SB Nation

Ashley Harrell | July 23, 2013

Saving grace

After a gruesome murder, a man turns to his friends in the ocean to overcome grief and give his life purpose

It was early morning in Drake Bay, a coastal, tourist town in the wildest jungle of Costa Rica, and a crescent moon still hung in the sky. In the trees, millions of cicadas rattled, and fringe-lipped bats swooped to capture a final frog. Far overhead, three-toed sloths dangled from the forest canopy, gnawing guarumo leaves.

Rarely are any human residents awake at this hour. But on this morning, there was one.

Shawn Larkin, a half-Gringo, half-Costa Rican tour guide, lives in the jungle, and he knows its rhythms like the cry of his only child. Yet that day he found himself in unfamiliar territory: a resort's saltwater pool. The water clung to his long, red hair, giving it a briny musk, and his pale, wiry arms embraced a creature about half his size, one that was, against the odds, also unfamiliar. A striped dolphin.

Eventually he would develop and lead the world's most astonishing dolphin tour.

Shawn is an expert on the dolphin species that congregate in the waters off Drake Bay - the bottlenose, the pan tropical spotted, the spinners. Eventually he would develop and lead the world's most astonishing dolphin tour, an extreme adventure unlike any other on the planet, introducing the rich, the famous and the otherwise fortunate to something he would call "a superpod" - thousands of dolphins traveling, breeding and hunting together in the open ocean.

But in the cold pool, feeling the weight of life in the balance, he was at a loss.

The dolphin that had scraped her belly along the rocks and beached herself the day before, prompting rescuers to transport her to the pool in a bed sheet, was not native to area. "I've never seen a striped," Shawn had explained to the townspeople, flashing a nervous smile.

Word travels fast in Drake Bay, and when residents heard about the dolphin in the pool they started to show up at the resort, curious at first, but once they saw her, offering to help. She was undeniably beautiful, with skin that glistened blue and gray and revealed faint starts of the dark bands that flank the mature striped dolphin.

People sat around the pool and put their feet in the water, encouraging the dolphin and taking turns embracing her, which seemed to keep her relaxed. Hotel staff gave out arroz con pollo, a traditional dish of chicken with rice, and beer at no charge, and the gathering began to feel like a vigil for a dear friend. In the early evening, without prompting, one woman began to sing. Her voice rang out over the pool, and even the cicadas turned quiet.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me/ I once was lost but now am found/ Was blind, but now I see.

After the woman's song, silence. The dolphin somehow seemed comforted, and the people in the crowd began calling her "Grace," agreeing with each other that it was the perfect name. After sunset, however, people grew tired and began to drift off, leaving Shawn and Grace alone. He stayed the night with the dolphin in the pool, keeping her company and puzzling over where she came from, how she became separated from her pod. Like humans, dolphins are social creatures; they rarely leave their families.

No matter how much Shawn learned about wildlife, he remained aware of how much he did not know, how much was perhaps unknowable. "How can we hope to understand a different species," he sometimes asked his tour guests, "when we can't even understand our own?"

When he said it, he didn't specifically have his brother Greg in mind, nor did he think of the widening rift between himself and his own family. But it was true that he did not understand his brother, and that was the reason he had taken his family to the Osa Peninsula. Moving away hadn't helped, though, and his family's troubles would escalate so unexpectedly, so tragically, that Shawn would later see himself as he now saw the dying dolphin in his arms, a fragile, broken life. He did not yet realize that in trying to save her, he was beginning to learn how to save himself.

* * *

Seanandvanessa_mediumShawn and his wife Vanessa in the living room of their jungle home.

Ten years later, Shawn looks the same as he did when Grace washed up. His pale frame appears fit and agile. His red hair is still long and wild. His bottom lip stills curls to the side when he speaks, as if he's eating a juicy piece of fruit. There is no physical evidence of his dark period, no immediate indicators that he has suffered a greater loss than many people have in their most unspeakable nightmares.

He is again a man living the dream of a 5-year-old boy who once peered up at the ceiling of the Smithsonian, studied an exhibit of life-sized marine mammals suspended above and knew what he wanted. But if anything is different, perhaps it the frequency with which Shawn speaks of those who helped that boy pursue his greatest passion. He wants his daughter to see the difference a dream can make, and to find her own. He wants her to remember her grandparents.

Shawn was born in Washington, D.C. to a radiant Costa Rican woman and a practical Canadian-American insurance salesman. When he was 13, Shawn's mother drove him to a scuba shop to pick up his diving certification. He remembers coming back to the car and telling her, "I wish I could work there." She practically threw him back into the shop. "Just ask for a job," she said, and he obeyed. "OK, can you come in tomorrow?" the manager responded.

At the shop, Shawn made $5 an hour, which eventually was enough to buy scuba gear and a bike to get to and from work. He dove every weekend in murky quarries and lakes, where people had sunk buses and planes to make things interesting. When he moved to Costa Rica in the mid ‘80s, the country opened up a whole new world for him, under the sea and on land.

When he moved to Costa Rica in the mid ‘80s, the country opened up a whole new world for him, under the sea and on land.

He attended high school in Escazú, a wealthy suburb of the capital San José, and met other kids who wanted to explore the country's coastlines. On weekends, they took buses to the white sand beaches of the Guanacaste Province, the jungle-shaded Caribbean shores and the untamed edges of the Osa Peninsula, and they camped on the sand. Back then everything seemed so rustic and natural, so clean. It was before hotels started polluting the country's rivers and oceans. Before tourists made everyone hungry for money. Before drugs and guns forced people to carry keys for all their locked doors.

After high school, Shawn left Costa Rica to study marine biology and then worked in the Caribbean on a Club Med resort boat. The time away made him realize how much he missed Costa Rica, so he returned to look for a place to call home. He financed the scouting mission by renting out his snorkel gear, and eventually settled in Manzanillo, an undeveloped beach town on the southern Caribbean coast.

It was a place where the surf was dependable; coral reef communities flourished right off the shore and dolphins leaped out of the water. The town also had a welcoming vibe, mainly because it was already home to diverse mix of free-spirited Afro-Caribbeans and indigenous Costa Ricans. And, of course, there were girls.

The nearby town of Puerto Viejo and its all-night dance parties attracted female travelers from all over the world. But Shawn wasn't a big partier, and he wasn't just looking for a vacation fling. He met Vanessa the old-fashioned way.

On a hot summer day, the fair-haired, fair-minded Californian woman picked up a hitchhiker, a good friend of Shawn's. "So cool that you helped out," Shawn said as Vanessa dropped off her passenger. He couldn't help but notice that she was beautiful in a natural, offhand way, and soon Shawn was regularly walking miles to the café she ran with her parents, first for the mango muffins, but mostly to see Vanessa.

She held her own in conversations about area wildlife encounters and local customs, and Shawn impressed her with his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from pit vipers to patí, a tasty Caribbean meat pastry. The two were soon inseparable, and eventually, Shawn moved in with Vanessa and her parents.

He had spent much of his adult life working in dive shops, accumulating the know-how and experience to start his own ocean adventure business, one where he hoped to offer a mix of kayaking, dolphin encounters and scuba diving. When he told his parents of his plans and that he had found the place, they decided to invest in the business, but their money came with strings attached - Shawn's younger siblings.

There were four Larkin kids in all - Richard the oldest, then Shawn, then Katrina, then Greg, who looked as if he could be Shawn's twin. Of the four, Shawn was the most independent, confident and adaptive. His younger brother and sister lacked his drive and discipline, his focus and joy. They struggled to find their place in adulthood and seemed lost, unsure of what they wanted to do in the world. Like many others of their generation, at times cocaine seemed to provide a temporary way for them to feel worthwhile, validated even in their aimlessness. Shawn had tried it in high school, but ultimately his interest in the ocean prevailed. You couldn't go to sea strung out.

He knows now that not everyone can be saved.

Greg was the most troubled of the four. Kicked out of the same Costa Rican high school where Shawn had thrived, he bounced back to the U.S. and floundered, wading into a world of drugs and crime; one of his friends was killed in a drug deal. Myra and Richard Larkin believed that helping create a family business in the Caribbean might rescue their son and give his life purpose, like Shawn's.

At first, Shawn was hopeful that Greg would benefit from the move. He looked forward to building a business with his brother, to growing close, sharing his knowledge and showing Greg how to save himself.

He knows now that not everyone can be saved.

* * *

In the late ‘90s, the era of the eco-tourist dawned in Costa Rica. Adventurers flew in from all over the world to raft Costa Rica's white water, rappel down its waterfalls and surf some of the longest breakers on the planet. It seemed like anybody who started an adventure company or a hotel succeeded. The Larkins started their business just before the boom, offering guided kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving trips and taking tourists out on the first-ever dolphin tours in Costa Rica.

Shawn named the business Aquamor - water love, and designed a logo with two enormous waves crashing toward each other, forming the shape of a heart, with a kayaker and a dolphin surfing the waves, man and animal, together.

There were reliable populations of dolphins off the Caribbean coast, and after meeting them time and again on his tours, Shawn began to consider them his friends. Even when there were no tours to lead, Shawn would still kayak out to the dolphins to watch them, play with them and eventually, to communicate. He whistled at them, hummed, and played them songs on his melodica. As the dolphins became more comfortable, they seemed to try to mimic him. When he swam with them they sometimes swam alongside, slapping their fins in the water awkwardly and ineptly, as if mocking his technique. "They were heckling me," he would tell his friends. "How amazing is that?"


Shawn's dolphin tours soon attracted people from all over the country, and in 1997 grabbed the attention of U.S. dolphin researcher Paul Forestell. He traveled to Costa Rica to work with Shawn on developing a course for captains and tour guides on proper protocol for human-dolphin interaction. The two became friends and Shawn helped Forestell with a study on interspecies mating between bottlenose and tucuxi dolphins.

No one had previously documented anything like it, and Forestell had never seen a human being connect with dolphins like Shawn. "He rises to a different level," says Forestell. "He's out there with the kind of love and joy and respect that creates the energy we need."

"He's out there with the kind of love and joy and respect that creates the energy we need."

Everything in Shawn's life seemed to be going as planned, but there was just one problem. The experiences Aquamor provided seemed transformative for everyone but Greg. Shawn had everything he needed in the sea, but Greg's interest in water excursions - and in anything, really - had receded.

He started slipping into old habits - doing cocaine, shirking his duties and asking his family for money.

Meanwhile, Shawn's responsibilities grew. One morning Shawn woke up and declared that Vanessa smelled different than ever before - almost like a baby - and he told her he thought she was pregnant. He was correct. Star, a girl, was born in the summer of 1998. Her arrival marked a change in Shawn's already tense relationship with Greg. Shawn didn't want to raise his child alongside a brother he could not trust.

For the sake of the family and the business, the brothers reached an arrangement, sharing responsibility for Aquamor while staying out of each other's way. For a few months, Shawn and Vanessa would run Aquamor by themselves. Then Greg would return and take over while Shawn and Vanessa would travel with Star to either Guanacaste or the Osa Peninsula, on the Pacific Coast, to lead trips for dive shops.

But the plan was flawed. Every time Shawn returned to Aquamor, the business was floundering due to Greg's negligence and bad attitude. Equipment was broken, old friends or employees had left angry, and hotels that usually referred visitors to Aquamor, tired of hearing of complaints from guests, refused to do so. Greg took no responsibility, insisting that every problem was someone else's fault. Eventually, Shawn and Vanessa gave up, moved to the Osa Peninsula and left the business entirely to Greg.

Without Shawn to fix Aquamor's problems, it fell on his parents, Myra and Richard, to keep both the business and Greg afloat. Greg called them again and again asking for more money, and each time it seemed he had a more shocking reason for needing it. First he told them somebody had robbed the shop. A few weeks later he said he had been beaten and robbed. Another time he claimed he was kidnapped and taken to a cemetery, and that somebody had tried to stab him. "Each time it escalates, and the story is worse," Shawn would confide in his wife on sleepless nights. "What is the next thing going to be?"

Yet even as his brother struggled, Shawn became ever more accomplished. He worked for area hotels leading diving and snorkeling trips to places like Caño Island, but he really excelled as a dolphin guide. When a local fisherman told him stories of how the sea was full of dolphins, with the man's help he discovered that groups of thousands of dolphins regularly congregated in the Pacific, just a few dozen miles off the Costa Rican Coast. He began taking trips in the open ocean to try and find what he called dolphin "superpods."

For Shawn, encountering a superpod was, without question, one of the most extraordinary wildlife adventures on the planet. It would begin with a few faraway spouts of water on the horizon, and as the boat drew closer, guests would begin to notice the shiny and undulating backs of dolphins ahead, and then a few off to either side, and then some behind the boat. Still more would be gliding just beneath the surface, and then - when the dolphins became excited to have an audience - the real show would begin. Like some seaborne circus act, the dolphins would surf the boat's wake, fly through the air and crank their bodies into tight spins ending in explosions of saltwater. They would chase the boat and mate right there in the water, one dolphin supine beneath another, as if to share their joy.

The tours would last for hours, and as far as a person could see in all directions, there would be jumping and spinning dolphins. Guests would forget they were on a boat and come to think of themselves as members of the pod itself. Shawn would bounce back and forth among them, sharing his knowledge, pointing out behaviors and channeling all of his energy to create a bond between the dolphins and his passengers.

As Greg lost the ability to convince people at Aquamor, on the Caribbean, of anything, Shawn persuaded hotel owners in Drake Bay to let him bring their guests on what he called "ocean safaris." Although he didn't always find the superpods, he was persistent. He promised himself, he would learn enough about the dolphins to locate them every time and prove to the world just how exceptional they were.

Already, a few people were noticing.

When Shawn opened Costa Cetacea, his own dolphin tour business, all the guidebooks exalted him, and he was even hired to escort wildlife video crews out, including one led by Didier Noirot, one of Jacques Cousteau's cinematographers. The crews quickly learned how talented Shawn was at finding the dolphins, and often hired him again and again, sometimes listing him as director on their films, and even using some of his footage.

Shawn and Greg became completely estranged. They did not speak for three years and during that time Greg lost his money, his business connections and nearly everything that tied him to reality. Myra and Richard began to lose faith. They had supported the business for years, even traveling to the Caribbean themselves to repair equipment and relationships and attract new customers. In the end, however, their good intentions toward their son only exacerbated his decline.

In early 2009, Myra and Richard finally cut their son off financially and canceled his credit card. Then Shawn got a call from his father. "It is time to sell," he said. Shawn's father told him that Greg was already back in the U.S. and would not be returning to Costa Rica. Shortly thereafter, Myra called to say that she would be coming for a visit. She never made the trip, and Shawn never spoke with his parents again.

In late April, Shawn learned that his parents had been murdered in their home.

* * *

He had a bad feeling as soon as he answered the phone. It was his sister Katrina, whom he hadn't talked to in months. She and Greg had become a kind of a team - hanging out and partying and not doing much else - and Shawn had stopped believing anything they said.

Very bad news, his sister said. Terrible. Mom and dad are gone. Someone killed them.

Very bad news, his sister said. Terrible. Mom and dad are gone. Someone killed them.

Shawn put the phone down and the jungle seemed to close around him. Confusion turned to disbelief. Then despair. He couldn't bring himself to speak.

He sensed that the killings had something to do with Greg, perhaps the result of failing to pay debts to drugs dealers, and worried that even his own family could be in danger. Shawn decided the best way to protect them would be to hide out for as long as possible. In the jungle.

Shawn retreated with his family to an open-air compound he and Vanessa had been building on a remote, partially cleared acre of land by a river, accessible only by kayak at high tide. Though the home still lacked electricity and running water, the family shut themselves off from everything and everyone. They did not play in the river. They did not listen to music. They did not have anyone over and Shawn never left, not even to see the dolphins.

He became vacant, unable to process real emotion. In place of allowing himself to grieve or to confront the fears that would haunt him later, the questions about how tragedy would affect his wife and young daughter, he became utterly, almost primitively consumed with the idea of their protection. If someone approached the property, Shawn roughly ordered them off. His family's fierce Rhodesian ridgeback Raja was his only comfort.

Finally, Shawn took a phone call from an FBI agent. They discussed the case, and Shawn began to explain how thought the murders were likely revenge for Greg's unpaid debts. The agent interrupted him. "Let me tell you," the agent said, "that my uncle killed my grandmother, and he was just a piece of shit. My family has come to accept that."

Shawn suddenly understood, and for the first time considered the idea that Greg could be the killer. Police tracked the Larkins' SUV to the Jacksonville airport, and found Greg there. Greg had apparently beaten his parents to death in their home with a baseball bat. Then he had stolen their SUV, driven to the airport and flown to Cancun. When he returned a week later, the couple had not yet been discovered. After a friend found the bodies, the county sheriff told the local news it was "one of the most violent scenes I have ever witnessed in my law enforcement career."

Greg was charged first with auto theft and carrying an invalid driver's license, and his belongings were taken as evidence. A day later, Myra's blood was found on his clothing, and he was charged with two counts of murder.

He drank every night, feeling nothing. For a long time, he did not think of the dolphins.

Shawn couldn't fathom that his own brother - who looked just like him - would be capable of such horror. He didn't want to know any details, and the FBI told him there are some things he would be better off not knowing.

Greg maintained his innocence, and a few family members continue to believe he was wrongly accused. A jury thought otherwise and he was convicted and sentenced to death on March 15, 2012.

Shawn cut off contact with his siblings. The loss of his family left him unhinged, uncertain of anything at all. He drank every night, feeling nothing. For a long time, he did not think of the dolphins.

* * *

Six months passed. Shawn rarely left the jungle for anything more than a grocery run. And though he still felt tired, deflated and numb, one day he agreed to do a favor for a friend. He would take some people she knew out on a dolphin tour.

As Shawn, no longer the vibrant adventurer, left his compound to help out his old friend, he was thin and weak, and his pale skin seemed thrown over his narrow frame like an old coverlet. His footsteps were heavy through the forest and down the mountain, as if he didn't remember how to walk. He untied a kayak and guided it absently down the river to the hotels, where the captain met him with a 24-foot motor boat and, together, they picked up the day's guests, a married couple in their 80s.

Shawn had not realized his visitors would be so old, and at the same time so vibrant and engaged. The surprise stirred something in him, and he couldn't help but notice that the guests were just a little older than his parents at the time of their death.

As the boat skidded south alongside the peninsula, where waves crashed wildly against the rocky shore and twisting wilderness reigned, Shawn tried to remember what he used to do on the tours. This was Corcovado National Park in southwestern Costa Rica, where more species of plants and animals make their home than anywhere else in the country: 500 tree species, 140 different mammals, 367 kinds of birds and more than 6,000 varieties of insects.

As Shawn's guests began asking questions about the landscape and the kinds of creatures protected within Corcovado, he learned they were retired biologists. He liked that. As he answered their questions, the sound of his own confident speaking voice caught him off guard. He thought, Is this what I used to sound like? Is this who I was? He felt as if he was seeing himself from afar, an old friend slowly coming closer.

He felt as if he was seeing himself from afar, an old friend slowly coming closer.

When people talk about Corcovado's abundant life, they call the region Costa Rica's most "biodiverse," he explained. But today, Shawn told the couple, they were going to a place in the Pacific that was among the world's most "bioproductive," with less diversity than Corcovado, but where everything living thrived.

Shawn told them of the dolphins that regularly traveled together in these waters, hunting and breeding as they went, and as he said the word "superpods," a familiar sense of purpose suddenly jolted through in him, and he knew: this was his calling. This was where he thrived. Today's trip would almost certainly be his guests' only chance to see a superpod, to share their world, and he alone could make it happen.

Both excited and terrified as he walked to the bow, he remembered the exhilaration of being propelled and levitated by the sea, almost like surfing. His body seemed renewed and his red hair tossed wildly in the wind as he stared at the ocean for a long time, looking hard for signs of brown booby birds, which eat the same fish that dolphins do, and the tiny white exhalations of spray rising from the sea, a sure indicator of spinner dolphins.

