Beyond the Western
Opo the Heroic Dolphin
Tom Sheehan


Beyond the Western

Everybody knows that man's best friend is a dog, but a sailor's best friend is a dolphin. Centuries and centuries of sailors, from those who sailed the early Phoenician barks to those who sail the mighty U.S.S. Massachusetts today, all agree that the best friend a sailor has is the magnificent fish with the hard snout who will swim during storms in the wake of a troubled ship. 

This is the story of one of those dolphins.

His name was Opo. And full grown he was about eight feet long with a bottle-shaped nose and was the color of good mixing clay.  As a swimmer he was magnificent and often swam past ships that were traveling 18 knots an hour. In the prime of his life Opo was a master of the seas and a master of the dolphin ways. 

But everything wasn't always so hunky-dory. 

Many years ago, in a cave fifty fathoms deep, Opo was born. The cave was off the coast of the Island of The Three Kings at the northern tip of New Zealand and right next door to Australia. The cave, which had very little light, was not home to the young dolphin for very long. With his parents he almost immediately began his life as a long-range swimmer in all the oceans of the globe. 

Young Opo was a good student and he learned many things from his parents; how to hold his breath for long periods of time, for the dolphin is an air-breather; which fish were friendly, and which ones were to be avoided; how deep he was supposed to swim ... no deeper than the rays of the sun went down into the water ..for there was danger below that level; and that frolicking in the wake of a ship was a pleasure that every dolphin enjoyed. 

But Opo was a very sensitive dolphin and very imaginative and very keen about the things that went on around him. Somehow, he felt, not everything had been revealed to him. There seemed to be a mystery beating in every wave which he could not understand. 

Even inside his own sleek grey body certain things seemed to be missing. He could not figure it out. Opo thought, what you haven't had, you can't miss. But that didn't satisfy him. He knew that something in his makeup, something in his life, was missing. He decided to ask his father. 

Opo was also a deep grey dolphin with the same bottle-shaped nose and a very kindly expression as if two crescents were meeting on his face. Being the father of Opo was a thing of pride with Po, but it was not the proudest thing in his life. For many months he had been waiting for Opo to approach him and ask certain questions. He could sense the anxiety and inquisitiveness mounting in Opo.

When the day came, Opo was ready. 

Dolphin talk is as ghostly or as mysterious as electricity, and swimming side by side the two sleek grey bodies moving with great ease, carried on their conversation. 

Opo said, "I feel very uneasy about something, father. I don't know what it is. I can't think of one thing that would make me feel this way. But it's almost as if there were a big piece of my life missing. Every time a wave comes at me or every time the tide pulls, I feel like there is some magnetic thing pulling at me. I wish you could help me. Tell me what this is all about." 

"Opo," said Po, "You understand the law of the sea and the law of survival, don't you?" 

"Yes," said Opo. "One is the law we impose upon ourselves and the law of survival is imposed by the Divine." Opo felt rather strange speaking to his father about such big ideas, but he knew that his father was more intelligent than he himself was and he was due a great respect, not only because he was a father and a great traveler, but that he also was looked up to by all other dolphins.

His grey cousins, the sleek porpoises, had great admiration for Po. Even sharks and smaller whales knew what it was to get hit with Po's bottle-shaped nose, and very few of them dared to provoke him. 

Po said, "Those two laws cover every fish and mammal that swims in all the seas from the ice of the north to the snows of the south. 

They live and act under those laws all their lives. They do not deny rights of the laws, knowing that it would be foolish to try to do so. But dolphins are slightly different. There is a special law, another law, which the dolphin must obey. You are now old enough to know what that law is." Po paused in his speech as if a timing mechanism had triggered inside his body and he and Opo shot to the surface, broke through the surf and shot into the air. Each took in a huge breath of air, then each descended into the water again. 

Opo, in a voice as squeaky as radio static on a stormy night, said, "Father, is this new law part of the trouble which has been disturbing me?" 

"Yes, son. I have waited for you to ask. I have been watching you and have noticed a change in your attitude. You are not as playful as you used to be. I knew the time had come." 

