Updated: Mar 7, 2019
June 25, 2018
Summarizing the fourth trip of the 2018 Wild Dolphin Project field season
"People get possessed with church or God and fishing's just another thing that they're possessed with. It's something inside of them that nobody can take away and if they're not doin' it they're not gonna be happy." (The Perfect Storm)
Trip four was an abundance of awesome encounters, unique experiences and quite possibly the most diverse and loaded trip of the 2018 season yet. We had very unique experiences and I personally underwent a variety of emotions.
To begin, we had a delightful crossing with favorable conditions topside. The seas were bright blue and the wind was blowing gently from the South. As we were deep into the Gulf Stream, about midway between Florida and West End, I had seen a set of splashes way off in the distance. I call out and kept my eyes fixed in that direction. I take the boat off auto pilot and start to make my way towards it. I had seen the trunk of something large, or perhaps a smaller thing come out of the water and splash back down. I could tell that it was light gray with a whitish underside. I realized I had not seen a gap between the water and any animal breaching, more so like a large animal, like a whale, stick its head out and splash back down.
Nothing was on the surface when we got to where I had seen it, so I made a wide path around the area. There right in the middle of our nearly completed loop were four, very tall, tapered and pointy, jet black dorsal fins with long, large, dark bodies swimming along beneath the surface. We never caught up to them or saw the rest of the bodies surface, but from reading the behavior and physical descriptions of false killer whales, it seemed to categorize what we had seen.
After reaching the Bahamas we set down anchor for the night. On our first full day in the Bahamas, we ventured out to check out an airplane wreck we had gotten the GPS coordinates for. The plane had crashed and its parts were scattered around in a 1000ft diameter area. Two engines lay upright next to each other, and a large wing section still had another engine attached. The other wing I think was buried next to it, and parts of the fuselage, door hatches and the hydraulics for landing gear were dispersed in the perimeter.
Swimming all around the wreck were schools of mangrove snappers, African pompanos, nurse sharks, stingrays, red groupers the size of coolers and loggerhead turtles popping up in every direction. We even removed a couple fish traps that were left tethered to the wreckage. I never like messing with another fisherman's tackle, but when it poses a hazard and I personally witness a loggerhead become entangled in it, I decided the animals life was more important. I dove down and held firmly to the rear end of the turtle's shell, and unwrapped its head and flippers from the cord. I gave it a little shove on its way and it takes off for the surface. Inside the fish trap it had lots of juvenile blue tangs, angelfish and a big, crunchy looking stone crab. No use for them to be stuck inside and the dive site was such a neat attraction otherwise.
On our way back from the airplane we were about to hang the corner when we ran smack into a mother calf pair, two juveniles and another adult female -- all spotted dolphins! This is a real event to see them on Little Bahama as their numbers have dwindled significantly since the big move of about half the population down to Grand Bahama Bank, thus making the sightings hard to come by. We decided to gamble and stay another day since we had a good encounter. We followed them out over the ridge to unusually deep water (over 800ft!) and got in to observe their behavior. After this encounter, we decided to gamble and stay another day!
Sure enough, the following day we ran into a lonesome mom calf pair in the shallows. We travelled alongside them for hours as they zig zagged their way casually along the edge. They even travelled into travelled into deep water for a short while as well. Excitement came when they met up with a second, leaping from the water group of spotteds. We floated along with this conjoined group in the glass-calm, blue water above shallow (less than 40ft) sandy bottom. Currently, we have no IDs for this group and believe it to be an immigrant group of spotteds, perhaps passing through or maybe even some of the LBB animals they may not have seen in a few years and gained so many spots are unrecognizable. From this point on though, anything else that occurred on this trip would be icing on the cake.
The crossing to Bimini was flat and glassy in most parts. Such a relief that was. There were even some chances to fish and we pulled in a small black fin tuna with the tail chomped off, the head of a skipjack tuna (also bitten off) and a small barracuda.
Bimini held its usual array of bottlenose and spotted encounters, with each day blurring between the next. One morning, not five minutes from pulling up the anchor, we spot something irregular splashing on the surface in front of us. We thought maybe a shark, but as we got closer we realized the splashing belonged to the wing tips of a juvenile Manta Ray. We quickly assembled our divers and let them get in with it. It's wingspan was about six foot from tip to tip. The water was murky and the manta was in travel mode, so it eluded us, but was still a great encounter.
