Trouble in paradise

“Spend a day you will never forget,” the sales pitch crooned. “Swim with the dolphins, touch them, pet them, go on a belly ride with them, and even kiss one of Earth’s most intelligent creatures.”

Call me crazy, but this spiel chanced into my mind during the Sands family’s most recent getaway in the Southeastern Utah desert. Sure, we were thousands of miles from the dolphin tank, but why wouldn’t it? Dawn was still struggling to peak over the La Sal Mountains and onto our campsite, the Moab wind had just crested the 40 mph point, and our water jug was still frozen after a long night of sub-freezing temps. Off on the western horizon, a massive, crimson-colored cloud had just materialized from thin air and was quickly billowing our way. Let’s just say that our annual fat tire getaway was not going as planned. Moments later, the cloud was upon us, red dust pelting our faces, swirling a mix of grit, sand and rock around the camp and threatening to send our tent skyward.

At that moment, in the midst of a most severe desert mood swing, a short swim with the dolphins seemed a vastly superior option. Mouth, ears and nose packed with sand, I quickly broke camp, all the while paying a mental visit to that ghost of spring break past.

Three years ago, the better half, my toddler and I strolled down the causeway at Albuquerque’s Sunport (that pillar of international air travel), lifted off into the friendly skies and touched down nearly a dozen hours later to calls of “Aloha,” “Mahalo” and “Cough up the cash, haole” in Honolulu. Our gracious host – my dear old mum in law – leied the whole family, loaded us into her Pontiac Sunfire (a most ironic replacement for her Jaguar of a few months earlier) and immediately started describing our itinerary with tour guide precision. A sea park adventure was to be the first stop on the Alohaland Express, and two tickets to swim with the dolphins were already waiting for us.

Call it a big blessing in a shabby disguise, but neither of those two tickets boasted my name. At a hundred smacks apiece, dear old mum reserved the privilege of high aquatic adventure for my two beloveds (you’ll also recall that times were a little lean, the Jaguar having so recently gone extinct). Nope, there would be no dolphin kiss for this innocent bystander, no belly ride, no direct contact with Flipper. I would be there purely in support mode, and I thank the tiki gods to this day.

My wife and daughter, however, were first in line for the Dolphin Encounter – the adventure reserved for those with small children or “others who simply prefer to remain in shallow water.” The day began with a stroll around the “park,” a mishmash resembling a county fair carnival much more than a top-flight aquatic research facility. A small assortment of sponges, aquatic plants and aquarium fish greeted us from their homes inside a pool-sized tank. Lording over the whole affair were a dozen out-of-place penguins and a team of sea lions that looked and behaved like a pack of Ringling Brothers retirees.

Judge not, I told myself, the main event – the fabled Dolphin Encounter – was still up ahead. But education would have to come first, as every encounter opened with a 30-minute orientation – “Don’t put your fingers in the blow hole ... don’t place any foreign objects in the blowhole ... don’t try to look into or splash water into the blowhole ... most importantly, photographs and videos will be available for sale in the gift shop (strategically placed in front of the exit).”

Now thoroughly oriented, my two girls buckled on bright yellow life jackets and crawled into waist-deep, ice-cold water. There, they joined a random assortment of candy wrappers, Styrofoam flotsam, a couple of rogue band-aids and more than a dozen giggly Japanese tourists. At that moment – just like so many of our other spring breaks – Mother Nature intervened. Out of nowhere, winds started lashing the dolphin tank, a fearsome thunderhead materialized out of thin air and the mercury dropped to 45 degrees (the Hawaiian equivalent of 15 below). Undaunted, the “encounter” proceeded in the midst of that micro-cyclone.

During the 10-minute affair, my wife and daughter were treated to some cute antics and a little heavy dolphin petting. But there was no belly ride, no blowhole poking and definitely no dolphin kiss. The twin lights of my life then climbed out of the pool, walked quickly past the photo kiosk and the gift shop and straight toward the exit. “Let’s load up and get out of here, Dad,” my then 3-year-old said frankly through a bout of shivers. Nodding in agreement, the mother of my child swore me to secrecy, making me pledge that the incident would never find its way into conversation or, go forbid, publication (my deepest apologies, darling).

And get out of there we did, but only after a half dozen days on the itinerary capped off by a particularly trying Na Leo concert (check them out on youtube - I double dog dare you). Blame it on the dolphins, but the Sands clan has spent nearly every break since somewhere in the Utah desert.

And what do you know? Back in Moab, the sandstorm had started to subside, the temp was cresting that 40-degree mark (the spring equivalent of the low 70s) and slickrock started calling.

Apparently, conjuring up a vision of the dolphin encounter was all the kahuna magic I needed to appease the benevolent desert gods. And with the sandstorm behind us, a day I would never forget was taking shape. Now if I could only keep my mind off of the blowhole.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows