When disaster strikes a school trip, Martine and her classmates are left fighting for their lives in shark-infested waters, until dolphins guide them to a coral-ringed island. Here the castaways, at odds with each other, must learn to survive. Will Martine’s secret gift allow her to help both animals and humans when a deadly peril threatens them? And will those powers be with her when she needs them most?
In this second African adventure Martine’s courage and bushcraft skills are tested to the limits as, marooned in the ocean, far from home, she wonders whether she will ever see her beloved white giraffe again.
A few years ago, I went to Monkey Mia in Shark’s Bay, Western Australia, where I’d heard it was possible to swim with wild dolphins. On arrival, I found that it wasn’t quite so simple. There was no actual swimming involved, just standing knee-deep in the sea stroking the dolphins, or taking turns, with other tourists, to feed them.
Of course, that was amazing enough. The thing that really struck me was the dolphins’ eyes. They’d lie on their sides gazing up, and when I stared back it was like looking into eyes as innocent as those of a new-born baby and, simultaneously, those of the wisest creature on earth. Their gaze was all-knowing. It seemed me that the dolphins understood more than we ever could. Their skin was remarkable too! I had expected it to be cold and slightly slimy. Instead, it was silky-smooth and beautiful to touch and I could feel their muscles rippling underneath.
This made me want to swim with them more desperately than ever. I pleaded with the owners of the resort and even the research scientists to make my dream come true, but they insisted it wasn’t possible. One evening I was sitting alone on the beach watching the sunset turn the water to molten gold when a fishing boat came in, followed by a mother dolphin, known at Monkey Mia as Nicky, and her calf. Well, I didn’t hesitate. I dived into the sea in my shorts and T-shirt and swum out a little distance from them. Nicky had a reputation for being greedy and was preoccupied with waiting for stray fish from the fishing boat, but I noticed her calf watching me inquisitively.
After a couple of minutes, he started to swim in my direction. The water is very buoyant in that part of Australia, so I lay on my stomach and stretched my arms out and, slowly and very shyly, he moved closer. Eventually we were only a couple of inches apart. That moment, lying in the red-gold sea, gazing into the wise-innocent eyes of a baby dolphin, was unforgettable. I borrowed from it for the scene in Dolphin Song where Martine first swims with Little Storm.
My fascination with dolphins didn’t end with my visit to Monkey Mia. I was always trying to find an opportunity to get close to them again, and whenever I read about dolphin and whale strandings, most of which seem to end in tragedy, it broke my heart. As the number of animals involved in these strandings increased, I started to wonder what caused it, what the common denominator might be.
Then I heard that the testing of low-frequency active sonar had been directly linked to the deaths of whales in the Bahamas. Since that day, the weight of evidence gathered by marine scientists and conservationists proving – beyond doubt in many cases – that active sonar is linked to the strandings of whales (particularly species such as beaked whales), has continued to mount. Forced to surface too quickly, the whales die of a condition similar to the bends in humans and are frequently found with bleeding brains and ears. Dolphin experts are divided over whether the increased use of sonar is directly responsible for the rise in beachings of dolphins, or whether activity such as naval exercises in the area causes them so much stress and fear that they literally try to flee the ocean. Either way the outcome is the same.
Reading about the impact of sonar testing on marine mammals gave me the idea for Dolphin Song. I knew I wanted it to be about a school trip that goes disastrously wrong, and when my mum, who was living in South Africa’s Western Cape, close to Martine’s fictional home, Sawubona, started sending me regular reports on the miracle of nature that is the Sardine Run, that provided a perfect reason for a school adventure. All I needed was a location. I wanted to find a remote African island which was still home to wild dolphins. I’d heard that Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago was such a place, and I decided to go to see it for myself.
There are five main islands in the Bazaruto Archipelago, so I hope the Mozambicans won’t mind that I’ve taken the liberty of adding a sixth, Dugong, for the purposes of my story. However, the other islands mentioned – Benguerra, Bazaruto, Death Island and Santa Carolina, with its eerie, abandoned hotel, which I explored – all exist. They are a true African paradise. The sand is so clean that it squeaks when you walk, the water is aquamarine, and the islanders are extremely proud that their islands are friendly and free of crime.
The islands also happen to be home to several, hundred-strong pods of dolphins. Late one afternoon a boatman took me out in a rubber dinghy to look for them. We found them close to the reef hunting shoals of little fish. The sight of their lithe, graceful bodies glinting in the clear water as they darted like quicksilver all around us, surfacing periodically, to take a puff of oxygen, was beyond beautiful. This time I felt no urge to swim with them. I was content to watch dolphins at play in their natural environment; dolphins left alone to be free.
It did, however, make me want to do all that I can to help them by raising awareness of the link between sonar testing and the increase in beachings and strandings of whales and dolphins. There is a cruel irony in the fact that, days before Dolphin Song was published in paperback in the UK, a pod of dolphins beached themselves in Cornwall, England. Shortly afterwards the Royal Navy admitted that they’d been using sonar and conducting live firing exercises in the days leading up to the beaching. All 26 dolphins died. Earlier in the year, five Cuvier’s beaked whales stranded themselves after anti-submarine sonar was used in the area. Incredibly, scientists and navies across the globe are still questioning the link.
In “Dolphin Song”, Martine’s gift allows her to heal beached dolphins. In real life, dolphins and whales rely on marine welfare organizations and ordinary people such as you and I to help them. So let’s try. After all, wouldn’t you like a chance to swim with a dolphin?
“'St John again evokes the beauty of Africa in this powerful tale of a girl's special relationship with animals.'”
Waterstone's Books Quarterly
“'We love Dolphin Song!'”
Animals and You
“'Vivid and lyrical.'”
“'Transports you instantly into the heart of Africa and the landscape so beautifully evoked in her first children's book, The White Giraffe... beguiling storytelling with a timeless feel.'”
Becky Stradwick, The Bookseller