I didn’t really have high expectations. After all, these weren’t penned-up-born-in-captivity-prisoner dolphins but completely wild, and could come and go as they pleased across over 2000 square miles of open ocean. With little incentive (like working for food) why would they have any interest in seeking out a bunch of noisy clumsy humans flailing in the water? On top of that it was the boat’s first attempt with this venue and sporting a fairly new crew to boot. As it turns out, the very first day of the very first dolphin charter for this dive operation proved to be absolutely amazing, and an encounter I’m not likely to forget well into my advanced senility.
My wife, Janine, and I met Captain Lowell and Claire of the Caribbean Explorer I at the Freeport “International” airport as they were dropping off a couple of folks from the previous charter. They looked flustered and tired and Lowell’s weather description from the unfortunate week before made me a little nervous. I kept reminding myself that this was hurricane season and you just have to make do with what nature brews up. Being a livaboard at least you had some options in modifying the itinerary to find the best conditions. Yeah, no problem I thought as I peered around at the dark expansive cumulonimbus clouds completely encircling the island of Grand Bahama.
Words & Photos by Joe Dovala
That afternoon we met a number of the other guests that would be our shipmates for the week and settled into our new digs just as the rain started to come down. By the next day we had moved some 60 miles onto the Little Bahama Bank over the White Sand Ridge. The morning scuba dive was more in keeping with what I expected in the over-fished, over-cruise shipped, coral bleached Caribbean reefs. I knew there would be more dives like these but that’s not what we came for on this trip. I hoped that wouldn’t be the sum total of the experience. Well, at least the sun had come out and the surface conditions were simply beautiful. So off we headed to our second morning dive site while staring out at an amazing color of turquoise.
Located in 18 feet of water out in the undersea desert that is the Little Bahama Bank lays a small pile of jumbled steel called the Sugar Wreck. In her prime she was a 330 foot long, four-masted sailing ship that floundered and went down in the early 1900’s by what else – a hurricane. Being made of steel, there is still a considerable amount of debris and metal plates that provide protection and living space for an incredible assemblage of marine life. It really is like diving an aquarium. Hundreds of grunts, jacks, barracuda, groupers, reef fish, and even a few sharks call the place home. As the wreckage is spread out, even a couple dozen divers don’t have to crowd each other during an exploration. With so much life and all the miles of flat sand surrounding the Sugar Wreck, it really makes you appreciate the definition of an oasis. Hmm, maybe the scuba diving portion of this trip won’t be so bad after all.
After lunch we began our search for Flipper and soon most eyes were surveying the horizon for movement. Believe me it didn’t take long to start imagining sightings and the intense aqua blue of the water almost made your eyes hurt! We were fortunate as we had Gene Flipse, our very own marine mammal naturalist on board. He has signed on to work for the boat during all the dolphin expeditions. He gave us insightful information derived from twenty-two years of experience with our sea mammal friends, and shared tips on how to behave around the dolphins in the water. While both Bottlenose and Atlantic spotted dolphins live in the area most of the playful contact comes from the spotted dolphins. This seems odd as the spotted dolphins do terrible in captivity, that’s why you’ll only see bottlenose in the marine theme parks. In the wild though, bottlenose tend to be more stand offish and are less dependable for close interaction. Nevertheless, through all his talks he always mentioned the disclaimer about how these were wild animals and therefore nothing could be guaranteed about having an encounter. So we just kept our fingers crossed and continued looking.
I barely had time to remove my strobes and get the camera ready before the proverbial “Tharsheblows” rang out. First two then four Atlantic spotted dolphins made a bee line for the bow wave of our vessel. Within a couple of minutes they moved back toward the swim platform. Gene had the captain go into drift mode and bellowed out “divers in the water…” I hastily finished messing with the camera, grabbed my mask, fins, and sprinted for the aft deck. Quite frankly I’ve never seen so many people get in the water so fast and with a snort and a swish of a tail we had ourselves a dolphin moment.
It didn’t take a marine scientist to figure out these guys wanted to play. Like us, some dolphins wanted to get in close while others were happy keeping a little distance. Mom dolphin delighted in showing her youngster how to play keep-away with a piece of seaweed as they twisted, looped, and barrel rolled right next to us. The frolicking was synergistic, the more energy we showed in our actions the higher the energy of the dolphins. One of the females became very friendly and wanted more than synchronized swimming. She picked out a couple of folks (who displayed the most energy) and began a dance that changed tempo from barely swimming to high speed passes within a couple feet of the human partners, finally adjusting her speed right next to them asking for direct contact. When the person held their hand out she arched slightly into the reach to make sure there was contact. Wow! Completely wild dolphins wanting to make a connection to a species like us.
