Updated: Mar 7, 2019
Summarizing the sixth trip of the 2018 Wild Dolphin Project field season
July 17, 2018
I like most all music, but the blues digs in deep. It's a little known secret, but I actually enjoy the hours of isolation on the boat when the bridge is empty and the blues I'm listening to starts to crank. The strum of the chords matches the chaotic tussle at the surface between wind and water. Contemporary acts like Ben Harper or Gary Clark Jr. squeal their guitars at a feverish pitch, while fabled acts like Otis Taylor, Freddie King or Junior Kimbrough extract my inner most sentiments like they had a sponge capable of soaking up all thoughts ever conceived. Everyone has their moment when the music becomes a partner to the act. For me, those hours reflect back into my mind the journey that is just getting underway or one that is nearing completion. The miles might not be many, with regards to the lengths of the ocean, but the steps taken are careful, planned and yet, full of surprises. The moments each signaling the beginning, middle and end, like book marks to the story.
While I am there in my isolation, I study the waves like they contain a code. They sweep along with a sense of urgency, sure not to let anything interrupt the transmission of their message. Observing their shape and reading their information, I pick my lines to allow for the most amount of stability and adjust a course to follow.
It's a study itself for how to ride the waves. I feel this is where captains cut their teeth at becoming seamen. Learning to decipher clues from the NOAA marine forecasts, gazing up at the clouds, watching the rustle of tree limbs in the morning hours prior to departure. These are the play calls used by captains.
The swell height and direction. How it will counter the wind and current direction. The period, the interval.. all of which making for a pleasant or miserable ride. You can certainly learn to love the waves however they come, but through the years one grows to appreciate their favorite forecasts. Me, I'm in the popular fan base of preferring a gentle south eEasterly, but I've been known to have a grin spread across my face as I take on a slammin' south sea with kicked up 5-7s. Northerly winds are just ugly and I tend not to go out in those.
My studies have ingrained a huge amount of respect for the ocean. When felt how simple it is for a seemingly weak 2-3ft wave to pick up the tail end of a thirty ton vessel and heave it around like it were a bath toy, I took a step back to realize the potential energy that is locked within those traveling forms. I watch as the speed rockets up on the GPS 3-4kts with each passing swell that pushes our stern ahead. This is called surfing and can also be extremely dangerous because when the stern is lifted, so too is the rudder and steering is now obsolete. Simply put, the boat goes where the wave takes it. The bow digs in and if hard enough its got one of two directions to take: hard to port or hard to starboard. This unexpected lurch in direction is referred to as broaching. Once sideways, the boat is now in what's called a beam to sea and as it takes on more and more waves from this very unstable position sinking is possible. Too much of this can be catastrophic for a boat or captain that is not in shape to handle it. Once a boat tips past its maximum righting arm angle, the vessel is unable to 'right' itself and come back up. Boats have been known to make full revolutions and pop back up, but its rare. If the vessel submarines, where it goes head on into a wave and is driven down beneath the surface, windows can be blown out. Should too much down flooding happen in the lower bilges or engine spaces, the ship is done. Another claimed wreckage deposited along the ocean floor. Navigating along this great form of energy can make skilled captains or get them a spot on the nightly news hour, and many of the former have become the latter.
With the Jupiter inlet being my passageway to the big blue yonder, I picked up my lesson of staying sharp on day one. About a year into it I was already sitting inside the inlet staring at raging eight footers and waiting for the moment to saddle up and charge through, skirting the monsters that want to break my bow clean off. I've been forced into those eight footers, taking them right on the chin and felt the boat absorb that colossal amount of energy and disperse it down through the infrastructure. I've sat opposite, waiting to return, counting the sets and sliding in as undetected as possible to race the relentless stern swampers home. You throttle hard and breath even tighter as you enter into the gauntlet. Being fearful is of a logical mind for this event, but confidence in timing gives one the position of advantage. These swells are nasty, but at least they're somewhat predictable. Still, as they rise up onto the shallows of the sand bar, sometimes in depths of less than two feet, what we refer to as a sneaker wave can pop up at the stern or midship without any indication it was ever there. It's no wonder there's often a crowd gathered along the fingers of the jetty to watch boaters as they do their best to traverse through this pounding onslaught.