On another day, a group of nine spotteds go by the boat. We followed from a safe distance to give them some space, observing their behaviors as we went. Once they slowed, we were able to put divers into the water with them for a few minutes, but they took off again. Two dolphins hung back and were curious of the divers, but eventually left to rejoin their group.
We caught back up to the group and I see a mackerel launch from in front of a spotted. The dolphin catches back up to it and swims past the boat with a nine inch fish pinned sideways in its mouth. The duo that was hanging back earlier was now joined by another younger spotted and two bottlenose. The bottlenose began to show aggression towards a particular spotted. As they swam along together, it seemed as if the spotted in focus was under a spell by the bottlenose. It would go limp, floating in the water column as the two, much larger bottlenose swam on either side, side-mounting and pinning it to the bottom. When the bottlenose would lose interest and turn away, the spotted would go head to head with the bottlenose, instigating more aggression for itself. They refer to this as inter-species aggression, but as a human watching it, it was tough not to imagine your favorite character being tormented by a much larger and dominating villian.
Later, as the group of sixteen were all together again, they teamed up against the bottlenose and from the bridge I could see the four bottlenose get chased literally up and out of the water and they took off, arching full bodied as they took off.
"You are a little bit of the digestive process of the Universe killing and outputting energy from that destruction." (Duncan Trussell)
The summer heat was in full swing and the days wore on as encounter after encounter started to blend together. Lunchtime is used as a recharge break in the day, but sometimes it can be hard to get food in our bellies without having another encounter. I was starting to become gloomy about the amount of boats in the area conducting recreational dolphin expeditions, which I feel puts pressure on the animals habitat. It may lead one to think, "What options are there?" We cannot drive through this area without encountering the dolphins three to four times a day. But one thing that can be done is to enforce marine mammal permits for commercial operators and push for more boating protective measures for these animals. Enforcing permits would prevent just anyone from jumping in the water with these animals, and would hopefully decrease the amount of boats and people that they encounter on a daily basis.
So much of Dr. Herzing's work is centered around observing dolphin behavior over a long period of time. This type of non-invasive research and the intensive cataloging of information requires time spent in the water with these species. It is always on their terms, but unfortunately, this area is so congested with boats and not everyone operates the way we do. It feels as if some of these boats can't seem to or don't care to separate our world from theirs. For the most part, the dolphins don't seem to mind our presence and behave right in front of the video cameras: disciplining their calves, vying for hierarchy, foraging in the sand, copulating, offering peck rubs to each other and always looking to get on a bow and go for a ride. And with as much behavior as they give to each other, they are always aware of our presence and it feels as if we are as much of their research as they are of ours. The Project's researchers have studied these dolphins for over thirty years and they are aware of the subtle behaviors that indicate the dolphins are done with the encounter and would like to be left alone. We listen to these behaviors, but others need to me made aware of them and abide by them as well. That's why the project is interested in doing more outreach and education to local communities in both the Bahamas and Florida.
Not only was the situation in Bimini weighing on my mind, but also after my last trip, I had begun to develop an awkward conflict within myself. I had not consumed meat for nearly five years and suddenly it was back in my mouth again. When I made the decision to stop eating animals, it was done so because I desired a greater connection with my food and ultimately I felt that an animal's sacrifice was not necessary for my survival. It's hypocritical to assume I was in a greater state of connectivity because there was just as much of a gap with a non-meat diet and its sources as there were with the animals I was avoiding. But in the duration of this lifestyle change, I still felt it was more emblematic of taking control of the foods I ate than to consume meat from a source I could not name.
However, realizing my time in the Bahamas meant there would be opportunities to catch and consume fresh, local varieties of fish, I got excited at seeing how well I fared with the idea of hunting for my own food again. I didn't take the shot, but I certainly had a hand in its death by tracking and stalking the prey with precision. You can't be a good dive guide without understanding fish habits and how to expect their encounters.
Also, when we crossed the main channels, I used my savvy topside instincts to read the ocean for where fish were congregating and we'd put out the lines while I drove the boat. I never really desired the flesh, but in curiosity, would nibble little bits when it was cooked. And with the last trip, I had went so far as to bring back a few fillets.
On one hand, I felt empowerment and connectivity to the ocean world, but at the same time, I also felt saddened that these beautiful species, to whom I had dedicated my life to, were being ripped from their environment and killed for their flesh. It wasn't important to my survival and so I felt it unnecessary. I felt I had abandoned my stance on the subject and I began to re-ask the question of, for what gain did this animals life have to be extinguished? Nearly identical to years ago, I could not answer this question and thus the moral dilemma began all over again. This time with a little more wisdom in the bank.
