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Joy of dolphins’ musical chatter under threat

Open-water swimmer Joy Roach shares her magical encounters with these gentle and majestic animals

Joy Roach and one of her many encounters with dolphins off Chintsa and Nahoon beaches.
OCEAN CONNECTION: Joy Roach and one of her many encounters with dolphins off Chintsa and Nahoon beaches.
Image: MARK ROACH

One voice that rang out in the world on the big Save the Wild Coast protest earlier in December was that of a local woman who lives to swim with dolphins.

Joy Roach, dubbed “Coach Roach” by the East London and East Coast open-ocean swimming groups, got up onto the lifesavers’ shack deck and emphatically told 250 soaked but doughty locals holding anti-Shell fracking and seismic blasting posters that she was not going to make any political statements.

Instead, she was there to tell the public what it was like to be in the wild, open ocean surrounded by dolphins.

Anyone who swims with Joy, such as this reporter, knows that when dolphins, and once even a shark, appears on the scene we immediately swim towards them.

Swim plans are abandoned and suddenly the group strokes out towards the horizon, heads down, to hear the sweet music of dolphin talk.

There is a tweak in the tail of this story, Joy explained to On Track: “Both my children were born profoundly deaf. They could hear no sound at all. Hearing aids could not help, so we went the audio-verbal route.

“Our miracle was cochlear implants and the kids learning how to identify through stimulation what sound really is, and how to put meaning to it. So their lives and our lives are all about the beauty of having sound and the preciousness of sound.”

Speaking to the crowd in a gentle, emotional voice, the main “mermaid” said: “Many times, my friends and I submerge our heads under the water just to hear the whales sing.”

She spoke of dolphins’ clicks and whistles.

“These creatures live their lives through sound. They use echolocation to communicate with their pod and establish their surroundings.

“Sound is the most integral sense for animals in the big blue ocean, and sound is what scientists believe seismic surveying will damage; that these sonic booms will cause harm to sea creatures.

“This sound is unimaginably loud in their space — every 10 seconds — and will surely upset their whole equilibrium. How will they echolocate and find their families if they can’t find each other?

“This can result in beaching, [death] or not knowing there is danger ahead or behind. If they can’t hear then what?

“I have swum with them so many times,” she said. “Once, they swam up and down as I approached the water. It was as if they were waiting.

Videographer Mark Roach photographs his mom, Joy, in the mist and a brown ocean far off Chintsa beach.
MOM THE MERMAID: Videographer Mark Roach photographs his mom, Joy, in the mist and a brown ocean far off Chintsa beach.
Image: SUPPLIED

“It was a crystal clear day and it was a really large pod. My son Mark joined and took pics, and my husband, Shane, came on his ski and we had a wonderful encounter together.

“Once, a friend, Rick, and I swam 2km with the dolphins next to us and under us. They were talking all the way, and when we stopped and turned they came back with us, like they wanted us to keep going.

“Each encounter is special. Once it was strange — I was swimming with friends Ali and Avron, and suddenly the dolphins came around us circled and circled, tighter and tighter, and pushed us towards the land.

“We got out and I certainly felt they were saving us from possible danger; maybe a hungry shark. I have never had them press us so urgently. Normally they are completely chilled and relaxed. 

“Once the dolphins arrived and I swam out on my own, and they moved up to the rocks beyond Chintsa. And suddenly they turned and came back; by the time they got to me they were were flying and I believe they were being chased.

“A friend watching on a telescope from the shore said they came past me like darts. 

“Each encounter is different. Not once have I ever I felt they would bring me any harm; it is like they are the angels of the ocean.

“It is such an emotional, special thing. Every time I swim with them I feel they have picked me, like they really want to come and be with you. Maybe that’s just me.

“They always come with sound. I hear them before I see them. Every single time, excepting this weird thing, last week at Nahoon.

“They came past briefly, hung out a few seconds and I didn’t hear them — not once. They are such extremely intelligent creatures and I am trying to figure this one out.”

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