Text and Photography by Bill Harrigan
Taking a deep breath, I kick for the white sand, 20 feet below. Halfway to the bottom, a group of five dolphins overtake me, two on the left and three on the right. They swim with a casual grace unmatched by any other creature in the sea. I am a reasonably good swimmer, but, by comparison, I am a lumbering, clumsy life form clearly out of my element.
For an instant we hang head-to-head in the crystalline water, eyeing each other with unabashed curiosity. While they watch, I roll around to the left and back again to the right. The dolphins react immediately, banking around to see more. I arch my back and try a loop. They like that too, and top it by zooming beneath me in a close formation that would leave the Blue Angels green with envy—two of them upside down and one swimming on its side.
I surface and float there, catching my breath while the dolphins recharge their lungs on the fly and head off to visit another snorkeler. I make a quick count and come up with 14 Spotted Dolphins, part of a large pod that lives in the area. The water rings with their rapid clicks and squeals as they cavort all around us. A tightly bunched trio passes beneath me, pectoral fins always touching, like children holding hands to cross a busy street. A mother brings her calf close by, and watches indulgently as the little one makes a pass by my camera. Another group of seven or eight cross ten feet in front of me, the sunlight rippling exquisitely along their flanks. After 25 minutes, the dolphins begin to drift away. But the encounter has been so exhilarating that it feels like we’ve been in the water for hours.
Thirty years ago, swimming with wild dolphins was a rare event, and it was usually an individual animal rather than an entire family unit. Now dolphin encounters are occurring more frequently around the globe. The Bahamas, though, are the center of activity. Nowhere else in the world can you find more opportunities to swim with these beautiful marine mammals.
Today we are off the island of Bimini, on the Great Bahama Bank, with Bimini Undersea. They have developed a special relationship with the pod that roams the flat north of Bimini, but swimming with wild dolphins is not a guaranteed proposition. The dolphins decide when to share their world with us. Even so, Bimini Undersea enjoys a success rate for their Wild Dolphin Excursion that tops 80 percent.
Do you have to be an expert snorkeler to enjoy an encounter with wild dolphins? No, you can experience the thrill even if all you do is float at the surface wearing a life jacket and watching through your face mask. They do like to play, though. If you are active in the water, the dolphins respond with enthusiasm.
The live-aboard dive boat Bottom Time II has been introducing snorkelers to the joy of swimming with dolphins off Grand Bahama Island, at White Sand Ridge, on the Little Bahama Bank for so many years they seldom have to go looking for the pod. A dolphin encounter is simply a matter of pulling anchor in the morning. The dolphins usually show up ready to play. Sea Fever also visits the area regularly and has been extremely successful in their quest for quality time in the water with the dolphins. In fact, both boats offer trips specifically geared toward dolphins, with more than half of the diving time dedicated to dolphin encounters. Nekton Pilot’s Bahama Adventure itinerary also includes a stop here to try a swim with the dolphins. In addition to the White Sand Ridge, Bottom Time II and Sea Fever occasionally visit the dolphin grounds off Bimini.
In addition to these areas, wild dolphin encounters take place regularly in a number of other locations throughout The Bahamas. Blackbeard’s Cruises has been successful in putting snorkelers with dolphins in the waters around Orange Cay. Small Hope Bay Lodge has been meeting dolphins in the clear, freshwater river that splits Andros Island in two, in addition to open water encounters. Your chances of a dolphin encounter are also good with any of the Abacos dive operators. For example, Brendals Dive Center offers wild dolphin dives as a regular specialty trip.
|A diver receives a kiss form a Bottlenose Dolphin.|
A different kind of dolphin encounter takes place at Lucaya on Grand Bahama, where the Dolphin Experience hosts four programs, including an open water dolphin dive in conjunction with UNEXSO. The uncertainty of a wild encounter is eliminated here, where divers, snorkelers, and even waders are introduced to dolphins in controlled circumstances. Sixteen Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins are involved in the program, eight of them born under human care in Sanctuary Bay at Grand Bahama. On UNEXSO’s Dolphin Dive, two of the dolphins join a maximum of ten scuba divers for an open ocean release.
This unique experience provides every diver with a series of one-on-one encounters as the dolphins circulate among them. The Dolphin Close Encounter is a chance for anyone, even non-swimmers, to interact with dolphins while sitting on a partially submerged platform.
The Dolphin Swim gives six snorkelers the opportunity to swim with dolphins in the protected waters of Sanctuary Bay. The fourth program, which has a minimum age requirement of 16 and is limited to four participants, is an all-day, in-depth Dolphin Assistant Trainer course that provides a fun and educational introduction to dolphins and their care. The UNEXSO Dolphin Dive and all three Dolphin Experience programs are by reservation only and they are extremely popular, so book your space well in advance.
|Off Grand Bahama, the fun often begins on the way to the dive site.|
If a dolphin encounter fills you with a sense of shared intelligence, you’re not alone. When you swim with dolphins on their home ground, you begin to appreciate their mastery of the ocean. Look one right in the eye as you glide through the water together and you’ll see something of yourself mirrored there. Wouldn’t you love to speak their language?
(While other Bahamas dive operators and live-aboards offer dolphin encounters, the operations listed here are specialists in this area.)
ENCOUNTERS WITH WILD
Bill and Nowdla Keefe’s
Brendals Dive Center
Bottom Time Adventures
Bottom Time II
Nekton Diving Cruises
Sea Fever Diving Cruises