Updated: Aug 27, 2019
The stark-white cruising craft, accented with age and outfitted with purpose has given us another tale from its cozy, accommodating passages through the vast and watery Bahamian space realm.
August 14, 2019
The trip was off to a bang, with fun, friendly passengers already folding themselves into the mix by having fresh conversations and getting to know one another. No one was being shy (not that being shy is a bad thing) and the wheels were turning for finding out what makes each other tick. During the crossing, the mighty blue rocked everyone into a subdued state, as if it wanted in on the conversation. The two foot gentle swell positioned directly to our south east, as the summer months would generally dictate, came nice and easy, pitching the nose of the ship ever so slightly. The sets were tight, creating a melodic and bouncing rhythm. Up top, we jammed to the tunes that felt right for the moment keeping the hours shorter rather than longer.
One passenger in particular was quick to explore the ship and I’d see him frequent the bow looking over at the water or peering off into the distance, sitting at the picnic table in the sun or resting atop the padded engine hatches. It pleases me to see people make use of the ships’ space and become as familiar with the vessel as the other crew mates or I have become. I like to know what parts of the boat speak to people and be able to share my own personal findings with them.
Over the radio, a coast guard sécurité had been repeating itself regarding a live fire event off the coast of Bimini. Considering that was one of our travel locations, I of course paid close attention to the details in the broadcast. When local mariners are in jeopardy of encountering something hazardous, the coast guard puts out these sécurités, or pre-recorded messages, alerting boaters to the dangers at hand. It could be for something as extensive as mock war games happening in the area or it could also be for something seemingly minor, like a floating log traveling up a waterway. Either way its on the mariner to take notice of these alerts and decide if they are applicable to them or not. So I wrote down as much as I could when the garbled, crackling information would belt across on the radio on our bridge, while steaming 15kts across the gulf stream.
I had heard they were discharging high density, 25MM ammunition, I'm assuming, into the ocean and requesting a 15,000 foot (2.8 mile) clearance radius. They would then give moving GPS coordinates of their position. They were located somewhere off the Northern shores of Bimini, but I amusingly wondered if the US had resumed target practice again on the concrete wreckage of the SS Sapona. Positioned roughly seven miles off the Southern shores of Bimini, the Sapona is also a popular snorkel site and this was all but a wonderful daydream. Though, the exposed concrete and rusting steel wreckage of this cargo ship did go through a period of time where it was used for that exact purpose. During the second world war, military boats and aircrafts conducted bombing and firing exercises on it, giving it its crudely skeletal look.
We avoided any mishaps by the patrolling warships and before long, Grand Bahama Island emerged from the horizon beneath a long, dark cloud. Still with ten nautical miles to go, the radio calls for Old Bahama Bay began to come in heavy requesting port clearance from the boats passing to and fro. Summer was in full effect and the gentle seas weren’t steering people anywhere but towards the Bahamas.
An interesting occurrence during our stopover at Old Bahama Bay had happened. I had been keeping an eye on a rain storm hanging off Wood Cay, to our north. Before we went into the customs office, I heard the pounding sheets of rain advancing towards our location. Seconds later, I spotted the moving wall of water. Hearing the drops already at the bow, I go into a full sprint to gather up cushions, launched myself up the stair case, dive towards the windows grabbing the zippers and pulling them closed quick as could be, lower the covered hatch and sat on the bridge wondering if I could wait out the passing rainstorm. I eventually snuck back down from the bridge as the rain continued to fluctuate between downpour and drizzle.
In one of the lulls, we darted of for the customs office, paperwork in hand. After we were cleared in and back aboard the boat, I noticed an older gentleman standing high upon the bow of his very ornate and classically styled sailing vessel. He’s grinning ear to ear and quite adamantly engaging me visually from the less than thirty feet we stood apart. I pull aside a couple of gals from our boat whom I saw chatting with him and pry into them for the scoop. Apparently, he was a former captain from the glory days of before with the project. He had asked them for the coordinates to the Sugar wreck. So I first go up to retrieve those from the GPS (its a popular and well known site along the bank) before heading over. I see him still in the wheel house of the Sea Diamond. I walk over and his face lights up, immediately greeting me and introducing himself explaining his relationship to our boat, the Stenella. As he did so, he could tell I was looking over his vessel with fascination and asked if I wanted to come aboard. Now I was the adamant one and gave him an encouraging yes.
Built in 1957 and completely refitted in 2004, the Sea Diamond was an 89’ sailing vessel built by the prestigious German boat manufacturer, Abeking & Rasmussen.
