Saturday, April 04, 2009

Surfing Dolphin Property Rights

Do the usual surfing rules apply when a human shares a wave with a dolphin? If so, I might have pissed off one of Flipper's kin, yesterday. But I think that because dolphins use waves differently from humans, both species can ride the same wave without conflict. So, at least, my story of cross-species surfing suggests.

Here's how it went down: I was surfing Churches with my former Marine (not "ex-Marine!") bud, Tracy, who uses his base pass to get us parking right on the beach. We had been surfing for a while when I heard him and some of the other guys yelling and whistling. I looked up to see a pod of dolphins surfing down the face of a big set wave that was rolling towards us. The dolphins glided just under the surface of the water and then—Pow! Pow! Pow!—started leaping into the air and back into the wave. That alone made it a Super Special Rainbow Unicorn Day (with sparklies). The fun, though, had only just begun.

I guess the other guys were too busy laughing and clapping to notice that the wave was shaping up pretty nicely, or maybe they were too deep where it began breaking, but for whatever reason the face came to me with nobody on it. The dolphins seemed to have disappeared, too. So I whipped my board around, took a couple of strokes, and nailed it. As I came out of my bottom turn and hit the lip, I looked down to see a dolphin still in the wave, some 10 feet ahead of me, speeding along under the surface. I laughed and yelled, "Yeah, bro! Let's go!" The dolphin and I rode along a bit, together, and then it peeled off and rejoined its pod. I finished out the wave, getting a nice long ride and a nice big smile.

On the paddle back out, though, my conscience pricked me. The dolphin had caught the wave and worked out to its shoulder when I dropped in at the sweet spot, blocking the dolphin from a making a cutback to the face. Under the usual, human rules of surfing etiquette, I almost certainly would have been in the wrong. I'd get some slack, perhaps, because I couldn't see the dolphin gliding along under water. Then, too, the dolphin was so far out on the shoulder that, even if I had seen it, I might have safely whipped some turns inside, remaining ready to pull out if the dolphin began to cut back. And, of course, it would have been a perfectly fine maneuver between friends—but I didn't even know the dolphin's name.

Ultimately, though, I decided that I had not triggered a cross-species diplomatic incident. As I've explained elsewhere, surfing's rules of etiquette create transitory property rights in wave faces, a custom that helps us humans maximize the a very valuable and scarce resource: surfable wave faces. Dolphins don't surf the same way that humans do, though. They have so much power, speed, and efficiency that they can ride waves far out from the steep, breaking portions that we humans require. Like mega longboarders, dolphins pick up waves long before they begin to pitch, tend to ride far out on the shoulder, and eschew sharp turns for long, graceful lines.

I conclude that dolphins and surfers—especially shortboarders—can happily share the same waves without conflict. So, at least, my experience suggests. So, too, does this video of humans and dolphins peacefully enjoying the same waves.


viola said...

Dude, I know nothing about surfing, but this is a cool post. Great perspective on human and animal interaction.

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks, Viola. I worry, though, that I should have discussed why dolphins' utility functions matter. (Because nobody wants to surf with a pissed-off dolphin.)

Anonymous said...

Heh, you got that right!

Anonymous said...

Great surfing post! It shed valuable light on cross-species-interaction.I am forwarding the post to my surfer friends. This is Joshua from Israeli Uncensored News