Back in the Bahamian Groove
Arriving the night before the Bahamas was set to open itself up to commercial vessels, we skipped going to West End and motored directly towards Sandy Cay.
Crossing with a bevy of new electronics, the auto pilot kept us on course with an average deviation of about 1-5 feet or less. Accounting for the currents from the gulf stream, it edged perfectly into it and from the inlet of departure to the mouth of our anchorage, it took six and a half hours.
We were up early the next morning to get a good position within the customs queue. A line of center consoles were already tied up to the dock and by the looks of it, customs was open and boats were already clearing in. The overnight docks had two boats total. We went through the process, with a few added catches on the covid-19 testing protocols and one hour later we were in.
We started steaming towards a particular dolphin area that was way up on the bank. It was beautiful weather and the familiar blue waters were gracing our hull once again. Happening upon a group of bottlenose, their behavior indicated play and so we slipped the swimmers in and they instantly engaged us. It was very odd to see them so playful, but these were the occurrences we were curious to discover after such a long period without any boaters. It was a great introduction too, for our interns, to the rhythm of the process. Getting in, getting shots and getting introduced and inspected by the creatures we’ve come to study. We left the dolphins and continued to motor on.
Near to the intended study site, we were flagged over the radio by a fleet of vessels, identifying themselves as the “Axis Fleet.” It was a large testing vessel, a large motor yacht, one dingey looking sportfish billowing out smoke and a slew of small tenders cruising around in between. I returned comms with them and they asked for a wide berth as they were testing submarine equipment with divers in the area. We asked how long they’d be there as they were near to the area we conduct acoustic studies at and they said they’d be there all week. They were pleasant enough and turns out we were able to swing out wide and still find ourselves at the dolphin wreck.
We put down anchor here as the water looked fabulous and it was time for a much needed second swim, especially for those that had not yet gotten in like myself. Without delay, I jumped in taking only with me a mask to kick around and enjoy my own reintroduction to the warmth of mid-summer Bahama waters.
Getting back into the water and conducting work within the Bahamas is a well anticipated thought for most the crew members in the months leading up to our first departure. The feeling of being immersed in those waters lasts long after the season is over. The imagery of our remote operations, dances in our heads all year long. The rest of the year is spent relishing those moments and awaiting the future season.
Since we were so far up the bank and the weather looked good, we decided to put down anchor for the night at our current location and hope to see dolphins in the morning. Things were going fine until a gigantic storm cloud started approaching us. It darkened out the setting sun and changed the color of the water to reflect its ominous hues. We thought we may be in trouble. No winds yet, but just as dinner had been served it was fully atop of us and the winds picked up in an instant. The discolored sea began to grow frothy and was also growing in height. The waves’ intervals shortened and became stacked in tight, hurrying formations.
We were in thirty feet of water, which meant more wave height than compared to a shallow sand bank. We began weighing our options and as the winds continued to increase and the waves maintained a vicious state, we decided it was best to leave now versus seeing what this could turn into.
The anchor pull was a full-on testament to the training put forth in all the other normal anchor pulling occurrences. The seas were pitching the nose high up in the air and dropping us down with heavy crashes. I pulled in the slack as fast as I could as another crew member held the torch for our captain to see the line. The line disappeared beneath the starboard hull indicating we’d been surfed past it by a wave and another crew member held his head out the window to relay lines of communication from me to the captain. He jockeyed us in place and I was able to get us near enough to the anchor to allow the capstan to bring the remainder of the line and ground tackle up.
Landing it successfully onto the deck, the captain instructs me to bury all the excess line into the fender locker and I brought out some line to lash it closed ensuring it would not fly open and hit our front windows. I slow crawled my way around keeping a firm grip on the railings as I moved.
I came up to the bridge and we started deciding our course. The newly integrated radar allowed us to overlay the weather system to our chart plotter so we can see its current location and movement relative to our own heading. It did not look good. The dense weather cell we could see had now merged with the other cells to the south and was stalling in front of us. Forced to either jockey in position with these enormous swells and gusting winds or to pick a spot in the storm to punch through at, our options seemed unpleasant either way.
Staring at this haze of swirling clouds and deluging rains, the cracks of lighting scattered in every direction. We decided to motor back in the direction we came from to hopefully allow this storm time to dissipate. As we did so, another cell lurched out like the tentacle of a monster trying to snatch us back into its grasp. We turned back towards the main storm and charged into it with some newfound courage that we needed to just go for it. Together we’ve punched through a lot of storms and the big girl can certainly handle the seas. Its just very uncomfortable and chaotic once inside the cell. I’ve been quoted as saying, “I could see inside the lighting bolt,” and that image has stuck with me ever since.
