In 1987, I was on an adversary detachment to Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West working with VF-101, the F-14 Replacement Air Group. The oil pump on one of our A-4 Skyhawks failed during a routine sortie and the pilot ejected. He was quickly picked up by some local fishermen and returned to us looking humble and soggy but none the worse for wear.
As the Officer in Charge of the squadron at that time and on-site, it was my job to locate the wreckage which, according to witnesses, went in shallow water about a mile north of the NAS. I made a dash to a Navy small boat unit near the NAS and requested assistance in locating the airplane. While the boat unit scrambled to put together a crew and make ready a boat, I was treated to a short tour of the facility. The main attraction was the Navy Marine Mammals they worked with.
A polite, young petty officer was kind enough to let me visit the dolphin pens where I met my first dolphins. There was a big bull with scars forward of his dorsal fin which outlined a huge set of jaws from some earlier brawl with a very large predator. He really wanted nothing to do with me. As I think back to that time, laying on the edge of his pen, he approached me with more interest than an offering of friendship. He allowed me to stroke his flank as he slowly glided by, but there was no real connection. His name was Makai. Little did I know that years later he would play such an important part in the development of this novel.
The second dolphin, a much friendlier little cow by the name of Mako, was a different story entirely. She was a delightful muse of a dolphin. After I slapped the water for a few minutes, she approached me, slipped her rostrum into my hand and, with inquisitive, bright eyes, bored deep into my eyes and, as it turned out, into my heart. She flashed all the mannerisms of managing a big smile. She spent several minutes cruising past me, sometimes just out of reach, as if
she was enticing me to join her. She was strikingly gorgeous. If she had been equipped with eye lashes, I swear she would have batted them at me.
It was a most unnerving and startling encounter. Never had I experienced the attraction or the magic of a gaze such as hers.
Fast forward to 2012, my active duty Navy career behind me and my assignment on the staff of COMNAVSPECWARCOM, the SEAL headquarters at Coronado, California, just ramping up, I met a gentleman by the name of Chris Harris at one of the Porsche club’s autocross races. Chris ran a Porsche 914 which, with less than half the horsepower of my old 911, was disturbingly quick and placed consistently in the top times of the day vanquishing me on a regular basis. Chris was one of those people you like on first introduction. Friendly, engaging, and when he had something to say, you listened—it was always interesting stuff.
As the conversation developed we got around to our jobs. It was quite a surprise when he explained he had been training animals for a number of years to include elephants, sea lions, Orcas, and dolphins. Chris’s experience as an animal trainer began at an early age working as an exotic animal trainer and care giver for various oceanariums and zoological parks since the early 80’s. Chris has amassed over 30 years’ experience connecting with and nurturing our non-human counterparts. He’s a walking encyclopedia of the characteristics and behavior of large animals and truly captivating to listen to. I proceeded to share my very limited experience with the two Navy dolphins at Key West. When I mentioned their names he said, “Do you know,” he beamed, “… the Navy still has those dolphins and they’re doing great.” I was happily shocked—it was twenty-five years ago that I had met them, but the chance meeting with Chris rekindled those wonderful memories.
I had read and enjoyed many stories of the military working dogs—those brave and stupendously loyal war dogs who, day in and day out, lay their life on the line for their handler and their team. I had been quite captivated by the stories, but they were always about dogs. I had read, and heard many stories of dolphins assisting humans and, in some cases, saving their lives. Why, I asked, were there so few books or novels similar in genre but whose main characters were dolphins?
I just couldn’t put the idea on the shelf and soon found myself in the clutches of a concept for a story about a dolphin. My objectives were to: build an exciting and heartwarming adventure which captured the reader’s imagination and introduced them to the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP) and the life of a Navy Dolphin; show the reader the care, concern, and consideration the men and women of the NMMP hold for their charges, and avoid divulging any classified or sensitive information. The story would be based on facts with the elasticity and license ensured as a novel.
With Chris’s help I began to fashion a story board for a novel about the NMMP dolphins and sea lions using a fictitious Bottlenose as a main character. The story is oriented around a small wild dolphin who loses his mother and is stranded on a beach in west-Florida. He is then saved by a young girl, adopted, and rehabilitated by the Navy and inducted into the NMMP.
Enter my own personal experience (though very limited) and the adoration (in abundance) for dolphins and soon I had a story unfolding which perhaps strayed, to some degree, from the actual professional relationships of handlers and trainers with their mammal charges, but captured many of the real-life adventures and tales of dolphin-human relationships.
