Monday, May 16, 2011

Everyone Loves a Dolphin ( Even this Shark Girl)

It has been just over a year and a half since Duncan and I left the rock and our reunion with the island was even more amazing than I expected. Although it is tiny in size, Bimini has a very eclectic history with Hemingway, rum running during prohibition, big game fishing, the Rat Pack, Silence of the Lambs and the world renowned Bimini Biological Field Station (Sharklab). Bimini has a special place in our hearts and is where we will be getting married next year. My first trip to the island was in 2004 and I immediately fell in love. I made trips back over the next few years, working with the Sharklab and then making an official move to the island in 2009. Duncan made his first trip as a volunteer at the Sharklab and then returned in 2007 as a manager. He left the lab in 2009 when we took a position on a boat based out of the island. We spent that year working on the boat and then returning to the lab as managers for a bit before saying goodbye and heading onto a new adventure.

The wild dolphins of Bimini draw people from all over the world and were the catalyst for our return trip. Atlantic Spotted dolphins are very curious and social, allowing people to have incredible interactions with them. The crystal blue water above white sand makes an ideal place for shooting and it here that we were asked to host an underwater photo and video seminar. Bimini, famous for its dolphins, is also home to spectacular reefs, massive stingrays, numerous species of sharks and mangrove mazes that are teaming with life. We were happy to return to island paradise and share our love for the ocean.

As the last guest arrived and boarded we shoved off. Zac McDuffie, a former guest when we were crew on the boat, was back to film a pilot about learning vacations. The planned schedule was ambitious, with us teaching while being filmed and then jumping in to film and photograph the students using their cameras in the water. The guest list included a night club owner from Toronto, a model from San Diego, an opera singer from Toronto, a learning vacation expert, an actress from LA, a professional cameraman, a very cute couple from Canada (bearing lots of Canadian flags and maple syrup), a social worker from Kentucky and a well traveled dolphin swimmer from Germany. Nothing else in the world, but dolphins would bring such a random group of people together to share of week of adventure.

We wasted no time getting in the water and as I slipped beneath the surface it felt good to be home. Our first swim was in the dolphin grounds in about 35 ft of clear water. Taking a single breath and then descending to the soft sand is one of my favorite things to do. I love lying on the bottom and closing my eyes, as the world disappears, one of the few quiet moments in life, until Duncan undoes my weight belt or a remora tries to eat my hair. It felt good to stretch the lungs and have my free diving fins on.

The week passed by very quickly, filled with dolphin encounters, stingray feeding, a shark dive and lots of cameras. Our first interaction came on the first day and after towing for a short while the dolphins chose to swim with us. It is amazing to watch as people have their first moment with a dolphin. You can describe it and explain what might happen, but until it is your own, there are really no words. Aside from our pets at home, we have very few, if any, shared interactions with animals. The spotted dolphins look you in the eyes, they engage you and they play. We are welcomed into their world, although it may be brief, but you do truly feel welcome. The most amazing part is that any person at any age can be in these moments. You are weightless in the water and dolphins do not segregate or judge, they simply share the ocean and accept us. If only more people had this mentality. Watching a person dance with a dolphin, no words spoken, for the first time is a pure thing of natural beauty. Gliding down and having a dolphin on either side of you, so close, maybe even touching you and looking you right in the eye, is one of the most peaceful yet exciting moments I have ever had.

Yes, I know this shark girl is going on and on about dolphins. I don’t know what it is, but everyone loves a dolphin. Even my Marine Corps father, very serious, laughed out loud and smiled like a kid on Christmas morning when he swam with a dolphin. It is amazing how they can set you at ease and crack even the toughest exterior of a person who claims to be uninterested. I think dolphins intrigue us and make us question how little we actually know. They have superior intelligence and express so much emotion. On our last interaction we had a pod of 25 dolphins that chose to join our human pod. Diving down you could hear them talking to each other, loud squeaks filling the ocean. I watched as 2 dolphins turned themselves vertical and chatted back and forth. I know I am anthropomorphizing, but that is what it looked like. It was a sweet, cartoon like moment and I wondered if they were sharing a silly joke about awkward humans needing plastic fins to swim.

On this last dive Duncan and I did not take cameras, having time just to play. We both have a good breath hold and have played with dolphins many times before. We know that the little ones love to spiral with you and that the older ones will just cruise beside you, looking into your soul with a soft and wise eye. You can only wonder what they have seen in the world. We spent several minutes, just him and I, with 20 dolphins between us, not saying a word, but knowing that there is nothing else like this in the world. Our special moment was interrupted by an overzealous diver flying by my face in a rush to have his own moment with the dolphins. My displeasure was captured on film, as I raised my hands and said WTF. This was later shown on the week DVD and we all tried to contain our laughter like a group of school children not wanting to get caught. Jillian, the awesome crew member with a great name, asked me if I liked the clip, saying she laughed out loud when she found it during her sleepless editing night. I had described the moment to her earlier in the day; so finding out that she had captured it on film was absolutely brilliant.

