Thursday, July 14, 2011

The most amazing birthday (Part 1) - Dolphins!

Tuesday was my birthday, and I had two of the most amazing experiences in my life. It would have been the perfect day, had it not been for the one glaring flaw that my camera was broken. But there's nothing I can do about that now; all I can do here is try my best to capture the experiences with words.

After our disastrous (for my camera) dive at Hanaunau the afternoon before, the Housemate and I decided to go back to Hanaunau in the morning. That area tends to be sunny in the morning, then cloudy and drizzly later in the afternoon, so while the afternoon the previous day had been a bit drab, we hoped the morning would have nicer weather. This time, we went diving with the Housemate's brother as well.

Once we got all our gear to the beach, we noticed that there was a pod of dolphins in the cove. A sign on the beach mentioned that it was not an uncommon hangout for spinner dolphins and warned us not to touch them--marine mammal protection laws, blah blah. This was the perfect birthday present! It was truly a life-long dream of mine to swim with dolphins. I fell in love with the ocean after watching The Little Mermaid at age four, and my love of dolphins was cemented when I saw them at Sea Life Park at age five. Though replaced by sea otters as my "favorite animal" when I was seven, they still held my fascination and respect. All the better to swim with them in the wild, where they are free, happy, and natural.

It took an excruciatingly long time to get our equipment set up (attach the BC, put in the weights, attach the regulator, clip into the BC, turn on the air, check the air, defogger on the mask, put on the wet suit, the boots, the mask and snorkel), especially because the Housemate's brother hadn't been diving in over 10 years, so he needed considerable help remembering how to do everything. I was a bit impatient, I must admit, because I really didn't want to be standing on the shore while the dolphins decided they'd spent enough time in the cove and moved out to sea.

But finally we were in the water. I suggested we snorkel over to where the dolphins were, since it's easier to keep track of distance and direction when you can look up from the water, and also so we could conserve air. We made a bee-line for the cluster of snorkelers that signified the dolphins' general location. As we got close to the snorkelers, though, they seemed to be less clustered--maybe four here, three over there--and I started to despair that we'd missed the dolphins. Then, suddenly, there they were, emerging from the darkness of the water, swimming across in front of us, maybe 20 feet down. Finally, for the first time, I was swimming with dolphins!

I was so excited, I immediately signaled to my two dive buddies to go down. They nodded and returned the go underwater signal, and I started letting air out of my BCD (inflatable/deflatable vest-like "buoyancy control device"). As soon as I was submerged, I realized I wasn't getting any air when I inhaled. In my rush to get underwater to see the dolphins, I'd forgotten to switch from my snorkel to the regulator! Uh, oops. I was lucky my snorkel closes when it's underwater, so instead of a mouthful of saltwater I just got nothing. I was still only about three feet under, so I easily surfaced and got it all sorted out. Going under, take two...

Now I was sinking, equalizing my ears, equalizing my mask, getting down to the level of the dolphins. This was hard, of course, because the dolphins weren't staying at the same level. The water was probably about 100 feet deep at that location, and they could easily move between the surface and the bottom in maybe half a minute or less. Hovering around 40 feet seemed to be the most reliable way to see them, but we actually did a lot of rising and falling. Distracted by the dolphins, we weren't paying too much attention to staying neutrally buoyant, plus our only visual references for location were each other and the dolphins themselves...not exactly stationary objects. Without visible reef or nearby seafloor, it was easy to change depth without knowing. At one point near the beginning we sank to over 70 feet, but after that we were a bit better and stayed in the 30-50 foot range. Luckily we had dive computers to recalculate our "no decompression dive" minutes remaining based on whatever depth we went to, so we didn't have to worry too much.

Hovering in the water, we could see the dolphins swim all around us. At first there were eight, but after a few minutes the pod got back together and there were 16 swimming together. Two of them looked like juveniles, not tiny but maybe 3/4 the size of the adults, and always swimming close by mommy. Some of the dolphins had a strange wound on their side, the size of a golf ball or tennis ball, perfectly round. They were cookie cutter shark bites--the sharks ambush their targets and scoop a round ball of flesh out of their sides. Pretty nasty, but at least the dolphins are large enough to survive such wounds (in smaller fish, the cookie cutter bites may be fatal).

The dolphins weren't directly interacting with us, but they were probably checking us out--goofy humans wearing 60lbs of equipment just to be underwater. A few times I thought I heard them making squeaky dolphin sounds, but they didn't seem to be talking to each other that much. Or maybe their squeaks were just too high pitched for my ears. We watched them swim over us, as they touched the surface for air and entertained the snorkelers. We watched them swim below us, circling in the depths, swimming on their backs sometimes when the mood struck them. We watched them swim around us, in perfect formation, so graceful, at ease, at home. They weren't hunting (there were only a few fish around, and they were left alone). They were just enjoying a nice swim around the cove on a pleasant morning. I wanted to be a dolphin and swim around all day. They just looked so happy.

At one point we lost sight of them for a minute or two. We signaled to each other to surface, as we could spend the rest of our air looking at the beautiful reef and reef fish. But then the dolphins were back, and we stayed to watch them longer, mesmerized by their graceful dancing.

After maybe forty minutes, we decided to move on. We still had enough air for a short dive around the reef. As we approached the shallow reef, I thought I saw another dolphin--something long, thin and dark. But then I saw it...unfurl. "Looks like a blanket," I thought to myself. I had just enough time for my eyes to resolve the shape as a manta ray before it disappeared beyond the range of visibility in the water. Foreshadowing for my upcoming dive that night...

We didn't see anything on the reef that I hadn't seen before. It was the dolphins that were clearly the highlight of the dive. The best dive I'd ever had, though I suppose that's not saying too much when I've only been on seven other dives. Back on shore, we were all in awe of our experience with the dolphins. It was the perfect birthday gift for me--a memory I will always treasure. I thought I'd never have a better dive than that dive with dolphins on my birthday. But it only took until that night to prove me wrong.

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