Instead of Golfing, Vacation with the Environment

Recently I met up with Jay Sargent, a former high school classmate, and discovered that not only does she still love horses, she now loves dolphins – enough to go on vacation with them.

JoJo leads the way.
JoJo leads the way. (By John Bahret)

Ok, she doesn’t buckle her seat belt and fasten her tray table next to one of these grey bottle-nosed creatures, but she does fly from her horse farm, Sandy Point Stables, Portsmouth, Rhode Island to Turks and Caicos, the Caribbean, to swim with these magnificent sea mammals, thus escaping the dampness of a long New England winter and making a heartfelt pitch for greater responsibility to wildlife.

Heidegger’s essay, The Origin of the Work of Art, attempts to describe to us simpletons the relationship of earth to world which seems appropriate when thinking about man’s selfishness to other living creatures. He says, “Beings are never of our making, or even merely our representations, as it might all too easily seem.” Sargent’s book, JoJo and Me, is more than keeping a diary for ten years about her unusual love story with JoJo, the dolphin.

While choosing to vacation on a beach with a pink umbrella’d drink and an R-rated novel is fine, the environment where you situate a towel is often grossly overlooked as something unworthy of contemplation. Even without a PhD in biology, anyone with enthusiasm can open eyes and ears in order to contribute. After all, in the days of the Grand Tour, it was the aristocracy who ventured out as amateur scientists; their work became highly valued.

I first met Jay Sargent in a high school Spanish class, the mid-sixties (Beaver Country Day, Brookline Massachusetts). Her father was lieutenant governor which might have made her a ‘mean girl’ – it didn’t. I got to know her in Mrs. Perry’s sewing class. Even as we approached senior year, going out to recess was still required! But, if you sewed, you could hunker down in the home economics lab and hang out after lunch. Jay and I spend many hours standing in front of a tall mirror cursing at our teenage bodies. I would hear about her latest horse show triumphs while I longed for June when I could race my sailboat at my grandfather’s home on Martha’s Vineyard. Today, Sargent  is still involved in horse training; she recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New England Equitation Committee.

JoJo watching Ethan.
JoJo watching Ethan. (By Ethan Daniels)

In the mid-90s, needing a winter escape from 40 years of equestrian teaching, Sargent’s travel agent suggested Turks and Caicos. The trip led to buying a condo and a Boston Whaler – a beachable boat built on World War II landing craft blueprints. To segue: in the mid-sixties when I was sailing off Edgartown lighthouse, dense fog rolled in and I drifted for hours in the direction of Nantucket. My crew was Steve Golding whose dad was a rector at the Washington National Cathedral—no, we didn’t get divine rescuing. What we did get was a tow from Boston Whaler’s CEO who insisted we hear about his company.  My Whaler experience allowed me to imagine Sargent pounding in her skiff, Catch Ride, in search of dolphins. But her enthusiastic verbiage provides visual imagery for any landlubber.

Sargent, who also grew up summering around Cape Cod’s watery environs, admits to being an apprehensive swimmer, especially submerging her face. Everyone has phobias; I can’t ride a horse. To segue again: after being in the Navy during World War II, my dad insisted I learn to swim; I was about three. So he fabricated water wings out of old cork and canvas life preservers (Mae Wests as the Navy dubbed them) and hurled me off a beach with instructions to swim or not return. While this method would have Freud rolling off his couch, nonetheless I became an avid lap swimmer.

When coming to Turks and Caicos, Sargent had heard about a special dolphin, JoJo. She initially thought all dolphins were named JoJo, but quickly sighted the one and only seven foot, twenty-five year old, oceanic celebrity. For years JoJo’s personality attracted tourists and unfortunately the occasional grand slam into a boat or the near miss from a propeller, hence his scars.

Discovering dolphins swimming off the beach near her condo, she pushed herself to overcome water phobia, advancing to snorkeling with a ‘pod’ or a school of these mammals.  Overcoming fear of water as an adult is no easy task and another reason to read JoJo and Me.

