Porpoises are porpoises but dolphins aren’t dolphins in The Old Man and the Sea

Readers who are not bilingual in Spanish may stumble a bit over some of the español words that Papa Hemingway embeds in The Old Man and the Sea to help gently remind us that the story we’re reading takes place in a Cuban fishing village and the adjacent ocean rather than, say, on and around Lake Huron. Likewise, a landlubber who hasn’t yet become acquainted with nautical terminology may not know their fore from their aft when they initially start in on the book. Fortunately for us, fifty years after the book’s initial publication, we live in the age of Google, Wikipedia, and Wiktionary and any and every one of these minor hurdles is easily overcome. All that’s required of us most of the time is that we take care to keep a phone or tablet close at hand while reading and that we be willing to pause from time to time to look up the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases as they arise.

Occasionally, however, a cursory reading of search results may provide readers with ambiguous, conflicting, or even incorrect information. We’ve found that to be the case for the dolphins that appear in The Old Man and the Sea, as well as the colloquial names of some of the species of shark that strip the flesh from Santiago’s marlin while he sails back to shore. Here are a few words of clarification.

When Santiago sets eyes on porpoises, he’s truly seeing porpoises but, whenever dolphins are mentioned, Hemingway is referring to a type of fish commonly known as the dolphinfish (or mahi-mahi) rather than the marine mammal known as a dolphins. The word dolphinfish never appears in The Old Man and the Sea and readers are left to infer that the author is referring to fish from oblique hints, such as Santiago’s description of them as green and then golden and a bitter aside in which Santiago wishes that he had brought salt or limes with which to flavor the raw fillets that he has cut from a dolphin that he has caught:

“What an excellent fish dolphin is to eat cooked,” he said. “And what a miserable fish raw. I will never go in a boat again without salt or limes.”

It would be easy to write this off as a matter of Santiago having gotten into the habit of referring to anything that lives in the sea and has fins as a fish. The strongest indication, though perhaps a subtle one, that we’re not really talking about dolphins comes when Santiago refers to the same type of fish as a dorado (from the Spanish word for gold or golden). Searching on the terms dorado fish will lead readers to information about the dolphinfish but searching on dorado alone will not.

The result is that it’s all too easy, if one is not sufficiently alert while reading and misses these hints or elects not to follow up and see where they lead, to wind up more than a little shocked and horrified when Santiago hooks a dolphin, lifts it into his skiff, and clubs it to death before eating pieces of it.

Regarding the sharks that devour all of Santiago’s hard-won mega-marlin, those which Hemingway calls galanos (singular: galano) are likely what are known in English as lemon sharks and the shovel-nosed sharks with brown dorsal fins are probably dusky sharks.

Incidentally, the plastic toy sharks in the photo above are depictions of great white sharks.