Opo was excited. Suddenly he felt quite grown up and a great sense of energy was working in his young body. Even his fins felt as if they could propel him to the depth of the ocean where he had been taught never to go. Maybe I'm supposed to be an explorer down there, he thought. 

"What is this law, father? Tell me about it quickly!" His voice really crackled with excitement and in the waters touching at his sides he felt something majestic and yet mysterious. He could hardly hold his breath. 

"Be patient, son." said Po. "The law concerns something that does not always happen right away." 

"What is it, father? What is it? Opo's fins pushed eagerly against the water and his juddered tail swung back and forth with much energy. 

"I know that you have noticed during storms how I direct our school of dolphins always to swim in the wake of a ship, and how many of the older dolphins have a peculiar way of moving back and forth across that wake all the time."

"Yes, father. I've seen that a hundred times. Maybe a thousand. What has that got to do with the law."

Opo was thinking that patience was sometimes a terrible thing. Here he was trying to get knowledge of what had been bothering him all his days and his father was just poking along. Why couldn't he tell his son right out? Why did older dolphins seem so slow in their ways? So solid? Didn't they know just being alive was a magic thing? The seas were magic. The moon was magic. The rays of the sun shooting down into the waters were magic. They seemed too comfortable. He wanted to go on his way with the new law.

"Please tell me what the new law is, father. I feel as if I just can't wait." 

"Yes, son," smiled Po. He could remember when he had the same talk with his own father, Japo, many years ago. He had been just as excited as Opo was. "The law is very simple, son. It says, 'The true life of a dolphin is only reached when he saves a drowning sailor.'" 

Opo was disappointed. "Is that all, father? It's not going down to the very bottom of the Atlantic of the Pacific or any other ocean? It isn't exploring? It isn't going someplace new? Just saving a sailor?"

"That's all it is, son. But think about it for a while. It is a reaching upward. The greatest creature on earth is a man. He was made to have domination over the land and the sea, even over animals and fish. For a dolphin to save a man, it is an act of reaching upward towards man. If you think about that, if you think about a law that says a dolphin will only realize his true destiny when he saves one of those creatures, then the importance of it surely must come to your mind. I feel very special being a dolphin." 

"If man is so great, father, why can't he save himself in a troubled sea? Why does he need a dolphin? 

Po said, "Son, man can move hundreds of people at one time in one craft. He does not need to be able to swim as capably as we do. But sometimes a boat cannot withstand a storm that batters it about on the waves as if it were a stick of wood. When a ship breaks up or when a man is washed over the side by a huge wave, man is taken out of his true element by being thrown to the seas. It would be like you being thrown up on land. You could not live for very long. Yet man can live longer in water than we could on land." 

Something in his father's tone, and not in his words, caused Opo to think heavily on the subject of the law. It did seem to be a kind of mysterious relationship to join man and dolphin, two entirely different creatures, in one act.

The more Opo thought about it, the more he became amazed. "Have you saved a sailor, father?" In the split second after asking the question, Opo knew how important it sounded. 

Po swung his great bottle-shaped nose in answer. 

He had! Opo knew a sudden excitement. His father had saved a drowning sailor! It seemed so wonderful just to know it. And in that moment, inside the sleek grey body of his, Opo felt a miraculous beauty. It was as if all magic that had ever existed had come into him. 

"Many years ago, son, I saved a sailor who had been thrown off the deck of a ship. I had waited many, many years to perform my duty and when I saw him, I felt greater than I had ever felt in my life. That feeling that came over me when I finally pushed him ashore to a small island has been enough to carry me on all these years." 

"Was he the only one you saved, father?"

"One is more than enough for any dolphin. Many of us never get to save a sailor. That is why you sometimes see sad-faced dolphins. They are the ones who haven't performed that duty yet. You must always remember that it is an honor for a dolphin to reach upward. You must never give up hope. You must be patient, too, because it may take years for you to come across one sailor in the vast oceans of the earth." 

"But, father," said Opo excitedly, "If I follow every ship I can, if I look for them in storms and persevere, will it take so long for me to find a sailor?" He was so excited that he could hardly contain himself. He wanted to swim right off and find his own sailor. It was so mysterious and so magical to be a dolphin! To think that of all the creatures who lived in the seas, he was a special one. It made his head dizzy. 