That said, its all worth the effort as what awaits is a glorious rodeo with the machine and your vessel atop nature's best bronco, the ocean. What can I say? I wouldn't want flat seas everyday because I wouldn't know what kind of captain I am!
We cruise most days looking for dolphins at 1100-1250 RPMs which burns a little under five gallons per hour and gets us 7-9kts speed, seas dependant.
Early on in the trip, we had gotten over zealous with the lack of storms and motored way too far. Noting the time, we seen we would be unable to make it back down to our anchor hold by nightfall. So, we put down midway between our turnaround point and our normal anchor spot at the dry bar for the night. I decided to take advantage of the clear, cool, windy night to sleep out beneath the stars. The wind sheared at an impressive rate and the Milky Way poured itself out across the night sky as it slowly rotated around the northern axis point, Polaris. I did my best to wrap myself in the sheet, now becoming a parachute so it wouldn't blow off taking me with it into the water. I like my bunk space, but its not necessarily the coldest place on the boat, despite being surrounded by metal and water.
Down in the lower cabin spaces, the aluminum plating and ribbing rises up in the middle to segment the two lengths of the twin hulled catamaran. On each side of the hull, two mattresses are laid into the recesses of a welded rectangle. The spaces along the inboard side of the bunk rooms are used to store supplies. In the starboard quarters is all of our drinks and food / snack / supply overflow. I always joke its a good thing I am not on that side or I would find myself snacking at night. The port side contains a multitude of boxes with various boat needs: pvc and brass fittings, stainless steel hardware, hose clamps, different caulks, epoxies and sealants, paint supplies, machinery and plumbing pieces and various filters for the water maker and RACOR fuel filters. A red, four drawer Husky tool box sits next to a freezer used to store the ice packs for the igloo coolers and dolphin fecals. Yup, frozen dolphin poop.
Above the foot of my bunk is a work table with a vice mounted to it. Secured to the wall are organizing boxes for machine screws, bolts, nuts and washers all sorted by diameter. This is the only space where you can stand all the way up. Should you be standing there, around your head are more tapes, glues and sprays. Tucked into a cubby hole are the electric tools: circular saw, jig saw, belt sander, orbital sander, electric drill and battery operated drill. Running along the walls are the septic lines which connect to the accumulator tank which connects to the head pump.
My bunk, which is nestled inches away from the outboard side of the port hull is cornered by a hundred gallon forward fuel tank. In the far end section of the bunk room is the 350 gallon port side day tank. On top of it is an assembly of valves you might see on a garden spicket used for transferring fuel from any of the four usable tanks. They each have a little paper tag hanging on them indicating which tank they correspond to and an in and out valve on either side of a pump must also be opened. A timer hard wired into the pump's power switch is how we determine the amount of fuel is being transferred. Two 110 fuel tanks located inside the engine room are gravity fed to two 275 gallon stern tanks and a 350 gallon generator tank is its own standalone unit making itself the ninth fuel tank for a holding capacity of 2,020 gal.
Equipped with two, 18-21 kilowatt Phasor generators, we run each one 24 hours at a time, giving the other a chance to rest. Every night we make around 250 gallons of fresh water to refill a 400 gallon holding tank. Salt water is pumped into the watermaker by a lift pump and squeezed through a coiled membrane at 800 psi. At that rate, a chemical reaction actually occurs where salt is removed from the water molecule and a less than 300 parts per million final product trickles out at 25 gallons an hour. While fresh water goes to the holding tank, a raw water brine that has 40,000 ppm is discharged off the side of the boat at a rate of 3 gallons per minute.
We cruise most days looking for dolphins at 1100-1250 RPMs which burns a little under five gallons per hour and gets us 7-9kts speed, seas dependant. When we are crossing, we run at 1630 RPMs for a fuel burn of 11.5 gph and pushing 12-14kt. Again, seas dependant on those figures. The harder the waves, the more slagged the boat is in the water and the fuel burn/RPMs go up are while speed is compromised.
