Summarizing the second trip of the Wild Dolphin Projects 2019 field season.
May 23, 2019
Nothing has ever been more grounding conceptually to me than the idea that, in order to experience the highs, one must also undergo the lows. Since the term good is relative, we simply cannot have one without the other. As if championing this concept, as both a direct and literal metaphor, the high and low pressure systems that drive our weather across the globe stand to serve as a metric for how good or bad a day will be.
In what limited exposure I’ve had to varying sea states, it does seem like I’ve encountered quite a bit of these lows, in the sense that, I’m often found aboard a boat that likes to rock. Now, to me, to rock means to heave and heaving seas might just mean that you have to hold on a little more. While sea state can change in a matter of hours, its been to my fortune that I can choose what level of heaving I will entertain and leave the undesirable conditions to other mariners. For obvious reasons, knowing where to draw the line is how captains can avoid putting undue stress onto their boat and maintain the safety of its passengers.
The rain in Spain falls mainly upon plains.
The underlying force behind sea state is wind. Wind is generated by molecules of air falling from areas of high pressure into the more accessible areas of low pressure. Simply put, when air heats up it rises and when it cools, it falls.
This rising and falling of air is also directly related to the rising and falling of surface temperatures. Over the pronounced latitudes of the equator, air is heated and then spirals off towards the poles in what is referred to as the prevailing winds. These winds, some being trustworthy and reliable enough to have been utilized as the primary navigational component for merchant ships under sail, are affected by both ocean currents and the spin of the planet. Though, while the ocean currents seem cyclical and somewhat predictable, our history of recorded data using scientific data collectors beyond just mooring sea buoys only dates back to 1985, with the launch of the fist geo-satelite to track deep water data. Otherwise, we relied upon the words of sailors while underway. In terms of recording geological processes, thirty-four years is the span of a gnat fart. We cannot rely solely upon the oceanic models because, despite what all we do know, weather will continue to evolve and shift on a dime. We can only make predictions on what we know, and most weather operates in both linear and nonlinear functions. The latter defies the expectations of the researchers studying it to such a high degree that it often gets tossed out or disregarded completely.
When dealing with pressure systems, the difference between the low and high, as read by a barometer, is what determines the velocity in which air will be traveling. On paper it, looks nearly identical to that of a topographic map. Where the tighter the gradient lines of that pressure wall is, the steeper it is and so too will that be for the speed of air movement. When wind acts upon a surface, mainly water, it creates movement, thus generating waves. Beginning with capillary waves and growing into disruptions so extreme that presently scientists are in disagreement for how large open ocean waves can become. Most recorded data, again deficient in its time history, cap them at the eighty to ninety foot range, but anecdotal evidence from large, oceanic freighter captains have continuously been claiming to have been struck by rogue, marauding freak waves that clear their bridges, which would put them in in excess of 100 feet. Until the data collection can catch up to the ever increasing storm energy, the models are good for averages but cannot predict the extremes. Floating instruments have begun to be dropped out at sea, but according to researchers aboard the RRS Discovery, they chose to deploy these in harsh, deep-water environments in which they often get trashed after only a few years of service. Obliterated by the very thing they are set out to record: waves.
The traveling wave is simply a transmission of energy. They are both objects in themselves and a form of motion being carried out. As expected, when more wind is generated, sea states rise with it. When the surface area, known as fetch and the duration of that energy get inserted into the sea, it accumulates and compounds, thus growing the sea state. Even the Great Lakes, for example, contain enough fetch to garner fifty foot waves. Waves can travel for thousands of miles until they are met by a greater disturbance, such as land. When they reach land, that energy explodes in an instant releasing itself like an atomic bomb. They travel in groups, clustering together in what are called sets. Surfers time the breaks so to catch the best wave in the set, but sometimes waves can disrupt one another and form what are known as rogue or criminal waves that steal the energy from other passing waves and amass into a single, solitary “lump” of water that is three to four times larger than the other surrounding waves. These waves are the not just the contents of folklore, they are the assassins of the sea that tear 500 foot oil tankers in half and leave many a ships lesser in design and length littered along the ocean floor.
