Thursday morning it was humid – as usual. But the wind was gone and the sea was so calm! Our class discussion focused on ecotourism. We discussed two peer-reviewed articles about the impact of tourism vessels on bottlenose dolphins. In one area, the tour boats were disrupting rest, which is obviously extremely important for the dolphins’ well-being. Overall, we talked about the importance of getting people into and interacting with the natural environment, but that we need to be mindful of what the impacts are. After the papers, we thought back to one of the first days of class when we shared our pre-trip thoughts on ecotourism. Now that we have our Bimini experience, some of our ideas have changed. We discussed The International Ecotourism Society’s definition of and criteria for ecotourism. It was interesting to start thinking about what places we thought qualified as ecotourism that in fact do not. We talked through what guidelines we would set up for Bimini’s dolphin swim industry and then went over Captain Al’s and WildQuest’s (a different local operator) guidelines.
Next up was the ever important lunch (egg and chicken salads!) before we departed the marina at 1430. On the way out, we saw an apparently lone bottlenose dolphin traveling away from us. We observed it for a few minutes before continuing on our way – because we had to get to the “Bimini Road!” Also known as Atlantis, at first we weren’t sure how much we would see in what seemed like a random spot off the shoreline; but this changed quickly. There was a distinct thermocline, with nice warm water for the first two feet and then chilly water below! We saw a big barracuda, a lobster (did he know that lobster season is closed?!), spotted puffer, porcupine fish, angelfish and a big nurse shark. We are feeling inconclusive about whether or not the rocks are natural or if they may have been put there by humans.
After our snorkel, we enjoyed the glassy calm sea conditions. We could not tell where the water ended and the horizon began. Was this heaven? And then – quite suddenly – Dr. Yeater was once again the one to spot the dolphins! Yesterday, the first sighting was because of a big splash. Today, it was calm dorsal fins, breaking the surface. We observed the group from the surface, enjoying the youngsters rushing to the boat. Several of the dolphins were repeatedly spy-hopping, hanging vertically for long periods of time. Once in the water, it was one of the most connected swims for many of us; the dolphins were really swimming with us. Overall, it does seem like the youngsters are the more curious individuals and it is interesting that they do not seem afraid of us or the boat. The dolphins were scattered, making a group size difficult to determine (16 – 20?). In the water, we could see at least 8 dolphins at a time, but different dolphins came near us at different times. We got to see nice examples of object play, one of the seemingly few behaviors we had yet to see clearly. The dolphins were playing with sargassum; the calf started, but then the older dolphin joined in. At other points, the youngsters were jumping clear out of the water! We saw nursing and infant positions, and then rostrum to genital contact between non-mother/calf pairs. There was lots of pectoral fin contact, particularly between moms and calves. At one point, a younger sub-adult let out a bubble burst and then began to slowly sink as she hung, head up, in the water column. She came to the surface and did a full leap, emitting another bubble burst once back in the water. At one point, she seemed to be twitching or convulsing. We gave her some space, particularly because Kel thinks the dolphin looks pregnant. She swam away, leaving us wondering what was going on with her. We headed back to the boat, but soon hopped back in the water. Our second underwater observation was much shorter, this time with what looked like four mother/calf pairs, including Lil’Jess (#35). It looked like she might be with a new calf, but the observation was too short to be sure. They gave us a good look, with the calves circling swimming around us, but then headed away. On the boat, we continued to observe the dolphins while we snacked, happy and buzzing about another great day! Back on shore, we enjoyed our stir-fry dinner and adult beverages – a reward for our good behavior!
The PEDuncadunks (SHU 2015)