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September 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dolphin Dream, The Bahamas

dolphin snorkeling for the patient and energetic

from the September, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

The call came at 7 p.m. The Dolphin Dream had been steaming for hours. The sun was low, and two of the guests had already cracked open beers, having given up on a dolphins interaction that day. The rest of us assembled on the dive deck, donned our fins, snorkels, and masks, ready to make our giant stride. Six Atlantic spotted dolphins swam off the stern, waiting for us to join them.

The water was a deep shade of blue, the sandy bottom only 30 feet deep. As with most of our evening encounters, the dolphins were more energetic and playful than they had been during the morning. They chased and playfully nipped at each other and at the fins of the free divers. Whenever I thought they had left, one would suddenly zoom past me, quickly followed by others. I was struck by how close they came to me without making contact. Occasionally one would burrow its beak into the sand, searching for a bottom dweller, before returning to play. It was getting dark, and from the bridge, Captain Scott indicated it was time to for us to board. We had been in the water for more than 30 minutes.

MV Dolphin DreamThe beer drinkers should have had more confidence in the Captain's ability to locate the dolphins. Captain Wayne 'Scott' Smith has been leading dolphin charters in the Bahamas for more than 37 years. Although we swam with bottlenose dolphins, it was the friendlier Atlantic spotted dolphins that we sought.

About 80 of them reside in 60 square miles of the northwestern Great Bahama Bank. They can be identified by the spotting patterns developed as they age and by scars from shark attacks and boat injuries. In a book he co-authored, "Dolphin Tales, True Stories of the Atlantic Spotted Dolphins," Captain Scott related his adventures with those he has befriended over the years. The silverback of Bahamian dolphin diving, Scott indeed has a loyal following. Most of my fellow guests -- six Americans, three Japanese, and a German -- had been on his boat several times. One woman who has been coming annually for 22 years could only recall three days when Captain Scott failed to deliver his customers to the dolphins. Riory and Zack, young and friendly deckhands, and Heidi, the chatty and skilled chef, completed the crew.

I boarded the 12-passenger Dolphin Dream on a Saturday afternoon in June at Riviera Beach Marina, just north of Palm Beach, Florida. After a perfunctory safety briefing and dinner, we departed. Scott purchased the former shrimp trawler in 2005 to replace its smaller predecessor so he could operate year-round, mostly with shark diving trips, but with some dolphin trips. It's 85-foot length and a 35-foot width assured a smooth ride.

I was given one of the six small lower deck windowless double-bunk cabins, the doorway covered only by a curtain. At 5'7", I could barely stand upright. Getting into and out of my bunk gracefully required a level of dexterity I did not possess. Each bunk has a reading light, power sockets, and vent openings, a couple of shelves for storage, and two towels per person. During the trip, the cabins were not serviced. While there was a storage area in the hallway, one bag was left blocking access to the emergency escape hatch -- not a wise idea. Two roomy communal heads, each with a shower and a basin, were kept clean, and I rarely had to wait to use one.

Opposite the galley, fitted into a wall counter, a fridge was stocked with free beer and soft drinks, and there was an ice machine. Coffee and hot water were available round the clock. The salon featured two L-shaped upholstered benches, each set around a triangular table, as well as a TV, DVD, and stereo, which no one bothered to turn on. A picnic table and a freezer top doubled as camera tables. Steps led down to the dive platform, almost at the water line, and a well-designed ladder allowed easy ascent from the water even without removing fins. On the opposite side of the stern deck, stairs led up to the large, partly covered sun deck. Smokers used the small stern deck.

The Bahamas  mapAfter breakfast on our second day at sea, we steamed from our anchored location, soon encountering dolphins, seven of which lined up on the surface off the stern, waiting for us. Four expert freedivers, one a former Japanese champion, executed deep spins and loops, captivating the dolphins for minutes on a single breath of air, lengthening our interactions. When necessary, Riory, aboard an underwater scooter, steered the dolphins back. He would shoot down to the bottom, then spiral upward, often drawing one or more dolphins with him. When the dolphins swam too far to follow, Scott maneuvered the boat toward us and cut the engine so we could climb back. Occasionally Riory used his scooter to ferry an exhausted snorkeler back to the boat.

Once snorkelers were onboard, the Dolphin Dream would catch up with the dolphins, and we would jump in again to interact for a few minutes to half an hour, depending upon the dolphins' interest. Juveniles were more curious and playful, so if they were present, the encounters were longer. The morning encounters tailed off by 11 a.m., when the dolphins would simply swim on. Like other cetaceans, dolphins rest by shutting off half their brain while keeping one eye open as they swim. This is their sleep time and lasts between mid-morning and early evening, when they again displayed renewed interest in us.

Initially, I was content to surface snorkel and enjoy the action from above, watching the experienced freedivers assist the scooter diver to entertain the dolphins. As the week progressed, I started freediving, eventually reaching a depth of 30 feet, where I got a better perspective, and my swimming with the dolphins helped keep them around.

