HMS FRIDAY – Dolphin and Man, an Ancient Love Story

by Mark Lukach

People love dolphins.

I’m not exactly sure why we love dolphins so much, but we really do. They are playful, curious, and emotionally sophisticated, the best of what we humans aspire to be. And to top it off, they like us back. They really like us. Many animals scatter at the sight of us, but dolphins go out of their way to check us out to get to know us. There are wonderful stories of dolphins shepherding lost boats back to port, and dolphins rescuing drowning victims, and even a youtube video of dolphin becoming friends with our other favorite animals, dogs.

I remember going on a whale-watching boat back when I was young, and a fellow passenger, a 6 year-old girl, spent the entire ride with a firm grip on the railing, delicately holding herself from falling as she leaned towards the ocean and called, “Dolphin! Dolphin!” over, and over, and over again. She didn’t care about whales, she wanted dolphins. When one finally showed up, it was emotional pandemonium for her, like she had just been given a unicorn for her birthday.

To share another personal anecdote of dolphin-mania: when I used to lifeguard on the Atlantic coast, an apocryphal legend that circulated through the guard house was of a beach-goer who walked up to one of the stands and asked, in all seriousness, “Excuse me, Mr. Lifeguard, but do you know what time the dolphin show is today?”

Dolphins might be one of the most beloved animals on the planet. But our fascination with dolphins is nothing new, and can be traced back to ancient times.

The first known man-to-dolphin friendship was recorded by the Roman historian and naturalist Pliny the Elder. (Not to be mistaken with Pliny the Younger, his nephew, also a historian and naturalist, although a bit more poetic in his writing style.) Pliny the Elder was extremely prolific in his days, and by one estimation ranks with Aristotle as one of the most significant scholars of antiquity. His only remaining work is the 37-volume Natural History, the first true encyclopedia created in the late 70’s CE. (No, not the 1970’s. The actual 70’s.) Pliny painstakingly examined as much of the natural world as he could, and chronicled what he found meticulously, relying upon personal observation as well as the accounts of others.

In his Natural History, Pliny presents a fairly lengthy article about dolphins, which ends with a touching story. He admits that he would be ashamed to relate such a story, and only does so because it is corroborated by “the works of Maecenas, Fabianus, Flavius Alfius, and many others.” Basically, a poor young boy befriends a dolphin who frequents a bay along the Italian coast. The boy feeds the dolphin and names him Simo, and every day shows up to the bay, calling out for Simo the way that little girl called out for dolphins on my whale-watching boat. Simo would respond immediately to the boy’s calls, and eventually they become close enough friends that Simo would allow the boy to sit on his back and ride him throughout the bay, even as far as his school in a neighboring town. (Pliny added, relying upon blatantly inaccurate science, that Simo took care to “conceal the spiny projection of his fins” that Plinty thought all dolphins were equipped with, so that the boy could ride without being injured.)

Cute story. But that’s not the end. After years of what we can imagine was a mutually fulfilling friendship, the boy dies of an illness, and Simo, distraught after losing his friend, also ends up dying, “purely of sorrow and regret…a thing of which no one felt the slightest doubt.”

To summarize: a Roman historian, an intellectual giant on the same level as Aristotle, tells the story, with utter factual certainty, of a young boy befriending a dolphin and riding him to school every morning, until the boy’s passing caused the dolphin to die of a broken heart.

In the same way that Pliny had to validate his story with outside sources, we must do the same. Dolphins seem to have about as many fan-boy websites as Apple products do, and one of those sites points out that Roman coins dating to 74BCE depict the story of the boy and Simo. Nice, but that doesn’t necessarily help the case, because Pliny wasn’t even born until 23CE, a good 100 years after that coin would have been minted. Could he have been telling an older story? Maybe, but we can’t be certain. For a “historian,” Pliny the Elder didn’t use too many dates in his Natural History. Other than Pliny, we don’t find any other record of Simo. And probably worth pointing out about Pliny, the story of Simo is not the only fanciful “fact” in the Natural History, but more the tip of the iceberg.

So then the question becomes: have there been other cases in history where dolphins have allowed humans to ride them around like some type of aquatic horse? Just because “dolphin riding” is in urban dictionary, doesn’t mean it’s real, right?

There is the much more contemporary case of Opo the dolphin, who used to follow fishing boats into the Hokianga Harbor in New Zealand i the 1950s. Opo’s mother was killed, and the dolphin ended up staying in the bay to play with the humans who swam there, and even allowed children to swim alongside him and grab onto his fan so they could hop a ride. That’s pretty good evidentiary support. Opo was like a national hero in New Zealand, with tons of accounts vouching for his veracity.

And then there’s the post-Flipper era, with dolphins trained to give humans ride. And youtube. Youtube is full of videos of people going to bays in Jamaica or Mexico and getting a ride from a dolphin. This is probably my favorite one.

YouTube Preview Image

I think we can feel pretty good about accepting Pliny’s account. Sure, the ancient historians believed in dragons and included the divine in their accounts, but a boy befriending a dolphin, and even getting a ride? Sounds pretty reasonable to me. And it’s a nice touch that the dolphin wasn’t in captivity, but was coming back to the bay willingly, by choice, to be with his friend. I just hope that kid was as stoked to ride Simo as “Marc” was down in Mexico.

See you next week for another HMS Friday. If you’re interested, you can read a translation of Pliny’s dolphin entry here.

The HMS Friday is a weekly Scuttlefish column written by Mark Lukach that explores the origins, meanings, and historical implications of ocean-related stories and myths.

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