Abeking & Rasmussen was founded in 1907 by Henry Rasmussen and Georg Abeking, on the banks of the Weser River in Lemwerder. A renowned skipper, Rasmussen also proved to be a talented yacht designer. The ship yard quickly grew its legacy within the yachting industry for their well constructed wooden sailing and motor yachts as well as fast patrol boats and other specialized ships. Establishing a reputation for technical innovation, pioneering the use of lighter materials for hull construction and developing better sound-dampening systems, Abeking & Rasmussen also built naval vessels – mainly minesweepers and torpedo dinghies used during World War I. Since then, the yard has continued to serve all three spheres of the marine market: private, commercial, and military, and has a reputation for building highly custom, award-winning super yachts ranging up to 125m in length.
Beginning our tour with the top deck, we circumnavigated the boat. I was doing my best to allow my eyes time to scan and absorb all the intricacies of a stylish vessel to which I’ve never encountered so intimately before. I was falling in love with the masterfully worked teak that was laid in such a way that stood to impress. The first mast was 95’ and the second mast was 63’. She had all original working booms, original winch’s and a hydraulic double capstan. As I was getting the tour the owner would walk about and come to sit nearby. He looked as though he were engaging in our conversations, but was clearly thinking of different things as he would interject with random questions about the project, dolphins, all the way down to what food we had on board and where we shopped, etc. The skipper informed the owner he was going to show me around a bit more and we continued on towards the bridge.
Very prominently featured upon the dash was a polished cylindrical steel vessel that had an open viewing portal at its top. Pointing towards it, he asks me if I knew what it was. Seeing as I had no idea, I thought I’d make a comical guess and said expresso maker? He laughs explaining that it was the original auto-pilot which he went on to explain the process for how it was used. Apparently it was done similar to playing a game of pong, adjusting two dials between the points of which the boat yawed to and from. He then points to this lever beside the large, upright steering wheel saying pull this out and then you had it, an early version of auto pilot keeping a vessel on a center line. A little before my time, but I got the gist of it. Going forward in time he had two 30” flip-up flat screens displaying a thermal night cam, which operated as his day cam and a modern day scrolling touchscreen GPS navigator. Beyond the navigation screens, there was a line, two rows high, of inlaid analog tachometers for all the engine components.
He opened the door at the bottom of a narrow teak covered staircase to the inside quarters and my jaw instantly dropped. Teak inlay was on every square inch of the boat. The floors, the walls, the moldings, the doors, the couches. There were oil paintings showcased along the walls and within the spaces you couldn’t see, housed tv screens that could pop out from inside the ceiling or behind a cushion from any of the rooms we walked through.
He excitedly pointed at the original watertight hatch door that lead into the engine room like it were a portal on a submarine. He had two smaller GM Detroit’s similar to the one’s Stenella had used to run with back in the day. They were in a literal mint condition, painted green and outfitted with sleek chrome exhausts.
He continues the process of quizzing me on what I think things are. I spot the watermaker, about four times as large as ours. I see the 32 KW generators. I guess correct on the stabilizers and hydraulic monitors. He has power converters to take on any kind of shore power they might encounter in the world. There was an air line for pneumatic tools and different plug-ins tethered together to connect music and listen to through the bluetooth speakers while working in the neat, brightly lit and restored engine room. The room was a tight fit and considering engines are a minor component on sailing vessels, it was still laid out and maintained well all the same.
He then walks me around to the different state rooms, three in total with space forward in the boat for five crew members. The master suite was aft of the center line giving it the nicest ride on the boat. While peering into this room, he kept pointing at something while I tenderly absorbed the full-beam master suite through the doorway.
Seeing as how I felt a little meager with the impromptu tour of this multi-million dollar sailboat, I wasn’t trying to stare too earnestly into any private spaces, but I did take notice of what he was gesturing at, as it was gazing back at me. A lion head perched at the foot of the bed was looking out from beneath a pile of tossed about laundry. The remainder of its hide was stretched out across behind it. He says there’s a zebra, as well as an alligator in there and I nod as if it’s something I’d heard before while exploring a boat.
We made our way back up to the bridge as it was nearing the time we all agreed to meet back at the boat. We chatted for a bit longer and he told some Stenella stories about watching a stolen boat get chased down and fired upon by a Royal Defense patrol boat or the time a tug and barge slid behind wood cay and nearly took them out while on the hook. He said he is still best friends with the other former captain from that era. We shook hands and parted ways, glancing over the vessel one last time as I go. I nod to the customs officer standing at the dock telling him I couldn’t stay on that boat any longer and he puts his arms out saying, “I have no boat!”
