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Updated: Oct 9, 2019

After having to flee from Hurricane Dorian, we returned to the Bahamas

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Looking out over an aft deck filled with construction and roofing materials, I watched as the rooftops of mainland Florida disappeared behind the sets of rolling blue waves.

Since Dorian’s passing, an ever-persistent NE swell has battered Florida's eastern seaboard. Finally, the winds subsided, and by an act of grace, a lull actually occurred within the selected dates of our mission to bring relief supplies to the Bahamas.

It’s been over three weeks since Dorian landed there, and similar to the aftershocks of a major earthquake, a constant cycle of tropical cyclones have broken off from Africa, traveled across the Atlantic and targeted themselves at the already devastated islands.

Its the curse of the hurricane season. At the time of this writing, at least five more named storms have occurred, two have reached hurricane status and one became a major CAT 3 hurricane that again touched the Abacos. Thankfully, all have been skirted away by the pressures of the Bermuda High.

This ever replenishing cycle of storms has almost all moved identically into the paths of the ones before it, landing themselves north of the Bahamas and in between Bermuda. Not more than two days go by before the next one is set to arrive.

The conditions here in Florida have been dismal. Not a single boat I know of has been able to go out diving due to zero visibility. Even if the currents had a chance to sweep away all the stirred up sediments, the tumultuous, rolling seas would prevent us from getting out there anyway. It takes days for that energy to unload itself from the ocean.

Usually in these instances, fish will travel off into deeper, slightly more stable waters, where the surging waves don't impact them as much. So even if we were able to get down to the bottom of our favorite dive sites, we'd land upon a desolate and eerie scene of vacant, deserted reefs. One person, in an attempt to dive within these elements, described it as diving by Braille. There are, of course, no such conditions in this volatile arena that we would like to expend resources and risk people's safety. So, the fishing and diving industry has remained shut down until things improve.

The other effect of things being unfavorable offshore is it disrupts things inshore as well. Our teaching, guiding and snorkeling excursions are also all on temporary hiatus, as the clean waters offshore are what feed our pristine intracoastal waters where we train and dive for pleasure.

Needless to say, the fact that we could schedule a trip to cross the gulf stream in some of the most chaotic weeks of weather and actually manage to get there, finding ourselves with two, wonderful, summer-like days of operations was a miracle of itself. The cargo in which we carried, must have received enough prayers to get it there.

While underway in the crossing, I felt the pangs of a similar, impending uncertainty much like what I felt while in Ecuador traveling towards the coast during the relief efforts after the April 2016 earthquake. I knew I was headed towards an area that had seen a major natural disaster. A log of questions rambled through my head...

What would I see? What would they say? What level of destruction would be there waiting? What sort of rebuilding is occurring? What would their spirits be like? Would they be hopeful or would they be crushed?

At about five miles I was surprised to hear a familiar voice come over the radio. It was Old Bahama Bay calling us by name as they saw our distinct vessel approaching their harbor. I responded and they provided instructions on where to go. We were told not to follow the normal docking procedure, but to instead slide down the private canal towards the very end where they could back trucks in to load and unload.

Ironically enough, a sportfish that had been loading the same day as us at New Port Cove was there on a separate dock as well. We gave them a wave and motored on towards the back of the canal.

I felt the excitement growing as I would get the chance to hug our summer friends and know that they were safe. Before the lines were on, I was waving and pointing them out. I ran right over to one and gave her a big hug and she told me the other had come up from Freeport and was in the office, but had told her to say hi as well.

The customs officer met us at the private property and we did our paperwork there, sitting in the shade of the vacant house. Along with the customs agents, there were about a half dozen Bahamians at the time. Upon each return of a loaded up vehicle two more would hop out. By the end of it, we had a dozen Bahamians and our seven crew transferring the entire contents of our load via an assembly line. With all these hands and moving at a sweating, breath-taking pace, it still took us two and a half hours to unload all that we had. We had a cooler set up with iced drinks and with only the time it took to take a sip or two, we’d be right back to handing off items or dragging it across the dock to the backs of the parked vans and pickup trucks,

We filled the dock three times over with plywood, tar paper, roofing nails, framing guns, framing nailers, power tool kits, boxes of food, cases of water, hygiene products, mattresses, bedding and twenty-five brand new generators.

I liked to move in and out of the assembly line at different positions, so I could find my way next to each and every one of them. Making it a point to smile, chat and share a laugh with these eager, hard-working individuals. They joked and teased and we reveled in levity for their ability to endure something so tragic and crippling, but finding the spirit in the moment to have some fun when there was a chance. It was upon their strength that we could find ourselves having a good time on this trip.