At night we anchor into the best sand we can find and put out around 80-120ft of scope. For rougher weather, we put out more scope to keep the angle of the line closer to a straight line than a steeper angle towards the water. The upstairs bridge has three-quarter wrap eisenglass and every morning I clean them using a chamois and fresh water. Once dried, I can then roll up the five panels. Eisenglass is quite expensive and with delicate care can last 5-10 years before needing replacement. When there's a storm, we unroll the panels and I re-chamois before rolling back up. Also on the bridge, we have a garmin GPS connected to an auto-pilot device. A single VHF radio, single side band radio, two hand held GPS units and two tachometers displaying engine and gear oil temps, RPMs and fuel burn. There is also a Furumo radar system and a secondary GPS unit used by the researchers to log our course changes throughout the day. There is a large hatch atop the stairway to the bridge, which during storms, I often close so not to let the downpour soak the camera equipment stowed below near the engine hatches.
On the aft of the vessel is a teak picnic table and two fighting chairs. The custom power cat had its hull built in 1975 by a ship maker in Kentucky. The aluminum pieces were sent down by train to the Lantana ship yard to be constructed. Only five of these boats are in existence and there's a reason they don't make aluminum boats anymore. There is little to no future for repairing this boat. The quarter inch thick panels are thought to be an archaic design. The boat, initially named Boann was owned by a corporation and kept in Sailfish Point, Palm Beach before being donated to the Project in 1992. It's been the field office for Dr. Herzing and her research for 26 years. It was retrofitted in 2003 to swap out the Detroit diesels for Cummings QSM11 low horsepower turbo charged engines.
When we find dolphins, or vice versa, we observe their behavior and make an assessment on whether or not the researchers and interns should get in. Sometimes they are traveling, which makes for a tough challenge to capture much other than a few moments of video and hopefully enough photos to identify them all. The dolphins are identified by their spot patterns and often the scars they carry from line entanglements and brush ups with boat props. The juveniles are ALWAYS in line to play and they speed past the swimmers repeating their high frequency signature whistles. Sometimes the mother calf pairs are seen foraging in the sand. A calf will generally stay with its mother for three years before it is weened (though, there are always exceptions to this). In that time it learns all about the social structures, bonding, foraging, hunting, interspecies behavior and copulation.
Of the dynamics to witness, the mother calf combo is often my favorite. It is a very intimate connection and the juveniles can be seen peeking over the shoulder at you as they swim along with their domineering mother. Their curiosities at that age are too free-flowing to ignore. It makes you feel as if there is as much research being conducted behind those gentle, inquisitive eyes as there is going on with our camera lenses, hydrophones and bushy-eyed interns.
When the dolphins give us the nod that they've had enough, they simply lose the tail. They dive deep, all mount into a traveling formation and barely touch the surface. Good luck trying to keep up. Otherwise, they behave right on camera as if we weren't even there. When they do want us to know they know, they drop pieces of sargassum in our face from their peck fins to their flukes, baiting us to follow along and play with them. The intention of their acts, every arch in their body posture, bubble that's emitted and position they take is intentional and carries significance. The researchers study these behaviors and correlate meaning through the patterns that begin to emerge after all the extensive time of being in the water with them. The correlations between different noises: squawks to buzzes to whistles, all have their meaning and inferred intention as well. Of these, my favorite of course are the signature whistles. The call sign they put out like I would use over the VHF radio, repeating as necessary and making it loud and clear. Often, while in the water I will hear the echoey chirp of the whistle as one approaches from behind, and the playful juvenile belting out its name comes swimming in front of me with what appears to be shear delight in its face. Look at me, nice to meet you, how do you do, I interpret from the swim by.
The uniqueness of Atlantic spotted dolphins to other cetaceans is their seemingly abundance of leisure time in the day. This gives them flexibility to be playful and interactive, as they are not solely focused on getting one place to the next or feeding an immensely huge body. These interactions are what give us the most pleasure.
TWO MINUTES, FORTY-SIX SECONDS
Dealing with a harsh SW wind, we fired up mains at 0730 and had left the Little Bahama Bank ahead of schedule. Despite charging through four to six foot seas with 21 bell ringers in the first hour, we actually made good time in our crossing to Bimini. Before we left, I quickly lashed down deck items and stowed away any loose objects.