The inside of lighting is a different shade of purple and blue and I could actually see the fizzling electricity as it ricocheted and lurched downward seeking the turbulent and chaotic path towards its end point. We often see the flash of color illuminate the others face as it happens right before their eyes and can see the shock and awe it brings forth. We laugh and keep things light to try and make the time slip past, but its never a comfortable position for us to be in.
Thankfully the few minutes we spent jockeying to the north did in fact allow it to dissipate some and as we traveled through it, the radar shifted to reduce the storms density on screen and gave us a clear overview of our surrounding area to pick up any other landmarks, like passing boats or land. The lighting subsided nearly entirely and actually, very little rain fell. Heavy seas were still to our beam, but it wasn’t a terrible angle compared to going at them head on.
We picked a spot behind the dry bar that could give us shelter to the southwest where the winds were coming from and hoped for the best. The anchor plunged down and stuck into the soft sand giving us a much needed assurance that we had a good hold for the night. It was 11 pm and we decompressed a little on the back deck before calling it a night and heading down below to our bunks.
Thunderous, rumbling clacks against our stiff, metallic undersides.
The rolling ocean reared its ugly head a second time at 3:30 AM. I came outside expecting to see another one of those monstrous storms bearing down on us, but oddly enough there was no such storm. Just shredding winds which didn’t quite match the disastrous sounds I had heard from down within the hull. The captain corroborated a similar sentiment when he awoke at a separate hour and peeked outside.
We survived the night and by next day were once again working the bank. Within minutes to our departure however, in a moment of over-cautionary reactions, I accidentally closed the valve leading to the engines from the day tank while attempting to do a fuel transfer underway. While the fuel transfer pump is running, if a secondary valve, just next to it is cracked open in the slightest, then the pump starts to steal away from the engine its fuel and it creates an air gap resulting in a vapor locked engine. I was trying to ensure it was closed, but obviously handled the wrong one and we lost our starboard main in an instant and inevitably did the the thing I was trying to avoid.
I looked back at what I’d done, traced the fuel transfer line on the other side of the day tank that was pumping the fuel in and immediately realized what I’d just done. But it was too late, the motor stalled in the same instant and the captain preemptively shut the motor off when he felt it had lost power. I come back up fast as I could and he says we need to get the anchor down back into a good sandy spot and limped there with only the port main for steering and power. I drop the hook and we go through what had just happened and knew what needed to be done. The vapor lock meant in all the highest points of the fuel line, air has settled in and needed to be primed with fuel. We have one primary RACOR filter and a secondary can filter that precedes the fuel pump. After the pump, we can bleed out any remaining air from the fuel line as the engine tries to push it through.
We struggled to get the old fuel can filter off due to the vapor lock sealing it on tight and upon reinstalling a new one, decided taking out a gasket that would ensure more contact with threads. Though, it essentially meant that the filter was being bypassed as the gasket forces the fuel down and into the center of the can through its filter. It’s a redundant filter, but its not to say its useless. If debris gets past it and into the injectors we’re in a much worse situation. The good news was, we just had our fuel tanks cleaned during a rudder repair job in the offseason, we use premier fuel from mainland florida and we also have a double RACOR filter set up on the fuel transfer lines.
To avoid this chain event going any further, we put in a call to our friends at West End to see if they could make a run to Freeport for us to find lower micron filters to swap out our series of RACORS with a more sensitive filter to work at an even higher level. We also put in a call to our home port in mainland Florida to have a spare part for the can filter to be ordered and on hand in the event we needed a major rescue. Our tow service can bring it over on their go-fast boats if they’re in the area or on a sea plane.
We also decided it as a precautionary measure to keep the engines under 1300 RPMs to ensure if the load and burn rate started to creep up we would notice it immediately. We could cross reference starboard‘s numbers against the port main to see if anything was building up. With a slew of precautions and back-up procedures for the trip in place, we felt comfortable resuming operations.
At Old Bahama, the scene there had changed quite a bit from three days prior when we were clearing in. The empty overnight docks had just about all been filled. A crowd was growing outside the customs office as they were only letting in limited amounts of people and around the docks groups of people were walking around. Things were certainly seeming to be ramping up for the upcoming fourth of July weekend.
With the new filters in hand, we did a quick swap of all filters in use, putting the low microns in the primary positions and swapped the transfer filters with lower microns as well before moving the needed 200 gallons to make the crossing over to Bimini.
By 10 AM we were once again south of Bootle Bay and setting a 210º heading for Grand Bahama Bank. We passed by countless tankers that were all scattered around waiting for availability in ports somewhere. On Grand Bahama, two cruise ships sat just inshore of the deep water edge. Most cruise ships operate at such regular intervals that while one is out at sea, another uses the same port they will then use when its time to return to port. The previous one departs thus leaving it vacant and this means there are more cruise ships operating than there are ports to house them. Same goes for freighters and tankers. This shutdown of ports and borders means there’s a lot of boats in flux and without anywhere to go until operations resume as normal.
