Swimming with Wild Dolphins at Wildquest

By Water, Roving, , , , ,

Stepping off the back of the boat, I plunge into the warm Bahama waters. Within seconds, I see them, faint gray shapes moving through the clear blue water. One of them breaks off and head towards me, inclining his head and issuing a string of clicks. As he passes, I look into the eyes of a wild dolphin for the first time.

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A dozen more Atlantic spotted dolphins follow, some slipping by less than an arm’s length away. I am instantly overwhelmed, hyperventilating in my snorkel and eyes misting with raw emotion. A part of my mind lectures me to stay calm while another part tries to ascertain that this is reality, not just another dream I’ll wake up from with a fuzzy sense of longing.  I glance at my GoPro as if it can confirm – “Are you seeing this, too?” – before somersaulting to let off energy in an explosion of bubbles and joy.

Even when I’m not surrounded by dolphins, swimming in the ocean is magical, reminiscent of flying through an endless playground. I’m like a child who never wants to leave.

Before seeking out the dolphins each morning, the Wildquest catamaran anchors in the shallows around Bimini for some snorkeling. At the Three Sisters reef, we take turns swimming through a little cave, the fish clearing out in a flash before filling in the space behind us just as quickly.  Over three different snorkeling sites, we see Trumpetfish and Porcupinefish and Parrotfish and Butterflyfish and even a Scorpionfish that looks just like a rock… and those are just a few varieties that end with the word “fish”.

wildquest-snorkeling-underwater wildquest-snorkeling

But the dolphins are what make this trip extraordinary. On Wednesday, our first full day on the water, we are just about to give up hope when they appear, distant dorsal fins on the open ocean.  Soon, a pod of over 30 surrounds our boat and travels with us, showing off their bow-riding skills.

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We know it’s time to get in the water when they slow and gather at the back of the boat, an open invitation. Tell, who’s several months pregnant, jumps into the water first.  We hope the dolphins will be intrigued by the growing baby within her. I follow third after her husband.

I had imagined that swimming with wild dolphins would be like a clumsy jogger trying to keep up with a sports car, just gray blurs darting around in the distance, but these dolphins exceed my every expectation. They go out of their way to incorporate us unwieldy land lubbers in their balletic movements, appearing ghost-like from behind and slowing to match our pace. Time decelerates to a trickle as we share a moment of connection between creatures from totally different environments before the dolphin slides away with the flick of a tail.

A couple times, I shift my focus from one dolphin and realize with a shiver that I’m surrounded, part of the pod, gliding with dolphins to the left and right and below.  I at first try to make myself smaller to avoid accidentally touching them, but at one point I lose almost all sense of self, moving as a unit.  A dolphin brings me back to myself with a rubbery brush along my upper arm, inciting a burst of startled giggles that turns into a calming breath as we break the surface together.

For a while, the dolphins coalesce near the bottom, a secret meeting, then they disappear into the ocean as quickly and quietly as they came.  It goes to show just how much the swim is on their terms, not ours.

wildquest-looking-dolphins wildquest-dolphin-pod-gathers wildquest-flippers-with-dolphins

We meet a smaller pod minutes later, but our interaction is briefer and less intense, at least for me.  I’m surprised to see a bottlenose swimming among the spotteds – I wonder what the two related species think of one another.

wildquest-spotted-dolphin-circles wildquest-spotted-and-bottlenose-dolphins

Back on the boat, everyone bubbles over with stories of their own experiences.  These striking creatures have a strong effect, and our leader Amlas advises we give ourselves time to process it all.

On the last morning, as we head toward the Bimini Road snorkeling site, we encounter a pod of 30+ bottlenose dolphins hunting just offshore.  Swimming here is a completely different experience.

Underwater, the noise is like a swamp full of mosquitoes, a steady drone as the dolphins sonar the sand for fish. When they find one, they point straight down and nose the fish out in a cloud of sand. Sometimes there is flash of silver as the fish breaks free and the dolphin chases it down, but usually it ends with a barely visible gulp. It’s an effective method of making a meal, and seven foot long nurse sharks patrol the bottom to scavenge their scraps.  Some barracuda also join the mix.

dolphin-shark-and-barracuda wildquest-bottlenose-dolphin wildquest-swimming-with-sharks

 

The bottlenoses’ mannerisms are completely different from the spotteds, more businesslike and analytical instead of playful, but this could be because they are feeding. The only time they pay us any attention is when they surface for air around every 5 minutes, where they take several leisurely breaths before diving back down.

At this time, if I feign disinterest and dip beneath the water, the dolphin might eye me askance and crook its upper body to point its rostrum straight at me, blasting a loud series of clicks.  Their echolocation gives them a super-accurate, three-dimensional model of their target, inside and out.  When this happens from 3 dolphins at once, I feel so overexposed that I want to curl up and hide. But mostly it makes me feel seen, personally acknowledged.

My own camera isn’t working, but I have all these little photographic memories: Diving down alongside a dolphin larger than I am, its crinkled little eye staring into mine. The white, white belly of a dolphin passing overhead with shimmers of light refracting around it.  Two dolphins, one with a gimpy right pectoral, drifting side-by-side and rubbing their fins together in skinship.

Oh, and the baby bottlenose!  While its mother/aunt diligently roots out food, it bobs alongside, sometimes pretending to hunt and other times distractedly wandering off to play.  Meinhard and I come upon it shaking some seaweed in its mouth, letting the plant slide down to catch on its tail, then grabbing it again.

wildquest-baby-bottlenose-dolphin-seaweed

At one point, I try an experiment reminiscent of the time in my childhood spent emoting with animals. I send a mental invitation , layered with feelings of welcome and joy and rolling underwater. To my surprise, the little dolphin rolls on its side to look at me then makes a beeline upwards, breaking the surface about 3 feet away and veering around me for a brief dance. He wriggles like a puppy before diving back down to his aunt. The adult skeptic within me says this was just a coincidence, but the timing sends chills down my spine.

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However, it’s not all fun and games in the ocean. Some of the males in particular have the air of warriors. One big scarred male must have found something that didn’t meet his approval during his echolocation scan. He swings his tail out under him in one powerful stroke, so he is curved like a c.  Another clicking blast and he repeats the motion. I backpedal like mad, heart pounding. Had one of those “kicks” connected… But it seems to be for show and he swims off.  Behind me, Meinhard gives an excited thumbs up, but I shake my head in disagreement.

I see this move used for real later on a shark that had gotten too close a feeding dolphin. The dolphin swims a few agitated circles, slams into the shark with its tail, then rockets to the surface in a leap about 20 feet away, eliciting cheers from those on the boat but making me nervous. Jorg has an even scarier encounter when 3 dolphins tail swipe him in turn, one passing with a *whoomph* just in front of his mask cam.

Eventually, the chill of the water and the feeling that my pruny skin was about to slough off drives me back on board the boat. I’m amazed to learn that 2 1/2 hours passed while I swam. It seems less than half that.

All around the boat, the bottlenose are still surfacing, round backs and fins slicing through the water. I feel so privileged to have observed the dolphins going about their daily lives and can only hope our presence didn’t interfere too much.

I will be forever grateful to the dolphins of Bimini, and try to keep their lessons in mind – breathe deeply, frolic freely with your pod, and just keep swimming.

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Read about the rest of my experience with Wildquest on this trip…

Resources

  • Wildquest
    Offers week-long wild dolphin excursions on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas.

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