STONE HARBOR, N.J. — Nik Pattantyus is on the board, in search of his morning dolphin fix. There’s been some rough seas and bad weather, and he hasn’t been out on the stand-up paddleboard in a few days. The morning window before the lifeguards will come and order him back to shore is fast closing.
He’s scanning the horizon, paddle in hand, gliding along the surf, waiting for the appearance of these beautiful, playful animals, a sudden bloom of the ocean bouquet that never stops being something close to a miracle, a glimpse of grace, a window into the if-only-people-would-pay-attention ties between humans and animals, especially among the various mammals that regularly enjoy interspecies meetups out past the surf breaks.
“Over there, on the right,” he says, paddling on the 11-foot, 4-inch board, a satchel with water, a snack, sometimes his GoPro, slung over his shoulder.
Sometimes, he hears the dolphins breathing before he sees them. Other times, they surface near his board — hello! Other mornings, he must be patient, paddling upward of 12 miles along the coast to find them. Sometimes, he’ll switch on the GoPro camera attached to his head. Other times, he’s too preoccupied with the urgency of the search, submerged in the reality that it’s their world, not his to control or tame. Sometimes, the battery dies.
If he’s on shore waiting, the glimpse of a dolphin fin will set him in motion, and, in an instant, Pattantyus, 40, mild-mannered proprietor of Seven Mile Massage (“Enjoy a massage in the comfort of your home!”) becomes Nik: the Dolphin Whisperer (and whistler) of Stone Harbor.
Everyone thinks he should have a show. But for now, for the last 20 years, actually, the show is mostly for himself, the people who view his gorgeous videos, and the lucky person he will take out with him on the paddleboard, mostly his wife, Yvonne Yuen, who does not swim. She lies flat on the board and he stands over her, ever scanning the horizon. Later, they compare notes.
Going in search of dolphins never gets old.
“Every time you see them, your heart still like jumps in your chest,” he says. “I just get so happy to see them. You never know how the interaction will go. You don’t know who’s going to show up.”
Early one morning off the 109th Street beach, after a few false starts, two dolphins are suddenly swimming alongside Nik, sometimes on his left, sometimes the right. Somewhat darker than others, their dorsal fins have a serrated underside; one has a distinctive hook at the end.
One has a hump between his blowhole and fin. That one!
“This is one I’ve been seeing for six years,” he says matter-of-factly as he paddles, as though recognizing dolphin friends in the deep was something mere non-whisperer, non-dolphin Zen mortals would understand. It had been awhile.
“They are really easy to identify because of their markings,” he said; their fins are like fingerprints. He is working with researcher Melissa Laurino of the Citizen Dolphin Project in Cape May, who is cataloging the regulars. Like this one, the loyal companion with the hump. Hello!
“There’s one that has white area around the base of their dorsal fin,” he says. “One that whistles out there. It whistles when it breathes.”
People watch his videos and wonder how dolphins come so close but never bump his board. Don’t they upend him? They don’t. He paddles to keep up, they swim around him, play with one another, occasionally have sex, appear to take note of him, check out the fin under his board, and, he thinks, recognize his distinctive whistle. (Yes, he’s also a dolphin whistler.)
It’s just Nik’s way of saying, “Hey.”
“They come really close,” he said. “They never actually knocked into me or hit my board. They splash me a few times. I’m sure to them it’s very strange there’s a fin going the wrong way on the bottom of my board.”
He considered getting into the water with them, but was cautioned by Sheila Dean of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, who said, ” ‘Just stay on your board. Respect their space. Don’t cross that line.’ ”
The dolphins are agile, tactile creatures, and he watches how they touch one another. He doesn’t offer a dolphin-inspired massage, but his own tactile senses are surely reinforced by what he sees out there in the deep, what the dolphins offer up each time he ventures out.
Born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Pattantyus spent summers in Avalon and attended Temple University. He studied anthropology, which makes sense when you listen to him describing dolphin culture as it overlaps, in the lull and energy of the surf, human culture. He lives across the bridge from Stone Harbor, and he and Yuen also exhibit his photography and her cards at art shows.
Most surfers and ocean swimmers, logging enough surf breaks or miles, will experience the thrill of dolphins arriving as though it’s morning Zumba class in the deep. The dolphins will surf with the gang, swim alongside the lone swimmer, display their unique brand of insouciant dolphin exuberance. Take note, humans!
Sometimes, Pattantyus says, there are so many pods around him he can’t decide which to follow, where to look next, which leads to some second-guessing, a trait surely more human than dolphin.
He once spent three hours with a whale, filming until the last half hour, when he ran out of battery. But, oh, that last half hour!
Recently, he posted a video of a juvenile shark swimming around his board (“Friendly Fins”).
But dolphins are his main squeezes. He was hooked 20 years ago on a regular surfboard. Once paddleboarding arrived five years ago, dolphin whispering reached a new level. “I can paddle much faster and much longer. I can see what’s going on underneath me.”
Though some rarely see dolphins, Nik says only once or twice has he gone out and not seen them. “When you’re just about ready to give up and paddle in, you see them,” he says. It’s just a matter of hanging in. “People think I’m baiting them with food,” he says, or somehow whistling them over. He’s not. Just paddling and watching.
One morning, after a brief paddle with a calf and mother, Nik seemed sad more pals were not around. Then he caught a glimpse. Off he went, time running out before lifeguard rules kicked in, rewarded again with a dose of joyful dolphin abandon.
As more people could be if they just looked up from their phones on the beach, or even paddled out with eyes turned toward the ocean. If they waited and watched. There’s a reason he spends upwards of 20 hours a week paddling in search of the dolphins.
“I just always want to see them,” he says.
About this Series:
Shore is about everyday people and their meaningful times spent down the Shore. Find each installment — and be sure to leave a comment — at Philly.com/ShoreSeries.