The Voyage of the Damned

A cruise over the wine-dark sea.

When a group of white people with holiday cornrows get on board the bus taking us on our wildlife excursion, I suppose we must all be going on different trips. A French man with a Scooby-Doo tattoo sporting nothing but a pair of Y-fronts swaggers aboard. 

My husband and I have been travelling around Cuba for ten days, and are now treating ourselves to a  $99 trip on a catamaran to be awe-inspired by dolphins in their natural habitat. We are also loaded with blistering rum hangovers from the night before.

Arriving at the port the catamaran isn’t the nifty little cruiser I’d imagined. It’s a huge, white whale of a thing, with capacity for 70 people. To my dismay, everyone on the bus climbs aboard. But within minutes I spot two ospreys perching on parched red mangrove trees. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to see ospreys. ‘Osprey!’ I exclaim.

I check through binoculars in case I’ve mistaken these unmistakable birds but no, they are osprey. I call out again, ‘There are two osprey, just there!’ 

No one turns around.

Pumping music explodes from the bar: a heady combination of reggaeton, Europop and ‘80s bangers. The beats awaken a primal gene in the watch of seamen. Everyone –except for a refined Spanish family who look as alarmed as I feel, lurches to the bar. Luminous red liquid awaits in plastic cups, into which our Ahab pours Cuban measures of rum. The descent into grottiness is fast. It dawns on me. This is not a nature trip. 

‘Oh god.’ I turn to my husband, who’s trying not to throw up. ‘I think this is a booze cruise.’

‘Fuck,’ is all he can manage.

The Frenchman in Y-fronts with the Scooby-Doo tattoo begins gyrating , his crotch mooring itself on any limb or cavity within swinging distance. There is no fleeing, only hiding and praying. We drift into a sea that is seemingly bereft of all and any wildlife; the water sits blank and flat like a blue scrying stone. Only the occasional spirit of a kittiwake passes us by.

As I attempt to astrally project my throbbing brain away from here, I worry that we might not see any dolphins today, but my fears are unfounded. I turn starboard and observe a concrete island in the sea – like something from Waterworld but with flaking sky blue paint. A huge sign reads: ‘Dolphin Lagoon.’ 

From the bleachers I can see waiters hurrying in and out of a dining area; they’re grown men dressed as little sailors. ‘I can’t do this,’ I whisper to my husband, as we’re funnelled into a concrete stadium. 

A man on a tannoy using a blaring foghorn to punctuate his sentences introduces two waving women in wetsuits, the instructors, who walk down to their platform smiling and clapping to the audience like they’re guests on a talk show. There are two dolphins waiting for them in the water, called Angel and Nikki, which have been in captivity for 12 years.

Angel and Nikki have been trained impeccably; these beautiful, intelligent creatures respond to flicks of their instructor’s hands and are rewarded with fish from a red bucket. The dolphins’ tricks vary from beaching themselves on the instructors’ platform; spinning hoops on their noses; and leaping in synchrony through hoops 20 feet in the air.  More pumping music. Dolphins flying. Foghorns. Clapping. When the dolphins dance they press their bodies up against each other, shaking their heads to the beat to Twist and Shout as the crowd oooo, and I start crying. 

Returning to the boat is preferable to the ‘interactions with dolphins’ that are now taking place in pens. The sea between the web of concrete walkways is full of dolphins penned off from one another. Every time we walk past a pen a dolphin pops up, whistling and clicking at us imploringly.  They’re covered in cuts and scratches, presumably from hitting metal and netting as they try to reach the other dolphins.

Back on the boat a black cloud looms over us. Everything is still. We sit in silence, gobsmacked, and wait for the horde to return.

When they do, the cloud relieves itself on our godforsaken raft. The sea looks like it’s boiling and the deluge washes away the passengers’ few remaining inhibitions. Revellers slide around the soaking bar where the captain pours deliriums, abominable are his tumblers of luminous red poison. The Spanish parents hold their children close. Couples grind on each other’s partners. One of the fine crewmen dons a blonde wig and lap dances around the boat. People are crawling on the floor. Everyone’s singing We Are The Champions  as a gale-force wind smacks rain in my face. My husband starts talking to himself. 

This is our lonely raft and God’s mercy cannot reach us here. We are Jonah. We are fugitives from God. We have all paid our $99 passage and shall be devoured by the sea. This is chaos. 

I pray to the quarterdeck on high for deliverance. There is only one means of escape. 

‘Cerveza, por favor.’

Delirious to have survived eight hours on this wildlife excursion, as we disembark, I admire my fellow passengers with the sentimentality of a freed captive. I witnessed the moral sink of man and, after a few beers, indeed found it an awe-inspiring spectacle, which, ultimately, is all I had hoped from the day. Many are paralytic, and a party of gay men carry one of their number, who is so drunk he is unconscious, off the boat. 

It had not been the tasteful romance I had envisaged, more a deep psychological bond formed through a shared trauma. But, my husband and I agree, there is no one else we would’ve wanted to be on a voyage of the damned with. God’s disobedient children return to our hotels as orphans, and raise a Cuban measure to our souls’ white coffin.

You've reached the end. Boo!

Don't panic. You can get full digital access for as little as £1.66 per month.

Get Offer

Register for free to continue reading.

Or get full access for as little as £1.66 per month.

Register Free Subscribe

Already a member? Sign In.