Updated: Aug 27, 2019
Summarizing the fifth trip for the Wild Dolphin Projects 2019 field season, we begin with a hot, sultry exploration and finish with a tussle against ocean tempests.
July 08, 2019
The first work day of our fifth trip was spent in an otherworldly environment, cruising up the bank into what seemed like some hot, phosphorescent gassy planet that was sitting too close to a giant, boiling sun. The horizon was non-existent. There was only a faint separation between the layers of blinding white and the steamy shades of aquamarine beneath. The ocean, with barely a ripple on its surface, moved past our hull like that of a water pump in an aquarium. You could hear the soft sounds as we pushed along in the shallows. Over the sides of our aquatic space craft, the subsurface terrain was infinitely visible, providing us with a long list of sightings: eight turtles in the morning hours, nurse sharks, reef sharks and by mid-afternoon we had seen a juvenile tiger shark curve itself delicately around the port quarter before slipping beneath the wake and out of sight. Bottlenose dolphins started appearing and disappearing, giving us a taste of something researchable, but otherwise the day felt like exploring a sultry and unfamiliar planet. The end of the day scored a final, seven-foot wingspan spotted eagle ray breaching the surface. These kind of sights are often just as sweet as the moments spent with the dolphins in that it provides a backdrop for what all they are in the company of.
Drifting around all day with no landmarks in sight, the passage of Memory rock along our port calls back the importance of this feature: Remembering what we once belonged to; Our land heritage. Its crumbled rock piling, stood like a statue of ancient civilizations. We cruised past, putting ourselves upon the southern shores of Grand Bahama Island for the crossing to Bimini the next day. A snorkel on Bootle Bay’s linear rock-ledge system wouldn’t go missed as the water was a much needed relief. It’s tempting to sit atop steamy bath water all day and never enter it. Despite its lack of refreshing coolness, the water still cleanses the body. The muscles rejuvenate as they kick and pull themselves along in the navy blue, end-of-day currents. Within the forty foot depths of this ledge, a giant cubera snapper roamed, claiming its reign over the dark and isolated terrain. The grunts and surgeon fish bow to their mighty guardian as it swims beneath the colossal sea fans and waving sea plumes.
With this summer being extremely calm in comparison to the year before, our landmarks are reached within significantly better times. We were along the protected waters of Great Isaacs by 1 o’clock, dancing our way down the bank. Some of those crossings went very differently. I can remember the intensity of driving white-knuckled, forced to carve off-course into wave sets with sprays of sea water cascading over the top of the bridge. The log book becoming filled with tally’s for “bell ringers,” which are marked when the boat lurches down the face of a wave and smashes directly into the backside of the next wave, causing a jarring halt to the momentum and swinging the pendulum of a bell forward ringing the sound of alarm. Sometimes we can spot a wave coming that possesses the potential to cause this and point at the rising lump in the water, calling it by its rightful name, “bell ringer.”
None the less, today was not a chase for land and we passed by all the familiar landmarks: Isaacs, Hen and Chicks and the southern reefs. As I slowed the ship to a rolling crawl I expected at any second the surface to become marked by the fins of leaping, enthusiastic, spotted cetaceans, but instead I drove through the area with no such occurrences. I went to a second spot, perhaps anticipating a shift in their routine since our last visit, and still met with vacant waters. I watched as another local dolphin operation doubled back on my previous pass and worried they would time it better to get the encounter I had set us up for. They didn’t, and upon our own doubling back, we got exactly what we were after!
Twenty plus dolphins, filled with excited calves, their protective mothers, male coalitions and young females all started grouping themselves together and then seemingly gave us the sign that they were willing to hang, if only for a moment. We slipped in and spent about twenty minutes with them before the time came that they decided they were ready to travel on. We met up with a second, similar in size group not long after we left the last one. By near 7 o’clock we were putting down anchor, having completed our crossing and attained the first two dolphin encounters of the trip. Three days were in the books at this point, so our work was still cut out for us.
As we continuously return to park our recognizably white, research craft along the shores of Bimini road, I wonder if we’re considered part of the local features of the island; A 62’ power cat, that as the summer months go by, is seen consistently working the nearshore waters. We’re any bit as predictable as the Dolphin Dream vessel, which is also a Florida based tour operation that has patterned themselves to arrive on Sunday and depart on Thursday. They put down mid-day along El Dorado shoal and then night-drift along the deep-water edge through midnight. The relations between our two operations have been beneficial over the years and in my opinion, the one we work best with. In the past they have helped with dolphin sightings in our off-season months as they work most of the year.
