Monday, August 6, 2007

Return to Dolphin Friends

June 24, 2007 - BlueVoice Among Dolphins - Week 1
By Hardy Jones
“North of Grand Bahama on the Little Bahama Banks there’s a place I’ve been going for more than twenty years and up there you’ll find dolphins that you can spend hours with. They’re just incredibly friendly and curious.”

Those were the words of treasure diver Bob Marx in 1978 and they propelled me into a new universe of adventure, discovery and just plain mind-blowing encounters with dolphins in the sea 40 miles north of Grand Bahama Island. So as I sit here today waiting to clear customs at West End I can say “North of Grand Bahama Island there’s a place I’ve been going for more than 29 years and I have found Atlantic spotted dolphins that I could spend not hours but weeks and months with. They have been incredibly friendly and curious.” I’ve come to know many of them personally and have known one of these dolphins for 28 of the 29 years.

Day 1: In a few minutes we’ll head north to the dolphin grounds. There are eight BlueVoice members aboard as well as Deborah Cutting, my wife and BV director of marketing, who put the complicated logistics of this whole venture together.

Within three hours I spot a pair of frigate birds, often a good indicator of dolphins, and sure enough there are several, feeding and playing in the water below. We spend the next five hours with them. At first the dolphins just swim past us. We’re not bothering them but neither are we interesting them. This changes late in the day as the sun moves toward the horizon and the warm, saturated colors that filmmakers call “magic light” emerge. Now the dolphins are playing games like pass the seaweed. Our group has learned that dolphins can sometimes be interested by seaweed so every piece of Sargassum in the area is grabbed and presented to the dolphins, who to the delight of everyone, swim over and take the offerings of the divers. In several cases the dolphins complete the circuit – take the sea weed, pass it from their rostrum to pectoral fin, to tail fin, to another dolphin. The circuit is judged complete when that dolphin returns the seaweed to the person who had offered it.

Our fellow passengers, many of whom are true novices when it comes to being at sea and for whom this is certainly their first experience with dolphins in the wild, are thrilled but have no clue that this is not an every day occurrence.

Day 2: we have short encounters with dolphins in the morning but then nothing so we move down to the sugar wreck, truly one of the loveliest “small” dives in the world. Strewn across the bottom in only fifteen feet of water are the remains of a steel Molasses carrier that sank in the 1870s, The wreck is a riot of colorful fish, phalanxes of barracuda, sting rays, parrot fish, hordes of yellow grunts, blue runners and countless other fish. The water was running strong off the banks in what the Bahamians call an “off mon” current. Visibility was low in the green water but often it is crystal clear when the “on mon” current

Last night I played “Dolphin Adventure” for the passengers and crew. There were hoots of laughter at my long 70s hair-style. I felt sadness for all the years that have passed and the innocence of those days. And I marveled at how many times I’ve come out to these remote shallow banks to be with the spotted dolphins. But I feel that so much more is behind me than ahead of me.

My relationship with these dolphins is still a thing of wonderful innocence.

Day 4 - Wednesday. We had lots of ins-and-outs with the dolphins today. Spotters in the morning. Bottlenose later and then spotters again. No prolonged contact but lots of opportunities for people to take pictures. A massive hammerhead was found with a group of mothers and calves. When our eight divers entered the water the hammerhead headed off. It passed the Shear Water and I was awed by its size. It looked like a whale shark. What was it doing? Stalking one of the calves? It certainly took off when the divers entered the scene and had clearly been dominated by the dolphins prior to our arrival.

Wendy’s report of the hammerhead incident. During mid- afternoon Wendy sighted a great hammerhead, estimated by several at being 13 – 14 feet in length and having a huge girth, being held over the bottom by four dolphins, two fully mature and two younger and smaller. The dolphins were swimming over the hammerhead and somehow controlling a beast many times their size and weight. The divers’ appearance broke the relationship. The shark proceeded away from the dolphins and humans. On the periphery of that group there were two other larger dolphins. The dolphins seemed completely in control.

Day 5: weather rough, cloudy and choppy. Rained often. Plenty of white caps. Too strong to go to the WSR. Several people snorkeled. But it was an uncomfortable day. We headed for Florida early and en route John spotted some false killer whales. The seas were quite rough but we stayed with them for a quarter of an hour. This is not a rare species but it is unusual to see them because they are deep water animals. I love imagining what goes on out in the Gulf Stream but we normally cross at night so we don’t see some of the big marine mammals out there.

Day 6: We cleared customs back into the USA at 9am.

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