone on the boat suddenly turned and leaped up to the summit because of this dolphin community. This was our first time on this research project to run into this variety. The crew all became crazy collectors with intense penchants for getting more. All of us, like soldiers on the battlefield with the butts of our guns pressed tightly against shoulders, were crazily clicking camera shutters.

    The Risso’s dolphins could obviously be divided into two colonies, they separately pursued the at the rear of the two large groups of Fraser’s dolphins—each group with 200 dolphins, more or less.

   Fraser’s dolphins gather together inseparably close, their actions are nimble, and every time they jump from the water, the space between individuals is to such an inseparably close degree that they almost rub against one another’s skin. They jump nervously and smack the water anxiously as they fall back in, striking it into an uninterrupted huge white splash. It’s a run-for-your-life erratic panic.

    The Risso’s dolphins steadily followed behind, and behind them the boat followed at their heels with great fervor and excitement.

    The Fraser’s swimming speed is incredibly fast and so is the speed at which they dive deep. Frequently after hearing a splish-splash on the water, you’ll see their whole body go down deep, and you lose all trace of them.

    The Risso’s dolphins were swimming steadily, neither hurried nor disrupted, from beginning to end bringing our boat forward, shifting to and fro, as we moved. The unbelievable part was that we merely had to go along and watch in the direction that the Risso’s dolphins indicated. Shortly after, the originally hidden and seemingly vanished Fraser’s colony, just like divers unable to hold their breath, rushed to the water’s surface one by one.

    Fraser’s dolphins are plainly more fretful creatures whether you’re talking about the way they escape or the way they hide. The Risso’s dolphins followed them closely, nearly nipping at their tails. It was like many thick fingers on the top of the water marking out where the Fraser’s dolphins were concealed below. I thought that this must be a headache and nuisance to the Fraser’s. They were being tenaciously held captive by this pod of Risso’s and therefore had no way to break away from the boat’s pursuit.

    This Risso’s group was evidently standing in the same camp as our boat. Or perhaps you could say that the boat was already seen as a member of their colony. We mutually took the Fraser’s dolphins as our prey—not that either us or the Risso’s would hurt this prey in any way. Our vessel had the express responsibility to film and survey, so we had to tag along as closely as possible. But why in the world were the Risso’s pursuing them so persistently?

    It’s as if they understood our work requirements; understood that the Fraser’s, for our part, were a new species to discover; and understood our excited state of mind over finding them. The Risso’s dolphins seemed to be helping us to tightly track the Fraser’s.

    Over the course of this pursuit, sometimes the Fraser’s dolphins would hide in the deep waters for a bit and they wouldn’t appear. The Risso’s dolphin colony, would lead the way, as they had before, swimming very close to the side of the boat. I realized at that time all of the boat workers seemed to be taking this time for a rest, a chance to catch their breath. They put down the video cameras and no one took out their camera to shoot those Risso’s dolphins nearly within our reach. Turning back I remarked, “Ah. The Risso’s price has gone down. No one wants them anymore.”

    The Risso’s dolphins swam steadily at the side of the boat just as before. Evidently, they didn’t mind that they were no longer the focus of attention. After opening the performance of the prologue, the Fraser’s dolphins had already supplanted them in the main character roles. They still swam steadily. It was like we were holding hands, they cared not for their gains or losses, and they were mutually engaging in our unanimous quest.

    This good-natured attitude was heartwarming. This affection and allegiance had already blurred our differences. They were a part of our crew, our assistants. We had become Risso’s and we were, right then, experiencing the vibrancy of the patterned life.

    Not until the camera batteries were drained and the film was used up did the captain ask, “Have you got enough?” And for a time, no one answered. We were all still waiting at that sustained climactic summit, unwilling to come back down. I looked behind to other crew members and I felt that everyone had a Risso-like smile.

    The boat anchored in and prepared to cook lunch. It was 1:20 in the afternoon.

    The Risso’s dolphins stopped too and didn’t continue to chase the Fraser’s. From far, far away the Fraser’s dolphins raised up the water into an extricated splash. The longer they swam, the farther they got.

    I sat at the spear-throwing platform watching the Risso’s dolphins drifting at the bow of the boat. The sun on their bodies wove a beautiful web of quivering light patterns like a nude young woman wrapped in white muslin, like several mysterious and good-natured ocean sprites.

    They knew our boat and they knew each of us…. It’s hard to describe this kind of beautiful, warm intuition. It’s really not easy to have even a few experiences like this in one’s life. I sat there on the platform contentedly smiling in satisfaction—like my heart had been settled by a fine wine, a little drunk, a little intoxicated with the joy of the moment.

    We were an adventure-seeking vessel for the island of Taiwan with the mission to send our goodwill into outer space. We sought for friendly encounters in the vast cosmos. And here they were right in front of our boat in this huge, clear blue world.

    6. They were lined up in pairs of two, swimming forward at an astronomical speed. For every 30 meters they probably sprayed a tree’s height worth of heavy mist. We called and called after them, the boat cruised like an arrow in hot pursuit. We thought that we had found another new species again. That was the fastest swimming pod I have ever seen on the ocean.

    Then apparently because they saw the boat following, they slowed their pace. Their heads popped up out of the water as if to say, “Hello, friends.”

    To our surprise it was a group of Risso’s dolphins.

    7. A great deal of information from books discusses the IQ of dolphins and discusses their wisdom too. I have always felt, that from the beginning up to now, humankind has stood from a position of superiority and looked down on them. After our numerous contacts with the Risso’s there’s something I have to say: When humans look down upon dolphins in this way, we are also exposing our very limited wisdom at the same time.

    8. He saw the splashing from afar, “It’s them!” the captain declared with certainty and immediately turned around to make this wager with us. We planned to bring back some squid as gifts on our next voyage. At the end of July, Typhoon Gloria directly followed by Typhoon Herb kept us off of the sea for over ten days.

    The monstrous ocean waves surged turbulently and spilled over to the skies. I stood on a precipice at the edge of the sea and surveyed far off into the distance of the drizzle-covered ocean. I wondered if they were able to peacefully pass through the typhoons. I missed them like a lover would miss them.