Dolphins & Whales & Sharks … Oh My!
“DOLPHINS ! Yay … Swim”
“WHALES ! Whoa … Look”
“SHARK ! Sh!t … Run!”
Anyone of these may occasionally be heard in shouts from the foredeck of a boat or in the shallows of a beach. The response however, from those within ear shot, varies by the nature of the beast.
Eastern Edge of the Gulf Stream, Bahamas
“I’ll ride the wave…where it takes me” –Pearl Jam ~ “Release”
A mild cold front was passing which shifted the usual late summer Bahamian weather from south to north. The seas were 2-4ft … somewhere between smooth & rough which made for a rigorous swim in this part of the ocean on this particular afternoon. After a few hours of bouncy sailing … myself, some crew & passengers were enjoying a leisurely afternoon dip in the sea … when, in unison, voices from the boat shouted “Dolphins ! Yay … Swim”
The direction given was into the weather, so we attempted to swim but were battling the elements and quickly tired … then soon gave up on the idea of connecting with the dolphins. On calmer days it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility to enjoy a laid-back swim, dive, spin, flip, twist, dance & sometimes gameplay, in the shallows, with these incredibly social friends from below. Unfortunately, today was different as much of our effort was focused on just staying afloat & not choking down the deeper waters of the Gulf Stream.
Nothing ever seems subtle when living & working @ sea … & the next moment exemplified that reality as this pod of dolphins literally surfed past my periphery so fast each one was just a grey/blue blur. The wave sets, which had myself & the group riding up & down in the troughs & on the faces, were propelling these bottlenose dolphins through, over & around the group at breakneck speeds … imagine the flash of energy while standing on the track @ the Indianapolis 500 as the cars pass so fast & so close they lose shape/form. It’s not often that a dolphin encounter equals an adrenaline rush but this was a mind-bending blur of exactly that.
After returning to the boat I could see from my new vantage point above, this pod repeatedly surfing through the swimmers then circling back to do it all again … as if the people were a human obstacle course designed to make the surfing that much more fun for the dolphins.
Mouchoir Bank, Turks & Caicos or Dominican Republic
“You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters!” ―Captain Barbossa to Jack Sparrow
We were completing about a 120-mile overnight sail just at first light. The seas went from an unpleasant 6-8 foot sets to 3 foot chop as the depth sounder jumped from thousands of feet to just 60 in a matter of minutes. We dropped sails as we had arrived at our shallow bank destination, in the Central Atlantic, where we would spend the next couple of days. Just as the brilliant orange sun peaked over the horizon the unmistakable silhouette of a large humpback whale launching itself above the waves was seen in the distance. I quickly requested a crew member climb to our only crow’s nest @ the forward mast so to serve as our “eyes in the sky”. The morning turned to midday & then to afternoon … time after time we heard the voice from above shout “Whales” followed by a direction & distance.
Hour after hour we motored our lumbering steel schooner from one sighting to the next … crisscrossing the bank waters until our GPS track resembled an unshaken Etch-A-Sketch (it’s a toy from the ‘70’s). However, as exciting as each whale breaching was, like an image straight out of a “Blue Planet” documentary, they’d have slipped under the surface & out of sight by the time we approached.
Nearing dusk … exhausted & exasperated … myself & the crew resigned ourselves to viewing these magnificent sea dwellers from afar. Yet now as the setting sun appeared fire red above the horizon all the voices around the deck shouted “Whales !” … & then a collective whisper “Whoa … Look” as a mother & calf … like monsters from the deep, slowly rose to the surface so close to the starboard side that the 120ton vessel rolled & shifted sideways.
No longer resigned but awed … the crew & passengers stood silent as we were now within arm’s reach of the (off the charts) powerful yet passive, energy these two brought to the surface.
Cape Tribulation, Queensland Australia
Captain James Cook (sailor & explorer of the 1700’s) named this headland “tribulation” because while salvaging his grounded & damaged ship from a nearby reef … he was quoted to say “here begun all our troubles”
My experience was quite different but just as memorable … on this particular morning I crawled out of my sleeping bag then rolled out of the rear door of my VW Transporter/Vanagon, which was serving as my hotel & transportation while exploring “down unda”. I stumbled along the muddy rainforest road, where I had spent the night then on toward the boardwalk & beach so to have a wake up swim.
Escorted from above, in silent flight by a squadron of stealthy flying foxes, I slowly began to see the ocean waters through the trees. I must admit I was disappointed to see a number of other tourists had the same early morning beach plan, as I assumed mine would be the only footprints in the sand. In a brief moment that all changed, just as I made my first steps into the water.
Someone yelled “
Dolphins & Whales & Sharks … Oh My ! Excitement & Awe & Fear … Oh Yeah! Our response to sighting each of these sea dwelling icons tells a bit about human nature. We often envision ourselves to be charismatic as a dolphin … or majestic as a whale or maybe even as fearsome as a shark. It seems likely that individually we are any & all of the above from time to time. Collectively however, I’m afraid Captain Barbosa was right and wasn’t speaking of dolphins or whales or sharks when he said “here there be monsters.”
For more ocean musings from Captain Chris Urbasek visit www.driftingwithchris.com