It's 45 miles from Little Bahama to the deep water edge on Grand Bahama and our heading was South West. We would be taking the seas on our chin like a boxer would for the maximum amount of rounds. The captain and I didn't even take shifts until we saw Isaacs. We both stood at the helm and powered through the onslaught of waves together. Later at dinner, someone asked who moved the large picnic table on our aft deck. I said, "The Seas," as we noticed it was a solid foot from its usual mark.
When it was my turn at the helm I had enough of these foamy, white-capped seas. So, I jibbed my way in between Isaacs and Hen and Chicks for shallower waters. Not long after we had dolphins on the bow. Two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, they came crashing into the bow through the choppy water. We got in three times with spotteds and it was one of the best encounters I'd seen. Mainly because a particular character, Sycamore, was being a total ham. She put herself in front of the cameras so much the researcher filming her only had to hit record four times in total for the three different jumps that we made. By the last entry, Sycamore was towing around sargassum on her peck fins, inching it down little by little and dropped it for us to catch. She put on quite the show and everyone got a good seat for it.
The trip had expired us all and so we steamed our way towards the island to investigate a new anchor hold. We needed to be on the leeward side of this rambunctious wind, so we swept past North rock and came around to the north end of Bimini where the island starts to stretch itself towards the east. I rinsed the boat down from all the salt and returned things to their normal state. I needed a swim.
We knew there were some sandbar folks up ahead closer to the island, but we were back in the double digit depths about six tenths from the shore. As we swam, I was sure to pop my head up every so often and investigate the scene. I have seen the way these folks leave a party and its not something you would want to be swimming in the path of. I'd already seen one boat putting along casually, but their course ended up being between our boat and the island, rather than safely around towards the deeper water. Seeing this, the group of guys I was with decided to circle back to the boat and not risk being too far from our own. The guys got down current from me and were going way to fast. A very nice area of sea fans and finger coral popped up and I knew there'd be critters there to discover. If one could only slow down to look closely.
Soon, the microcosm of plants and animals started to reveal themselves. The flamingo tongues crawling all over the fingers of the coral. The skittish queen triggerfish ensuring you don't get too close. The juvenile angelfish, with their distracting black and yellow stripes. Juvenile butterfly fish. Two lion fish also camouflaged beneath a wispy coral mimicking their long, pointed barbs. Scorpionfish camouflaged against a sponge. A high hat the size of an m&m aggressively guarding a hole that could have fit a thousand of them in it. Colonies of baby reef fish congregating on a sponge. Flounders the size of half dollars. Horse conchs. It was a gold mine, you just had to look for it and I was taking my time going through every bit of it. I continued to scan the waters' surface and I saw the boys up ahead. So, I kept my distance close, but I was also not ready to go back to the boat yet.
I was now within the distance of the anchor and the boat. On one of my final dives while checking out a baby trigger fish, I hear a loud hum. Oh great, a boat is leaving and I'm underneath. I was already thinking about coming up before I heard it, but as a rule: stop, look and listen prevailed and I waited to see if the hum would get louder. It did and I started to turn myself around hoping to get a bearing on which direction it was coming from. I pegged where, but now it was really high pitched and roaring. The boat was definitely headed my way, but how close would it get? I've already been down filming for close to two minutes filming and spent thirty more seconds evaluating the situation further. If I go up now, I risk being directly in the zone of impact with too little of time for a reaction. How much longer can I stay down and wait this out?
I decide to stay down. I am certain now that the roar of the engines will cut right above me. I stay close to the bottom looking up and waiting for the moment. As it goes directly over top of me I see clearly the white churn of outboard engines cranked to 2000 rpm slicing through the water. Just outside of it I could see the trail of a second, equally as close, vessel traveling alongside. After two minutes and forty-six seconds, I am able to return to the surface with a head full of steam. I am still within their freshly carved boat wake as I let loose a steady stream of harsh expletives. I see the boat, without pause, continue on its course. I slam the water repeatedly and rip off my mask swimming back to a boat full of stunned passengers and crew. I was livid.
I was down along my own anchor line, not more than 100 feet from our big 62' long, 23' wide catamaran with the words RESEARCH spelt out in giant three foot letters and both these goddamn, donkey-brained assholes lacked the instinct to throttle back while coming between a boat and the island they just left from. And they wind up buzzing overtop of a snorkeler? Thankfully, this would not be my exit from the world.