He was silent for a long time, almost in a trance, and then he saw the distant splashes. He came alive and shouted to the captain to speed up, and as they closed in, he allowed himself to accept that the dolphins were really there, only a few miles away. He began to feel a surge in his chest. This, he remembered, was the thing he had lived for.

"They're here," he said.

As the skiff approached the pod, the tourists saw spinner dolphins were leaping 20 feet out of the water and twisting through the air like world-class gymnasts, water droplets flying from their graceful bodies as they spun. They completed unfathomable numbers of 360s, reentered the water and seconds later reemerged to throw another trick. Shawn began to whistle and call out, and the dolphins seemed to respond with even more enthusiasm, jerking themselves up out of the water as if to stand, and surfing and jumping alongside the boat and in its wake as if they recognized him and were welcoming him back. How many dolphins, asked the couple. 100? 200? There were about 2,000, he told them.

Dolphinspod_mediumAn aerial shot of a superpod, containing thousands of dolphins.

All the things he loved about the dolphins flooded back into his consciousness - their intelligence. Their artistry. Their humor. He remembered how they'd mock him, and how they'd swim next to him, urging him to go faster.

He told the couple about how the dolphins loved to hear him play songs on the melodica, how they loved Mozart. He told them how he made a certain series of sounds whenever he found the dolphins - a do do-do do-do - and how he believed the dolphins recognized it as his name. Maybe, he thought, they even discussed him in his absence. They were so familiar to him, and so dear. Like family.

As he watched the faces of his delighted guests, he was also reminded of the way the dolphins brought out the good in human beings, how people would begin to sing and dance in their presence, to act like children.

This is what I do, Shawn remembered, and with that, he felt returned to life.

When he got home, he started reading about dolphins again and watching his old dolphin videos. He listened to music he had recorded with his friends, and he wrote new songs as well, reggae tunes that had a steady, rolling rhythm, like the sea itself.

Yes, he was back.

* * *

A week after the trip, Shawn got a call from his lawyer. Old friends of Greg's had been living inside Aquamor for nearly six months, and under Costa Rican law, they would soon be able to claim squatters' rights and take legal possession of the property.

Newly confident, Shawn packed his family, his dog and his machete and headed for the Caribbean, where he told Greg's "crackhead henchmen" to leave. They listened, and Shawn took back his family's business. It felt good to have stood up and fought.

Shawn then returned with his family to Osa, and his dolphin tours were soon back in demand. When Australian sea captain Drarg Richards called to reserve the first-ever Costa Cetacea super-yacht tour, Shawn was prepared. Richards and the guests on his 193-foot yacht - the Seawolf - had a magnificent encounter with thousands of spinner dolphins.

Word got around. Richards, who had sailed the world, told everybody that Shawn's tour was one of the best he had taken.

Shawn shows what guests can expect on his "ocean safaris."

The enormous boats started coming and never stopped. They came from Russia, Italy and Canada, and Shawn was able to hire planes and other larger and faster crafts to accompany them and ensure they encountered a superpod. Some groups spent more than $30,000 on the excursions and often left behind furniture and equipment, all of which Shawn was able to use in the family compound.

The dwelling is no longer a place where Shawn hides from life, but where he celebrates it. The comfortable and homelike environment includes a main bedroom area, a bathroom and a laundry station, all with screens to keep out insects and scorpions. Trails of stepping stones lead to an alfresco kitchen, a living area adorned in a child's art, a painting studio and several sleeping quarters, all topped with recycled sheets of zinc held up by bamboo and native tree trunks.

A sweet set of speakers often blasts reggae and hits from the band U2 into the jungle. There's a good reason for that. The band members are among Shawn's favorite guests.

Last year, Bono and Edge showed up with their yacht, the Cyan, and brought a brand new ocean toy that Shawn had never played with before - the Seabob.

Similar to a jet ski, the Seabob lets the rider not only cruise on top of the water, but dive beneath it. People on Seabobs are able to "swim" inside a superpod, right beside the animals.

Shawn once dived with hundreds of hammerhead sharks out near Cocos Island. He had climbed on to the back of an unsuspecting, giant manta, and it had taken him down deep, where he had discovered he could steer it. Another time, he had shocked a boat of family and friends when a wild orca had swam up, and Shawn jumped into the sea with her. When he had reached out to touch her enormous head with the tips of his fingers, she had let him.