Now that I have mentioned a crew member I will elaborate a bit more about 4 amazing people. Jillian is the in water safety, chef and videographer/photographer. Working in this boat means you wear many hats. She raced out of the water each day to change and then get back in the kitchen or dump photos. I empathized because I literally had been her while I was on the boat. We shared a lot of laughs and our love for Disney movies. She is really a special soul who has combined science with the spiritual world and truly loves the ocean. Christian, a former lab manager with Duncan, was the shark wrangler and captain of the boat most days. It was fun to hear stories about Duncan’s debauchery at the lab and all their adventures. Bradley, the third crew, hails from Abaco and is just learning to ropes. He is already a great free diver and lovely to chat with. Geoff, el Capitan, has been with these dolphins for over 20 years and knows the waters like the back of his hand. He shares these incredible animals year after year and has a deep passion for them. Bim and Storm are the boat dogs, 2 massive Dobermans with hearts of gold. Their ears are floppy and they are big loves. Bim was with us when we were crew, with Storm being a new addition. They stay in the wheelhouse until it is time to zip to shore on the tender.

There were also dolphin friends that turned up. George, and old dolphin missing his right front flipper, joined us on most days along with Chopper and a new friend Sashimi (missing a chunk out of her dorsal fin) . We towed on lines behind the boat and dipped down superman style, flying through the water, flanked by dolphins on either side. Hanging upside down underwater and being dragged is quite a rush, until you get water up your nose. It feels like flying or as close as you can get to flying. 2 minutes passes quickly and then you have to return to the air-breathing world.

The dolphins move in close, effortlessly moving in and out of the pod. It really is quite a view. Remoras cruise through the area, looking for a new ride when they have misplaced their shark. They think that humans dragging on a line might be a good option and persistently follow fins, legs and arms. Duncan was towing beside we I saw his arm flail and then noticed he had a remora in his hand. He gave it a toss and put his hand to his ear. Not until we were on the deck could I see the wound that it had inflicted. In an attempt to hitch a new ride, one of the remoras bit his ear. He had to pull it off in the water as we dragged along. His ear was bleeding pretty good and swelled up nicely. Silly remoras.

On Tuesday we swam with some of Bimini’s other notorious characters; stingrays and Caribbean reef sharks. Honeymoon Harbour is south of Bimini and is a shallow protected area that attracts large stingrays. People can gather in a circle, kneeling in the soft sand and hand feed these friendly critters. Often times they will sit on your lap or goose you from behind, making for a good laugh. They seem to enjoy the cameras, rubbing over the dorm ports. People have misconceptions about these barbed animals and this is a positive way to interact with these gentle animals. They do not attack and spine people, most injuries are accidents and or could have been prevented. Like any animal, if you approach them cautiously and with respect you will have better luck than sneaking up from behind. After a short snorkel with the free- swimming rays we made our way to the shark dive site.

Triangle Rocks has been used for shark dives for 20 years. The Sharklab uses the site to introduce volunteers to sharks, for research and filming. In 20 feet of water it is possible to see dozens of Caribbean reef sharks, black nose and sharp nose sharks. The guests on this boat were nervous and excited. Most had not signed up for sharks. It is amazing what 5 minutes in the water can do for people’s negative opinions of these animals. The conditions were perfect with bright sunlight bouncing off the sharks and lighting up the clear water. We could hear giggles, laughs and some eeks as people watched the sharks. A chubby little Atlantic sharp nose showed up, sadly with a hook and line attached to his left jaw. Many of the sharks have hooks or hook scars, reminders that even this site is not protected. On a positive note it shows the guests how beautiful the sharks are and the damage that fishing for them can cause. We turned a boat full of dolphin lovers into shark fans! I have done this dive dozens of times and it never gets old. I love every minute in the water with these guys.

One of the highlights for me was watching Len, part of the lovely couple from Canada have a personal moment with a dolphin. They swim at the surface beside each other for almost 5 minutes. I am sure Len did not know I was watching or notice anything else for that matter. He mentioned after that the rest of the world disappeared as he held back tears. These moments in life are few and far between, but remind what it is to truly live. Seeing the smile on his face was priceless and I am thankful that I was able to witness the moment. Len was also quite a comedian, providing humor during most meals. He even ate a conch pistol with Duncan, no questions asked. I think Keri was excited, encouraging him to have another! (For those who do not know conch pistol is the Bahamian Viagra).He assisted Dony with his downward dog on the bow of the boat. It was hilarious to see two men (non yoga types) working on their yoga on a boat at sea. We were also treated to a few melodies from Len at random moments and a dance party did break out in the salon after dinner one evening. The final icing on the cake was a performance by Michelle on the top deck under the stars. She offered to share her passion for opera because we had all shared our passion with her. The perfect ending for an outstanding week, warm air, brilliant stars and a beautiful voice.

In short…everyone loves a dolphin, even this shark girl!

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