We made tracks up to our anchor hold and with little delay were putting out the anchor line for our first night. The pool got opened up and near everyone took the chance to swim in the crystal clear high tide bank water. Some just floated there as if contained to a state of bliss that was inescapable. As we pulled everyone out of the water, the sun began to settle down upon the western horizon. To our surprise and opposite to this usual feature of the evening, a very large and faded in pink hues moon began to rise. It was a full, “thunder” moon that rose, disappearing and re-emerging from the line of thunderhead clouds that hung heavily on the horizon. Through the entire meal the moon shown in spectacular and radiating brilliance, stealing the show entirely from the sunset and leaving most of us speechless.
The following day was spent exploring Little Bahama Bank. The seas had enough roughness to them to disturb the surface in such a way that noticing any fins or splashes in the distance blended in with the other dark ripples and splashes. We were unsuccessful for the day. Not even a bottlenose came into view.
A stop along Wood Cay for snorkel made up for it, though. We had to set down anchor at thirty feet and swim our way in as its mostly hard pan along the shallows. We passed huge schools of yellowtail snappers and after a leisurely ten minutes came across etched out fissures along the bottom. Along these cracks were rivers of tiny gorgonias, waving with the surges. Hordes of gray snappers were tucked into these channeled cut outs.
We kept swimming towards the island as it boasts some of the last remaining Elk Horn coral and a few small unbroken pieces of stag horn. The lettuce and ribbon corals were all around, growing to towering heights. I stopped to admire a boulder-size formation of brain coral. Considering they grow at a rate of less than 1 cm per year, this coral has been around for quite some time. It grew right up to the surface of the low tide water line.
The surge near the rocks was difficult to manage. I was nervous around the sensitive coral and as awesome as it was to catch a glimpse of something verging on extinction, I suggested we move back to the fishier, sea fan valleys. I brought us alongside a few other pairs of snorkelers, grouped up with them and started to angle our way back.
After we pulled anchor, the radar showed solid red storm cells shooting off the main island and across our working area. There were thunderous claps of lightning, so we worked a short while before putting down and watched as the small sets of storms started to converge.
For our second working day, a denser circuit of clouds had encircled the bank creating shapes like giant bunny rabbits feeding baby dinosaurs, submarines, roosters, etc. allowing my mind to become distracted with concocting different and entertaining imagery. The clouds also continued to create more storms, some with water spouts and projected an overall dark, overcast tone to all of the water.
Between the storms we were able to put down at a fun snorkel site called, Nursery. It’s a shallow part of the bank that is covered by grassy, hard-bottom. There were lots of sea shells for those out collecting and I enjoyed following around a trio of queen triggerfish. Eventually they lead me to a mini ledge in the grasses where the whole family was hanging out at. I’m sure if I had time, I could have found many eels, but more storms had moved in so we begrudgingly headed back to the boat.
It was mostly clear for our return route, but as I was going to make the turn in to our anchorage, a storm was ripping its way across. Instead of diving into its calamity, I charted a path out and around giving it time to pass and then shot in close behind in its wake. We had a fun carrot and celery throwing war, which turned to ice. The battle had ended, but a war like that is not won in a single day. As one of the warriors came back from their post-anchor snorkel, an assailant tipped a bucket filled with icy water over them as they were rinsing off. The ante had now been doubled.
Unfortunately, we were very unsuccessful for our time on Little Bahama Bank, but such is the gamble when working this less-frequented area. When dolphins are discovered, it goes a long way for the research, but they are starting to become so few and far between. It is hard to predict patterns and also position ourselves to be in the right place across a working area that stretches for forty miles North to South. It also comes with far fewer dolphins than that of Great Bahama Bank since the migration in 2013. Everyone seemed to be spirited to give it a decent attempt though, but after two days we were ready to make the move to Bimini.
We did our best to entertain folks (and ourselves), like our vegetable battle or gathering outside to watch the storms linger and display their flashes of heat. When night fell, I walked them through the summer constellations and then pointed a flashlight at the water to observe needlefish hunt tiny, brightly lit fish. All the while, the full moon provided a backdrop as it weaved its way through the clouds.