I thought, if I wanted an apple and it was there, I am more than willing to take it and this spiraled me deeper and deeper into the quandary of where to draw the line for what I felt was acceptable to harvest and what was not okay.
Extensive research is being conducted on whether plants are sentient beings or not, but I think we can all agree they possess a variety of complexities that is on par with every other living thing. And given their diversity in species, adaptability in habitats and perseverance of self, should we not consider them in this debate of 'living' things?
To further investigate these ideas, I would like to include a few segments from the JRE podcast, where Joe Rogan and Duncan Trussell are discussing possible plant sentience and their attributed intelligence. (#828, August 1, 2016)
JR: Obviously plants, for the most part, are way less violent than animals. When you're taking in plants, it seems to make sense that it would be a more peaceful existence. You're just consuming plants. Look at all the animals that only consume plants. They're all really peaceful. But then the animals that consume both animals and plants, they gotta get dirty. The ones (animals) that only eat meat, those are the scary ones.
I think people are trying to move away from the system that requires the violence and the idea of that, is to eat plants. Even if you're eating a life form, you're less involved in violent activities. If you're eating meat, you're involved in violent activity in some way. Those fish just don't instantaneously die. They gotta be yanked into another dimension, beaten over the head with wooden clubs, thrown into ice chests, where they'll flop and gasp for air until they finally go still. And thats what happens when you eat fish.
DT: Arjuna speaking to Krishna (after he has revealed his Universal Form), I see in your teeth, the limbs of all humans being chewed and eaten. You are consuming everything, you are eating everything. Can you please turn back into my friend? And the response was, okay, lets stop killing everything. But look! You are getting eaten by the Universe no matter what you do! You are being ground to dust by the force of time. There is no escape from this. You are in the digestive tract of a being that is gradually transforming you into nothingness. Depending on what you believe. Unless you think there is some eternal or perpetual soul. In which case, the digestive system is freeing you from the terrible and limited enclosure of the human body.
Either way, we are being shifted in a dramatic and beautiful way. You are one of the digestive organs in the Universe. No matter what you do, you are completely wiping beings out of the Universe. Your blood cells are heartlessly killing. You probably ran over some tiny bug that was walking across the street. You can't live in this Universe without killing things. And you too are being killed. You are a little bit of stomach acid helping to dissolve a steak. You are a little bit of the digestive process of the Universe, killing and outputting energy from that destruction.
It always baffled me what was considered living. For example, the sound made by caterpillars munching on leaves triggers a reaction in certain plants to alter their chemical composition and become less than desirable, even toxic, to eat. Plants are able to communicate with each other in a Shymalanistic manner (The Mist). They can also migrate, transfer gasses (breathing, in effect) and respond to light and dark. Community structures are in place as they are also able to allocate resources to needier organisms within that network. It gets the wheels spinning for whether plants should be considered in this debate.
While I am diving, I always consider the numbers of species I encounter. Did I see a lot or a few? How often when I go diving did I see this animal? When engaged in a hearty environmental discussion with a spearo, I like to ask the very simple question of, sure you can ethically and selectively harvest a fish of your choosing from the reef, but what can you do to put one back? The obvious answer is nothing, and that nature will cover the logistics of how to propagate the animals back into existence. But the concept is, if we all take.. and we take.. and we don't ever make initiatives to put something back, how can we ever make the claim that this is a sustainable practice? And as a bystander, would my conscientious awareness of the environment be enough to balance out the losses of life? It seemed illogical to think that a thought can equal a living life form. Maybe it could, though, and that's when I realized I had reached the bottom of the rabbit hole. I was left with this feeling as if I was some ravenous beast and all roads lead to some grim outcome where I tore and trampled upon some pristine, beautiful oasis. I thought I would find myself eating styrofoam if I couldn't get a handle on how to accept this planet has a bounty of resources and the ethical and responsible thing to do as a life form, is to simply become a part of it. Integrate myself fully into the ebb and flow of consumption and creation.
It's really an over-thought debate within my mind, but how can I not give it consideration when I feel there is a trend stemming from there being more and more distance from the foods we eat and where they originate. I think maybe it needs constant monitoring to ensure I am not becoming swept away with the complacency of modern markets. The bottom line is, it's my health I am considering and I put great value on its preservation. In turn, that means the sources of it must also be protected.