I swim back to the boat, heave my mask, fins and camera on board and stomp around. Yes, I dodged getting my face smashed in by a set of rotating saw blades, but I absolutely loathe the concept idiot operators. I heard their music pumping and whistles coming off the boat as they drove into the distance. Smoke continued to pour from my gills. I realize my demeanor was disturbing people, so I tried to cool myself down by going up to the front and fiddling with the lashings on the kayak.
"They weren't the ones in the water! They can look on with whatever sensitivities they like," I thought, "but it was my life that was on the line!" I felt it was pretty shitty circumstances to be deciding between stay down and possibly run out of air or go back up and risk getting battered, mangled, mutilated.
I manage to get myself settled and go inside. The captain comes down to my bunk to talk privately about how we can address the situation for the better. I agree with all his ideas, but insisted I did not want my free diving privileges to be revoked because of this. After dinner, he discussed those ideas with everyone. A few other ideas were tossed in and we walked people through what the steps were, should you be on watch and see something like that about to happen. Or, if you are the one in the water what you should do. This was not the first time for this conversation, but it had the emotion of nearly losing a crew members' life to amplify the seriousness of what we covered in past briefings. I finished by saying I wasn't mad at anyone on this boat. The assholes today were the ones that drove over our anchor line. My two main concerns are towards people's safety and that they are enjoying themselves. I wanted these practices further in place and that we simply learn from the event. I was back to normal, but the memory still exists so vividly of deciding my own fate. Someone commented it was a good thing it was me and not someone else who couldn't hold their breath for that long. I suppose this was true.
The next day business had returned to normal. I even went up on the last hour of watch to help coach folks using the passing boats behavior as examples. It's the perfect hour to assess how boats operate and what's normal and what's irregular behavior. Unfortunately, most boats operate with extreme unpredictability. One boat was zig-zagging directly towards us. I tried hailing them on the radio with no luck. They came within 100 feet of the boat. As we were now clearly in waving and yelling distance, I could hear someone shout to the whomever that was driving the boat and they jerked the boat back to a course that would not end in a collision. They did not alter their speed and the party machine sailed past music blaring. It was becoming a recurring nightmare. The boat was slow going, which allowed for us time to try different approaches of getting their attention. We were also able to communicate its presence to our own swimmers and they switched to the other side of the boat.
Time for the second lesson. I said, "Alright, lets start predicting where boats we cannot presently see will be coming from." The other night, our NE anchor spot revealed a sandbar that folks had been using during the strong SW winds. As I predicted, I said to look over the shoulder at the six o'clock position and for any boats sweeping around the bend of the island. Sure enough, a stream of boats started to cut across the shoal between North rock and the island. Only one boat made a pass I deemed worthy of praise. They came no closer than 1000 feet and maintained a very direct and obvious course. There were no alterations to the path and I explained that this is usable information. Otherwise, its a total guess for what the googan is doing.
Another boat stopped short directly in front of the path of another boat, a Grady White. The Grady White alters course to inside it and then the stopped boat takes off again cutting across their line once more. The Grady goes around, now to the outside and using speed, overtakes the boat at a throw cushions toss distance. With prevailing winds and late evening storms on the horizon, it would be very probable that a wind shear or a freak wave could easily have thrown the Grady off course and side swipe the boat they were passing so dangerously close to. I spoke about putting oneself in the mind of the operator, idiot or not, they are not carrying the knowledge that a swimmer can be in the water. It would be ideal, but its generally not the case. You could give way to boats and not pass so closely, not have the radio blaring rending you unreachable on the VHF, slacken speeds when you encounter a situation that might require altering course or further investigation. However, ultimately, those reactions are only contained to so few of all the given scenarios.
After our snorkelers had returned to the boat, a triple engine center console going full speed cuts between us and the island making its closest pass at about 50 feet. We hold our hands up and they wave back, never slackening speed and oblivious to the casualty of their actions. And ultimately, these are all opportunities for us to learn from. I appreciate that I continue to find myself around people that strive to better themselves and the world around them. Not that its needed, but a sense of pride is a worthwhile feeling. The day ended without any incident and the trips' best sunset spilled out over the ocean horizon. And like moths to a flame, everyone gradually came to the aft deck to take in the splendor.
