Summarizing the eighth trip of the 2018 Wild Dolphin Project field season
August 17, 2018
In the early hours..
When the clouds have gathered on the horizon and are awaiting the suns daybreak, our boat, Stenella, is slowly coming to life. Along its white, fresh with morning dew deck-space, a collective shuffling has begun on board beginning with myself, usually up on the aft deck by 0615. Starting with a short, calisthenic warm up to get the blood flowing, followed by a series of yoga stretches to keep the body limber throughout the day. Shortly after, with my buckets of fresh water rinse in hand, the cook and director have emerged and we exchange smiles. The cook comes out to peak at the sunrise before returning inside to set out the breakfast items and the director goes up to her perch at the helm with her first cup of coffee in hand. The research assistant follows out, groggy-eyed from a night of reading or perhaps lengthy video reviewing, setting out camera equipment and field logs. They also update the day board with the date and location. The passengers sometimes sleep in, but most are early risers and take to the deck to see the sun come up through the clouds. I wash down the windows, set up the instrument panel on the bridge and also begin a new page in the captains day book. Some folks tend to their clothes along the drying lines, while others might just sit with a cup of coffee and chat with each other.
I move back down to the lower deck hoisting the engine hatches and going from one engine room to the other inspecting that all things are in their right place. While down there, I check fluids, shut down the water maker and switch over generators. Usually in this time, one of the field assistants has set up a work station at the picnic table to process fecal samples from the day before. Up top, the weather broadcast can be heard cycling through the local weather stations from Okeechobee down to Lake Worth. We are often not the only boat starting in our activity, as foamy, white streaks trail behind the boats as they quietly race out from the shores or inlets nearby.
We take turns going through the breakfast stile, getting whatever calls to us that particular morning. Fruit with yogurt, or maybe it will be fruit with oats. Perhaps some toast or a bagel with avocado and tomato. Get a sip of juice before some hot stuff comes out like eggs, turkey bacon, fried potatoes or even sometimes my favorite, French toast. Maybe grab a banana and make a smoothie with frozen berries. There's no shortage of food options, its just a matter of deciding what you will have.
One person usually has to scarf their food diligently as they are set for the 0800 watch shift and it is rapidly approaching. I am now working in segments, stopping to sip coffee or eat a bowl of fruit before going down into the food storage area of the lower bunks to grab replenishments for the drink fridge. I stock it with everyone's favorite choices making sure what's being consumed the fastest will be available for the day.
If a fuel transfer is to occur, it takes about forty minutes, so that too would already be going if not done the night before. I can't say its ever rushed unless we're trying for an early anchor pull to make it to a certain area by a certain time or there's a lull in the winds and we desperately need those early working hours available to us. Otherwise, its a relaxing hour or so to sit, munch and chat with folks about different things. Sometimes its quiet, other times the laughter can be heard from up top on the bridge. We all gaze out the salon windows determining whether the seas will be friendly to us today or not. It's always a dice roll and there's certainly more rough days than calm. This is not a glass half empty type thing either. Oceanic conditions have undoubtedly changed in the short time I've come to work upon her surface. As humans, we may be too limited in our lifespans to see the overall big picture, but one thing is for certain, the winds have increased, are far more persistent and for longer periods of time. Since oceanic data begun recording (1955), the average wave heights have grown 2ft, the number and strength of storms have gone up and from a boat design perspective, unanticipatedly higher stresses have been put onto boats as well.
This morning, we reviewed the glass calm days we've encountered so far in the season and came up with around five out of the sixty working days. That's a small percentage for what usually is a time of year with lesser winds. It takes less than five miles per hour winds to lose the capillary waves and encounter glass-like conditions, but we had been experiencing most trips with an average wind speed of fifteen knots. Fifteen knots, depending on the direction and duration, will yield an average wave height somewhere between two and four feet and often in tight intervals making for a choppy day's ride. The summer months, despite having warmer ocean surface and air temperatures (which are what produce the strongest storms), typically yield the mildest seas. It provides the clearest and most calm conditions which are suitable for finding dolphins. That is why the Project's field season has always been concentrated to the months of May through September.
THE WORKING HOURS
On our first working day, we came across bottlenose dolphins three different times, but no spotteds. The ocean was mostly green with exception to one area in particular and the average wave height was the expected two foot with a tight interval.
On our second working day, we had come into a group of five spotteds, one of which the project had named Brush and was a member of the grouping titled, 'Fab Four'. The fab four was a group of commonly sighted dolphins from the Northern community that during the mass migration of 2013 were the only ones of the Northern group that did not leave the bank. It was a great discovery to find Brush with her calf, Butter, as after a tumultuous 2017 season of hurricanes, her survival was uncertain. With the seas still choppy, we lost them after our encounter. We ran into some bottlenose again, but the same occurrence of them submerging and disappearing into the waves happened all over again. By the third day, we saw the same group of spotteds, this time with a mother to one of the calves we'd seen the day before. Today we set down anchor at a new spot close to the deep water edge.
Early the next morning, after gambling on the slightly more exposed to the elements (wind and waves) anchor hold, it proved to pay off, as we had spotteds come visit us on the bow. They circled the boat while we were anchored, buzzing and investigating our anchor hold. It was the same group from the days before, seemingly come to check us out. As quickly as they were there, they turned and headed back towards their intended destination, leaving us to finish breakfast and prep the boat for the day's excursion. Today we would work north and not make our way back to the south for anchorage in anticipation of a big run to the top of the bank tomorrow.
THE LATE HOURS
What I never expected, was how fun these people are to live on a boat with. How tragically terrible it could be, being confined to a small, isolated space with eleven other people, but rather than misery I am met with some of the heartiest nights of laughter I can ever remember having. The stories we tell and the goofy, quirky things we feel comfortable doing. The jokes we tell, the pranks we pull and the games we play. The expressions of passions, desires and all our most intimate dreams are met with an open and supportive audience. It is all simply incredible. I cherish these days so much because I never could have imagined a group of people becoming so bonded to a single initiative: that the earth is valuable and worthy of researching. Specifically, that the oceans are incredible and its species are so truly wonderful is also behind why we have taken up the task of telling its story.
MEET THE COOK
Hands down, the hardest person working on the boat is our cook. For a full passenger and crew trip, she is churning out thirty six meals a day and she doesnt stop there. There are snacks in between, gluten-free, dairy-free banana breads get concocted. Birthday cakes show up without ever seeing a mixing bowl appear. Every desire, every dietary need is tended to with meticulous attention to what people like and especially with concerns of what people are sensitive to. She cooks in rolling seas while lightning crackles outside her window. She cooks while her feet are levitating off the ground and while objects along the countertop are trying their best to hurl themselves across the room. She has coffee going at six am and stays in the galley until the last plate is dried and put away. And she does it all with a smile on her face.
When I see the slightest utterance of a grumble come from her lips, I jump in to either lend a hand or put my arm around her and ask what's the matter darling and investigate the situation. Maybe the stove wont stay lit, maybe she needs a sauce tasted or perhaps a meal idea. Maybe it was just a hug she needed and to hear, you are wonderful and you are great at this! Whatever it is, I will never abandon my boat mate and put it entirely on her to feed all these hungry souls. She is one of my best friends on the boat and I have truly loved having her at my side for all of these amazing adventures. The joy for her, I believe, is in seeing those that she waves emphatically to on the bow and says, “Hi Babies,” with a croon as our exploration attempts in the big ocean have paid off and the dolphins have come to visit.
MEET THE BOARD MEMBER
One of the most delightful members of the team to have met and see come aboard multiple times this year, was a particular board member. He has been with the project for six years and from the very first trip, rooted himself as the go-to-guy for entertainment. He is sharp in his wisdom about the world, but never takes himself too serious, which allows for many moments of comical delight. He is helpful around the boat, fixing and experimenting with new ideas. He has extended himself as a friend to me once back to shore and we've gone scuba diving together. I thoroughly enjoy his company. As soon as I find out he is added on as a passenger, I am quickly hit with a sensation that the trip got that much better. He plays music for us, he tells amusing stories, he bartends, he cleans, he moves to help people in and out of the water. He even kick-towed around a 76 year old fellow board member on every single swim encounter she was in on. He is all smiles and a valuable acquaintance.
