Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Running with Dolphins – 12/20/2011

It starts with the sound of a large splash next to the side of the boat.  We’ve run "the ditch" for almost a thousand miles.  Across bays, up and down rivers, but mostly it’s tracking from buoy to buoy down a narrow dredged channel through vast expanses of shallow water and marsh. Red to green,  green to red,  ICW greens to port, ICW reds to starboard.  We listen to the monotone drone of our 54 hp Yanmar diesel, typically at 2600 rpm pushing us forward at 7+ knots, jumping to 9’s or dropping to 6’s with the ebb and flow of the ever changing tides and winds.  I usually keep the Raymarine remote control for the auto pilot in my right hand.  It beeps once when  I add one degree to port then a few minutes later two beeps and two degrees to starboard constantly fine tuning our course so we don’t run abruptly out of the channel.

The trip has been truly beyond my imagination, an ever changing panorama of nature in an almost undisturbed state.  Birds, birds and more birds; focks overhead, on sand bars, at the edges of the marshes or in the trees.  Osprey have reappeared as they’ve migrated South with us, clouds of turns and gulls, herons of several colors and ibis.  Cormorants dry their wings in the sun and most every buoy has a resident.

Every day is planned in anticipation of the days tides. Can we squeeze our 64 foot mast under a 64 foot bridge?  Will we have enough water for our 5 foot draft during a stretch at low water of only three feet?

But the dolphin sightings and visits are most treasured every day. Serendipity! A most pleasant surprise just when the day may begin to drag on during the passage of another 20 or maybe even 50 miles.  At high tides we see their fins cruising at the edges of the marshes, chasing shrimp and minnows in and out of the grasses.  We’ve seen them trap schools of bait in small cuts in the banks.  Every day we see them ahead or behind, foraging in almost every inlet and creek, then slow or pause when we see them frolicking dead ahead.

The splash, followed by the sound of another splash and then a third or fourth, in a cadence, a signal it’s time to look for them.  Through the brown muddy or tea stained water, first the 6 to 9 foot shadows begin to appear beneath the surface, then a fin appears, or maybe a blow and then a magnificent form crashes up and out of the stern wave and leaps just a foot or so next to the boat, surfing as it is, into complete view.  Is it a loaner? A large male? Probably not. They usually travel in a pack as they may be called. Then two or three or more appear, we watch for a youngster in between.  Are there distinguishing marks?  Too often we see the marks of a propeller, or cuts in a dorsal fin. Taking turns for the lead, they follow along for 3, 5, sometimes 10 minutes or more. We can see them eyeing us too, looking us over just the same as we are watching them.  So much intelligence they display. Are they teaching the little one to surf for the first time? If only we could communicate with them? They seem to play like young kids on a play ground at recess in the spring: running, jumping, frolicking in the sunshine.

Then just as mysteriously as they appear, they are gone.  Have we motored through their territory, has the water become too shallow?  Am I still in the channel?  I’d better look for the next marker as I’ve been distracted. Yesterday we were even treated to a salute after the ride, a young dolphin jumped clear out of the water a few yards off to the side and then they were gone.

They don’t return, but we know we’ll see more dolphins. They’re the ones that choose if or when to hitch a ride from a passing boat.
Oh. we've just discovered Manatees in the marinas,  but I'll cover them when I get a chance to blog again. Best wishes to all for the holidays.  Retirement is great.  Never a dull moment.