The following days, we dealt with an advancing front that had anchored itself to the backside of the island and had been sending out droves of miniature storm cells. The winds howled as they passed by and we were forced to anchor down multiple times. Over the next two days, the front shifted its position to a more southernly vantage and from there it loomed as a dense wall of grayness holding firm in the distance. During the day it played with the winds, drawing from the natural intended direction towards its own heading and also sending out a bit of cross-swell. The pressure system remained fixed and each day was a dabble with uncertainty.
One morning, while pulling the anchor, someone jokingly remarks that I ought to duck down. As I peer over my shoulder, a sea plane was gunning low to the water and headed right for us. I pretend to dip down dramatically and just as I did so, I am able to see the pilot through the open-doors of his cockpit. He registers his captive audience turning their heads and amusingly responds by dipping the wings of the plane inward and towards our vessel making a hairpin turn. The plane flew a low, tight circle around our boat and then shot back over the island dipping once more to behind the tree line. I stuck my arm up in the air as he passed by, cheering at this feat for the novelty of its precision and daringness.
Upon every rain storm that broke free from this gray, daunting source, it almost always produced a water spout that snaked its way down to the ocean churning up a violent display of carnage at its base. We managed to stay away from these twisters of the sea and skirt the other darting storms, putting down anchor a few times when outrunning them didn’t seem like an option. With each generated cell, an oceanic rearrangement took place. The gentle green giant with its calculated, rolling waves from a consistent and tropical source was suddenly usurped. The menacing wall of gray created a pressurized air dam that hampered the progress of what formerly was the ruling force of our pelagic workplace. With its own energy jutting out into the ocean, it collided with the waves of old and caused a melee of disagreeable waterways for us to sail upon. Collisions within this rearranging energy space were marred by the spikes of water that slam upwards, born out of confusion.
High up in the towering columns of air, down drafts from these rogue cells raced down to extinguish the beautiful image of a once glittering tropical oasis and before our eyes transformed it into a rolling mass of shredded dark indigo. The cool winds shredded along the ocean creating streaks of foam as paths of friction toiled at the surface. The wall of this menacing giant approached and the wind shear intensified, pushing over the tops of these newly created disturbances in the water as it went. As if a compactor were squeezing the bank from either side, the waves became lumped closer and closer together. The path of the storm, once close enough, could be determined by the area in which the most concentration of white caps were at.
We pointed the bow into the waves and made a run for shore. The ship began to pitch more violently in the crashes, shuddering the sounds of impact from nose to tail and sprays of water were blasted horizontally across the bow. Bolts of lightning amplified the already accelerated and charged air and due to the ionization of these particles, a metallic taste can sometimes be detected.
After a very successful first half of the season, the dolphin sightings had been coming easy. This trip, without weather even being a factor, marked a change in their predictability and patterns for finding them. It amounted to more pressure for us to expand the encounter log. When I did manage to snag a late in the day encounter, it felt like making a three point jumper with the clock running out. It’s not to say there can be no days without dolphins, but it does begin to pose the questions of what’s different. What has occurred to seemingly change their patterns? Certainly they are not that predictable all summer long, but I’ve found these occurrences to be somewhat of a reliable source for where to steer the ship and how to time our routes until a new pattern emerges.
There was, however, also a change in behavior finally for the encounters we did manage to get in on. The three-trip long span of aggression had slowed some, and the playful, enthusiastic, courtship behavior began to re-emerge in front of us. While for the science side of things, aggression is a staple ingredient in documenting and understanding this species. It’s a very real and eye-opening glimpse into their world to witness the struggles for hierarchy, quest for mates and potential turf wars, but I’d much rather see them playful and zipping along, glancing intently at you as they pass by or stopping to suspend themselves mid-water as if some form of magnetism had captured their motions and they were under a spell. It’s such a novel thing to be simultaneously inspected by the very animal you yourself have traveled all this way to inspect. It’s so breathtaking to see the curve of their bodies in front of you, like a perfect half circle, expressing its mannerisms in what only seems to be characterized by sheer delight. I realize life is much more complex than that, even for dolphins, which often get represented as the quintessential animal of play, frolic, sex and fun. We see, in that short period of time we call a season, much more than that. We understand there are community dynamics and environmental pressures that must be worked out and it’s unlikely it will all be done so by tossing a piece of sargassum back and forth and rubbing each other’s peck fins.
We often simplify the structures of animals lives because it’s not relatable to us outside our general scope of understanding. They aren’t governed by the same factors us humans are and so we can only see whats apparent based on the parameters of our own existence. It’s like trying to interpret the speed of an advancing bear. We think we can rationalize this, but too often, humans are thrust into their claws because we do not understand the true speed of this animal as it differs so much from our own. We can use our human mindset as a tool to observe, document and analyze, but we are still lacking in the mindset of anything else. Perhaps if we ever did live as a dolphin it would “click,” but for now it’s just watch, wonder and hope for more clarity.
