Text and Photography by Bonnie J. Cardone
Twelve years ago Howard Hall wrote an article for Skin Diver entitled 'Playing Tag with Wild Dolphins.' In it he recounted a four hour game of keep away, played with Spotted Dolphins and a red scarf in The Bahamas. The photo illustrating the article showed five dolphins just below the surface, looking expectantly at the camera. The red scarf floats in the water right in front of them. Obviously, the camera man is 'it!'
This is the kind of magical encounter divers dream of and, from the moment I read the article, I, too, wanted to live that dream. It finally happened last summer, aboard the Sea Fever.
At least two pods of Spotted Dolphins roam a pair of shallow sandbanks known as White Sand Ridge, off the northwest end of Grand Bahama Island. The pods have been interacting with humans for more than 20 years. (The Sea Fever's owner/captain, Tom Guarino, was among the first to snorkel with them some 23 years ago.) I believe the dolphins have trained us quite well.
The area they roam is quite large and the Sea Fever applies two methods of finding them. Occasionally the boat anchors in an area the dolphins are known to frequent and waits for them to appear. Most of the time, however, the boat cruises a wide area, looking for the dolphins. When they want to be found, they swim near the surface, often announcing their presence by jumping the boat's wake. Sea Fever's guests wait for word from the captain, then eagerly abandon ship to join the dolphin. The water is shallow, usually less than 30 feet deep, and very warm, about 84ºF. No one uses scuba, it makes us way too slow. Instead, we use fins, masks and snorkels. Many freedive, but even those whose ears cannot withstand a week of continuous ups and downs will get good photos staying right on the surface.
Many times the encounters are brief. The dolphins swim at a leisurely but steady pace, trailed by pale skinned finners. I think they find it amusing to have us following them. They could easily swim faster, they could easily choose some other route, but they choose to swim with humans, just as we choose to swim with them.
Sometimes the dolphins stay around for an hour or even longer. As we watch, they dig in the sand, foraging for Razorfish snacks. They dance, tail down, just above the bottom. They twist and twirl, zoom to the bottom and back to the surface. Through it all, they continually glance our way, just to make sure we're paying attention. On occasion they play keep away with each other, using a strand of Sargassum Weed. We live for the minutes (and sometimes hours) the dolphins linger at the surface in our company, coming within touching distance (although we are cautioned not to touch). Eye to eye with these smiling creatures, who look at us just as curiously as we look at them is, indeed, the stuff of divers' dreams!
Adding variety to the dolphin snorkels, our trip also offered an early morning and late afternoon dive each day as well as a night dive, weather and site permitting. These were wonderful photographic opportunities. Eldorado features a reef in 35 to 70 feet of water with schooling Gray Snappers and photographer friendly Queen Angels. In the broad sandy area a Nurse Shark and a Southern Stingray foraged. The pinnacles of El Capitan, in 45 to 100 feet of water, offered great fish life, with schools of juvenile jacks and Gray Snappers, along with French Angels, a Whitespotted Filefish and even a Hawksbill Turtle.
My favorite dive site, however, was the 19 foot deep Sugar Wreck. The remains of an island freighter that went down at the turn of the century, it is a wonderful collection of ship parts, including two large anchors. The bulkheads and decks have collapsed, providing all sorts and shapes of shelters for an incredible variety of marine life. Drawn to the only structure in a vast, sandy area are many different species of fish, including schools of grunts, Barracuda, stingrays, remoras, angelfish, filefish and pufferfish. At night these fish sleep in any crevice or overhang and turtles come in to nap, often using pieces of wreckage as pillows. An enormous Loggerhead is seen on almost every night dive, as are octopus, moray eels and Southern Stingrays. We made five dives here and were ready for more.
The Sea Fever, a 90 foot aluminum, former oil crew boat with a 22 foot beam, is powered by three, 12 cylinder diesel engines and has a cruising speed of 16 knots. She carries two generators, two compressors and a watermaker. She offers E-6 film processing and some rental camera gear. Custom videos of each trip are available for sale.
The Sea Fever's 14 passengers are accommodated in seven double, air-conditioned staterooms, five of which have a single upper and a double lower bunk. Space is at premium, so pack light (you'll not need more than swimsuits, shorts and T-shirts anyway). Softsided luggage is suggested as there is little room for hard suitcases below decks. Each stateroom has a sink with a mirror and a cubbyhole for personal gear. Two of the staterooms contain three bunks but are booked for only two people. The ship has two heads with showers, one near the bow and one near the stern. Towels are not provided, bring at least two. A small handsoap for your room sink would be handy, too.
The air-conditioned main salon is also the galley, with three booths, each seating six people. There is a TV/VCR. The wheelhouse has a comfortable couch and is the charging area for strobes and lights. The top deck is the sundeck and is equipped with chaise lounges. While the boat is running, people gather in all three places. The dive deck features a four tiered camera table and two freshwater rinse buckets. There is a freshwater shower for guests near the ladder that leads down to the dive ramp.
The Sea Fever added a nitrox membrane system a couple of years ago, while on board you can take a PADI or IANTD nitrox, advanced open water or specialty course. Since the boat spends a lot of time cruising on the dolphin trips, you'll have ample time to take all the courses you desire. If you don't plan to take a course(s) bring some paperbacks to read. This is a very different live-aboard trip than any you may have taken in the past. There are long periods of leisure, followed by periods (when the dolphins come in) of great activity.
The meals aboard the Sea Fever are quite wonderful. The next to the last night of our trip featured a bread pudding that was the best dessert I've ever had and I've spent years sampling desserts at some of the best restaurants around! Even with all the energy we expended trying to keep up with the dolphins, I'm sure no one left even as much as an ounce lighter!
Water and lemonade are provided; soft drinks and beer are sold onboard. Wine is served with dinner.
At least a few words should be said about the Sea Fever crew: From the wheelhouse to the galley to the dive deck, everyone was exceedingly helpful, competent, personable and friendly.
Most of the year the Sea Fever departs her home port in Miami Beach for Bahamas trips but the Spotted Dolphin trips depart Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, to minimize travel time. The Bahamas are some of the most easily accessed tropical dive destinations in the world. The flight from Miami to Freeport takes 40 minutes; you're no sooner in the air than you're preparing to land. You then take a taxi (about a 20 minute ride and downright cheap) to the boat's dock in Port Lucaya. To enter The Bahamas you'll need proof of citizenship, preferably a passport. (An original or notorized copy of your birth certificate and a photo ID also work.) On the way back, you'll go through U.S. customs in Freeport, before you board the plane for the flight home.
For information on the Spotted Dolphin trips (run all year-long) or any of Sea Fever's other Bahamas dive trips, contact Sea Fever Diving Cruises, P.O. Box 21725, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida 33335; (800) 443-3837, (954) 202-5608 or fax (954) 351-9740. You can send e mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Web site at www.seafever.com.
Now that I've lived my dream, wouldn't you think I'd be content? Not so, I'm plotting my return to the dolphins of White Sand Ridge!