Updated: Mar 7, 2019
Summarizing the first trip of the 2018 Wild Dolphin Project field season
May 19, 2018
I have found myself deeply in love with the ocean. When I say that, what I mean is that I am bonded to her by the experiences I have had at sea. Each one more telling than the last. That, I too, have found comfort within her waters. When I am able to cut lines from the shores of desperation, confusion and complexity I am more connected, more excited and ultimately in love with what I am doing.
It is very hard to come back from that, and like any relationship, I experience the highs and lows of our journey together. The ocean, which can be a great teacher, has allowed me a deeper understanding of life in general. I look to her for direction. While she is both cruel and persistent, she is also beautiful and nurturing. She holds such an enormous space, that all are welcome to come and experience her influence.
She is majestic and mighty. She is confident and unabashed. One day she can rip you apart in a single blow, but others she lays flat for miles with not a ripple upon her surface. She is both a world crusher and a world provider all in the same day. She is the epitome of what I think and believe a woman to be.
When I step foot onto any particular vessel used to travel forth, I engage in a sort of trust with her. A simultaneous agreement where I am uncertain of what the terms are, but know I am exactly where I want to be. The mystery of her surprises are what give me a chuckle at night, fill my head with stories and blanket me with soothing dreams. And when we sea faring people have gathered together to tell of our greatest encounters, I always see there is much more to come to know her by.
Many have known her and it is certain she has many lovers. I am not a jealous type and truly respect the notion that she is not mine to own. She goes back to the earliest of days. She is what defines our planet as being unique. It's hard to compete with something like that, but so nice to have found my calling. She beckons and I go forth.
My history with her began as a divemaster aboard various dive boats. I loved rolling with the waves and then plunging myself deep into her waters to admire her marvelous creations. A most sublime experience is viewing the life beneath the surface. The snapshot of diversity in this realm is mesmerizing. The colors so vivid and structures of life spanning across great distances. Congregations of so many little and big things, that seem to all be formulated into a rhythmic flow. This dynamic environment is infectious and I find myself connecting to its energy.
As I grew in my experience, I made my way up to captain. The ultimate receiver of her. When you are a captain, your respect for her grows to newfound levels. Your decisions are critical and she will not back down or let you get away should you be timid or unwise. I must rely on my instincts, trust in my judgements and be at her mercy at all times. It's not to say I don't enjoy myself. As I said, this is my calling and there is no greater feeling than standing at the pulpit of a ship, hand on the wheel.
As much as I loved to drive out and allow people the experience of diving into her waters, the aspect of having to turn around and come back each day weighed on me. If only I could drop those passengers off and stay out all night, I thought. I wanted to go further. Deeper into the unknown. Finally, that opportunity came as the The Wild Dolphin Project was seeking out a first mate. This was my chance to really cut lines and stay out at sea. Experience her beauty in none other than the captivating setting of pristine Bahamian waters. I would be at sea all day and lay between her and the stars at night. I would come out onto the deck in the morning to see her there waiting for me. Calm and awake, ready for more time together. I would get to eat my meals with her at my side, feel her splashes against the hull at night and be constantly reminded that she would always be there.
In what felt like a time warp, I was off sailing towards West End, our entry point into the Bahamas. The most commonly asked question I got from my first trip was did it live up to my expectations. I thought about this a lot and I determined I had gone there without any expectations. This would be a new environment, aboard a new boat, working with new people on new tasks and immersed in a nearly erratic and new way of life. It was not hard for me to adapt to this way of life, of course, but it was still something I could not come to terms with until I had gone and done it.
At customs I ran into one of the captains I remember from my boat cleaning days. He was a ragged sort, always living on the edge and drove one of the then fastest sport fishes, named Inlet Magic. He remembered me and we chatted a bit, but we were short on time and had to motor on. I wondered who else I'd be seeing out there..
That night we set the anchor down on a particular cay we use for cover. The next morning we made a sixty mile run out along the bank. The spot's bottom topography is that of pristine white sands that, through the water, reflects a gentle green glow upon the clouds. The community of Atlantic spotted dolphins (spotteds) that existed on this bank are the primary focus of The Project's research. With this being the 34th season of observing the dolphins in their local area, Dr. Denise Herzing and her team of researchers, interns and volunteers have documented four generations of spotteds.
However, due to a potential fish collapse a few years back (changes in oceanographic conditions), the community left those hallowed grounds, risked traveling through deep water and migrated themselves about 100 miles away.
It has been years since they have seen this particular community of dolphins here. We were steaming right for an area to deploy a listening device, conveniently referred to as an EAR or Ecological Acoustic Recorder. The device would be mounted to a submerged piece of concrete and programmed to turn on at midnight. Upon detecting certain cetacean frequencies, the device would then record those emissions. Thus giving the researchers data about dolphin movement in the area. We were mid-way to setting up the deployment, I leading the dive, when fins were seen cresting the surface of the water just off our mid-ship. A welcoming party of spotteds came to greet us, possibly signaling their enthusiasm for the team of researchers beginning their season of study. We stopped what we were doing as we were caught in the crossfires of whether to continue with the deployment or get out and ID the passing dolphins. They appeared to be traveling and did not stop, so we resumed with the deployment. It was, however, a great indicator of us being in the right area!
We rigged up the blocks and I went over how the operation would run, how we would get the devices down, what the signals were, who would be responsible for what. It ran very smooth. As we were on the bottom ratcheting the hose clamps, I was noticing peculiar sounds. Now, just to be clear, The Project hired me for my savviness with boats, not for being an expert in marine biology. I was under the impression that the human ear could not detect the sounds of dolphins, but I was certain I was hearing the clicks and buzzing of dolphins. I told myself, no, you do not have bionic hearing. You do not possess the missing human link for dolphin communication that they have been waiting all these years for. Resume with your work and disregard the sounds.