By the near last working day, we had a half-court shot. With only a last second encounter the day before, we were verging on two days without much to show for our efforts. The pressing fronts weren’t helping either, but in a moment of determination I put us on a course that I hoped would yield something. As I made the return from deep water, fins started emerging that would eventually become forty-four dolphins in total. A new record since my time working with the project. In the second trip of last season I had thirty-two as a high mark for encounters and I do believe it was of a mostly swim-by occurrence amongst the sets of giant, rolling swells. This one was different. They branched off into two, giant clusters of about 18 apiece, with a few roaming in between. I toggled the boat between, keeping our swimmers shielded from any boats, but doing my best not to disturb the behavior that was underway.
With one last show of might, the green giant reared its head back and blew us back into anchorage again before lunch was served. As we sat, rolling beam to sea in the frothy capped green ocean, the pendulum remain fixed on hopeful. It was the same guest passenger whom last year on the eleventh hour of our last working day for the season, managed to obtain a two and a half hour long play session, drifting over three and a half miles with two enthusiastic juveniles. So fortune may have been on our side then, but like the pressure we felt then, we once again had been battling a shifting and persistent weather environment.
The clouds started to break, beginning in the east and then more and more opened up. We went from 90% cloud coverage to 10% in less than three hours. The seas layer down and we shrugged to one another surprised that it had turned out so beautiful. OÍ course the plan of action was already in place. Pull anchor and get out there and find those dolphins! We worked the waters hard, putting ourselves in all the right spots. Determined, we finally broke free from the frustration and hit our mark. Four fins streaked the surface becoming a dozen, twenty and by the time our crew was ready, we had counted thirty one dolphins in the water before our ships’ bow.
We launched our crew and passenger into the now fluorescent colored blue water. We caught them near the deep water edge, which had all the beautiful offshore waters returning in to the bank. Seas were less than two foot, but the 15 mph wind pushed our ship away at a steady clip. We weren’t alone on the waters. Three other dolphin expeditions were out and about and one super-fast, 50ft hydro-sport center console fishing vessel was setting up drifts nearby. I’d like to say it was luck that landed us this encounter, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t our experience and determination at play too. When it was all said and done, we had a boat full of happy, ecstatic people pleased with that end of trip encounter. I felt good, but I also felt the weight of eight solid days working at sea. My body was crashing and my mind was fixed to being back on land. We also had a 4 AM departure happening the next day to line up our arrival time to be in accordance with the impending flight schedules.
That night I jumped in on grill duties for the cooks in the galley. Not my favorite thing to do, but if it meant giving the gals who were sweating away over the hot stoves a bit of a break, then I’m their guy. There was an hours worth of great video footage to review from day's encounter, but I was on a fast course for getting into my bunk.
Despite the tiredness that had set into us all, we managed to pull it together long after our energies had started to decline. It’s a team effort and I can feel their support the whole way through. We traveled back, beginning in the pitch of night and angled ourselves away from Bimini and towards Florida's similarly sultry shores.
If you would like to read more about the behavior I mentioned in this and other stories, please refer to these scientific articles published by the Wild Dolphin Project:
Articles on Dolphin Aggression:
Cusick, J. A. & Herzing, D. L. (2014). The Dynamic of Aggression: How Individual and Group Factors Affect the Long-Term Interspecific Aggression Between Two Sympatric Species of Dolphin. Ethology 120, 287–303. Download this article
Herzing D.L., and Johnson, C.M. (1997). Interspecific interactions between Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Bahamas, 1985-1995. Aquatic Mammals, 23 (2): 85-99. Download This Article
Articles on Social Behavior:
Elliser C.R. and D.L. Herzing. (2013a). Long-term social structure of a resident community of Atlantic spotted dolphins, Stenella frontalis, in the Bahamas 1991-2002. Mar. Mamm. Sci.,DOI: 10.1111/mms.12039. Download this article
Herzing, D.L. (2005). Transmission mechanisms of social learning in dolphins: underwater observations of free-ranging dolphins in the Bahamas. Autour de L'Ethologie et de la Cognition Animale. Presses Universitaires de Lyon, Publ,185-193. Download This Article
Article on Life History:
Herzing, D.L. (1997). The life history of free-ranging Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis): Age classes, color phases, and female reproduction. Marine Mammal Science, 13 (4): 576-595. Download This Article