Santiago dreams about his boyhood, and the time he served on a ship that sailed the coast of Africa. Specifically, he dreams
of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the great brown mountains. He lived along that coast now every night and in his dreams he heard the surf roar and saw the native boats come riding through it. He smelled the tar and oakum of the deck as he slept and he smelled the smell of Africa that the land breeze brought at morning.
The dream world of the ship is a kind of haven for Santiago. It is a dream of a real place, a real time in his life, but somehow altered, made more perfect, more clear.
Usually when he smelled the land breeze he woke up and dressed to go and wake the boy. But tonight the smell of the land breeze came very early and he knew it was too early in his dream and went on dreaming to see the white peaks of the Islands rising from the sea and then he dreamed of the different harbours and roadsteads of the Canary Islands.
It’s interesting that Santiago “usually” was awakened from his dream by the smell of the land breeze, but on this morning, the morning of his big adventure, he senses it is too early to wake when he smells the breeze and continues to dream, this time, of the Canary Islands, and particularly in detail about the “harbors and roadsteads” of the islands.
He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy.
In a sense, the lions stand for or remind him of himself as a boy, young and strong. But the lions also remind him of his own boy, who helps him fish and talks baseball with him. There is a carefree quality to the lions, which he strives to retain even as an old man. Santiago’s fight with the fish is not particularly fraught with symbolic meaning; instead, he defeats the fish because he is strong and experienced (as he says, he knows a lot of “tricks”). Like the lions playing on the beach, Santiago has a certain carefree quality that comes from concentrating only on the problem at hand – maybe that’s the best way to understand his “code,” if there is one. So it comes as no surprise that at the end of the story, after his tremendous battle, he goes to bed and dreams again of the lions.