The wind and the water, wrestle when warmer.
While encountering weather during our day, not much can be done in terms of forecasting. I feel as if an ant trying to interpret a tree by looking at the leaf its clinging to. Registering changes in wind direction, hourly transitions from land to sea breezes, I can expect certain things, but ultimately I am limited in my potential and have been training myself to become comfortable with the words, “I honestly don’t know.”
When discussing the lows of being at sea, it really isn’t the heaving, rocking boat that disturbs me, but instead those moments when the guests or passengers aboard the ship come to me with the questions of, “what will the day be like.” And as I stumble around letting loose those clunky words of uncertainty, it isn’t just them that wrestles with the unsettled feeling of hearing that answer. I too desire the truth and explanation behind the matter. Between trips I consistently dive into books and internet searches, attempting to collect data and gain an advanced level of understanding needed to interpret those skies and say with certainty what will be and the reasons why.
However, much to my dismay, the deeper I go, the more complex it becomes. I realize that all of the worlds smartest minds are not only in complete disagreement with this subject, but basically have all surrendered to the fact that we may not be able to interpret the most defining and ironically, most perplexing mystery our planet holds: its oceans.
So, I return, still far from a sky reading psychic, and forced to contend with receiving the days weather like it were a morning newspaper laid upon our doorstep. I read through the brief, choppy segmented columns in order to make way with a quickened, abbreviated understanding of whats happening outside. Taking in sips of hot, black coffee I continue to stare intently at the messenger, beckoning it to provide me with a follow up statement. I am still writing letters to the editor, hoping to hear back.
Besides the seas, what else rocks on the Stenella? The people. The dolphins. The moments. All coming together to create a special happening that’s unable to be recreated, despite having the same elements for each trip, each season. The dive sites that hold a magic and mystery of exploring new, uncharted areas. Naming places like Two Dog Reef, Bimini Squares and The Hole. Its not just the feeling of being an aquatic pioneer, but what happens aboard that vessel as we cruise tirelessly along the bank. We laugh and share so much of ourselves in those nine days. Crew mates goofing and riffing with each other, ice fights, dance sessions, star gazing. All capable because of the budding relationships that were built upon such deep levels of respect and admiration for one another. The science. The encounters. The perplexing behaviors of these creatures and how we stand to observe and notate it all. The interns, the board members, the VIP guests that have heard about our Project and want a taste. The dynamic is never the same and what has spawned such a commitment to retelling these adventures.
With only one encounter happening upon our early arrival to Bimini, the next two days of windswept work were tortuous to have those hallowed dolphin zones poised beyond our reach due to roughened sea states. The winds were howling from the North East and we had to take to the Southern parts of Cat Cay to find shelter. Its proximity to Bimini required three hours of our working day just to travel to and fro, but once we put down anchor, it was an oasis. Magical sunsets happening behind the floating island chain. A natural sea wall formation we anchored close to that shot geysers of water into the air all day and night long. The winds cranked, but only a gentle stroll of waves made its way to the boat, barely disturbing it an inch in the protected shallows.
While still working in the protected areas we put down at a new place for lunch. It had a mooring ball, which meant there might be something good down below to snorkel on. I hadn’t much energy nor felt all that great, so I went down into my bunk to read. Not long after, a sopping wet captain comes sliding in telling me he would not be okay with me missing this dive spot. There were sharks swimming around and it was on par with the famous Matanilla reef we had snorkeled on last season. I was quickly convinced to summon the strength needed and got myself ready to paddle out.
Unfortunately, I had already attempted to eat half a quesadilla and digesting any bit of food severely impacts my ability to freedive. When it comes to freediving, everything comes back to oxygen consumption. Thinking, digesting, movement, anything the body does requires oxygen. The more it requires, the less time you get at the bottom.