The next morning, we charged forth first thing, but before I even had the anchor line cleated off, a bottlenose came racing in, diving beneath the bow of the boat. We played a cat and mouse game with it for awhile, attempting to collect surface ID shots, but it was hopeless with their maneuverability and starkness of the water. We landed one fuzzy image that would suffice and made the turn towards the middle of Grand Bahama Island to set us up for the crossing to Great Bahama Bank. Having been disappointed by the lack of encounters, I punched it 1420 RPMs along this 10 mile journey and in the process took a salt bath the entire way as we went head first into the choppy seas.
We select this mid-point to cross from as it goes over the least amount of deep water in the Northwest Providence Channel. Although, relatively, these 1500-2000 foot depths pale in comparison to some of the deep water trenches that happen between the islands. There’s the Providence channel itself which has the “Fingertip,” that starts the rapid descent leading down into a valley of 7-8000 feet. Within this valley, “The Plateau” rises up abruptly 4000 feet from the bottom. Beyond it to the west, “The Hole” drops down to a depth of 14,293 feet. Less than ten miles to the NW, as the corner of the Abacos juts out with its shallow bank waters, the prime blue marlin areas of, “Wonderland” has depths ranging in 11-12,000 feet with drop-offs going down as far as 15,245 feet. Above this deep water area, a sea mount referred to as, “Table Top,” spikes upwards 10,000 feet off the bottom and is also the mark of the area called, “Jurassic Park.” Set out in the middle of this area referred to as the “Tongue of the Ocean,” is possibly a blue hole that makes the deepest plunge into the earth as any part of the Bahamas does with a whopping depth of 16,607 feet.
Speaking of these famous banks, now would be a good time to come to a pause in our trip story and interject some tales of Bahamian folklore surrounding the area of Great Isaacs and Bimini.
Twenty nautical miles north of Bimini, a tall looming structure comes into view upon an endless landscape of blue. As a long, stretching mound of land rises up from the sea, the island of Great Isaacs now becomes visible. The 152 ft tall lighthouse stands at the center of the island with a rust-streaked white panel exterior.
It’s position marks the furthermost point of the NW corner of the Grand Bahama Bank. Mariners traveling the Northwest Providence channel are abruptly cut off by the shallow, rocky exposed landmasses of this island chain. Great Isaacs, accompanied by its brothers East and West stretch themselves out along the northern edge of the bank landing at a notoriously named span of reef called, The Gingerbread Grounds.
Built during the great Exposition of London in 1852, the lighthouse was dissembled and sent to the Bahamas. Erected in 1859 to thwart mariners of the mishap of becoming shipwrecked, it serves as a landmark for those needing to plot a fix for their dead reckonings and also helps guide the captains along the winding and treacherous slopes of this shallow bank. Like much of the Bahamas, these waters provided safe harbor for boaters looking to hide out and escape the rolling seas. Freighters still to this day drop down their massive anchors on the leeward side of the island as they await instructions from companies and ports thousands of miles away.
In the sea faring ages without automated devices and remote access, caretakers were sent to the island to tend to the lighthouse and ensure mariners didn’t make the ghastly mistake of inadvertently taking their ship a’shore. Now, if the idea of being stranded to a remote lump of land doesn’t strike a good sense of fear in you, then imagine being there in the event of a tropical storm, better yet the full blown impact of a hurricane. As you endure the howling yell of a torrential, slow-moving monster, winds in excess of 150 mph shriek across the jagged and inhospitable terrain that covers much of the island. Short of a peculiar patch of Caribbean pines, the island is one solid chunk of ragged, dangerously carved limestone. Grasses attempt to stick out from the porous holes in this landscape, but with little success.
The shallow bank creates a perfect avenue for all of that storm energy to roll its mighty titans up onto the shores of this rock outcropping. When waves 20-30 ft in size explode onto the island, stories have told that geysers of water have been seen clearing the top of the lighthouse, ridding this island of any safe spot to take refuge.
On August 4, 1969 a pair of caretakers for the lighthouse met this exact fate and disappeared from the earth forever. It was a particularly unruly year for tropical events, with this being still the fourth most active hurricane year in the Atlantic basin. Storms continued to form late into November, pounding the tropics as twelve of the eighteen named storms reached hurricane status (winds > 75 mph).
Hurricane Anna bore down on the Bahamas days before the tenants were discovered by a resupply ship to be missing. When a storm of this magnitude comes into your area, no one is capable of telling the entire story themselves. Bits and pieces of fragmented information amalgamate themselves together to create the entire story for these fateful events. Ultimately survival sets in for everyone on the islands and their windows and doors are shut. Closing them off from any information of caretakers aboard an island or mariners stuck at sea.