WELCOME TO BIMINI
The waters on Grand Bahama Bank were mesmerizing. The winds settled down to less than 10kts and all that was left were glassy ripples on the surface. We watched the patches of sea grass go by and the interns got their first chance to learn the names of the island landmarks we see on this study site. In my mind, however, I was knowing with these conditions the chances for an upcoming dolphin encounter was very high. Visibility is at its best when seas are calm and any disturbance is much more apparent and able to be seen from greater distances as well. I put out a prediction that four spotteds would be seen from our port bow near an area I dubbed the dolphin triangle. Sure enough, an intern had seen the splash just as I had turned my head and caught the same disturbance dolphins emerged and the excitement was on!
We motor towards them to find two mother calf pairs trolling along slowly at the surface. They were behaving quite socially and made themselves appear to us as being agreeable to the idea of us getting in the water with them by swimming over to the boat and staying alongside. It was minutes later that we had swimmers in getting their first in-water spotted encounter with a super friendly, slow-going, enthusiastic and intrigued combo of dolphins. All within crystal clear, glass calm waters with no boat traffic around whatsoever. They were surely getting to see the highlights of our work in an exceptionally terrific order of occurrence. The pair stayed together and swam close in front of the group, often taking themselves vertical in the water to look up over the water line to spy at both the swimmers and the boat. It’s odd enough to be in the water with a curious and intrigued animal, but it gets even weirder when a marine species sticks its head out of the water to look at you from above the surface! They must have done it twenty or thirty times. I recall one laying on its back with its peck fins pointed up in the air, lounging as if it were an otter going down a lazy river.
They hung around long enough that we were able to swap in the second set of interns for the first group with ease. Dr Herzing joined them this time bringing in a third camera. Her eye for behavior and detail is always a novel and impressive addition, but mostly the research assistant is always in the right spot at the right time to capture the behavior scenes with excellence. I compliment her on her video skills constantly for always framing the scenes so well and staying with the action, even while swimming and toting around a heavy and cumbersome camera intended for a swift-moving and often excited and darting subject matter. Wow, that takes a lot of skill and practice!
The encounter went on for over an hour and with a bit of sun still in the sky, we put down anchor at an outside point since the seas were so calm.
With very little boat traffic happening around the island, I was wondering if there would be an impending explosion of activity coming our way or if perhaps due to the covid testing protocol put forth by the Bahamian government it would maybe deter some of the island visitors. If West End was to serve as any reference for this at all, then the crowds were surely expected. However, hardly a single boat was spotted the entire day. Perhaps we would get favorable seas and the bank all to ourselves. On a major US holiday too, no less.
A quick lunchtime swim at the Hen and Chicks island chain was meant to be a refreshing stop-off for the day, but the water was uncomfortably hot (86º F). Little bits of cold eddy water would pass by and it was the only form of relief I would feel within the warm shallow bank water.
This US holiday was as equally well spent as every other fourth of July I’d been so lucky to have experienced atop Bahamian waters the last three years. We had a fantastic grill night with a beautifully colored sunset on one half while the moon in its orange hues complimented the scenery from the opposite side. Later, the scenery evolved as storms from mainland Florida could be seen going up the coast with their terrific displays of lighting strikes. Fireworks from the shores of Bimini erupted over the coast near to us. Laughter, joke-telling and silly banter continued on in the salon, which is always my favorite aspect of being on this boat. A couple interns were fortunate enough to be seated there to endure the stomach-aching laughter like I had the joy of experiencing in my first few excursions out with the project.
The weekend eruption turned out to be a dud, which for us, not having the boat traffic was a blessing. We were getting one dolphin encounter per day, but the large groups had not yet been seen and that always puts us a little on edge for whether things have changed environmentally again or not. When things are slow, we feel the pressures more and little things on the boat start to get noticed. So for us, its always best when we are moving right along with the work and we can barely find time to stop and eat.
The winds, finding a new course than what had been forecasted, still stayed in our favor in turning from the southwest to the southeast. Persistent storms still streaked the sky, but was hardly a factor as we were able to work any and all areas we wanted. Far off from our anchorage, we came into two groupings of spotteds. First, a group of nine and then a group of fourteen. Their energy was great and the seas allowed everyone to stay with them with ease. They seemingly suggested to us they had a bow ride on their minds so we pulled the swimmers out and allowed them to ride ahead of us on the bow wave for a few miles.