MEET THE FRIEND
A very close, and long-term friend of the Project's director is how I came to find myself on this boat in the first place. She was the one that wandered into my scuba shop one rainy afternoon and her and I engaged in a two hour conversation about what went on with the Project. I was fascinated by everything and the more she told me, the more I began to imagine myself on that boat and in those waters. She nudged me to get in there by saying, you should send them your name and see what happens. Sure enough, I landed myself a gig working as the first mate for the Project's flagship vessel. The same vessel she herself has been coming aboard since 1992. She is truly a delight and is capable of adding in her quick witted humor alongside all of us zany individuals. She adores the dolphins and has such a long record of being with the Project through all their formidable years. What keeps her coming back, I asked. The dolphins of course!
MEET THE CAPTAIN
This man has shaped me in ways I cannot express enough. He is actually younger than me, but having his captains license at eighteen, there was no shortage of things he could teach me. He took me on as his mate under a special circumstance: that I be his teammate first and foremost. That we figure things out together and we become friends through this. He needed someone he could count on so that he too could have fun and not feel overwhelmed by the pressures of protecting twelve people's lives around the clock. He is a great story teller and is responsible for most the laughter we have on this boat. He is unabashed to speak what's on his mind and cares deeply about the persons that are close to him. We differ on certain ideas, but it has never come in the way of our friendship. His passion for boats is evident in all that he does and my take away is that with the right crew, you can always be a great captain. He pays his diligence back to us ten fold. While swimming together, we are always amazed at the beauty we are surrounded by in the Bahamian dreamscape.
MEET THE DIRECTOR
The foundation of The Wild Dolphin Project is built around this one amazingly determined and focused woman. Her commitment to the idea she came up with over thirty years ago, has not waned in the slightest. She is still the most attentive, up to date, data driven, exploratory research individual I have ever met. She has an imprint of the many decades spent with these dolphins like that of a hall of records. She has functioned working at sea so well it’s become her second home. She knows how to make a routine and stick to it so the trip is as successful as possible. She too, is a jokester, a storyteller, a prank puller, a game player and a friend always considering the needs of others like everyone else. Throughout the years, she has had a steady flow of graduate students and associates come through, and it always impressed me how she seems to be leading the pack at what she does. She is well versed in most cetaceans, practically the whole ocean and by extension, the world at large. She sings and plays the ukulele in her downtime and stares intently at the ocean awaiting her chosen 'friends' during the day.
MEET THE RESEARCH ASSISTANT
The muscle behind the project are the ones who grind out the laborious tasks of getting in, getting out, swimming in current, swimming in rough seas, doing whatever it takes to document and collect the necessary data on these dolphins. They stay up late to process video logs and enter in data, they wake up early to process fecal samples and enter in more data, they catalogue photos during the day and mentor interns when they are on the boat as well. They are as equally impressed by the environment they work in, so they are always a great swim partner to get in with. Their favorite time of the year of course is the field season, but their work continues on after the trips end, making public lectures and continuing to pour through the data to ensure the following season is as productive as possible.
MEET THE OFFICE ASSISTANT
This person in particular, works so diligently behind the scenes ensuring we get to and from the Bahamas, works on every major public event, schedules the season, tends to the clerical work, ensures the boat has all the necessary paperwork, screens the applicants, sells our books, tshirts and press material. Most things she does I didn't realize she did until I hear her say, "Oh yea, I do that too." I probably cannot give this person enough credit as her side of the project is the one I see the least of, but I know she is vital to the operation and have always enjoyed stopping to have a laugh with her. She is one of the most organized and diligent persons I've met.
LAND OF THE GIANTS
Today would be a special day. Our destination was Matanilla Reef, located about thirteen miles West of Walker's Cay, on the Northern most edge of the Little Bahama Bank. Past that, there's only Bermuda and the North Atlantic. It was a forty mile trek straight shot (which is impossible to do) from West End. We had positioned about midway up on the bank, so our trek would be about thirty miles or four hours.
