A day at the beach: “I had the weird feeling that this dolphin was trying to tell me something” | surf vacation

Ten years ago, two days before Christmas, I was driving down the Great Ocean Road in search of surf. I ended up surfing at Gibson Steps on the Shipwreck Coast near the 12 Apostles.

It is a place where you can only surf when the sea is calm, as the coast there is often battered by large swells from the Southern Ocean and the ocean is often windy and wild. It’s a bit more exposed – you can look across the beach and see no one.

Andrew McKenna walking to Point Addis Beach on the Shipwreck Coast near the 12 Apostles. Photograph: Nicole Cleary/The Guardian

My wife and two boys, then six and eight, were with me and it was sunny and sunny with really clear water – one of those summer days when nothing really happens.

I had started surfing when I was a few years older than my sons that day. My parents would drive me along the coast from Geelong to Torquay to catch the waves.

But it wasn’t until I got sick after finishing my 12th grade that I started surfing as much as possible. I had spent a month in the hospital with orbital cellulitis, a life-threatening soft tissue infection in the eye socket.

At one point the doctors called my family to say goodbye – they thought I wouldn’t make it.

Andrew McKenna at Point Addis Beach
“It’s a place where you can only surf when the sea is calm.” Photograph: Nicole Cleary/The Guardian

The only thing that helped me was watching some surfing on the sports channel at the Royal Children’s Hospital. It made me reprioritize what I wanted to do with my time and I started surfing as much as possible when I was better.

That day, I went surfing around lunchtime. There was another surfer in the water, a boy about 14 years old. He was a very good surfer and he was on a road trip from Queensland with his father, who was filming him from the beach.

He was telling me about his trip, when out of the blue he got scared and said he had seen a massive fin and had indicated a good exit. I couldn’t see anything.

I was trying to calm him down when a group of about 40 dolphins appeared. I told him it had to be one of the dolphins, but he was still uneasy.

A silhouette of Andrew McKenna
A silhouette of Andrew McKenna. Photograph: Nicole Cleary/The Guardian

As I reassured him, we saw a dark shape in the water, coming towards him at full speed.

I could see it was a dolphin, but it freaked out when it went directly under him and jumped off the side of his board, using it for protection.

The dolphin headed for the beach and disappeared, along with the boy. When I turned around, he was gone – he had caught the first wave he could bring back to the beach.

I had seen fins before, which was nothing to worry about, like a sunbathing seal lifting a fin, so I still wasn’t worried.

But, when I looked up, I saw the dolphin heading towards me in exactly the same way. It went right under the middle of my board: really close, really fast.

Andrew McKenna at Point Addis Beach.
Andrew McKenna looks out over the ocean at Point Addis. Photograph: Nicole Cleary/The Guardian

I had the strange feeling that this dolphin was trying to tell me something, because it was acting differently and seemed to have a specific purpose.

I looked towards the beach and saw my wife playing with our sons in the sand. It gave me a strong feeling that I had to enter.

When I got back to shore, the boy’s father showed me his pictures with his camera. It showed a large shark’s dorsal fin, confirming what the boy thought he saw. I don’t know if the shark would have come close to us, but dolphins are really smart animals. At that time, I felt happy to be out of the water.

I like to think that the dolphin warned us, saving us from danger.

I decided to surf another spot the next day.

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