I should really have posted this a week ago but for a few reasons I didn’t… It was a life changing moment.
In July 2015, we again drove down to Croatia for our summer holiday; firstly south through East Slovakia and then west through the entire breadth of Hungary. For the first time ever, we returned to the previous year’s location rather than trying somewhere new. The house we rented is just off the road between Senj and Karlobag and sits directly on the sea. Outside the front door is a small and ancient fishing boat harbour, and the Isle of Pag looms desert-like across the channel. It truly is an aesthetic and idyllic place to spend a week winding down after a stressful year’s work.
As usual, we spent our time swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, sea fishing and visiting nearby towns and restaurants. One morning, when the sun was pounding down and the temperature hovered between 35 and 40 degrees centigrade, the sea was unusually calm. It was so crystal clear that we could see the sea slugs on the sea bed from some distance away. Over freshly percolated coffee we discussed where we would visit that day, Senj or Zadar but, because of the heat, we eventually decided just to laze around instead.
As we had access to an open top sea kayak, my wife R suggested that we go for a leisurely trip around the coast; with me paddling, of course… We navigated our way around the 4 small fishing vessels in the miniature port and headed out into open water. Amazingly, schools of flying fish kept jumping out the water and the azure Adriatic sea teemed with shoals of small, young fish. The storm and heavy winds of the previous day must have brought them closer to shore. We had just reached a distinct peninsular on the coast line, some 700 metres from our house, and were slowly heading back, when R asked me what type of fish would be jumping in the water.. Of an evening, whilst fishing from the harbour wall, I’d seen quite a few large splashes so I didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary. She then asked me, quite nervously, if Croatia had dolphins.
By this time we were several hundred metres away from the coast and still over half a kilometre from home. I turned my head and, for a few moments, my brain wouldn’t register what it was seeing. R’s voice increased an octave and she sounded worried. Could they be sharks? No, I replied, they’re dolphins.
I can’t even begin to explain the mixture of emotions and thoughts that were running through my mind as I watched a pod of dolphins leaping from the water and diving back in, again and again, as they headed north between the Croatian coast and Pag. They were clearly fixated on something, perhaps a school of fish they were following, and they weren’t playing around like they do in the movies. We’ve been to Croatia perhaps 8 or 9 times and, while I knew there were dolphins in the area, we’d never seen them there. Watching those large, majestic, incredibly beautiful and intelligent creatures as they leapt through the water was a magical, awe-inspiring moment.
But then reality kicked in. We were on a not very stable sea kayak, alone in the water quite a long way from shore, and these large beasts had suddenly appeared and were slamming into the water about 10 metres away. When I saw a large dark shadow underwater a metre or so away from the kayak I began paddling backwards towards the house so I could both watch them and get some distance between us at the same time. I know dolphins are people-friendly but their enthusiasm and close proximity could quickly have put us in a life-threatening situation. Neither of us were wearing life jackets as we’re both strong swimmers but a banged head can change a situation drastically.
As the dolphins continued to leap and dive, their wake repeatedly struck the kayak and caused it to wobble. Like the deer and boar on the back country roads around Svidnik at night, they’d suddenly become a driving hazard. They were like an aquatic freight train and I couldn’t judge the breadth of the pod. My head was confused by the excitement, happiness, fear and stress of the situation. Dolphins are 3.5 metres long and weigh 600 kilos. A group of them jumping and diving close by when you hadn’t even imagined such an event, when your head’s already fried by the sun, when you’re rocking on a thin bit of fibreglass over deep, deep water, creates a maelstrom of emotions. At the heart of these thoughts, both R and I knew we were extremely lucky and blessed to be experiencing it, regardless of the fear or imagined danger. There are only 220 dolphins left in the entire Adriatic Sea. I honestly felt like a kid again.
By this time, other people along the coast had seen these incredible visitors and were either standing on the shore watching or swimming out or taking boats and kayaks to try and catch up with them. I kept paddling until I reached our private harbour, hoping my three kids would already be watching the spectacle. They weren’t, they were inside. We quickly grounded the kayak and we ran to bring the kids out to see. As I hadn’t had my waterproof action camera with me in the kayak, I had to use an automatic with telephoto zoom on shore to try and capture the scene. However, perhaps because of the huge amount of attention they were now getting, the dolphins had ceased their leaping and only their dorsal fins could be seen occasionally as they came up for air.
As my family stood there on the harbour wall facing Pag, R and I were both still in shock at such a life changing, adrenaline filled, amazingly beautiful moment. This wasn’t like taking a chartered tourist boat specifically to see dolphins, this was a completely random surprise when the power of nature hits you full force and you realize how tiny you are in the grand scheme of things. It had been R’s choice not to go to town, her choice to go out in the kayak, and it was she who spotted them first. For whatever reason, they were for her. Perhaps they know she loves swimming in the sea as much as they do.
You can travel the world and visit whatever exotic resort you like but out of all the holiday destinations I’ve visited, Croatia is still one of the most beautiful and surprising. Canoeing with dolphins in Croatia is something neither of us will ever forget.