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Swimming with Wild Dolphins

Report from the Bahama Banks - by Ken Knezick

Just returned from a Bahamas dolphin cruise aboard M/V Sea Fever, Island Dreams' owner Ken Knezick has prepared this report especially for you. Learn about the region, the vessel, the itinerary, and get valuable tips on how to best enjoy your own in-water experiences with wild dolphins. Following Ken's report, you'll find a link to customer comments, and notice of another upcoming Bahamas Dolphin Cruise group trip.

Copyright Ken Knezick -- Island Dreams, Inc. All rights reserved.

"I wonder what the sane people are doing today?" - That was my teasing question after climbing back aboard M/V Sea Fever from the fourth or fifth, frenetic dolphin encounter of the afternoon. Trying to keep up with these awesome athletes of the sea can be as physically taxing as it is exhilarating and inspiring. The dolphins are always in motion, and quickly bored by humans unless we can measure up to their level of action. To keep them engaged, we did our best to swim, dive, whirl and spin through the water - in a clumsy imitation of their incredibly balletic grace. Our efforts were rewarded with truly awe-inspiring dolphin encounters that lasted from ten minutes to as much as an hour. We swam repeatedly with spotted dolphins, and enjoyed an extended engagement with bottle-nosed dolphins that the crew said was the longest they'd every experienced. What a pleasure!

Expert Advice - This trip, my first Bahamas dolphin excursion, came at the instigation of professional photographer, James D. Watt, who has 32 such trips under his belt, with more to come. It was Jim's colorful description of the experience that led me to Captain Allen Cromer, owner of the M/V Sea Fever. Based in Miami, the Sea Fever and a half dozen other such vessels make weekly trips from Florida to the Little Bahama Bank and White Sand Ridge areas, respectively north and west of Grand Bahama Island.

The Vessel - A converted aluminum hull oil field service vessel, the 90-foot M/V Sea Fever is manned by a hard-working crew of seven. It's an efficient operation, and a good boat setup, but not necessarily for the weak of heart. One must climb up and down steep ladders to the cabins, which are located on the lower deck. The boat rocks under way, and at anchor for that matter, so guests must be able to get their sea legs. Running in 1-3 foot seas, after the first day seasickness was not a problem, but I do recommend that you use a seasickness preventative for the initial crossing from Miami over to Bimini.

Simple but Serviceable - The M/V Sea Fever accommodates up to fourteen guests in seven double occupancy cabins. Equipped with bunk beds and a small sink, the air-conditioned cabins are small but serviceable. Be prepared to share, for the vessel has only three heads (toilets) and two showers. There's also a fresh water shower on deck, and a fourth head is slated to be added when the boat next goes into the shipyard. The reality is that, although we had a full compliment of guests, plus the owner and a few extra crewmembers, sharing did not pose a problem for our group. Sea Fever is far from a luxury cruise liner, but she provided exactly what we needed for our week of diving and snorkeling.

Bimini to Grand Bahama - This area of the Bahamas seems to be a perfect setting for live-aboard diving. It's a 50-mile crossing from Miami to the first dive sites around Bimini, and then a night run from Bimini up to the West End of Grand Bahama Island. After that, the boat rides between dive sites are relatively short, and often punctuated by encounters with the wild dolphins that make this region their home. For me, the combination of scuba diving on the reefs, and free diving with the dolphins on the sand flats, provided the perfect mix of relaxation and adrenaline rush.

The Scuba Diving - That's not to say that the scuba diving was lacking in excitement. A shallow easy dive called Oasis had great fish diversity, and the Sugar Wreck, in just fifteen feet of water, was swarming with thousands of snapper and French grunt. Small nurse sharks sheltered under the wreckage, large stingrays cruised the bottom for tidbits, and dozens of live queen conch regarded us warily as they peaked their eye-stalks out from under the protection of their handsome shells. One memorable wall dive on the North Ridge, Mount Olympus, rendered up cruising gray reef sharks, turtles, a nine-foot nurse shark, a huge free-swimming green eel, and a graceful pair of large spotted eagle rays. Such fine animal sightings were further enhanced by beautiful blue water and visibility well in excess of 120 feet. Another fine North Ridge dive was El Capitan, with its own copious population of sharks, turtles and reef fishes. While not on the outside wall, visibility was equally good and the corals and other marine life were in excellent condition.