Harrowing tales surround the events of this day, tracking their way along by way of mouth. Such as the attempt of one mariner to make a rescue effort for the caretakers of the island. As he attempted to approach, the site was grim. He was unable to make landfall due to the heaving seas and surging waves. Through the darkness of the storm, he had seen what appeared to be a person at the top of the lighthouse waving for help, but after a wave had broke, landing a wall of water that engulfed the 150’ tall tower, he was not seen from this perch again.
While that story gives perspective to the area, long before and early into the existence of the lighthouse, stories of ghosts roaming the island had already begun to take form.
Late in the 19th century, a ship had wrecked upon the shores of Great Isaacs. All passengers had perished save one boy. While he actually grew up to live prosperously, legend has it the mother remained locked to that island, frantically searching for her boy. Referred to as the “Grey Lady,” she is rumored to be seen walking the shores and her wallowing cries have been heard on a full moon’s night.
Similar in haunts is a story of another shipwreck. This time all the passengers survived bar one boy. During the assembly of the lighthouse, supplies were transported. The ship ran aground violently and the boy toppled over. Unable to retrieve him, the crew watched as he was torn apart and eaten alive by sharks that patrol the island. His ghost has also been rumored to stalk these grounds, exploring the lighthouse at night.
Now, having personally explored this island, snorkeled its waters and anchored beside it by night, I’ve found no boy’s walking the premises, no rampant sharks terrorizing swimmers or heard any wallowing cries. But then again, I haven’t spent THAT much time in and around its historic waters. Certainly not by night and of a full moon’s eve, such as the moon we have on this trip.
It was, however, during the third trip of last season, the snorkel site where I witnessed a female nurse shark dead lift a 400lb rock with its own sharky head and suck out from beneath it an injured hogfish. Click read, "Eye of the storm."
So for us, there is some mystery to that island. Or perhaps the stories created when we went exploring the island ourselves and found old dwellings that have been reduced to just rafters and crumbling walls. It was a fun journey to imagine the life of a lighthouse caretaker. There were tales of it once being tended to by a family, and the dwellings were used as different aspects of their life. A school house, sleeping quarters, food storage, etc.
If these stories rub you the wrong way, then perhaps the lore of ancient civilizations and the lost city of Atlantis might stir up a sense of wonderment from our next stop along the paths of the Stenella, Bimini.
A known Atlantis theorizer by the name of Edgar Cayce made a prediction that sometime in the late 1960’s a site off the coast of Bimini would reveal a major archeological discovery in connection to the lost city of Atlantis. Ironically enough, a site named, Bimini Road, was in fact discovered in 1968 by scuba divers in the area. Bimini has long been foretold as a major contender for the site of such Atlantis findings, and other elusive conquests like the fountain of youth, which inspired one Christopher Columbus to set out in pursuit of its hallowed waters. Maps, like the Piri Reis map of 1511, show the Bahamas in their pre-ice age state as an expansive mound of raised sea floor. The sea levels 11-12,000 years ago were also certainly higher, to the degree of three or four hundred feet higher, thus extending a shallow plateau from Florida and the Bahamas outward by a great deal.
The interesting thing about Piri Reis, an admiral in the Turkish navy, was that he had conducted research to make his map using charts that lead Columbus to the new world. Coming off the tip of what appears to be South America in his map is a chunk of land that strongly resembles the coastline of Queen Maudsland, Antarctica. Which wouldn’t be "officially" discovered for another 300 hundred years from this time. The design of this map was done in what's referred to as a "Portolan" method. This style didn't use points of longitude and latitude, but rather, an evolving depiction based on "ports" as the sailors came to expect to see things from their watery vantage.
Coincidentally, this map also shows a “road” like structure with laid out blocks in a straight line similar to that of Bimini Road. Bimini road is a half mile long underwater precession of blocks that run parallel to the shore line. There are other blocks inshore of this, but much more scattered and infrequent to the main line. While not a road to Atlantis, it is however quite old. According to Eugene Shinn, a geologist, his radiocarbon testing of the site dates the age of the stones at being between 2,000-4,000 years old. Determined to be a material known as “Beachrock” these formations are the result of the shoreline drying out and fracturing beneath the inescapable sun. The same forces that formed the Bahamas, calcium carbonate emissions collecting over millions of years and creating a welded structure that is stronger than human grade concrete is also the basis of beachrock.
