Swimming with Dolphins

Underwater Adventure in the Bahamas
  |  Gorp.com

This is how the day starts aboard the Calypso Poet: You climb-on deck, mutter "Good morning," and let your eyes adjust to the aquamarine water that stretches to the horizon. Pretty soon, fins—two or three or eight or nine of them—break the surface, bounding toward the boat. "Dolphins at three o'clock!" someone yells. Muffins and coffee mugs roll on the floor as everyone dashes to the stern, pulls on snorkeling gear, and jumps in.

What follows is a lot like returning to the dream you just left. You kick slowly through the blue water and wait for the dolphins. In no time at all, they're here, diving down to the white-sand bottom and powering back up with their strong tails, their entire bodies nodding Yes yes yes.

One swims under me and toward Mark Evans, an English computer scientist with a world-class sunburn. It stops in front of him. Evans's body registers sheer surprise: his arms are flung out and his yellow underwater camera floats, untouched, next to him. It's so exciting to watch this that I start inhaling water. Later, I can't remember anything about the dolphins except that they were big and graceful and fast and curious. But Kathleen Dudzinski, the biologist we're here to help, is used to this unscientific behavior on the part of her paying volunteers. We have to go through the sublime to get to the data.

Dudzinski is working toward her PhD at Texas A & M University, specializing in dolphin communications. She is monitoring about 100 Atlantic spotted dolphins that frequent the Little Sand Banks off the Bahamas, attempting to crack their language code by defining the relationship between their actions and the noises they make. Their vocalizations range from whistles and squeaking sounds to squawks and the pip-pipping they use for echolocation, a sort of sonar used for navigation or, at higher intensities, for stunning fish. There are other things to learn as well about these mammalian cousins who returned to the sea 60 million years ago after having been land creatures like us. "How do they survive?" Dudzinski wonders. "What do they like? How do they spend their time?"

There are plenty of dolphin studies going on around the world, but this is the only area in which the researchers routinely swim with dolphins. Many dolphins live in murky waters, where researchers identify and track them only by characteristics of their dorsal fins. But the Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis) that we're studying lives in water so clear that from our perches on the boat we can see the ripples in the white sand eight meters below the surface. The sand is flawless. It's pure calcium carbonate, which stretches out of the water in the warm shallows that extend for kilometers from the Bahamas.

There are seven paying volunteers on this week-long trip, including an environmental consultant from Connecticut, a real-estate agent from California who will have logged three trips with Dudzinski by the end of the season, me, and two college students. Our job is to act as extra eyes and ears for Dudzinski. We swim with the dolphins and remember what they look like, what they do, and what sounds they make. The marriage of tourism and science is handled by Oceanic Society Expeditions, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco.

Dudzinski lays down the law. "We will not harass the dolphins," she says. "We will not harass the dolphins. We will not harass the dolphins. We are here to noninvasively observe and study them. That means we will not touch or grab them."

This is extremely difficult. These dolphins have been called the friendliest in the world. Almost 30 years ago, the dolphins in this area befriended a group of divers excavating a Spanish galleon that carried, among other things, a solid-gold, life-size statue of the Virgin Mary. The dolphins once drove off a hammerhead shark that was closing in on a diver. They are curious and friendly, and it takes a real effort not to reach out and stroke their agreeably spotted hides.

It's also hard not to anthropomorphize them. It's easy to call their eyes wise and kind, to diagnose their jaws as slightly underbitten, and to compare their smiles to Tom Hanks's. But this kind of fantasy evidently goes both ways: The calves treat us as if we're big, slow toys to be played with, and the adults are sometimes friendly and sometimes merely tolerant. The older dolphins, who are identifiable by their proliferation of spots, stay off a few meters as the calves, milky white underneath and black on top, zoom in to inspect us. The babies weave between us, and when mama drifts off into the distant blue shadows, they follow. "She's saying 'Stay away from those two-legs,' " someone suggests. " 'You don't know where they've been.' "

Dolphin numbers have been slashed worldwide by fishermen who traditionally followed groups of dolphins to schools of tuna and other fish, then netted and killed the dolphins along with the fish. After a public outcry in the late 1980s, dolphin mortality reportedly dropped from an estimated 150,000 per year to 20,000 per year, thanks to changes in the way the tuna are caught.

There is no net fishery near the Bahamas. The biggest problem the dolphins have is the growing number of tourist boats that anchor in the area. One of them barges into our view, stops, and a crew member starts emitting loud whistles, apparently to attract the dolphins. The dolphins come, stay for a little while, and when they leave, the boat churns after them and dumps about 20 divers into the water. We watch with dismay, but not smugly. We may be smaller and kinder and gentler than the other boat, but aren't we affecting the dolphins as well?

"I'm sure we're influencing them," says Dudzinski, "but it's the dolphins that started interacting with the divers in the early 1960s. They choose to come to this area. We've seen mating; we've seen nursing. If they don't want to be around us, they just take off. There's no way we can keep up with dolphins that don't want to be with us. It's up to them."

They certainly are in control. Some days, they'll swim past the boat a kilometer out and never come in to play. Other days, they'll visit us several times.

One evening, a few dolphins approach the boat. Most of us are unmoved by this—we're relaxing in our dry clothes and watching the sunset. And dusk is an iffy time to swim: It's dinner hour for the sharks. But Skip Alleman, the environmental consultant, is off, swirling away with the dolphins nuzzling and touching him in an amazing exchange that looks like team members congratulating each other after winning a championship. As if they're toasting to a bright future. As if they're waiting for us to lose our long, weak limbs, let our fingers meld together into flippers, and join the, back in the blue water.

Oceanic Society Expeditions runs week-long trips to the Calypso Poet nine times from May to September. The cost is US $1,495, which includes all meals and accommodation aboard the Calypso Poet, the services of a naturalist, and background educational materials. Airfare to Lucaya, Grand Bahama Island, is extra. Participants should have basic swimming and snorkeling skills and should bring their own snorkeling gear. For more information, contact Oceanic Society Expeditions, Fort Mason Center, Building E, San Francisco, California 94123; phone (415) 441-1106; fax (415) 474-3395.

Dolphinswim also offers opportunities to swim with dolphins and whales in their natural environments. The adventure begins in Miami harbor, where you'll take off for the island of Bimini. Contact Dolphinswim via the company's web page or at P.O. Box 8653, Santa Fe, NM 87504, 305-534-4188.

© Photos copyright Corel Corporation. All rights reserved.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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