On the Other Hand, Algae - Sadly, other dive sites were not nearly as pristine. The problem here does not appear to be diver traffic, which is relatively quite light. Rather, some of the dive sites showed what I take to be major signs of the ravages of global warming and/or excess nutrification. Once expansive fields of vibrant coral were now almost totally enveloped in sheets of coarse green algae with the consistency of Fiberglas cloth. This scabrous cloak appeared to be choking out the hard corals, sponges, gorgonians and sea fans, thereby substantially diminishing the habitats of the previously endemic fishes and invertebrates. Fortunately, many other of the reefs looked exceedingly healthy, so we'll just have to watch to see which trend prevails. In any event, as I view rapid and substantial changes to marine environments around the world, my advice is, see these places while you can.

Dolphins Encounters - For marine-life aficionados, the excitement and satisfaction of swimming with wild dolphins in their natural habitat cannot be over-stated. If you are considering doing this trip for yourself, permit me to offer a few suggestions on how you may maximize your enjoyment. For starters, spend some time preparing your body. If possible, get into the pool and swim some laps in mask, fins and snorkel, getting your legs ready to kick with "the big boys." If a pool is not available, at least do some running or walking to improve your cardio-vascular fitness. When you stop to catch your breath, take the time to be sure your gear is prepared. In addition to your scuba equipment, consider improving your snorkel-specific equipment, with a skin or lightweight wet suit (protection against the sun), good fins for free diving, and a high-volume snorkel. While you're at it, be sure you have a snorkel keeper or three. Once the action begins, you will be putting out maximum effort to keep up - if you maintain motion, and the dolphins interested, it will certainly be worth it. And finally, don't give up too soon. As the opportunities present themselves, get in the water every time. You won't see dolphins while in your bunk, eating a snack in the galley, or in the salon reading your latest spy or romance novel. The real fun with the dolphins is in the water... or only in your dreams!

Tips for Photographers - Many of you will wish to come away with pictures of your special dolphin experiences. Accomplishing this turns out to be a substantially different challenge from our typical wide-angle photography opportunities. For starters, you will need a photo system that you can easily move through the water. A Nikonos camera will be preferable to a housed SLR system, simply because it is smaller and more compact. If you have access to it, a Nikonos RS set-up might be best choice, specifically due to its motor drive. As to lens selection, if you keep moving, and the dolphins entertained, they will often approach within a foot or two. Thus a wide-angle lens is a must, with a Nikonos system and 15 mm lens an excellent choice. Experienced shooters suggest that the dolphins do not appreciate having strobes flashed in their faces. Additionally, the flash and arms add substantially to drag, reducing your mobility in the water. Thus you may be best to simply shoot ambient light. If possible, a faster shutter speed is advised, 1/125, or even 1/250 of a second, is required to capture the rapid action.

As to film selection, I share with you the advice of expert wildlife photographer James Watt. Jim points out that the dolphins are gray and the water is blue. To compensate, this consummate expert recommends that the warmer renditions of Kodak's tried and true Kodachrome are preferable to the bluer castes of Fuji's E-6 film.

My own advice comes from the direct experience of watching other photographers on this trip. Out of a small handful of shooters, in the heat of the action two of them lost their cameras to the watery embrace of Davey Jones' Locker. For my part, I was darn glad to have a lanyard on my Nikonos, securely affixed to my wrist, and suggest that you do the same. With all of this said, meter the water, preset your aperture, set your focus from two-feet to infinity, and then just keep on shooting! Film and processing are cheap compared to the immeasurable value of this experience. May you come home with both warm memories, and images that amplify the story and validate your tall tales.

The Bottom Line - For the right type of diver, the benefits of an M/V Sea Fever dolphin cruise are many. Via departure from Miami, it's a treat to have an adventure travel destination that enjoys easy access, and relatively cheap airfares to the destination. The boat is simple but effective for the task, and aside from the dolphins, a good variety of interesting scuba diving is presented. Add in the magic and excitement of almost guaranteed encounters with wild dolphins and this becomes a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Would I do this trip again, you bet, in a Bahama's dolphin minute!


Enjoy your own Dolphin Cruise with: M/V Sea Fever

Hear what other divers have to say: Guests describe their Dolphin Experiences

View Island Dreams': Bahama Banks Photo Portfolio

Tour the dive boat at: M/V Sea Fever Website

Check out Island Dreams' Schedule of Group Conducted Tours

More info: Island Dreams has dedicated color brochures for the M/V Sea Fever. We can help to arrange your individual cruise, or perhaps you'd like news about other individual and group trips to this region. You are invited to call or e-mail for additional information, advice, or assistance with bookings and airfares.
1-800-346-6116 --or-- Ken@divetrip.com

"Wishing you great diving, and a world of adventure!"

Ken Knezick - President, Island Dreams Travel

Copyright Ken Knezick -- Island Dreams