"Remember what I say, son. Be patient. That is another law which I give you as your father. Be patient." 

"Does this mean that I go off on my own now," asked Opo. 

"Yes, son. Now you are on your own. Good luck to you. Each year on the day when the light and darkness are of equal length, at the vernal equinox, we will meet at the Island of The Three Kings. Good luck, son, good hunting." 

And Opo the dolphin that day began a long odyssey about the seas and oceans of the globe looking for his drowning sailor. Many years passed, many springs he returned sad-faced to the Island of The Three Kings, to tell his father of his misfortunes. Sometimes he did not want to return, he felt so miserable, so much a failure. But always something kept him moving on from one ship to the next, from one storm to another. The voice of his father haunted him in every wave. It kept coming at him in endless lines of whitecaps and rolling swells. It popped up at him from the depths of the ocean. It leaped at him from the rays of the moon laying like gold coins on the surface of the water. It shot at him in the glorious colors of the sun as it dipped down into the ocean's waters with its own magic. It echoed in cold, still nights when the ocean was hushed and sleepy. It howled in the great storms and typhoons and hurricanes he swam in. 

"Be patient, son! Be patient! And it was this voice and the dream of reaching upward that somehow brought him one day to a point just off an island in the South Pacific. 

The name of the island was Phoenix. Opo loved that name, just as he loved hundreds of other names of islands and places he had been to. Each had mysterious and magical qualities that made him feel as if great things had happened there. He could remember some of the names very easily; Tinian, Great Natuna, Lingayen, Zamboanga, the Molucca Passage, Jogjakarta, Arafura, Ontong Java, Nukunono, Rarotonga, Acteon, and Thursday Island. Some of the names were mysterious. Some of them sounded so funny they made him laugh. Sometimes he played games with the names, like pronouncing Antipodes as On-tip-of these or Eauripik as You're-a-pick, or Eniwetak as And-we-talk. 

He wondered why he liked the name of Phoenix. It seemed such a quiet name, yet it made him excited. And while he was thinking about the name, he suddenly became aware of a change in the ocean. The waters began to behave differently. A slow disturbing motion was beginning to grow in intensity and deep in his brain the warning signs sounded. Storm! Storm! 

A sudden fever flushed through his body. An excitement gripped him. Upward he drove, his fins slashing through the water, his great rudder-like tail thrashing like a motor. He broke through the surface, took a breath of air, saw the great dark clouds overhead and saw, also, in one quick look across the top of the ocean, a small white ship with black smoke pouring out of its stack. 

He leaped again with excitement. He thought it cruel to want a man to be thrown over the side. 

Then he knew he did not want a man thrown overboard, but if one were to be cast to the storm, he would be there to save him. 

All that day while the seas raged and the storm cracked around him, Opo swam in the wake of that little white ship. Back and forth across its trails he went, breathing heavily, watching every wave, scanning the deck of the ship which tossed helplessly in the mounting seas. The storm did not let up all that day, and it went deep into the night.

Then Opo heard a cry. "Man overboard! Man overboard!" 

It was as if all his life he had been waiting to hear that cry.  

It sent a shiver of excitement and fear up and down his spine. His sleek grey body seemed to be charged with electricity. And he was suddenly frightened he would not be able to do his job. The thought chilled him right down through his great tail.

But the face of Po leaped out of the darkness at him and a great energy burst through his body. He was a dolphin! He was a dolphin! 

Opo leaped out of the water. His eyes searched the great waves. He could see nothing. The ship moved in a circle. Lights flashed on the water, but the seas were too much for it. It had to face into the storm so it would not be turned over. The lights moved on. The ship disappeared. Opo nearly panicked. What if he couldn't find his sailor after all this looking. A greater energy came to him. His eyes seemed sharper than they had ever been. He leaped higher out of the water than ever before. It was so magnificent to be a dolphin. 