The “Road” is 1500 feet long, or about a half mile. It travels parallel to the shoreline before hooking inshore, near to the exposed rock formations dubbed, “Three Sisters.” Between this main section and the shore are more, smaller subsets of rocks, which our band of merry voyagers has termed the site as, “Bimini Squares.”
BACK TO OUR STORY
Feeling the pressure of going two working days without an encounter, I desperately wanted to get the monkey off our back. After making it onto the Great Bahama Bank, I knew we vastly improved our chances, but last week the dolphins were certainly in flux for behavior and sightings.
We had one brief encounter with an elusive bottlenose, but I was past it. Green choppy water to spot a single dolphin that is rapidly changing its directions is near impossible to gain a surface photo of. Even as it cruises directly in front of the boat, sometimes giving what appears to be a smiling glance, it never breaks the surface and we only see it through the water. We attempted a photo and then moved on.
As we skirted along the fabled grounds, I dubbed the Dolphin Triangle, I positioned the boat to the western side to let the glare of the lowering sun not be in our faces. I pulled up the binos and glanced over towards the far side of this area, attempting not to let anything slip past us. And then sure enough, from my furthest spotting yet, the emergence of a single dolphin breaking the surface at two miles out. There were actually about 3-4 in the group. I turn around and gave an excited okay signal to the passengers, signaling that yep, we got ‘em! We motor in and the swim group gets ready despite the 5-10 minute trek over to where they were last seen. I continued to use their splashes as guidance to their location. It looked as though they were in the midst of fishing, leaping from the water as they gave chase.
We got in, but it was barely an encounter before the dolphins broke off and swam on. Three more encounters were landed before anchorage, one of which had some seemingly curious fused spotted dolphins that hung around for a bit and gave our passengers a great encounter. Tears fell from one interns face and I felt elated to have been a part of their experience.
The spirits were soaring. I imagine the anxiousness they must have felt of planning this trip, packing and traveling from all across the world to tuck into our little space shuttle cruiser hoping to get a behind the scenes glimpse of the Wild Dolphin Project’s operation. Often, simply experiencing the voyage across an ocean of blue to find themselves in a Bahamian paradise is vivid enough to alter their states, but sometimes I detect a pensive demeanor in passengers as they await that big moment they spent a lifetime preparing for. Many have been dreaming of this experience since a small child while others have taken the steps to become a marine scientists setting themselves up to hopefully become a contributor to this field of study. The students we accept are chosen based on their credentials and allowed to take part in parts of the data collection while the passengers we take in as a live-aboard experience are able to witness first-hand the science behind our operation. It is up to us then at that point to transform this dream into a reality.
Certainly the dolphins play a large part in that, as we are documenting and observing something not in captivity where we can control the elements, but in the wild, subjective to the forces of nature, environment and the will of a very adaptive and intelligent animal. So that is why we take a very passive and receptive approach to this study. We let the animals dictate what is there to document and we do our best to record it with as little interference as possible.
The amazing part is how the spotted dolphins choose to notice us, observing in tandem. If we are to bring in a new camera, they want to investigate it. If one of us wears a wetsuit, they want to echolocate through it to determine what we are. If they see an onion floating on the surface, they all want to take turns bopping it around with their rostrum. Their perceptive senses astound us and personally I am always humbled when I am in their presence. It’s as if I am meeting a magician of sorts. A creature capable of maneuvers I can only understand the beginning mechanics of, like diving, surfing or swimming. An intelligence that seemingly operates at a pace ten times as fast as mine as we watch them switch modes between, fishing, playing, courtship, bonding, dominance. A communal aspect that is so ingrained to their being, that this sense of unity seems to define them. They are nothing if not tethered to those bonding chords of community. The coalitions you see between the young males that last a lifetime. The years of learning that is passed on from mothers to their calves.
We peer into this world and realize we are born into a very similar order of occurrences. We share in the same necessities like food, social interactions, bonding and nurturing while also desiring to prolong our existence. We face hardships, obstacles, enemies as well as delight, pleasure and friendship. It seems we are governed by the same forces. It’s what do we choose to give our focus towards. Is it our differences rather than our commonalities? As a whole, would humanity become closer by trusting in that we are more alike than we are different? Would that bond become so eternal, so unshakable that we too would find ourselves frolicking in the waves, cohabitating with the rest of the animals. Life isn’t always peachy, even for a dolphin. Sharks and fishermen still prey upon their members. Accidents, viruses and storms still impact their well being. Disorder amongst the community or squabbles with other species occurs. We can’t have a perfect utopian life, unless that is exactly what it is: a balance of the good with the bad. The commonalities with the differences.
