The Dolphin's Gaze

We sadly inform you that world-renowned animal and environmental activist Ben White died in late July. A non-violent freedom fighter in what he called a 300-year war against nature, he had the conviction to use any means to make the world a better place. The eight years he spent protecting old-growth forests, whales, dolphins and other wildlife as a representative of the Animal Welfare Institute will never be forgotten—and his courage and dedication are already missed.

In the 1970s, Ben's life was forever changed while swimming with dolphins in waters off the coast of Hawaii. "I was suddenly aware that the entire world is conscious," he told the media when asked to describe the incident. Several years ago, he wrote about his experience, and a version of this article was published in the 2003 book Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond. In this issue, we pay tribute to Ben through his inspiring words on the fleeting moment that called him to action.


The Dolphin's Gaze
By Ben White

One brief experience 30 years ago charted the entire course of my life. It was the morning I first swam with the wild dolphins of Kealakekua Bay. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what happened. All I know is I was a different person when I crawled from the sea than the one who plunged in an hour before. Colors were brighter. Gratitude for being alive moved me to a strange combination of laughter and tears. My old worldview had collapsed on itself. A new one had sprung from the sea, from my swim and from the dolphin's gaze.

I am not a "new-ager." As a lifelong professional tree climber and longtime single daddy, I love solid and sure things, like the steel snap of a climbing clip telling me I am safely tied in. I believe in the tangible. But my source of sustenance has always been a personal relationship with Nature. As a kid, I found solace exploring creeks and forests.

When others of my generation scattered across the globe searching for spiritual teachers in the Himalayas or in the zendos in Japan, I wound up—at the age of 20—living by myself on a jungle hillside on the Kona coast of the big island of Hawaii. Three or four times a week, I would follow the winding asphalt road down to the bay, kick off into the warm clear water and enter the dazzling world of reef life. In the evening I climbed, dripping wet, back home to my little plastic and bamboo tipi tucked beneath two coconut palms that clattered in the breeze.

I meditated and studied Zen Buddhism and Lao Tzu. I was intrigued by the concept of enlightenment and collected odd stories that described the onset of this flip-flop of consciousness. One told of a solitary monk who attained enlightenment after decades of concentration. While sweeping his secluded cabin, a pebble thrown by his broom thwacked against the wall with a peculiar sound. Bingo! He was changed forever. Other stories told of realized beings that could trigger enlightenment with just a glance.

I assume that I have not passed that elusive golden doorway into enlightenment. I still get moody and depressed and bark at my kids. Only twice in my life have I experienced a gaze that really reached to the bottom of my soul and turned me inside out. Once was from a yogi I met in Southern Oregon in a cave behind a waterfall. The other was from one of the dolphins in Kealekakua Bay.

For a couple of weeks I had been watching dolphins glint in the sun as they played in the bay. Viewed from my hillside high above, one after another would smash through the ocean surface and spin high into the air with the most amazing pirouettes before splashing down. The joy and abandon in their movement beckoned to me. I wanted to play. Inviting a few laid-back friends to join me on the mile or so swim out to the dolphins, I found no takers. When I asked why the dolphins kept flying out of the water I was solemnly told that it was their way of shedding parasites. Sort of like saying Baryshnikov soared due to ants in his pants.

A dozen excuses argued I shouldn't swim out to the dolphins. Finally the desire for adventure overwhelmed the fear of risk. Sitting at the surf's edge, just barely able to see distant dorsal fins slice the surface, I strapped on mask, snorkel and fins, lowered my head and started kicking. The water world was familiar, the moving reef life a comfort, until it began dropping away. Hawaii is just the tip of the largest mountain in the world; its base is thousands of feet underwater. I was tiny, almost naked, alone, flying over this abyss until I could no longer see the bottom, just light shafts from the sun not-quite-converging far below in the indigo depths.

A giant barracuda angled toward me, a flashing silver bullet. But he passed by, heading toward the shore, without any sign of notice from his flat round eye.

On and on I kicked. Now and then I raised my head to check my progress. Thoughts raced: yep, they're still there, dorsal fins mimicking the short choppy surface waves. But geez, they're big, much bigger than I thought. Maybe this little swim isn't such a good idea after all.

I really started to get scared, but it was too late to retreat. They had spotted me. Two dolphins suddenly shot from out of nowhere straight toward me. I heard an odd trilling series of clicks and felt a ratcheting vibration shudder through my chest and belly. I had been echolocated.

One dolphin kept coming at me. I wondered if dolphins really did kill sharks by ramming into their bellies like in the show "Flipper." There was no place to hide. I was totally out of my element, defenseless. Then the dolphin slid by on my left, maybe 8 feet away, and regarded me from stem to stern with one long piercing gaze.