I chatted with the gal from the customs office each chance I could, finding out how everyone fared and what areas took the worst hits. She sent me photos of the airport in Freeport that was destroyed by severe winds and then buried beneath a story of water. I made sure that they themselves were taken care of with supplies and food.

Everyone in this situation is affected. Not a single person has been missed. Many lost their lives, homes, and possessions, but nearly everyone has lost their livelihood. There are no resources available but what comes to them by way of donations. There is no way to work as all the jobs are shut down. Everything is simply put on hold and the Bahamians are in an absolute mode of survival.

"See like you ain't see, and hear like you ain't hear" {Bahamian Proverb}

We asked if we could get a ride into town and sure enough, an entertaining and humble gent by the name of Snapper had offered to do so with his brother in law, Rodney riding shotgun. Snapper is a taxi driver by trade, but his home that was under construction suffered immense flooding and all his vehicles were buried to the roofs with water. We passed the time by joking and getting to know one another. Snapper, a nickname of his own, gave out a few more to the others with us.

As soon as they turned onto the streets of West End, we were immediately struck with stomach twisting scenes of how bad it was in an area that hadn't even seen the worst of it. It was very obvious where the level of water had risen to as it was marked by trash and debris clinging to the vegetation.

To give you a sense of how far the water rose, the ocean sat fifty feet to our left. A shallow bank rose to the road, cross that and then down the other side into another bank, rise up another twenty feet into the shrubs and you have your line of storm surge. Add that to the volume of what a King Tide can bring under peak conditions and you're easily within the range of fifteen to twenty feet of water level rise.

Then, we began to see the demolished roofs, piled and collected trash, pushed around vehicles, boats even, and the torn apart and crumbling walls. It looked as if a monster had come through and smashed everything, ripped apart the walls of buildings and then clawed at the foundation until there was nothing left. The fury this storm must have brought was unsettling to imagine. And then, we got to do just that, imagine.

Rodney began to tell what it was like to spend the nights in darkness. The power goes out and there are no lights. You're huddled with your family. Your children are crying as the winds are screaming and shaking the house trying to get at you. For some, who did not have the position of being on higher ground, you're dealing with water that has you up to your attic. Gigantic, ocean waves are now beating against your home while two hundred mile an hour winds gusts are dismantling your roof.

He said it was too long. That storm came and just sat on us. It was too long. People clung to what they could. Family members were pulled from outstretched hands and sucked from the house out into dark, violent waters. Some tried to swim after them, but they were gone. Gone forever. Looking back into each of our faces, he stuck us with a scenario, you're faced with saving your parents or your children. Who are you going to save? You can't save them both, so who do you save? You watch as your own kids or parents die right in front of you. They just die, he said so loudly it echoed.

His words, delivered with a thick Bahamian accent, hung there, choking the silence of the van. The stark account of what people had to do to survive was horrifying, let alone the images of families being ripped apart and loved ones lost forever. We sat in the van absorbing this information as they continued to drive us through town. More than two thousand people are missing and presumed dead, but no one except the family members who are certain their loved ones are gone will truly know the final toll. Governments and news agencies often fleece this information. But the island knows whats missing and taken from them.


Snapper honks at a man who waves back as he passes him by on the street. Even this, the worst disaster to have hit the small, island nation wasn’t enough to erase the Bahamian spirit. This is what sets people apart from the horrors that they face.

We asked if there was any trouble, as in pirating or theft, and Rodney said you can’t! What choice do you have but to help one another? If you go to town and can get a chicken, you go and get two because you know your neighbor doesn’t have any food either. That's what you have to do at this time.

Rodney had known Snapper since high school when Snapper transferred up to Eight Mile Rock to finish the final few years of schooling that his previous school did not offer. He ended up meeting a girl whom he married, which he only then found out was his best friend's own sister!

They had a tremendous relationship and Rodney, wanting to make sure his sister was taken care of, helped Snapper by letting them take shelter in his house during the storm. Snapper's home became so flooded with water he was without a place he could return to. He and Rodney would begin the process of repairing what was damaged and returning to the already in-progress construction of it. Rodney was a master builder and when enough supplies could make their way over, they would begin building back the homes of those that had lost theirs entirely.