JoJo in the wake.
JoJo in the wake. (By John Bahret)

Sargent’s first daring swim out to a buoy was to introduce herself to JoJo which turned into ten years of her love affair, swimming with many dolphins. After mastering snorkeling, she bought a ‘water scooter’ that allowed her to keep up with pods–a water scooter is a rechargeable hand held machine resembling a house fan, kind of a human outboard motor.

The book, JoJo and Me, and their sequels are compelling because Sargent is not a biologist, although she reads everything dolphin. She’s a testimony to the art of keen looking, which many of us never attempt. One has only to remember how the great ‘Oz’ enjoyed awarding academic schwag, only to turn out to be an unaccredited fraud; you don’t need credentials to become a responsible environmentalist.

One day Sargent was lunching at Cabana Bar when she spotted JoJo and describes her sudden enthusiasm, “This time, he is right off the beach. Off I fly, same routine, grabbing flippers and mask, like a woman possessed.” Apparently this scenario ensued three times that afternoon, causing waitresses to frown and hamburgers to be put under heat lamps.

Sargent noticed JoJo could be quite the show-off ‘barrel rolling,’ catching a ride in her Whaler’s wake, or scratching his back on the anchor line.  She learned to recognize a dolphin sleeping. Not being able to beach themselves for the nearest motel and a late drink at the local pub, dolphins sleep by shutting down one hemisphere of the brain and closing the opposite eye and thus hang motionless or swim slowly.

Sargent watched as her dolphins echolocated their fish dinners by pummeling nose or rostrum into the sand to extract some unassuming sea creature.  She wryly observes they usually fish early in the morning and late in the afternoon like human fisherman.

jojo 4
(By Ethan Daniels)

Once a beach chair blew into the water which seemed to disturb JoJo. With help from John Bahret, Sargent’s husband, the chair returned to its rightful spot on the beach. This is a good example of how accidental polluting can upset sea life even if objects aren’t toxic.

Over the years Sargent has swum with dolphin babies and moms, observing that females seek out aquatic dolphin babysitters so they can have a ‘date night,’ in truth, foraging for food. And babies often ‘tail walk’ or leap out of the water, seemingly trying to stand. Sargent learned to distinguish male from female dolphins by belly slits—females have two extra three inch long mammary openings. Sargent’s symbiosis with horses seemed to have gone aquatic.

Jay Sargent’s brother Bill, a naturalist who has contributed to PBS’ NOVA series, and has authored books about New England coastal management, encouraged her to catalogue dolphin escapades. So, Jay and her husband John revved up their photography skills and expanded their advocacy by writing to the island’s newspaper, urging boat captains slow down for dolphin safety.

Sargent invited Bill, his son Ben-a seafood celebrity chef, and Ethan Daniels, a marine photographer/biologist, to meet the famed dolphin.  JoJo doesn’t like everyone, but Daniels won the dolphin over. All joined in as our ‘superhero’ dolphin led the party of five to view an underwater ladder-wreckage. Sargent quickly discovered that JoJo learned to recognize her even after their six months separation; as a business woman, she returns to New England for the late spring to early fall horse show circuit—kind of a migration.

Hoping to enjoy a future of swimming with dolphins, Sargent realized she needed to cultivate additional relationships with younger dolphins including Mojo whom she suspects is one of JoJo’s offspring. As Sargent concludes, “If it wasn’t for my friendship with JoJo, I wouldn’t be so aware of how the human race seems to either kill or ruin everything we touch. How can we think its ok to pollute their habitat and kill so many species?”  Sargent’s swimming with her beloved dolphins is more than a pastime; it’s a wake-up call for others to respect not only our precious environment but to contribute to its future in any small way.

Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger edited by David Farrell Krell, Harper Perennial Modern Thought, London 2008, page 178

Jay Sargent’s books: JoJo and Me, JoJo and Me II, and JoJo Saves His Friends are available on Amazon.