Our entire family has always been drawn to the water and boats and dolphins. We went to Marineland years ago, when David was four years old and Kathi was only one. David immediately fell in love with Nellie – the main performing dolphin in the late sixties. (Nellie was born at Marineland in 1953 and lived there for 61 years. When she died in 2014, she set a longevity record for the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins – free and in captivity. She loved to perform and interact with people until the last few months of her life!) We bought David a leather dolphin, which he named Nellie and slept with for years.
We spent a lot of time on the water in our boat when the children were young. David later became a certified diver, Kathi won a lot of blue ribbons competing on a swim team, and Wendy swam laps every day during the summer. We always said the children were part fish.
When David died suddenly of an allergic reaction to a bee sting at the age of 29, my daughters and I were devastated. Their father had died from a heart attack twelve years earlier, which caused our family to be so close. I wondered if we’d ever recover from this loss.
I thought perhaps going on a trip and spending quality time together might help us begin to heal from David’s death. We were still suffering greatly and tried to find ways to stay connected with him. While searching for possibilities I came across an Oceanic Society expedition that included swimming with dolphins to study their behavior. When Kathi and Wendy expressed interest and agreed to take a week off from work, I signed us up for the Bahamas Project Dolphin, and we began making plans. A trip to swim with spotted dolphins felt like a good fit.
The information from Oceanic Society said we would be swimming in strong ocean currents and recommended building swimming stamina and practicing with snorkeling gear, so we started getting ready.
In the summer of 1994 Kathi, Wendy, and I flew to Lucaya, Bahamas and boarded the Calypso Poet, a fifty-foot trimaran sailing vessel that was our home for seven days. The three of us were assigned the two aft cabins, which were joined by a tiny head. (Aft means in the back of the boat and head is the nautical term for bathroom.) Ten people lived aboard, including the captain, the cook, the head researcher, and her assistant. We spent part of the first day practicing snorkeling techniques along a reef, and then headed out across the Bahama Banks to the research site.
Kathleen Dudzinski was researching dolphin communication for her Ph.D. Using lectures and videos she taught us about marine mammals, concentrating on the spotted dolphins we would observe and interact with in the wild. She described in detail the type of behaviors and sounds we would likely encounter and told us how to describe what we saw for her research. She had selected the location for her research because the waters of the Bahamas are warm and crystal clear and the Banks was a huge sandbar with relatively shallow depths. Numerous spotted and bottle nosed dolphins inhabited the area. In addition, a nearby shipwreck attracted divers and the curious dolphins.
Captain Geoff took us to the secret coordinates of the research location using the boat’s Global Positioning System (GPS.) We were assigned to watch teams and schedules to look for dolphin in the area during daylight hours. As soon as we anchored the boat, Kathi and Wendy dove into the water found it warm, but the current strong. They had just struggled back aboard when one of the watch team members yelled, “Dolphins at two o’clock!”
Kathleen threw on her gear, grabbed her camera, and dove into the water in a flash. She quickly assessed the situation – seven or eight dolphins and no predators – and signaled us to join her. My daughters were exhausted from their swim, and I stared at the large ocean swells with a little concern. Meanwhile Kathleen was swimming with them, and they welcomed her like an old friend. They obviously recognized her as they swam alongside brushing against her arms and legs. When two young women jumped in, one immediately popped up shouting with delight, “One touched me!”
I could not stand it. I grabbed my equipment and flipped into the water, adjusting my mask and snorkel. Two dolphins immediately greeted me by staring directly into my eyes. We had been instructed not to invade their space in any way – to let them initiate all contact. As I stared into those eyes, the strangest feeling came over me – like I recognized them. I don’t know which of us was more curious and I felt an urge to reach out, but I resisted. After a moment they started swimming, touching me gently with each pass. I totally forgot about the sea – hardly remembered to breathe – and tried to remember what we had been instructed to do. Look for identifying markings, observe behaviors, and listen for sounds accompanying those behaviors. I did the best I could, but was far too excited to be very accurate. Kathleen filmed and recorded everything as the dolphins interacted with her, each other, and us. They twisted and flipped and spiraled to the bottom like underwater acrobats.
For five or six minutes a young dolphin stayed right with me – #34, a class three male juvenile with scattered spots. Spotted dolphins get more spots as they age (don’t we all?) and the young ones have very few. The more familiar bottlenose dolphins are larger and darker than the spotted variety. After about ten minutes, the dolphins ended their visit and disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. What a rush that had been watching them all frolic around us, jumping and diving and playing and swimming at unbelievable speeds. Only then did I realize how exhausted I was and could barely climb back on board.
My daughters were amazed at the scene they had witnessed from the boat and could hardly wait for the next group to arrive. We did not wait long before another call came, “dolphin at six o’clock – three, no five, no eight or nine,” and the process repeated.
Kathleen’s enthusiasm for her work rubbed off on us and made us want to learn everything about our new friends. She shared her research findings – definite sound patterns related to specific behaviors, “signature” whistles unique to each dolphin, courting and mating behaviors, jealousies, parenting, and on and on. We began to recognize some of the dolphins by name – Doubledot, Topnotch, Hook, Macho, and other unnamed ones by number, including #34. Researchers and volunteers had named many of the dolphins in the Bahamas Project, but some still had only numbers. We learned about the work of Oceanic Society Expeditions and their numerous marine related projects.
We soon talked like experts ourselves in our reports to Kathleen following the encounters, “Double Gash interacted with Halfmoon making a clicking and pulsing beep –behavior somewhat aggressive. Ridge and her calf both very friendly, with constant clicking by Ridge.”
One day no dolphins came, so we loaded into the dinghies and searched for them. The dolphins loved to play in the bow wave of the dinghies, and after several wide passes around Calypso Poet we attracted them. We flipped backward out of the small boats like Navy frogmen to get into the water. Kathi and Wendy swam a long time one morning with a mother dolphin and her calf and could not believe how willingly the mother shared her baby with them.
We found a lot of quiet time to rest and talk and think. The actual time in the water was short, but by the end of the day we were exhausted and filled with wonder at all we had seen and learned. We talked a lot about David and told the others about him and why we were there. We knew how much David would have loved all we were doing and at times actually felt him with us. In fact, the research assistant reminded us of David because of his fascination with life and passion for his work. Alexandro told us stories about his research and his life growing up in Mexico and one night even sang a Mexican lullaby to us.
We wanted to cling to the beauty and peace and healing we were experiencing. The day before heading home, Kathi and Wendy suggested that we pool the money we would have spent on presents for David and each other that Christmas and donate it to the Project Dolphin Fund to adopt and name a dolphin. They already knew the name – Boilie – the name they had always called their brother. Nobody knows exactly why they called him that – something to do with his calling one of them “girlie” one time, but he had been Boilie for years. We talked to Kathleen and chose number thirty-four, the class three male, since I had connected with him on that first day in the water and we played with him so often.
The time passed too quickly and before we knew, we returned to Atlanta and our regular lives. Kathleen promised to send us pictures of Boilie. We still missed David terribly, but somehow our lives had changed. According to the researcher’s latest reports, Boilie still swims in the warm, crystal clear waters of the Bahamas. We have never been back to swim with him, but we do not have to see him to know his spirit is still there. And he will live in our memories forever.