This debate had set me off into a funk, but I managed to give myself simple pleasures in the day. The dolphins seem to me to be these hilarious creatures that smile and play with a delight like I've seen in no other animal. The water, while sometimes unfavorable, being green and choppy, can still yield the most amazing and unexpected encounters like a giant manta ray at nine in the morning. And the stars were always out at night for long looks into the history of the Universe.
Although, on our last night in Bimini, just as the stars were about to come out I see a guy in a small inflatable raft make a darting dash up the coast of the shore. I pay no mind until I see him stop dead in the water. I thought maybe he had hit the little sandbar there, but his draft should have been fine to go through that spot. He had turned his boat around and was now drifting back from the way he had come. He stops and starts trying to throw out an anchor while simultaneously waving us down and yelling help, help, help. I yell back what's wrong. And he just waves and says I need help. I could tell he was a Bahamian. I say its too shallow to get my boat in. And the captain comes up so we can lower the tender. We swing it off the side and cruise over to see what was the matter. He had run dry on fuel. Like bone dry. We say okay, we got a spare gas can we can get and go back to our boat to fetch it. We toss him a Gatorade and head back to update our guys with what's going on. They ask if we want a flashlight and we say nawwww, we're good. It was nearing dark and after we poured in about five gallons of gasoline and tried priming the bulb. There was way too much air in the line to even pick up the fuel. We worked at throttling it and pumping the bulb with little to no success. The tender was nice and the guy said it was a friends so he wasn't too familiar with it. After about 30 minutes of working at it, we finally got the boat to turn over and stay running. We hopped off and told him to get right back and he said his girlfriend was going to let him have it. We laughed and waved him goodbye as we sped back towards our mothership.
Since it was dark, we left the tender tied to the side and decided we would hoist it back up in the morning before we departed. This would prove to be the wisest decision we made all trip. In the morning when we had the boat about two-thirds the way up the cable snapped unexpectedly and the boat fell with its nose crunching into our picnic table and the lower unit of the motor punched a hole in the deck down to the aluminum plating. It missed the captain by inches. The crane was done, so rather than ride around with this awful looking scene, managed to get the boat up over the railing and into the water to be towed back. Thankfully no one was hurt and even the picnic table wasn't too bad off. It broke the ends on two of the top plants and busted the underneath support out, but half of it was still good. I threw a towel over the broken parts and we rigged up a bridle for towing Frontalis home. The tender's name is Frontalis, named after the second part of the scientific term used for Atlantic spotted dolphins, Stenella Frontalis. Had we done this in the night, who knows what could have happened. So thankfully, we waited until morning and had little to no issues with something that could have turned out really bad.
To top it all off, we had another glass calm crossing back to West Palm, which was incredible. I think I was grinning and dancing the whole way back. In doing so, I must've conjured up some magical spell because in the distance again, we'd seen a scattering of dolphins breaching the surface. They were way spread out, maybe a mile apart, but as we drove closer, realized these dolphins were much bigger than the usual one's we see. These were offshore bottlenose, a free ranging, pelagic species that swims through open waters. They took to the bow like any other and we started to get a count for how many were in the area. About ten were stalking the weed lines, likely catching fish, and before you know it, we're giving six of them a bow ride. I guess that they weighed one and a half times the weight of a regular bottlenose and may have had an extra two to three feet in length. They were an impressive and cool species to watch.
Since we were making good time, I continued to move around the spread out group finding others and providing bow rides. Some would stay back on the stern waves and surf those while others stayed on the bow for as long as we would keep the boat headed in a direction they found suitable. After about fifteen minutes of continued play, the captain comes back up with a quizzical look on his face. Are they still riding the bow he asks? I grin and say, yes. He said I could hear them in my bunk whistling through the hull. We laughed and we lost them not too long after we started to break from a true North to a West/Northwest heading. Not before long, we were tied up at the dock, trip completed.
In light of the feelings I felt, the season has been an evolving process for me. I've been learning tons about a species I knew nothing of. My sea skills have been expanded ten fold and my commitment to the ocean now is sock solid. It feels good to be a part of something so concerned with the well being of a specie and its habitat, and just like my preservation of health, the health of the planet is also of a high priority. It keeps me moving in a direction that stirs the passions of life and with that I feel I am driving straight towards all of my dreams.
Lastly, I leave you with a fun, shark-filled (as usual) highlight reel of the trip's underwater adventures. Hope you enjoy!