Another similarity to what I had experienced in Ecuador was the necessity of gaining second and third-wave relief supplies. Supplies that allow for the reconstruction of homes. Living out of a tent and eating cold canned foods can help you to survive, but it is not a permanent solution. They need roofs overhead and warm cooked meals. They need to be off the streets and back inside. The sooner people can take the priority off of first-wave items, like water, canned food, and demolition items and turn their focus towards equipment you would use to frame, roof and finish a house, the quicker they can be back into what we would consider a suitable, normal life.

My heart went out to each and every one of them, but boy did we have a good time with those guys. They made us laugh and we would stop to kick around in the debris, looking for seashells and license plates as souvenirs. While stopped at Sunset Village, Rodney pulls me aside and told me we would go by his house to get the "lady" in the van a real nice conch shell. He said it was a true conch shell. It was a KING! He says to me, you come to town, you know where to find me. I show you my house. I get you a shell just like the one I'm going to give to her. You're welcome here anytime.

Sunset Village was named for, well, laughably its sunsets. This too reminded me of when I made it to the coast of Ecuador. I had spent the day driving up to more remote and harder struck areas that were receiving less attention. On the return, I stopped along a sea wall and gazed upon a most incredible sunset. I can remember the smell of the ocean, looking out over the bay as frigate birds swooped overhead just like we saw here and the feeling of awe that struck me as I was pitted between two worlds.

One world contained the disheartening sights of demolished homes, displaced families surviving in tarped encampments while the other held the most majestic visual displays of what made this place so beautiful and unique.

It was an uncanny juxtaposition of beauty and mayhem. I felt those worlds, both the camaraderie and friendliness of its people along with the serene and captivating beauty of the area served as the headwaters for the sense of hope and optimism that brings them out and away from this horrible nightmare. I was reminded that, despite all this destruction, it couldn't wipe away the love I felt for another human being.

We loaded back up into the van, now feeling the tiring effects of the day's hard work and were a much more somber and quieter group. Now past dark, we retraced our path through town, but not without stopping first at Rodney's house so he could get the shell as promised. He returned to the van with the most incredible helmet conch I’ve ever seen! It was as big as a football and had perfect, vibrant colorations. He smiles and nods his head pointing at me saying did I tell you it was the best shell ever? We all passed it around taking turns admiring it.

Back at the dock, we gathered for a delayed goodbye beneath a beautiful sky of stars. The air was cool and refreshing. All I could think about was how much more I loved this place, having slept within its waters staring up at that same sky for two summers now. I was so grateful The Project was able to put together this drive and deliver a boat filled with supplies to lend a hand in their recovery. I thanked the two gentlemen graciously and slid them each a twenty for their pockets.

Begin Photo Stream

Thank you Kyle for providing us with these all-telling images! (edited by mandog)


The boat had not been touched since the massive undertaking of unloading all its contents and here it was close to 2100. Half of us got to work on fixing dinner, while I spent some time making the bunks for everyone. Along the crossing, no bed had been spared for stacking up supplies. We were certainly riding a high from having made a huge impact with all the supplies we brought over, but before long the exhaustion had put us all in our bunks dreaming those watery, Bahamian dreams.

Along with the director, the captain, a friend of the director, the research assistant, one field assistant and myself was one of the former captains from Dr. Herzing’s hay day of her Phase Two work with the dolphins in the early '90s. Phase Two involved the opening of two-way communication studies with wild spotted dolphins. It marked a time where research and technology began to cross paths.

The former captain was a kindred sort to me. He and I found ourselves picking each other’s brains on all sorts of stuff. As I’ve told in many of the other stories, there is a great deal of history to this boat and much of that pertains to the lineage of persons that have come aboard and slept in those very same bunks. From Robin Williams to Brian Skerry of NatGeo. In fact, this captain in particular, had built those esteemed guest bunks! I generally describe his era as the construction period, as he too was a master builder, giving the boat a whole new set of appearances and stylings. A fully covered bridge, the bunks themselves, the salon storage spaces, the workbench beside my bunk and many other great and lasting features of the vessel. He was an iconic name around the project, so I was excited to finally meet and spend time getting to know the person behind the name. Giving me a hand with the lines and fenders, he was as polite as could be, even asking once if he could sit in the captains chair for a moment while the captain had stepped away. I laughed heartedly, but of course, obliged his request. He hadn’t been on the boat in over twenty years, so for him, there were a lot of new and exciting things, while other stuff hadn’t changed a bit.