When we arrived at our destination, we drove into a pocket of blue water, with pristine white sandy bottom. Along the Southern edge, was a ring of dark brown, which was the massive expanse of coral heads. We anchored dead in the middle of the sandy area and everyone was brimming with enthusiasm to get in the water. We were parked adjacent to an underwater oasis and everyone felt its presence.
The cook and I would be swim buddies as our primary focus is just to bob around and check out cool stuff. She likes that I use my dive guide skills to find and show her stuff and I like that she appreciates all the serene beauty the ocean has to offer.
On the outskirts of the reef were some rubble-looking corals, with little tropicals swimming throughout the nooks and crannies. Once we crossed over this threshold, we were now fully into the Land of the Giants. Coral heads growing straight up from the bottom 20-30 feet and each surrounded by hundreds of fish. It was breathtaking, spellbinding, adrenaline rushing and tranquility all morphed into one visual.
As we navigated our way through the various coral heads, we fell deeper into the magical spell Matanilla cast over us. We passed by some snorkelers circling the ring of corals going the opposite direction and we exchanged how awesome this place was.
While diving down to check out a grouper, I looked towards the rocks and saw that there was a very deep, winding cave traversing through the center of the coral. I poked my head in, noting that it was quite wide, and saw that a lot of light was penetrating down into its center. This would be a pass through that I could navigate from the bottom up. I went back to the surface and explained to my buddy what I had found, what I was going to do and if I didn't come out what they should do. I inspected it once more and then went to do a breath-up on the surface.
Relaxing the mind, I visualize colors, similar to that of a chakra cleanse during meditation. Taking myself fully into a deepened state of relaxation, I float face down in the water breathing slowly through the snorkel filling the lungs from the bottom up with the diaphragm. When my heart rate has slowed and my mind is ever so still, I swallow a few final gulps of air, fold at the waist and then disappear from the surface for minutes at a time.
I slowly and efficiently kick my way down twenty-five feet to reach the entrance of the swim through. I hold onto the rocks and peer inside at all the snappers, groupers, and grunts scattering about as they see an explorer at their gates. I flip to my back so I can see the ceiling as I begin to twist my way further into the rocky confines. I go over boulders and around bends as I follow the path the light that is making its way through the rocks. I look up and can see the surface shining above me. I take my time ascending, not touching a thing and then emerge past the dense, vegetative topside. As I am reaching the surface, I see my buddy nervously staring at the entrance of where I had gone into. I chuckle a bit at her shock when she sees me pop out from a new and different area. She lets out a big sigh of relief and I said okay, got that out of my system, now I'm going back down to take pictures of the light coming through.
After I was finished, we slowly and methodically inched our way back towards the boat. Sure to take in all the great splendor. The corals were extended intermittently along a course, about 200 feet wide running West from "The Corner" of the Bahamas all the way to the Abacos, about 100 miles further to the East.
Even in the lifeless clearing, where there's just endless streaks of wavy lines in the sand, it too was magical to be suspended in colors like that of electric kool-aid. We let the gentle current take us a little further behind the stern of the boat to a patch of smaller, sandier reef. I had noticed the duo that passed us earlier was really kicking fast to the boat, and I could see a fish dangling from the suspended end of their spear. I saw people on the boat waving us in and giving the shark sign. I was able to connect the dots and determined the shark was certainly trailing the fish and not us.
Not long after I'd seen the duo return to the boat, carving a path directly for us was an agitated and aggressive in manner bull shark. It circled us a couple times and then went around behind where we had gone, as if inspecting our doings on the reef as well. We continued to kick our way back to the boat unafraid. At least I was. I spend half my life working around animals like this and I know and understand their mannerisms well. Without temptation or provocation, they are harmless. It's not to say I wouldn't keep a close eye on their path (more so with Tiger sharks), but all the same, it was safe and sound on our swim back to the boat.
By our sixth working day, we had just about run out of things to look for. There were a few bottlenose sightings in the morning, and by mid-afternoon we were dodging storms as we went through West End to take advantage of their internet to send off our US arrival information. By next morning we were US bound.
It was a hugely gratifying “crew” trip. To commemorate this trip, I created for viewers a first-person POV style video called, "Riding with the Crew." Hope you enjoy!