Day seven antics began to set in with lots of fun and laughter. Attempting to sneak clothes pins on the backs of unsuspecting people occupied some of us not involved in the dolphin searching. And later, we picked up a small gull from Isaacs that we dubbed the name of, Larry. Larry eventually took a perch upon the arm of our crane and would eat snacks from atop our tender. We would all laugh as he would try to walk up the arm of the crane and slip his way back down. Larry became a familiar face whenever we were in the area, even fending off other birds from his newfound domain.
The post-work day swim was delightful. Plenty of space with zero boat activity in the area, I filmed some cannonballs from the top deck while others cruised around on the double ledge that ran behind our anchorage. I swam out to a pair of interns and showed them a spot where the nurse sharks like to hide. Dinner was grilled items, but I elected to spend the time washing the accumulating hair off the bridge and get a head start on the watermaker. The trip was nearing completion and we had gotten dolphins every day except the one day of crossing, which to us, was a successful trip.
The big highlight of the trip came from during one of the days encounters, the identification of a particular dolphin was causing the researchers some dismay for who it was. After spending some time flipping through the notebooks of all our photo ID’s, the assistant was able to determine it was a dolphin from the other bank that the majority of the resident population had migrated from. It was without its other alliance members, dubbed the fab four, which gives us hope that we might see them as well at some point this season and complete the migration for the entire central little bahama bank group. If she had come over by herself, the 120 miles, this would be entirely unprecedented in our documented work. It will certainly be the talk of the season.
The nightly video sessions steadily began to grow in length and the interns were hard at work with their various ID work taken from the point and shoot cameras. As per the norm now, fantastic evenings continued on beneath full moon rises and captivating lightning storms.
We watched some squids snacking at night off the side of the boat by way of flashlight and the stars looked down at us with a great brilliance. It was making us very excited and hopeful that we would not get shut down and could continue to return to spend these moments in suspended bliss.
The final work day proved to be eventful as within an area we had practically all of our encounters produced yet another one. This time, the big group had emerged with a bevy of aggression occurring simultaneous to courtship off in the periphery. We sent in both groups of swimmers and I was even fortunate enough to get in for this encounter. I was ecstatic to be in with such a large (29 total) group and see them all behaving. Personally, however, I’m not a fan of the aggression as I hate to see them showing up the next day all beat up from the previous days assualts, but its an important element to understanding the social dynamics of their community. I watched them from afar, but was more so entertained by the characters swimming alongside and directly in front of me. A few copulations occurred directly in front as well. I guess that’s interesting to see, but my human mind makes it seem awkward to be present. My favorite, though, is when one comes zipping in front, gives a body wiggle and announces itself with a piercing signature whistle, often repeating it once more just to ensure you had heard it. I so wish I could whistle something back.
While motoring back, Larry had returned, but had his hands full with defending his perch from other advancing gulls. I guess the word was out, but he was our favorite and certainly given favoritism. Whenever another bird would approach his crane perch, he’d let out a big loud gull call with his wide open mouth and that seemed to be enough to steer the advancing birds off to circle the boat before coming back in for a second attempt. Larry, trusting us, would not flinch as we’d try to spook off the other birds. I think one morning, I’d even seen him sitting on the front bow rail awaiting the sunrise.
The video that night was very informative and I was able to learn from Dr Herzing about how the cavitation caused by the aggressive tail swipes in the water isn’t necessarily striking another dolphin when a loud crack is heard in the water. The sheer speed in which they can do this can move through the water so rapidly that its actually the water making the sound and not the sound of another animal getting hit.
During the video session, I’d periodically hop up to move fuel for our next day’s crossing and was also working on making water down in the engine bay. The anchor pull the next morning was scheduled for 6AM to ensure we’d be back in time for any tricky customs procedures and for folks to catch their flights. We also all had another round of covid tests scheduled so we could get the results in before our next Tuesday departure. Its a tricky process, but we’re going to do our best to be prepared and attempt to gain as much of a season out of this year as we can.
The crossing was glassy and calm, still with a series of pocketed rainstorms scattered about, often joining sometimes directly overhead of us for a quick dousing. Once past the storm line, we were free and clear to make the remainder of the way with ease. I spent the hours writing and listening to music as usual. I’m never capable of telling my mind its about to be over.
The night before, just before lights out, my bunk mate had asked if I liked staying out here or was excited to go back home. I said my home is here at sea and that I always wanted to stay if the adventure would allow it. My heart belongs here with the ocean and seeing the shoreline, with its busy and convoluted structures never excites me.
They say, “While at home you dream of adventure, and when on adventure, you dream of home,” but for me, if the adventure never ended, I’d be okay with that. Its within these moments that I am discovering the true beauty of life and filled with such great amounts of joy that I’m comfortable with calling this place my home.
Click to watch the video from this trip!
My heart is a love machine. FIN!