Earlier, while we were waiting for the van to pick us up, he and the current captain had been tossing around a football. They were running back and forth and when Snapper pulled in and seen this, he gave the former captain the nickname of Forest, as in Forest Gump. And in true character fashion, every time we’d stop, he’d bolt out the door to go check stuff out looking for items like a treasure hunt. He also had a bag of candy with him to give to people as we went. He hopped out at the sight of a group of kids playing on the basketball court and gave my entire bag of suckers to them, but saved a good bit of his own to continue offering to Snapper as it seemed to fuel his enthusiasm for telling stories and cracking jokes.

Snapper took a liking to Forest, and would often use their budding relationship as a springboard for more amusing jokes and teasing. He would say things like, I like you Forest, you got all kinds of smarts in you. And Forest would play along saying he thought so too, just liked to fly under the RADAR. With every joke Snapper made I hung my head in embarrassment as I snickered, but Forest played it cool. Before long, he and Snapper had developed a pretty good routine of back and forth comedy.

After we made dinner, former captain and I sat outside for hours swapping stories of travel and looking up at those stars. Finally, by 0100, we turned in.

Taking advantage of the beautiful, summer-like weather we ventured out the next day to go exploring the waters in hopes that we could find some dolphins. We had stayed at the dock for the night, so we cruised back up the canal at daybreak. It was just like summer now, working the bank, taking shifts on watch and chatting amongst ourselves as the hours went on. We noticed the water was extremely milky from the turbulence and you could not see the bottom in what usually has an average visibility of sixty feet. Next was a harrowing site, Sandy Cay, which boasts a pretty substantial treeline had been neutered to near 30% of what was there prior to the storm. Beyond that, we passed by Memory Rock and it too had become altered. The rocks looked scorched as if sandblasted by the heaving, rolling seas and sure enough, the light pole which had remained fixed there for years was gone entirely! We contemplated whether it was the wind or the waves that removed it.

Lo and behold, after about half a day of searching, we saw from the water the outline of a dolphin! We counted one, then, two and eventually, the foursome united as they appeared to be simply meandering about. Within this foursome, were two adults (Poindexter and Naval) that had first come into Dr. Herzing's encounter logs as far back as the late '80s. They were a common group for who we saw up here on Little Bahama Bank and with them was a female, whom The Project has named Amanda, and her still un-weaned calf, Astro.

Astro zipped around and seemed to enjoy the company, but none of the adults seemed too interested in the boat or the researchers we had dropped into the water. We let them wander off as we returned back to our course.

If any recall, my first dolphin story was with Amanda as she had come careening in with three of her pals while deploying a listening device back in May of 2017.

Click to read: "THE OCEAN IS MY LADY"

It was great to be out on the water and able to work again, but all around us was the inescapable signs that the entire island had been put through the wringer. The foursome of dolphins seemed to be okay with things, but even the guys who go out to collect conchs had been landlocked due to the lack of visibility. They couldn’t fish either and a decline in activity was sensed in all the usually productive areas.

That night we continued to travel down memory lane with the former captain and the project's founder. I was outside soaking up the night sky once again, and I had popped in to fill up my water bottle. You got Denise Herzing asking you to come to hang out with her in the salon and hear about her days in the '70s researching gray whales in San Diego and you ask yourself what kind of lucky person have you become? It's hard for me to really recognize how important and pivotal she is because I came to the project not totally knowing what all she has done science. I certainly had done my homework prior to interviewing, reading up on her, watching the TEDtalk, researching her past graduate students, but here I was listening to her name drop some of the biggest names in all of the world like they were her high school classmates.

Over the years of spending time with her and hearing those names over and over again and the research centers they either started or studied at, I began to piece together this long narrative of how vital The Wild Dolphin Project was to the world. I realized, out on the back deck of that equally formidable cruiser, I was spending my summers and sharing my meals with one of the greatest animal behavioral scientists in the world. It's incredible to imagine, but at the same time, that is not her schtick to be so self-righteous. So it always felt like I was out there with Dolphin Mamma who likes telling stories, joining in on the jokes and spending her summers at sea.

We finished up our work and made our way home the following day before things got worse. I watched as our window got swallowed up by the returning winds and swell. As if we couldn't move any faster, the winds pushed on our stern the whole way home. We moved along with the racing sets of tightly compacted and growing in size waves. I sat on the stern and watched as the continuum as it swept past us.

Having left the area of Freeport at 1400, it put us back in WPB by sunset. Just as I had watched the buildings disappear behind the blue horizon on the way over, the same images played back but in reverse. This time with a glowing orange sun setting behind the buildings as we made our way towards the LW inlet.

Written from a bunk in Bahamian waters. {mandog} #wildocean #nature #disaster #wilddolphinproject #DORIAN

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