We were nearly finished with the installation when one of the divers pointed up at the surface. Without our noticing, the research swimmers had entered the water and were already engaged with four spotteds who were on a joyful rollercoaster, spinning and maneuvering with sheer delight. Had I not need to hold my regulator in place, my jaw would have hit the ocean floor. It was an amazing and truly unexpected sight! I watched as they dove down in a synchronized vertical column, foraging in the sand, just like I'd seen pictures of in Dr. Herzing's book, Long-term Research of Atlantic-Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas, which I had studied prior to our departure.
Normally, scuba is not permitted with the Project's research, but as their motto suggests, In their world and on their terms, this was an exception due to it being a total coincidence of their appearance while conducting the installation.
I floated idle with amazement as they crossed right before me, their eyes inspecting everything as they went. They looked at the EAR device, looked at us divers and then turned those inquisitive eyes into eyes of delight as they flipped over and swam with the most joyful sense of exuberant playfulness.
When I got to the surface I hollered out with excitement and the people on the boat were all dancing and hollering back! We had spotted the spotteds! They were still off about forty feet from the boat as the first group of swimmers were doing their best to capture identification shots and fecal samples. The B-team was prepping on the boat to go in after, should the dolphins continue to stick around. Everyone was grinning ear to ear, but the boat was alive with activity as all persons were engaged in their determined roles.
Later that day, and as done on most every night with dolphin encounters, we reviewed the day's footage. We all sat grinning as none of us had expected our first day to be so rewarding. The group of spotteds had been identified as Amanda, a female that had left the bank in 2013 and gone South with the others. She was accompanied by three juveniles including Flower, Vinca and her own new calf.
As we watch footage, there is also a running screen displaying a spectrogram which details their acoustics. We laughed about me hearing the noises and thinking it couldn't be possible. What I had confused was, yes, humans can hear their noises, but what we cannot detect are the higher ends of the frequencies nor are we able to detect the separations in the very dense and compact echolocation noises. To us, the buzzing just sounds like a creaky noise, but to the dolphins it is so much more.
We were noticing a very high energy in their acoustics, signaling they were excited.
We humans like to think that it means they were excited to see us, retelling of all their wintertime happenings to us or perhaps they were just enjoying the moment. We cannot determine things like that from the research, but we do get the sense that they are emotional creatures with a directed focus on community interactions.
The rest of the trip was an amalgamation of plenty more spotted spottings, usually three or more per day. During lunch we would anchor up some place and the captain and I would take a swim looking for fish to spear. I am not one to take from the environment in such a way, but in these waters one needs to swim with a buddy and most boat goers are excited to sample what we are able to conscientiously harvest.
One of my favorite spots we swam at was an island chain North of Bimini called, Hen and Chicks. Its a series of islands with the biggest rock formation leading the other trailing ones. It had beautiful fan structures and a bounty of growth and marine life. Decent sized reef sharks patrolled the perimeter and plenty of Barracudas swam stealthily through the throngs of corals.
That day we had landed ourselves a hearty mangrove snapper and later that evening a decent sized hogfish as well. There is a cook on board, who is fantastic at pleasing everyone. I joked that they bought out Costco before the trip, but I couldn't have been better fed and more considered for my dietary needs. In this day and age, a cook has their hands full with all the different dietary restrictions at play. She was adamant that each passenger got their fill from every meal.
I laughed because she loves to be in the company of the dolphins. So when the stomping starts from above on the bridge (signal from the spotters), she comes roaring out of the galley, tears off her shirt, sticks on her mask and fins and sits on the bench eager for her chance to get in and enjoy her time with the dolphins. This is what unites many on board, is that level of fondness for these creatures. What is fascinating, is the mutual curiosities they have for us.
It was a very successful trip, identifying many dolphins that had not been seen in quite some time, determining new calves, a new line up of impregnated dolphins and most of the encounters lasting over twenty minutes, with groupings in the range of 8-20 for each occurrence. There was one gentleman filming on a very nice piece of equipment, a RED digital camera. It shoots at 8k and is intended for planetariums.
He and another feller on board contributed to some of the most heartfelt laughter I have ever experienced. I awoke one morning sensing pain in my abdomen. Thinking it was from the new level of freediving I was engaging in, I put it off. But once someone started up with another funny story, I felt those exact muscles tighten again and knew right away the soreness was from all of the laughter.
Weather-wise, we had favorable winds in the sense that they weren't extreme and had mostly been in a direction that suited our intended course. They had been on our side the entire trip and allowed for safe operations. The crossing back would be an extension of such luck. With squalls, waterspouts and forecasts of gusty winds over 30kts, the captain and I knew we had to remain sharp until we were back to dock.
As squalls picked up, we dodged them as best we could. Thankfully we were only caught in the edges of a few passing storms. When you're inside a squall its a very unique happening. The capping seas are suddenly wiped smooth and the wind shears along its surface making it grow dark and ominous. Had we not had the wind to our stern, it would have been an incredible task to maneuver within those 5-8ft seas.
In summary, I am so gracious for the opportunity to continue to work with the ocean. The Wild Dolphin Project has allowed me to go further into the science and understanding of marine species, which is something I have secretly aspired to do since coming to Florida. It's been a great extension of boat operations, as the captain and I are a solid team of two that trust and rely on each other for their readiness.
Trip 2 will be underway before I know it, and in appreciation of the connectedness I have felt with the ocean and those amazing creatures, here is a sample of one of the guests' work and my friend, Larry Curtis.
Video by Lawrence Curtis.