Given the long, dolphinless afternoons, on three of our five days, the Captain anchored at a reef, where after lunch we could scuba dive, using their BCs and regulators. One day we steamed down to Bimini Road. This shallow site, named for large flat stones that look like a road from above, sported soft brown coral and typical Caribbean reef fish, including sergeant majors and a small school of pinfish. A few lobsters hid under the stones. At a maximum 10-foot depth, it was a relaxing, though unspectacular dive. Another day, we stopped at Eldorado Shoal, where I followed Zack as he speared lionfish. The sight of seven lionfish skewered on Zack's speargun emboldened a small reef shark that took a few bites. Three other sharks, one significantly larger, kept an eye on us. Feeling exposed without a wetsuit and concerned about the possible arrival of an even larger predator, I headed back to the boat. Zack had the same idea and followed me with his fish kebab, the reef sharks in pursuit.

Other than diving, afternoons meant socializing, napping, reading, or otherwise entertaining oneself. A few customers practiced yoga on the sundeck. Given my awkward mobility in the tight cabin, I should have joined them. While I could always find a quiet spot, I enjoyed gabbing with the interesting guests, whose professional and educational backgrounds were varied, but they were united by a passion for dolphins. A large complement of women guests made for a polite and less competitive atmosphere. "This feels like a friends-and-family trip," I commented to Captain Scott. "That's not a bad thing, right?" he chuckled.

One night we motored to the deep straits west of the Great Bahama Bank, where the dolphins hunt. The boat gently drifted, its powerful lights directed off the stern attracting small crustaceans. Soon they were being hunted by flying fish and squid. Sharks and dolphins followed. And we, too, joined the underwater melee, watching the dolphins prove to be much more adept hunters than sharks.

Rating for Dolphin DreamWhat the boat lacked regarding creature comforts, it made up with the abundance and quality of its galley offerings. After 7 a.m., we could help ourselves to cereals, bakery items, yogurts, fresh fruit, eggs sunny-side-up, or scrambled, sausages, delicious bacon rashers. Heidi once brewed me an espresso, but I found the filtered coffee more than decent. For the Japanese guests, she boiled rice and offered six choices of seasoning. Lunch was once a variety of pasta and cold ramen noodles with garnishes. Another day, she prepared sushi and sashimi using hogfish speared by the deckhands. All meals were buffet, but she cheerfully customized dishes. Did I want my quesadillas spicy or not? With chicken or with vegetables? With or without refried beans? Avocado, cilantro, and olives were offered as garnishes.

For dinner one evening we had roast beef, crispy and caramelized on the outside, pink and juicy on the inside, accompanied by deliciously seasoned roast vegetables. Her barbecue pork ribs cooked in Coke were so tender that the meat fell off the bone. Sirloins, perfectly broiled, came with fresh lobster tails. She also prepared thyme-roasted chicken thighs and baked salmon. The vegetarians had a different tofu-based course option every evening. For lunch or dinner, there were a variety of salads and desserts including store-purchased key lime pie, Belgian eclairs, chocolate cake, and ice cream. Between meals, there was a huge selection of snacks, healthy and decidedly not, as well as lots of fresh fruit -- nectarines, watermelon, oranges, or melons. A crudité platter with a dip made an appearance every afternoon.

Heidi was a keen snorkeler, too. One evening, at the end of an intense dolphin encounter, she was gushing, overwhelmed by her experience. "Put the snorkel back in your mouth or else you will drown," quipped one of the regulars.

In my years of diving, I would sometimes I see dolphins swimming in the distance during a safety stop. Other times I would jump into the water with my snorkel if we happened upon them on the way back from a dive. Normally they would be in their sleep state and swim on. Twice, off the Pacific islands of Mexico and Costa Rica, I had memorable encounters with hunting dolphins, but many interactions on this trip were longer and more intense. But, while we had morning and late afternoon encounters every day, there was a lot of down time and lots of motoring. There was no way of knowing how long the dolphins would hang around each time you went in. It required determination and energy to repeatedly jump in, swim back, climb aboard, and jump in again, let alone entertain the dolphins, because if they weren't entertained they didn't stick around. "Many divers say it's too much work," said one of the regulars who once worked on the boat and now returns as a customer every year. Nevertheless, he finds the dolphin charters more rewarding than the shark trips. And I surely agree.

-- DTV

Our undercover diver's bio: DTV has been lucky to dive since 2001, mostly in the Indo-Pacific: Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Philippines, Palau, Chuuk, and the Maldives. He has also dived at the Cocos and Malpelo Islands, the Galapagos, French Polynesia, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the UK, and the Azores. He swam with humpback whales in Rurutu and with Orcas in Norway. He doesn't bother with a camera, preferring to capture memories in his mind's eye.

Kosrae and Yap, MicronesiaDivers Compass: Six nights, $2195. www.dolphindreamteam.com. Dolphin Dream operates dolphin charters between May and August and shark trips year-round. Not all trips are advertised on the website, so inquire. . . . Captain Scott's answers to my emails were delayed when he was out at sea. . . . .There is no additional cost for scuba diving, and no charge for using a BC and regulator, and Scott loaned me a wetsuit for the night dive. . . . .The Riviera Beach Marina is a short taxi ride from the Mangonia Park Tri-Rail Station, which offers connections to Miami International Airport, Ft. Lauderdale Airport and Palm Beach. . . .Soft drinks, Coors Light/Budweiser Light, and Yuengling were complimentary. For anything stronger -- or better beer -- stock up in Walgreens or Publix before you set off. . . . We sometimes saw another Bimini-based liveaboard occasionally dragging the customers on a rope off the stern to view dolphins -- not the sort of interaction Captain Scott is likely to offer.

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