That night during our video playback, I watched the faces of the passengers and guests as they remained fixed in their emotions from the days encounters. I thought similarly how much I enjoyed taking people into their first breaths of scuba and seeing the faces light up as they discovered the wonderful world that existed underwater. For me, its sharing in these seminal moments that are drawing lines around their sense of wonder and appreciation that becomes a huge reason for why I choose to engage in these fields of interest. It continually revives the joy and reminds me why I’m in the world doing these things.
TWO DOG REEF
Deciding to work south one day put us in proximity of a spectacular reef system. I simply love the drive as we cruise past the string of islands trailing off from the southern tip of Bimini. Rabbit Rock with its desolate rocks, Gun Cay where boats take safe harbor and hang out on its leeward beaches. Cat Cay hosting the private and luxurious homes of the Bahamas with its own airport and golf course. Its lush landscaping showcasing a bounty of tropical trees covering most of it and the houses are simply stunning, blending colonial stylings with modern architecture. Past that are Ocean Cay and Orange Cay and somewhere in between is a segment of patch reef with a mooring ball that we call, “Two Dog Reef.” Its 40-50 ft in the sand and has huge, expansive rises of coral. I’d previously set my freediving record here bottoming out at 45 feet, and today I’d pass it with 52 feet on a dive down the offshore side while attempting to follow the smallest reef shark I’d ever seen. It was the size of my forearm, but already patrolled the area like it were a full-grown regular.
Experiencing some anomaly here, I find myself struggling to maintain a sense of order in both my camera work and ability to dive. I can hit the depths, sure, which may seem impressive to the reader on screen, but I struggled to make the dives and all of them amounted to zero time at the bottom once upon these depths. Ordinarily I can make the dive and gain an equal amount of bottom time as I have for ascending and descending, if not longer. But for some reason the depths were swallowing me whole and as soon as I got level with the corals, I had to shoot back up.
Even more so were the issues I was having with my camera. First trip out here had a near depleted battery. Today, I had a full charge but left the battery door open and wondered why it didn’t turn on when I descended on a shark and attempted to take photographs. I watch on the surface as water pours out from inside the camera. I shake off the upsetting news as I swim the camera back to the boat. The site was also at the brink of what the camera states as its depth limits, so its probably best I don’t take it here anymore and allow this place to be Stenella’s own. A secret, magical place where cameras don’t work and the ocean bottoms become deceivingly further and harder to reach the deeper you dive. Chalk it up to Bermuda Triangle and what not!
It was a pretty slow day all in all, so the captain comes down from the bridge to find me in my bunk with three crates of boat supplies pulled out, a vacuum plugged in and rags and cleaning products littered about. I had gotten myself into a bit of a cleaning and organizing frenzy. He chuckled a bit at the site of this and then proposes the idea of doing a night drift. He hadn’t told anyone, but wanted to check and make sure “his guy” was up for it. I laughed and said, yeah, I’m not exactly tired as you can see.
We managed to scrape up a brief, late in the day dolphin encounter and after everyone had gotten out and were smiling on the picnic table we informed them of their next surprise. You could see their faces light up at the prospect of this rare occurrence. The conditions aren’t always right for it, whether it be night storms, seas or even the fatigue of our crew, but tonight was prime. We gave the safety talk and started to drag out the box of lighting equipment to make it happen. We suspend lights over the side and draw in plankton, squid, flying fish and other creatures from the scattering layer. The idea is the attraction of these species will also attract other predators, namely dolphins.
Before long, we had a huge ball of squid hanging beneath our boat as the night sky started to take form. Flying fish with their wings spread glided in, slow like and joined the array. Beneath the hazy glow of the lights I saw something pass by the bait ball a few times. It could have been a small shark or perhaps a barracuda and then we heard the splashes. We look out and a silvery object has just arched at the surface and curved back down beneath. It wasn’t quite in the range of our glow yet, but we were brimming with the words when it emerged into view.
Like a missile that had been fired, a dolphin speeds into the area, whips a tight circle like a surfer giving a tail spin atop a wave and annihilates a fish. From the dark, another dolphin torpedos in repeating the process all over again. Without missing a beat, our swimmers get ready under the beam of a flashlight to not disturb the action happening beyond the confines of our boat.