Then, in a moment of mystery, in the most delicate of rifts in the clouds overhead through which a little slit of a moonbeam shone, Opo saw the arms of a sailor beating against the huge seas.

And into his body, into his fins and tail and into every ounce of this searching dolphin came such a glorious sense of belonging that he moved across the water faster than any creature of the seas had ever moved. Without thinking of what he had to do, by some strange knowledge, by some instinct which had always been in him, Opo came up under the sailor and nudged him lightly. 

Such a frightening thing happened. The sailor kicked back! He beat at him with his fists. But Opo did not think about that. He just kept nudging him lightly, hoping the sailor would hold onto his great top fin.

Again, and again he approached the sailor. Again, and again the sailor kicked back. Finally, weary and tired, his arms almost falling off, he legs bruised and nearly lifeless, the sailor put out one hand and held on to the fin of Opo. Opo felt that nothing could be sweeter in his whole life. The sailor was depending on him. 

Opo the dolphin had ended a long search. 

A few hours later, on a sandy beach near a town called Enderbury on Phoenix Island, Opo brought his sailor ashore. In the dim light of the morning Opo saw him stagger up on the beach, fall down, rise up again, turn to the sea and raise one hand in a kind of salute to the dolphin who had saved him. 

It must have broken some kind of record because Opo swam from Phoenix to the Island of the Three Kings, a distance of some twenty-five hundred miles, faster than any ship could make it. Po was very happy. He knew that his son would one day become a true dolphin.  

That seems to be the end of the story of Opo, but years later, on a beach at the Hawaiian Islands, a strange thing happened. As a result of a storm, a large grey fish had been thrown up on the beach in very shallow water. The water was not deep enough for him to swim back into the ocean. And it was high noon! The sun was burning down and the fish certainly would not last long in the heat. Many people were gathered around and were laughing at the plight of the fish. Some even dared to venture close enough to throw handfuls of sand at it. 

That fish was Opo! He could feel the sun burning into him more than the sand being thrown at him. He was more frightened than angry. To think, he thought, that I tried so hard for so long to save one of Them! He did not think it was so special to be a dolphin then. 

Suddenly, out of the crowd, came a tall man running towards him. Immediately Opo recognized him as the sailor he had saved. 

"Have you no mercy!" yelled the sailor. Have you nothing better to do than make fun of a poor creature in trouble. You all should be ashamed of yourself. And he knelt beside Opo and poured cool water over his body. It felt good on Opo's skin which was burning as hot as the sun itself. Then the man took off his shoes and rolled his pants up and began to push and pull the huge fish toward the sea. Another man came to help him. 

"Hey there, mate. Let me give a hand. It's a grey dolphin we can have here. These landlubbers don't know one fish from another." 

Struggling for all they were worth the two sailors got Opo into water deep enough for him to swim. Opo's sailor stood with his hands on his hips and a smile on his face. Yet Opo knew that the sailor did not know who he was.  

Opo swam for a few moments until he had returned to his normal strength and then he circled the sailor many times and nudged him towards deeper water. 

"What goes here," old bottle-nose? What are you up to?" 

Opo had to get him into deeper water so that could come up under the sailor as he had many years before. He tried everything he could and finally, out of curiosity, the sailor swam into deeper water. People on the beach began to yell at him. "You'll be drowned, you poor fool! You'll be drowned." 

But the sailor knew something strange was happening. And he knew he was not in trouble. 

Then, in the deep water, Opo came up under the sailor, nudged him lightly, dipped down, and came up again. Two or three times he did this, and then the sailor knew! In all the wide Pacific he and his dolphin had come together again. He rubbed the nose of the dolphin. He spoke to him. He smoothed his scales. And even jokingly he kicked at him lightly to let Opo know he recognized him. 

The people on the beach thought the sailor was crazy. But when he went up on the beach and told them the story, they all gazed in wonder at the dolphin swimming in circles just beyond the deep water. 

This was Opo the dolphin, born at the Island of The Three Kings, born to save a sailor. And even today, with a son of his own, Opo the great dolphin still swims behind ships in trouble. And in Hawaii a sailor, old and grey, tells anyone who will listen to him about a sailor's best friend.