• William Gray

The Spotted Dolphins of Bimini

Updated: Mar 2

By William Gray


The storm moved fast, sweeping a veil of rain across our path that blurred Bimini’s shoreline and rattled the island’s palms. Even with her turbo engines at full throttle, the Delphine stood little chance of outpacing such an onslaught.


“We’ll hang back and let it pass ahead of us,” Nowdla Keefe shouted above the din of the engines as she swung the 30-foot boat into a U-turn. It was a wise move. Moments later, lightning stabbed the sea and the sultry air shuddered with thunder.


“Don’t touch anything shiny,” Nowdla warned, nodding to the metal struts supporting the Delphine’s sun canopy. All ten of us immediately shrunk into the centre of the boat, peering nervously at the squall-fretted sea. It looked more like a bad day in Brighton than the balmy Bahamas – not the kind of place you’d expect to swim with wild dolphins.


Yet in the past four years, local dive operators Nowdla and Bill Keefe have developed a remarkable relationship with a pod of about thirty spotted dolphins. They don’t feed, tag or try to entice them in any way. “These are wild encounters – totally on the dolphins’ terms,” Bill had explained earlier. “It’s up to them if they want to come and play.” He had developed his so-called ‘ice cream van’ theory: “We always trace the same triangular route. We think they recognise the sound of the Delphine’s propellers and, just like kids when they hear the jingle of an ice cream van, they come and meet us.”


But on this, the first of our six four-hour quests across the shallow waters of the Great Bahama Bank, the sea played tricks with our eyes. Even if the dolphins were nearby, the turbulent wake of the storm made it impossible to spot them.


We retreated to Alice Town, a one-street community that fills the entire width of skinny North Bimini. This low-lying sand island, just twenty minutes by seaplane from Miami, is dubbed the ‘game fishing capital of the world’. The Delphine shares its berth with dazzling white launches bristling with fishing rods. Restaurant walls are plastered with photographs of record-breaking blue marlin, tuna and swordfish; all strung up by their tails and surrounded by grinning Americans.


Back at my hotel room, the maid had tuned into the evangelical channel and was halfway through a gusty rendition of ‘Jesus gonna pick you up’ when I walked in.


“You always see ‘em in the afternoon,” she reassured me when I told her about our first failed attempt to meet the dolphins. “Never in the mornin’.”


But the following afternoon as we gathered at the marina for our second excursion into the dolphin grounds, Bill reigned back our eagerness.


“You’ve got to ask yourselves one question,” he said. “What’s your measure of success? Does it stop at swimming with dolphins? Or just seeing them? Is it watching the sunset or simply having a pleasant few hours on a boat in the Bahamas, knowing that in a week’s time you’ll be back in the office wearing a suit? The first two you have no control over; the others you do.”


There was wisdom in Bill’s words and everyone murmured agreement. But secretly each of us knew that the Bahamas was a long way to come just to watch the sunset. In our minds, nothing could compete with the prospect of swimming with wild dolphins.


For the first hour and a half we scoured the sea, double-taking each splash of a breaking wave; straining for a tell-tale glimpse of a dark dorsal fin. Bimini crouched low on the horizon, dipping in and out of view as we rode the gentle swell. Gradually, the heat and humidity blunted our vigil. Postures slumped, while a few people began nodding off. To the west, a thundercloud mushroomed in front of the sun, casting a strange silver glow that made the sea look like a vast sheet of crinkled foil.


“It’s not even going to be a good sunset,” someone sighed.


Bill slipped the Delphine into neutral and encouraged us to go for a swim. “It’ll revive your enthusiasm,” he said. “The dolphins know when it’s a boat-load of sceptics.”


The water was well over 80 degrees and gin-clear. Through my mask, I could easily make out the sandy seabed 30 feet below – a lone orange starfish lying on its rippled surface like a discarded button.


Back on board, we began the long return to Bimini, every pair of eyes once more avidly roving the sea.


Bill was the first to spot them. They were in a tight cluster, at least twenty strong, but as the Delphine turned slowly towards them, several streamed away from the pod. In seconds there were dolphins racing our bow wave and leaping in our wake. The transformation onboard was just as dramatic. Everyone lurched to the side, pointing and cheering, giddy with relief and excitement as if we had suddenly been snapped from a spell.


Only Bill remained calm. He was studying the dolphins – judging their mood. After a few minutes there were still several cavorting with the boat. “OK, you can put your gear on.”

There was another frenzied movement, this time to the stern, where our masks, snorkels and fins were stored. In seconds we were ready, goggle-eyed, waiting for Bill’s next signal. He had barely held out his arms (to indicate that the Delphine was safely in neutral) when there were ten splashes as we slipped over the side.


Abruptly, the throb of the boat’s engines was muted, but the sea was far from silent. Like a long-wave radio struggling to tune, there were clicks and whirrs, squeaks and all manner of dolphin-talk. Below me, a pale streamlined shape cruised past and I had a brief glimpse of a spotty, smiling face. On an instinct I gulped a breath of air, folded at the waist and dived.

At first all I could see were shades of turquoise. I pinched my nose and blew gently to ease the pressure in my ears, then spun upright and began ascending. Almost immediately, the dolphin was there beside me – so close, I could have embraced it. Its eyes were bright and focused – level with mine – and with a surge of elation that sent muffled exclamations bubbling through the water, I realised that we were staring at each other!


Bill had often told us that the dolphins seem intrigued when people free-dive towards the bottom. They often gather around to investigate, almost as if they are admiring, perhaps encouraging, our efforts to share their world.


Moments later, my head broke the surface. I cleared my snorkel and dived again, but the dolphin had gone. Bill called us back to the Delphine. “They’ve finished playing for now,” he said.


Encounters can last for anything from a few minutes to over an hour. Sometimes the dolphins are too engrossed with feeding, mating or sleeping to take much notice of the Delphine.


But the next morning, we were only an hour out of Alice Town before a mother and her calf joined us. The youngster seemed beside itself with excitement, racing around the boat like a faulty torpedo, while its mother swam sedately nearby keeping a watchful eye.


Once we were in the water, the youngster teased us with surging ‘swim pasts’, never appearing from the same direction twice. Eventually, the mother came smoothly to the infant’s side and they swam off in perfect synchrony. Their movement seemed effortless, as if the dolphins were tapping a mysterious ocean force to propel themselves forward.


Bill told me they could easily reach 30 knots – faster even than the Delphine. Two hours later, when we came across the main pod, he invited us to experience just a fraction of what that must feel like.


Unravelling a long rope off the stern, he instructed three of us to hold on to a series of loops tied in its length. As the Delphine accelerated to a mere three knots, I felt my arms stretch and neck buckle under the strain of being towed along. But the dolphins seemed fascinated by this sudden, albeit artificial, transformation in our speed. Soon, seven or eight were alongside me. Another swam inches beneath my stomach, occasionally rolling on its back to peer up at me – as if it could never quite believe its eyes.


It was the most remarkable encounter yet – thrilling to the point of grinning my mask half-full of water until it bubbled up into my nostrils. No wonder the dolphins were smiling.


Game Plan


Bill & Knowdla Keefe’s Bimini Undersea offers six-day Wild Dolphin Adventures, including five dolphin excursions and three snorkelling trips.


Bahamas Express flies between Fort Lauderdale and Bimini. A ferry service between Miami and Bimini was planned for 2011.


Development of the Bimini Bay Resort was widely criticised for damaging fragile mangrove habitat. Alice Town has several local guest houses.


GMT-5


May to September


Tourist Information: bahamas.com

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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.

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