The swimmers group up in the glow of our lights and the dolphins start tearing through the water. Visibility is hazy horizontally, so only if one would pass underneath did they really get a glimpse. The sounds of their fierce echolocation was unmistakeable. From up on the boat we could see the mayhem. Flying fish were darting every which way attempting to escape from a horde of vigilant and agile dolphins. I’ve never seen them move so quickly or attack prey like this. It turned into an absolute feeding frenzy that lasted two hours. At the peak of it we had at least a dozen dolphins chasing fish all around us. The flying fish would dart through the divers, sometimes bouncing off the boat. In the distance all you could hear were splashes and then see this form leap out, sometimes snagging the fish mid air.
Even long after the swimmers were out, we continued to watch the show in amazement at their endurance and agility. The spectacle reduced itself to four dolphins who remained committed to eat every last fish that they could find. Teaming up together they must have caught a hundred fish if not more. Their pace did not slacken until the event was over and we pulled in the lights. Of course they returned for a midnight bow ride, to which we gathered at the bow and enjoyed the final moments of this awesome encounter.
As if our week long bout with rainstorms hadn’t been enough, a tropical wave formed directly overtop the Bahamas punching things up a notch. We watched as its bands tracked overhead, moving NNW at 15 mph, a pretty good clip. Having stepped out into the leading, pressurized path of this storm, in an area we call north of the wall when the seas are rough, we saw the energy it had drug along in the ocean. All around us three to five foot waves were violently amassing like the foot soldiers of its army and we shot directly back to our anchorage. All things considered, having watched the eye of a tropical depression pass overtop of us, we fared it pretty well.
The following day in its wake, having expected a wash of rain to come through, we ended up with a delightful final working day. The seas were blue, calm, less than two foot and skies were clear. After our lunch snorkel at Hens and Chicks we had a playful juvenile encounter that lasted for one hour.
It was the encounter we had hoped for. A long lasting swim with playful and energetic dolphins. I saw from the surface they were scooping up heaps of sargassum and I knew the games had begun. It went on and on, passing the pieces back and forth. More often than not, they each had a piece dangling off their body. Later, in the video review process, we heard the amusing clicks and playful squawks as one dolphin tried to reach and grab it off the other dolphin.
After the encounter was over, the elation was shared between all. The whole week felt like it was leading up to that moment. The Stenella crew had desperately wished for an encounter like this, so the passengers could get a chance to know them in this light and finally it had materialized. Grins, high fives, stories of individuals’ experiences were all passed about.
The day wasn’t over yet, though. I worked us into a new area I’d seen a group at previously this trip and as if my nose led me right to them, I see the splashes in exactly the spot I had anticipated. I can tell it’s a big group and that there is behavior going on, so I’m careful to approach.
The encounter was very eventful, with at least thirty dolphins all piled together creating a splendid example of just what we mean when we say, “dolphin behavior.” It was serene to be witnessing this mass event and it was just us and the dolphins in this big ocean we had all to ourselves.
Of the nine days at sea, two and a half of those are spent traveling to and from Florida as well as between the two separate banks that we conduct research on. So, in those six and a half days, we managed to travel to five different snorkel sites and have twelve in-water dolphin encounters. One of which being a night drift, where the dolphins were seen feeding in the dark of night. Also, not to rule out the crossings as an uneventful portion of the trip, this one in particular we came upon two sperm whales off the Bahamas shortly into our return route to Florida.
Found in about 2500 feet of Gulf Stream water, two angled sprays were seen from the bridge by three separate persons. We heard the frantic stomps from within the salon and came rushing out. Immediately we all were able to zero in on what they had seen.
Very distinct, sprays in the distance. We motored towards it, but the first one dove down before we could approach. We were close enough then to begin narrowing down what species we might be observing. Before anything could be determined, the second spray was spotted again and we traveled over towards its location. This one, which was smaller, stayed on the surface for about two minutes before diving. I watched as the water cascaded off its massive, cylindrical-shaped backside. Now able to notice the 45º blowhole, we were able to identify them as sperm whales. Possibly a mother and calf.
It’s been documented that the mothers will dive down to fetch food for its young, who remains floating at the surface. It hung there for a few more moments allowing us time to take photographs and film brief video segments before arching its back and diving down, giving us one final sight of its tail. We all cheered with delight at this spectacle. A monumental end to a monumental trip.
As mentioned, I will be in the market for a new camera, but thankfully I was able to recover most of what I thought was lost footage and create for you all a video.