Although the Great Hammerhead sharks are the latest claim of fame to the Bimini dive industry there is more to be seen..
For years the Spotted dolphins have been star of the show at the dolphin grounds off Bimini. They are known for their interactive behavior and that's what we were after as well.
Usually the dolphin encounters we have elsewhere in the world are more of a type "fly-by". Therefore freediving with dolphins that are really into having a quality interaction is actually quite rare (put aside interacting with solitairy dolphins). There are a few places which are famous for these longer interactions like Kona, Hawaii. Bimini might take away the big prize if a contest was to be held though..
During our freediving with the dolphins of Bimini Jillian really made a difference in the quality of the interactions. Having been a guide in the area for years she knows the dolphins behavior, but also knows dolphins individually. The dolphins seemed to know her too.. While initiating contact with the animals more than once she got them interested straight away by diving down to the seafloor and "behaving dolphin" (for a lack of better words). The dolphins would follow her down and would "flower" around her on the way up. A pretty cool sight to see. Other times she would bring her own camera showing that although she might have seen and photographed it all, there was still a nicer image to be taken.
More than once the dolphins would seek out intimate contact with us too. It is just spectacular to look into the eyes of these intelligent animals and wonder what they are thinking, while they seem to wonder just about the same thing. Playtime really started once we understood at which moment the dolphins were actually inviting us to dive down with them. In the end they twirled around us on the way back to the surface as well. How is that for making new friends in the wild?
During our stay we encountered groups of dolphins in different set ups. Sometimes it would be just the boisterous younger male dolphins who wanted to play, while the rest of the pod moved on. Other times the full family with elder mothers or babysitters would join in the fun. With differently composed groups different behavior could be seen. Inside a large group for example there was all sorts of male/female action going on during the swims.
During one of the swims with a small group I noticed a dolphin eating a sand eal while swimming. Another dolphin coughed up a half digested fish, while it probably already ate the nicest bits of the fish. Or would it be trying to offer the leftovers to us? ;-)
On another occasion I could clearly see two dolphins playing with a plastic bag. They would playfully carry it by their pectoral fins and hand it over to eachother via the tailfin. It is really impressive to see how easy they perform these playful actions. They are known to do this with seaweed too. Once they dropped the bag we picked it up as our oceans are filled with too many bits of this manmade trash.
Although the spotted dolphins were the ones that stole the show most of the times, we also encountered Bottlenose dolphins. Usually we would see them hunting in the shallows on our way back to port. They would be closely followed by the nurse sharks that were hoping to clean up the leftovers.
Brian Skerry's recent image in National Geographic Magazine of a bottlenose with its face burried in the sand remembered me very much of the scene I watched in Bimini. The bottlenose would be scanning the ocean floor with their sonar until they would find a fish burried in the sand. They would shift vertical and head down first and down they went into the sand. They made catching fish look far too easy!
Like the spotted dolphins the Bottlenose also had offspring, although they would not let us come too close to the little ones.
It struck me and George while discussing the catch of the day (and overlooking the images we got in a week) that getting the perfect picture even in these circumstances was not easy. Even though the conditions at location are perfect in terms of light, distance to the animals and so on. Usually we would find a tailfin of another dolphin in the frame or a freediver in a non beneficial spot of the shot and so on and so on.
Not saying I am not satisfied with the results, but getting the perfect shot is a lot more difficult than you might think. But hey, that's what makes photography so much fun..!
But anyway. Very much recommended: dancing with wild(*) dolphins.. For me, it was probably the closest that I'll ever get to some "decent" dance moves. At least there were not too many spectators to judge how bad it actually was..
*so not in a dolphin facility of any sorts. No matter how "good" the facilities are, these animals need to roam the ocean instead of a tiny fishbowl.