I was in the water and looking around and sure enough it was exactly as he had described it. Tall, expansive coral mounts were sprawled across the sea floor. Schools of fish congregated in clusters around different sections, while free roaming fish like permits, Caribbean reef sharks and giant cubera snappers circled the site.
Despite encountering a slack high tide and crystal clear, 100’ of visibility blue water, I was not very in tune with making any worthwhile freediving attempts. Even the camera I carried had a low battery. I still managed to try and get some decent photos and a few short video snippets. A little momentum came towards the end of my dive and on one of the final dives, did make it the full 45 ft down to clear one minute at depth. So, I reckon my greatest free diving depth and bottom time for over 40’ came at the hand of being tired, disinterested and on a full stomach. But as the story goes, I am comparing the lows to the highs.
We all had a great swim there and I ranked this as my top dive site of all the places the Stenella has visited. The reef was very active with plenty of roaming sharks, good size game fish sprinkled about, huge cavernous swim throughs and the structures were broad and far reaching, rather than clustering and tall (in comparison to Matanilla).
Finally, the day came where we could punch out into the open seas. The white caps had subsided some, and there was a decent enough interval in the waves to make our way into those sections that boast the highest dolphin encounters. Rolling with the heavy chop, I take the boat off from autopilot and navigate along the careening swells, doing my best to keep us steady in the head seas.
Sure enough, we had ventured long and hard enough to be greeted by a group of dolphins. Nine dolphins turned into eleven and by the end of the encounter they had eighteen spotted dolphins in the water interacting. Everyone was elated. The behavior was good and the encounter was lengthy. Some interesting footage came about as the juveniles were picking up a sea cucumber and bouncing it around on their rostrum. They were dancing it around, nibbling at it and then dropping it atop the heads of other passing dolphins. It was wildly hilarious to witness this sort of play and curiosity towards their environment.
There was a musician aboard the boat and before we started grilling one night, he gave us all a six song concert in front of the setting sun. We moved the picnic table out and gave him a little section at the far aft of the deck to perform on while we all sat squeezed together in front of him. I spruced up the scenery with flemished dock lines and set up some conch shells around his make shift stage. He appreciated the effort and kept us grinning by telling us little back stories to each of the songs he performed. The songs themselves were quite rife with humor as well. One of them, “Slow boat,” had begun to take form during his first time encounter with the Stenella.
Once the seas subsided the encounters picked up ten fold. The following day we had two encounters, one of which was a 59 minute long session loaded with courtship amongst a mixed bag of dolphins. There were two mom and calf pairs and two juveniles engaging in sexual acts. Courtship is a major bonding element, and often the act is not just for means of procreation, but to gain comfortability with the process and also to stimulate the sensory satisfaction dolphins get from physical contact. By day seven, we had hit the gold mine for encounters - four in total. The first being an absolute, endurance race to keep up with a fast-paced group of three. Afterwards, we anchored down at Hen and Chicks for lunch, and even there the mid-tide was cranking so hard we all got worn out from the workout.
One hour after lunch we had spotteds on the bow, going from an encounter of six to fifteen in total by the end. There were six young juveniles playing, but the larger group remained up ahead. We pulled the divers out after 50 minutes of tiresome swimming and were able to catch back up to the larger group. We observed them from afar, flying the drone as they traveled. They seemed to stop traveling so we made another attempt at getting in. The swimmers were finally able to get footage of the entire group, which had calm, blue water to film in now. Equally enjoying their time were the passengers hanging out on the bow getting pictures of the dolphins’ candidness against a lush blue backdrop.
Twenty minutes after we had moved on from the second group, a foursome came to the bow and we were back in the water. This time I was able to get in and it was my best dolphin experience yet. The small group of dolphins were singling us out individually, coming by for wildly personal moments of intense curiosity and friendliness before returning to zooming around like underwater jet airplanes.
