In the beginning, I thought I was going to write a book about whales! I already had in my head a woman who lived on her own by the sea in Western Australia, who had done something terribly wrong and was looking to make amends, and I thought she was going to have some kind of connection or history with whales. I took a trip to Albany to visit the old Cheynes Beach whaling station, and to look around the town, but although it was all interesting I knew I wasn't inspired enough, that something was missing. I kept reading around the subject, searching for what I needed, and then I hit on Atlantis - the old marine park that had been a top Perth tourist destination in the 1980s and was now an overgrown patch of disused bushland. The more I read, the more the story took off, and I knew I had found my starting point for Desi. Her connection wasn't with whales after all, but with dolphins.
Nicky and companion in 2006 © Sara Foster
Like so many people, I have always been fascinated by these perpetually smiling creatures. In my early twenties I swam with wild dusky dolphins off the coast of Kaikoura, New Zealand. Despite the turbulent sea, it was an absolute dream come true. When we made it back to land the captain remarked that he had never seen anyone throw up so much and still look so happy. Seven years later, thanks to my husband I spent my thirtieth birthday watching bottlenose dolphins playing an arm's length away in the waters of Rockingham, Western Australia. And whenever we are on a boat, I am always scanning the horizon, hoping that we might see those bobbing fins, or better still a dolphin might jump suddenly from the sea in a perfect arc, inspiring instant joy in all those watching.
Nicky the dolphin, 2012 © Sara Foster
Monkey Mia entered the story when Desi needed to move from a place of instinctive connection with dolphins to a more knowledgeable consideration of them. She moves to Monkey Mia with Connor, the love of her life, and helps him with his ground-breaking scientific research. This section of the story was inspired by the real-life research that began at Monkey Mia in the 1980s and continues today, thanks to a unique group of dolphins who visit the shoreline voluntarily to accept fish. Nicky the dolphin, mentioned in Shallow Breath, is the real-life matriarch of the Monkey Mia dolphins, and while the scenes she enters are fictional, the behaviours mentioned have all been documented. (Update: in November 2012 Nicky brought a new baby to the Monkey Mia shoreline!) Likewise, the scene where the dolphin carries the dead baby on her back is fictional, but has been taken from real-life behaviours observed in other dolphins. In this scene, two of the dolphins - Storm and Sparkle - are entirely fictional, but Holey Fin and Joy were real dolphins who were in the Monkey Mia area in 1992. (Holey Fin, Nicky's mother, is now deceased, but Joy, Nicky's sister, is still around.) If you drive to Monkey Mia today, and visit the shoreline in the early morning, there's a very good chance you will be able to see Nicky for yourself.
Dolphin breaking surface © Matt Foster
I had always planned to have a section of the book where the Priest family, and Desi in particular, have a strong connection with one dolphin. There are numerous precedents for this - Opo in New Zealand, Fungie in Ireland, and the well-known Jojo in Turks & Caicos, who is cared for by Dean Bernal. While these 'lone rangers' often change the lives of those who swim with them, it is also well-documented (as Connor mentions in Shallow Breath) that these human–dolphin interactions often end badly for the dolphin through human error – sometimes benevolent mistakes, at other times malevolent intervention.
Dolphin training © Sara Foster
And finally, the story moves to a tiny town in Japan called Taiji, where each year dolphins are taken captive for dolphin shows, and many others are killed in the process, their bodies becoming poisonous, mercury-laden food. According to Sea Shepherd, a dolphin destined for the entertainment industry is worth $250,000 – a dolphin for meat approximately $600. I have never seen a dolphin show, but that is just by chance – until I had my eyes opened by others, and did my own research, I would have jumped at the opportunity. I had no idea that my love and admiration for the dolphins, echoed the world over, had put such a terrible price on the heads of wild dolphin populations in certain parts of the world. The work of Sea Shepherd, and the documentary called The Cove, woke me up to how much I didn't know, and the horrors going on behind the scenes. It also taught me that we all have a small but vital role to play in making sure we are fully informed, so we can make responsible choices in order to do no unintentional harm to the creatures we love.