In order to keep the story as faithful and accurate as possible I was fortunate enough to be assisted by several people in leadership and command positions and many handlers, trainers, and biotechs in the program. One of the reviewers described my affection for the dolphins as anthropomorphic. To that I unabashedly plead guilty. With his guidance, however, I rewrote several sections of the story and revamped others that he believed would reflect poorly on the Navy and the program. These changes should not dampen the plethora of anthropomorphic thrills but should provide more racy, greater fidelity, and work more closely within the constraints, procedures, and guiding principles of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program.
That said, in the interest of full disclosure, I must attest to the fact that I have, on occasion, breached the boundaries of Navy standard operating procedures, handler etiquette, and, in some cases, common sense, which would neither be condoned nor tolerated by Navy leadership. There remains, however, several stories that contribute to the light humor and mood of this heartwarming fable. Duffus, a California Sea Lion, is described as a close friend and pet of the command master chief of Naval Special Clearance Team ONE and effectively has the run of the facility; consumption of spirits within the confines of Foxtrot Platoon, and allowing a civilian to swim with a Navy dolphin are a few of the stories in Alika created out of whole cloth from my fertile imagination and in no way reflect the policies, actual events in the history of NMMP, nor portray the practices of NSCT 1. For these occasional romps down the rabbit hole, I accept full responsibility and attribute them to an over stimulated mind and a run-away story board.
There are a great number of people who assisted in developing this story and many more who helped contain it, heightened the realism and provide accuracy and details where there was little to be found. My most humble thanks to Chris Harris for assisting in the development of the story line and for sharing with me his astounding knowledge of marine mammals. I have met only a few people with the same compassion, concern, and respect for animals of all species as Chris. Anyone who can quote Henry Beston from memory must have a bit of St. Francis of Assisi in their blood.
Commander Jon Wood had been assigned as the Executive Officer of Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Mobile Unit 3, led the Fifth Fleet staff planning effort during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and then was assigned as Commanding Officer at Naval Special Clearance Team ONE.
Mr. Jeff Haun had a long and intimate association with the NMMP from January 1972 through June 2006. His career included assignments as a trainer, head trainer, program manager, branch head, and division head in charge of the Marine Mammal Program.
Mr. Ed Budzyna is the Public Affairs Officer for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command and assisted in coordinating my research efforts with the right experts within the NMMP; he proved to be very helpful.
With a critical eye and a flair for literary composition, I thank Alan Weiss for his contribution in enhancing the story flow and ferreting out my silly mistakes. I thank these gentlemen for their time, effort, expertise, and for their valuable assistance in making this book far better than it would have been without their help.
‘Mamas’ don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys.’ This is the title of a song by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings released in early 2011. There’s a counter point to this popular song in the form of Mr. Phil Wilson—practicing preacher for the Wyoming Cowboy Church in Jackson Wyoming, director of the Jackson Rodeo, an authentic American cowboy, and a man any mother would be proud of. In the early chapters of Alika, there is a section on raising, socializing,
and training horses and preparing both cutting ponies and riders for rodeo competition. Mr. Wilson was kind enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to help me in building these stories. His assistance in imparting his knowledge, experience, and gentle training techniques in these sections proved invaluable.
I owe a debt of gratitude and thanks to my aunt, Ellen Rogers, whose many years of teaching helped keep the story line on track, whose line-editing skills were most helpful, and whose encouragement was always inspiring.
To my wife, Katie, my own Navy nurse, who kept me pointed into the wind and spent countless hours making readable (and I hope enjoyable) my scripted chatterings, thank you.
To the many men and women in the Navy Marine Mammal Program, these everyday heroes, who give far more of themselves than their time—thank you! It is a job for which few have the patience, the kindhearted character, the commitment, or the remarkable alchemy to transform wild mammals into partners to humans performing a vital job in challenging environs. The dolphins of the Navy Marine Mammal Program are an enchanting species whose vast cognitive abilities remain uncharted. Until one delves into the depth of their glimmering eyes, succumbs to the allure of their beauty, and revels in the mirth of their perennial smile, one cannot truly appreciate their uniqueness. They willingly
abdicate much of their right to self-determination by virtue of their trust, confidence, and sense of faith in their human handlers and perform a vital, strategic, life-saving mission for our nation.
To those wonderful and majestic beasts that prove that God enjoys a lighter side and without whom, there would be no story—my eternal gratitude.