In trying to understand this moment and why it triggered such an epiphany, I keep thinking about that gaze. We are told that eyes only receive, not send. I don't believe that. My favorite game as a bored kid in school was to stare at the back of another student. Invariably they would turn around. Something comes out of eyes.

What happened when that dolphin looked at me? I was humbled to the dirt. All of my insecurities and fears were shaken out like so much dust; inspected, laughed at and discarded. The gaze stripped me of all swagger and presumption.

But it was more. I said the dolphin "regarded" me. I have known many dogs; close friends I loved dearly. But I have never seen such complexity, humor and recognition in the eyes of any creature other than humans, and rarely enough in those. Inside that sleek gray dolphin body was a person. No doubt about it: a self-aware, evaluating, conscious, thinking, playful and accepting person.

If dolphins had "persons" inside of them, then almost everything that I had been taught about human specialness and our perch upon the crown of creation was a crock. A whole string of logical assumptions tumbled like dominoes. If dolphins are persons, then all other creatures must also be persons, even if their eyes don't shake my innards quite the same way. And if all other creatures were persons, self-aware entities like me, then the world was infinitely richer. The axiom that all other creatures except for humans were just inert props for our starring role on earth was exposed as a deadly lie, keeping us isolated from our greater family. The world was suddenly huge and welcoming, with every facet calling out to me. I had found a place I belonged. It replaced the sterile stage upon which I had briefly performed.

The guard dolphin let me pass. Soon I was surrounded by a pod of about 50 dolphins. (Years later I learned that this family, now much besieged by seekers just like me, is one of only two resident pods of spinner dolphins known.) All around me swam old, scarred bull dolphins, little babies snug alongside moms and mating dolphins belly to belly. Frisky young dolphins raced under me before exploding through the sea's silver ceiling, only to whack down seconds later wreathed in rainbow bubbles.

The dolphins moved with so little apparent effort, as if they were watermelon seeds squirted by invisible pinched fingers. In contrast, I felt sillier than a fish out of water. I was a man off land—goofy, elbows and knees hanging down while superior beings showed me what individual movement could be.

Too soon, the dolphins vanished. No more symphonies of squeaks, clicks and whistles. They simply disappeared. I couldn't even see them when I lifted my head to peer above the chop. I yearned to follow, to join their world, to learn a little more. But I had to go back to land, to people.

Kicking the mile back to shore, the world was brand new and in Technicolor. A sense of obligation followed directly on the heels of euphoria. I had been given a glimpse into the world of the Other. It had cracked me open. These creatures needed nothing from me. They were complete. But all over the world, human beings were hurting dolphins and whales who were not able to speak in their own defense. Why couldn't I, as a human being, try to speak their voice within the world of human laws and practices? I made a solemn vow to use my life to protect these creatures from my own species.

During almost three decades now, the vow has led me into over 50 countries and many foolhardy missions. It took me to Japan, Mexico, the Bahamas and Florida to cut nets to free captive dolphins and whales. It has led me to many interminable meetings of the International Whaling Commission, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, where the stroke of a pen can doom or save thousands of individuals.

Of course, those who kill or capture whales and dolphins don't believe that their victims are "persons." They certainly don't believe that I was recruited to the dolphins' service that day out in Kealakekua Bay.

Their disbelief doesn't matter, because the dolphins' gift to me on that morning has been so pervasive and enduring. The realization that this earth is peopled with conscious entities weaving a musical, sexual, emotional matrix of diverse form and mind has transformed my world into a miracle renewed each day. My final gleaning from the dolphin's gaze is this: not only does our greater family of life on earth wish us well, but they have been waiting forever and a day for us to join in the dance as full participants, instead of lonely paper tiger bosses.

I'm still a wallflower at this dance, just starting to get acquainted and learn the steps. But the simple fact that I have been invited to the party fills me with delight.

In only 53 years, Ben did what most of us could only do in our dreams. During his career as an activist, he slept atop old-growth trees to prevent logging, he scaled New York skyscrapers to hang protest banners and freed dolphins from holding nets around the world. His first mission as a representative of AWI was to jump in the Pacific Ocean to end a Navy research vessel's use of underwater sonic testing near Hawaii. His next major effort, the "march of the turtles," will go down in history as his most famous publicity event; hundreds of people donned turtle costumes to protest the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Ben's final adventure involved halting a huge seismic experiment off the Yucatan coast—twice. He was a genius at raising public awareness, and he was no stranger to danger.


Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond, edited by Toni Frohoff and Brenda Peterson and published by Sierra Club Books, can be purchased at More of Ben's articles and photographs that commemorate his life are available at Please contact us if you would like a printed copy of the materials.