Thursday, August 14, 2008

Eye-to-Eye with Dolphins

Bahamas 2008 Blog

Extraordinarily Friendly Contacts with Spotted Dolphins

Sat. 8-2. We cast off from Miami at 4pm on the Juliet, a 104-foot, three-masted steel schooner and ran out Government Cut to the open sea passing high price and high-rise condominiums. What a relief to get to sea and what a sea it was – almost flat calm, inky dark when we hit the Gulf Stream.

This is my fiftieth year since crossing the stream for the first time as a fifteen year old, my thirtieth year crossing to be with the friendly dolphins found along the edge of the stream on the Bahamian side.

I’m traveling with my wife, BlueVoice marketing director, Deborah Cutting and nine other members of, three of whom are good friends from last year’s expeditions.

Miami has receded on the horizon but not disappeared altogether. Ahead the surface is broken by feeding dolphins. As we draw nearer they jump on our bow - very large bottlenose dolphins, several calves among them. They ride with us, sometimes pressing a tail against the leading edge of the bow, rolling over and looking at us, breaking off and diving only to return to us. From time to time one will roll on its side and look up making eye contact. It’s a thrilling beginning to this year’s voyage.

On the bow I can sense the transition of my mind from daily pressures and petty hassles to one of wonder and deep relation. For me crossing the stream is not merely transit from Florida to the Bahamas. It is entering another universe peopled by fellow sentient creatures in the form of dolphins.

The Juliet is a marvelous boat with an excellent crew. The vessel is astonishingly steady. First night a squall blew up and out the porthole I could see waves of three feet. The Juliet was steady as a rock.

Sunday 8-3.We cruise during the day near Bimini looking for spotted dolphins in a place I’ve been coming since 1989. Late in the day we find them. Swimmers fly off the side of the boat and soon find themselves among the most up close and personal dolphins I’ve ever encountered. They cruise by, half closing their eyes as they go into interlock with one swimmer or another. This is made possible because we approach the dolphins slowly. Of course we can only be with them if they want to be with us. With this approach one dolphin may fix it’s eyes on a diver and if the diver looks back and maintains eye contact an interlock takes place not unlike two lovers.

The dolphin narrows its eyes and appears in a state of ecstasy and if the diver will swim calmly alongside the dolphin a connection forms that is deeply moving. Several swimmers exit the water amazed, those who have had previous experience with dolphins perhaps more so than neophytes. This has been an extraordinarily intimate encounter that lasted more than an hour.

You really have to think what it means that we can come out to these remote areas of the Bahamas and find friendly, curious dolphins who clearly enjoy their encounters with us and much as we do with them. These creatures are in no way lower than we are in intelligence and sentience or right to live. That knowledge gives rise to a whole new morality that includes the needs and wellbeing of animals.

Mon. 8-4. The second day we find a small group of bottlenose skimming along the bottom searching for small fish like flounders and pearly razors. Nurse sharks are feeding nearby. I can’t see any connection between the dolphin’s activities and the nurse sharks.

Tues 8-5. Early morning. Spotted dolphins. Again very close interactions with our swimmers. We then proceed south along the Bimini chain finding wonderful shallow water snorkeling spots. There is a huge variety of life on what appear to be health reefs. Mustard coral colors the reef in the shallow sunny waters. In the crevices are small octopus, moray eels and myriad fish of brilliant color.

It has been my desire to find friendly or accessible schools of dolphins around the world. My first encounters with friendlies came in 1978 north of Grand Bahama when I met a school of spotted dolphins about whom I made a number of films, most recently The Dolphin Defender on PBS, and whom we continue to visit to this day. I’ve found and swum with friendly bottlenose in Rangiroa, with killer whales in Norway and with sperm whales in both the Galapagos and off Dominica.

In 1989, on a tip from treasure diver Bob Marx led me to El Dorado Shoals off Bimini to find another school of friendly dolphins. And now we are heading even further south in the Biminis to find still another school of spotted dolphins we hope will be at least approachable.

Wed 8-6. OCay. This is our first visit to the area and I didn’t want to disappoint our associates who had already been having great encounters at Bimini. I felt real pressure to find dolphins down here. And we did - as many as 30 spotters. They were accessible but did not display the friendliness of the Bimini group. Because the dolphins were approachable but not friendly this developed into an excellent opportunity to look at their behavior. The water is extraordinarily clear and we could see the spotted dolphins plunging their noses into the sand in search of small prey. There were many juveniles in the group and I could see the “crèche” formation where adults are outriders to the calves they try to contain in the middle. Of course the calves test the limits constantly rocketing out of the circle to check on what manner of bizarre creature has entered their space. “Hmm. Very awkward these featherless bi-peds! But they seem to breathe air like us so they’re not fish.”

Thur. 8-7. We encountered spotted dolphins in the morning in very murky water. There was a group of five juveniles – still no development of spots – who charged around us when we were in the water. Their energy was enormous. They looked us in the eye but it was in “fly by” mode.

The weather has been extraordinary. The Bahamas tend to be very calm during August and your major risk is a hurricane. But nothing came across the Atlantic to spoil our party this year.

Just before leaving the shallow sand banks where we usually encounter the dolphins everyone goes overboard for a last swim. The water is thirty feet deep and astonishingly clear. An odd but wonderful sight - all of us floating in the ocean miles from land laughing and talking about the wondrous experience we’ve just had.

I return to home in St. Augustine to learn that my film “The Dolphin Defender” will be playing on NATURE on PBS Sunday night. From the first friendly meeting with dolphins in 1978 I have known a deep sense of privilege and corresponding duty to protect dolphins to the best of my ability. I cannot simply enjoy their company in the Bahamas and ignore their plight elsewhere.