The individuals the Project has named Arugula, Rue, Mila and Suey were the dolphins putting on the show. I got such a tickle by them coming by giving lots of eye contact and dancing circles around me on the way back up to the surface when I’d dive down as they signaled their intention of being playful. I’m mesmerized by their patterns and while sometimes their eyes looks sleepy, these ones had a certain zest to them at this hour of the day. Arugula seemed to be giving lots of specific attention towards me and at one point when a piece of sargassum got introduced, I dove down to fetch it. Before I could even get my arm extended to put it back up into the water column, she hit the brakes, circling back towards me so fast that I only had time to retract my hand and cover myself fearing I might get clipped by the roughly 200 pound dolphin. Dolphins are very aware of their movements in the water, however, and she easily navigated around me. Perhaps with an assumed smile across her face at my reaction.
Once back aboard I couldn’t stop smiling from this encounter. I felt that interaction they chose to share with me deep inside my body. Their pleasant seemingly smiling faces still tickling me enough to laugh out loud. It was such a treat. We pulled off and started making tracks for our anchor hold. Twelve minutes later, another GBB foursome slow-cruised their way towards the bow. Back in the water we went. These ones were much more chill, but still quite engaging with the swimmers. Coming off a tough night with our generator shutting off at 1 AM and then the water maker also cutting off at some point during the night, we had a tremendously fun day.
Day eight was the pits for me physically. I had tapped out all the energy I had and the encounters kept coming. I was struggling to hold on, but I managed to make it all the way to anchor down which was a feeling of relief. I had to find a sliver of recovery as it was our last night for the trip and we had a special birthday party planned for the two passengers who were sharing their special day with us.
The setting sun that evening was magical. It lit for hours and a tangerine sky was extended in every direction. As the guitarist kept us entertained outside, the crew put up decorations inside the salon and put the final touches on a powdered, vegan browny platter and an iced chocolate cake.
They came outside with the surprise, candles lit and all. We joined in on the celebratory hymn and watched as they both had huge smiles across their faces. They even managed to get a candle or two blown out before the wind took it. We moved inside and passed around plates, letting them get a look at the decorations. We gave out the cards that had been covertly signed by all the guests throughout the day. I had done the artwork for the front with a dancing scene for the passenger and a favorite dolphin photo of the field assistant. The captain told the much anticipated stories from his early days as a mate and captain and I made a few last minute fuel transfers before putting down early, readying myself for the day of crossing.
As if the sunset was being played in reverse, the pinkish and orange hues of the sunrise came up from the opposite direction. The bright orange circle, stealing its way into the sky. The light pinks turning into amber glows. The clouds raced along overtop without halt. I had engines warming by seven and rested upon the front railing next to the anchor line. I truly LoVe this place and am thankful I get to travel back, but this trip seemed to be one of the longest ones I’d ever encountered. My body was tapped and I was ready for home. Ready for a break and needing still to get past two days of dockside work before I’d have one, a big soft bed would be enjoyed between each night.
Before we could pull anchor, we had to dip into one final moment of zaniness and do our now customary “Day-oh” song and dance. Wet let it all out on this one and were dancing until we were hot, tired and sweaty. Before we know it we were set on a course headed back to Florida. On the way over we all exchanged the multitude of photos each person had amassed. From having a quality video editor and exceptional photographer to an established musician on board, along with the multitude of amateur freedivers with their underwater cameras, the exchange was immense. Its a nice collection to the days spent at sea. I was still scratching my head at what all had happened and was still in disbelief that so much could take place within 9 days.
The crossing was smooth, blue and comparatively quick. We had land in sight still 21 miles from shore, which meant it was a very clear, non-hazy day. Undoubtedly, the outstretched coastline with its peaks of lofty development broadcasted that the magic was over. The return to normalcy would soon be replacing the endless laughter, the dinners held at picnic tables and the ocean camaraderie with the focus turning now towards cell phones and all the different directions we would take once back upon the hard, heated docks. The time warp was rolling past us just like the gentle, passing swells. Perhaps in the lulls, moments of this experience would surface and someone will get a tickle from the fun we had.
In case you missed or had not realized, this video, to which some of the readers may have seen already, is a compilation of both the first and second trip. Enjoy!