But the greatest wildlife encounter of his life was the first time he rode a Seabob with his daughter. Side by side they blazed through the water, surrounded by thousands of spinner dolphins, almost able to imagine they were dolphins themselves.

His dreams of sharing his experiences with the world are slowly coming true. In recent months, Shawn has been getting a lot of calls from more video production crews to show them the dolphins. He's excited about the possibility of using video to highlight the dolphins and he's even created his own YouTube channel to showcase his skill behind the camera and share the experience with the world. Although many outsiders prefer to shoot video of the just the dolphins as if there's no crew, no boat, no humans present at all, Shawn's films are different.

For him, what matters most is that spark of understanding between dolphins and humans. He believes that if only more people could see what he sees, and if more people could feel what he feels when surrounded by dolphins, then maybe one day there would be no more fishing boats indiscriminately capturing them in their nets. Perhaps it would be possible to declare the waters off the Osa Peninsula a protected area, a place where dolphins and humans could continue to learn about each other, maybe one day even have their own, shared language.

Shawn has but one goal now, to demonstrate that dolphins are creatures like us, worth saving and protecting. Although he knows better than most people that the effort may not always be successful, he also knows that in the end, trying to save each other is really all we have.

* * *


At the close of a long day at sea with the dolphins, Shawn sometimes thinks back to where it began, the day he carried Grace into the ocean from Drake Bay.

He remembers when the night ended how the sun peeked out over the bay and painted the color of fresh roses across the morning sky. He remembers how Grace smelled like a brand new wetsuit, and how she felt when he touched her, smooth but also solid, like a powerful, rock-hard muscle. Perhaps it was because dolphins are fast healers, or because so many cared or because Shawn had stayed with her all night. But in the morning, the dolphin that was weak and dying only a few hours before seemed stronger and more alert.

Shawn had done all he could.

With several others, working together, Shawn helped carry her to the beach. They gingerly set her down in shallow water, offering words of encouragement, telling her they loved her. But the journey seemed to exhaust her, and when she seemed unresponsive, they floated her out a bit further, supporting her underside until they agreed that it was time.

As soon as they let her go, Grace sank.

They lifted her back up, took her out a bit farther and tried again. Again her fins remained still and she began to drift toward the bottom.

When Shawn felt certain Grace would not return alone, he swam to her, placing her head on his shoulder and his arm around her smooth abdomen. Her body slumped, weighing on him, and he carried her deeper into the sea.

Holding her alone, he began to tire. Then a boat of tourists pulled up. They gawked at the man propping up the dolphin and began to take pictures. He took a chance and grabbed the boat to rest for a time. Then the boat continued on, and Shawn swam further out, still towing Grace.

Shawn had saved her. She would live. And now she returned the favor.

When he could swim no more, he let the burden of Grace drop from his shoulder. He descended beside her, acknowledging the limits of salvation, but still dragged down by the weight of his hope. A beat passed with man and dolphin beneath the waves, and then Grace made a choice.

She flexed her tail and began to move through the water, circling Shawn slowly, seeming to summon strength from him. She rose to the surface, breathed and then once again dove below, swimming and gaining speed.

Shawn had saved her. She would live. And now she returned the favor.

She swam alongside Shawn, pressed her body against his, and this time lifted him to the surface, completing the circle. She began to swim around Shawn, faster and faster. Then she headed for open ocean and was gone.

* * *

In the years since the rescue, reports from boat captains and fishermen have come in from time to time of a lone striped dolphin swimming off the coast of the Osa Peninsula. It is said to be spirited and playful, surrounded by a pod of pantropical spotted dolphins that are native to the area.

If anybody wonders why the single striped dolphin looks different, why it isn't traveling with its own, Shawn knows the answer.

She is with her family. And his, too.

Producer/Design: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler
Photos: Lindsay Fendt

About the Author

Ashley Harrell is an editor for The Tico Times in San José, Costa Rica. Her article about a murder witness from a San Francisco housing project won best long-form news story in the 2009 AAN AltWeekly Awards. She is also a freelance writer and ping pong fanatic.