We used the search light to keep a fixed eye on the anchor line and I gave cues to bump towards port or starboard depending on where the line was...
When really tired, we switch shifts for driving every two hours. Otherwise, we go for four straight hours at a time. If one of us is feeling beaten down, we notice it and say, I got it for awhile, why don't you go rest. We rest, but the responsibility keeps nagging and before long, we're back up on the bridge like nothing was the matter.
Driving while the seas are kicked up can be grueling. Each wave must be calculated. Angles are determined based on boat stability, but also heading can sometimes put you in a tough ride that leaves you fighting the whole way.
To attempt to get out ahead of the winds, we pulled anchor yesterday at 0700. We took an early anchor hold for lunch and were still unable to work in the conditions afterwards, so we set down our final anchor at 1600. I went in to start preparing the trip's last dinner meal. I was making roasted eggplant spaghetti with chicken and grilled veggies. In between sweating and breading the eggplants, I sat on the couch and closed my eyes, still holding a cornstarch can in my hand.
After I got the eggplants done, I passed the kitchen over to the cook and let her boil noodles and I went out to grill the kabobs and chicken breasts. I would tell her how long and we hollered to everyone when we both had reached our end goal.
I was nearly asleep again, holding a just filled second portion, when I hear my name called from across the room. A head pump was malfunctioning and I jump up to run check it out before it exploded. It was running continuously, so I quickly disconnected the wires and inspected the toilet bowl it was pumping from. No water, which meant that air was getting through, causing it to constantly cycle. The captain changed out the seal since we would have the bowl off and I ran buckets and tools to him as I also opened up the fuel transfer valves and moved 180 gallons from the stern tanks.
The last night while out at the dinner table, we had seen the pounding ocean settle into a flat calm lake. The orange sun colored its entire surface and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I could possibly get a break in the driving conditions the next day. I went back outside and closed up the bridge, inspecting the boat all over to make sure it was secure for the night, started the watermaker and restocked the fridge. I went in to shower at 2100 and was in bed by 2200.
The final day at 0500 I had awoken, checked the fluids, stopped the water maker, cleaned and rolled up three of the five windows, prepared the instruments for departure and fired both mains at 0535. We pulled anchor at 0545 and were underway. We used the search light to keep a fixed eye on the anchor line and I gave cues to bump towards port or starboard depending on where the line was in relation to the center of the boat. When it was straight, we'd putt forward and I would heave in the slack from the inch and a quarter mega-braid line. In the pitch of black I could see bioluminescent plankton still clinging to the fibers as it got piled on the deck.
When I had the Bruce style anchor back on deck and tied off, I went to the midship to move the dingy we were towing back to the stern. I let out slack from the tow line and in one swift move, flipped the bridle over the transom and into the water. Clocking a heading of 284 degrees towards Lake Worth inlet, still within the starry hours, we left.
I sat with the captain for an hour chatting about different inlets along Florida's coast as we waited for the sun to rise. When it had, I brought up coffee and English muffins. He told me I could go take a break and I made a smoothie to go lay with in my bunk. I listened to the slosh of the waves against the hull and as the hum of the engines drove the turning screws, I imagined what they looked like rotating through the water at 1600 RPMs. The white, bubbly cavitation swirling through the rich, 2000 feet deep Gulf Stream current.
Before long, I'm pulled from my bunk to put swimmers in along a enormous weed patch. It could have had a 150m yacht parked in its center and still have fifty feet on either side. The patch held lots of juvenile fish and either from the distance or from well below the surface, distinct cetacean whistles could be heard. Nothing ever emerged or surfaced, so likely a whale and quite possibly false killers. The weed patch was close to three feet deep in thickness and as the waves rolled, a liquid-like form could be seen throughout it, but was never pulled apart. Only amassed more as floating pieces of sargassum driven by the wind found themselves adding to the collection. After about twenty minutes of swimming, we pulled everyone back in and continued to steam NW, now at a bearing of 309. By twelve thirty we were awaiting customs in the port of Palm Beach.