As if she knew the paparazzi were also on the scene she would come up to the camera then look up and over the lens right at me. It takes a lot for me to forget I’m carrying a camera but this charmed experience put me over the edge. Relishing my smooth spotted dancing partner in the brilliant blue stage pulled me into the moment. We turned and bobbed and spun ‘till I barely knew which way was up. When she finally moved off I realized I’d moved pretty far from the boat and was suddenly alone. I took a bearing and began the long swim back when the faint electric buzz sound of an underwater scooter came from behind me. I first saw the hazy yellow blob of the scooter coming at me from the bottom followed by Gene and his wildly twisting gray spotted wingmen. The dolphins put it into high gear leaving Gene far behind but left no doubt how much they loved the scooter. Watching them perform their acrobatics at closer to the speeds they’re used to was intoxicating. The total drama lasted well over 30 minutes and pretty much everyone was kind of in shock. None of us expected such a welcome and even Gene was a bit sheepish about our encounter. “Oh boy,” he said, “everyone’s going to think every encounter is like this…..was that awesome or what!”
The chatter on the deck was non-stop and smiles were ear to ear. Some folks hadn’t even removed their booties yet when another cry from the bridge sent everyone scurrying to the bow. This time it looked like hundreds of porpoising marine mammals heading for the ship. Well, ok it was more like a couple dozen but you get the picture. There were too many to count and they acted like the recess bell had just rung. We scampered back to the dive deck and grabbed our snorkel gear on the run. Within seconds of hitting the water though you could feel a different kind of energy. These guys turned out to be bottlenose with several Atlantic spotted dolphins cruising with them.
While they weren’t exactly unapproachable they didn’t appear to be in the warm and fuzzy mode like the last bunch. The clicks and whistles had more “substance” behind them and the heavily scarred bottlenose that did cruise by seemed to be sizing you up rather then saying hello. It didn’t feel threatening, just different. The pod of 18 bottlenose and 3 spotted dolphins dove and circled us for quite some time. Some apparently were digging in the sand for dinner, engaging in a process called crater feeding. Many had whitish snouts because of the technique. Basically they find an area of interest and burrow with their rostrums (snout) into the sand looking for morsels such as the razor wrasse. The craters they leave behind could be seen on many occasions, so it’s something the Little Bahama Bank dolphins do regularly.
Even though we didn’t have the close contact like the first encounter the experience is hard to describe. Watching them cavort and perform their underwater ballet while being in their midst cannot be duplicated in an aquarium or TV show. After another half an hour or so we climbed back aboard our floating home tired and exhilarated once again. Gene was beside himself for the second time of the day, and thought how on earth will this encounter ever be duplicated for the rest of the week, yet alone for the guests of the charters yet to come. The rest of us didn’t really worry about the later part of the week, nor other folks, as sleep came easily and satisfying that night anchored on the peaceful Bank.
In the subsequent mornings we’d make a couple of dives on a reef and then search the Bank for our finned friends in the afternoons. Then usually after dark we’d find a nice place to make a night submersion. And not surprisingly, the Sugar Wreck shined again as a place to visit. The night dives here are incredible with scores of morays, octopus, and rays rummaging about. At such a shallow depth the surface lights from the Caribbean Explorer bathed large portions of the wreckage and made it look like a movie set. Large schools of silvery gray ghosts made up of barracuda, grunts, jacks, and sharks hung just outside the pool of light, slowly moving in and out of the darkness as the boat swung at anchor. Decorator crabs crawled over the encrusted steel I-beams constantly picking at unseen morsels while sea urchins came out of their daytime hiding places to graze on the undersea pastures. Even several leatherback turtles had settled in for the night. It was hard to say farewell to such a vibrant marine life haven during our final ascent.
We did have other dolphin encounters throughout the week but couldn’t duplicate that first communion with them. Nevertheless, it was a great success. I couldn’t help but contemplate on the long voyage back to Freeport how truly magical it was. In our increasingly silly (and meaningless) world of “reality” television shows and packaged theme parks, there’s still a part of real nature we can communicate with. And despite what we do to thousands of dolphins every year so we can have those cheap little cans of tuna in the grocery store – in one small corner of the world – a handful of dolphins still seek us out and say hello.
Words & Photos by Joe Dovala
Joe Dovala Photography