Written by By Staff Writer
Lambing: The ceremony conducted on one side of the edge of the sea to allow men and young boys to perform the age-old ritual of hanging a picture on a whale fin. Courtesy Monmouth Museum of Ocean Sciences
When I attended the annual diving and dolphin “bonding” weekend, held at the Womastown Wildlife Area in New Jersey, I knew I’d experience the preservation of the ocean in a way few of my fellow divers and dolphins could — sitting in a bayou looking out over the water to see dolphins beyond.
Seven days and roughly 15 hours into my dolphin-viewing adventure, I was assigned my first duties of the day: a diveboat captain’s log in a boat moored at the Womastown beach. A female dolphin had been chosen as captain. I would conduct her charter dive at one of our site pods.
Earlier in the morning, as we sank low to scour the ocean bottom for colorful sea-life, I asked an elderly, balding man if he wanted to teach me how to dive for dolphins. He assured me he knew how, even though I could tell that in retrospect, he may have been trying to put me off the idea.
During our investigation of murky water I thought to myself, “This is the worst place on Earth to learn how to dive, an hour and a half of waving your hands. How’s it going?”
Twenty minutes later, my dolphin pilot dolphin was pointing her nose toward the vertical segment of our station’s habitat, slapping her long-snouted nose with each move. Eventually, she began to wiggle her tail, her tail fins breaking the surface at different angles.
The dolphin then moved quickly and rapidly to the platform, recoiling from the open ocean and diving straight into the depths, growing louder and animated with every dive. We watched for about 20 minutes as she dove her long fin more than 20 feet deep, then pulled her tail out. Her diving appeared to be quite focused. After a moment we saw that her tail was no longer extended, and we watched her splashing around in the water as a distant, bored-looking bull-dolphin looked on.
Here we were going into the deep end, yet slowly slipping out of it. After I said goodbye to the dolphin, I climbed on the back of my 16-foot boat and faced a quickly changing world. Our sun beamed on a grassy bank, the sand stretched as far as we could see and a dark wave drifted by.
For the next couple of hours, before our charter boat departed for the next spot, we carefully set up our gear to continue our boat tour — a mechanical ladder brought to the boat, snorkeling gear secured and four helium-filled markers that the dolphins would use to move around our “man-made environment.” I held a pair of my daughter’s sea-star sponges, holding on with my feet.
This allowed me to touch the dolphins, let them smell me, feel my leg hairs, eyes and toe hairs, massage their fins and pull out their tails, tentatively and gently.
Slowly, the dolphins slowly made their way to the second platform with our boat right beside them. They lingered at the platforms for a while, then swimming alongside us, slowly slowly left the platform and went back into the water.
I filmed them as they left the platform, as they chose their destination and circled our boat. When we left, the dolphins were joined by two other dolphins on the other platform — they were becoming very familiar with their new sisters, even racing to and fro.
When I returned to my car, my daughter had thanked me for being able to touch dolphins underwater. I told her to close her eyes as I told her it was a sign dolphins feel very well about coming to shore.
We drove to the next site, a bayou, where we followed other dolphins down to the water, but as soon as they were in the water, they swam back away. We stayed away from the water for a few more minutes, watching in a nearly-silent trance.
The next morning, being guided along the shore by my dive captain dolphin to our next site, we took a brief break to sit by the large bayou on a deck made from recycled shipping pallets.
The sun was just starting to beat down in the air, the wind buzzed and the sound of birds kept me busy. Meanwhile I continued to take photos of my dolphin boat, while trying to take photos of the older members of our group hanging around at the yacht dock.
There we sat, with the little boy at my feet, listening to the cries of roosters, the gentle swirl of the sea air and birds murmuring over the jetty.
This is the moment I tell