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The Earthwatch Project

Ken Balcomb In December 1995, together with several other volunteers from around the world, I joined Ken Balcomb (image left) and Diane Clarigde, on their "Bahamas Marine Mammal Survey". Earthwatch offers volunteers to work with scientists (working on nature or culture related projects) all over the world. (If you are interested in this project click here to get more info directly from Earthwatch about it.) Since I wanted to find out more about dolphins and also because the weather is usually better on The Bahamas at this time of the year than in Germany (where I live), I signed up.

The Bahamas

Our home for the two week program: Tilloo Cay, The Bahamas

The team members all gathered in a bar in Marsh Harbour, where we met Ken and Diane. The members came from all over the world. Junko, from Japan, had the longest trip with 30 hours on the plane. The others came from England, the US and from Germany (me). Bill was our oldest member with 69 (I really hope I will be able to make those kind of trips when I'm 69!) the youngest was Victoria from England (20 years), so we were pretty much a mixed team. Our home for the next two weeks were two huts on Tilloo Cay, a small island about half an hour with the boat from Marsh Harbour. There are no shops, cars or anthing like that on that island, so before we went to the boat we did a little shopping. On our way to the island on the boat I watched the beautiful sunset. I had been planing this trip for months, now it became real. On the island (it was already dark) Ken and Diane prepared dinner, while we made our bed rooms (mostly in tents). Michelle, who stayed and helped Ken and Diane for three months gave me and my "room mate" the advice not to sleep in the tent but on the watch tower. It's a small wood tower (to look for whales and dolphins) with just enough room for two people to sleep on the platform. It was the best bed room I ever had in my life! The stars, the bright moon under the clear sky, in the middle of The Bahamas and surrounded by the sea. What have I done to deserve this...

Beaked Whales?

Next morning: Sunrise, for the first time I saw the whole beauty of the island. Why can't every morning be like that... After breakfast and a short briefing we all went out in the big boat (we had one big boat, two smaller inflatables and a trimaran sailboat) to the open Atlantic since the weather was ideal, which is not always the case on The Bahamas. We all watched the sea for anything that looked like a fin (as we were told by Ken), but we didn't see anything. At noon, just as we had lunch Bill suddenly stood up and shouted: "there is one!". Not a dolphin, but a Beaked Whale surfaced just infront of our boat. We got out our cameras as fast as possible. With the boat we carefully went parallel to the whale and watched it breathing showing its backs only every once in a while. It was only one and after 2 or 3 minutes it decided to dive again leaving us on the surface. We slowly circled and after a 30 minute dive the whale showed up again. Again, for only two minutes the whale surfaced a couple of times to prepare for it's next dive. That's the only chance to take a picture and everyone tried to get a few good ones, but it really difficlut since you never know where it will surface next.

On the next day we had two teams. One went out with a small inflatable, the other one worked on the island. The list of things to do on the island was long just as the trail that I tried to clear with a saw and clippers. Even though the sun was shining strong I had to wear long sleeves because of poisonous plants. At 3pm I decide that it was enough for that day and Ken showed us how to develop the film we shot the day before. After that I went for a swim at the beach. We had two small canoes and I made my first experiences with that. It's easier than I thought. After paddling around for a while I just thought about going back in, but suddenly Bill (he went with me in a second canoe) shouted "dolphins, dolphins!" We saw two fins very close to us. We followed them along the coast. It looked like they were looking for fish along the coast of our little island. The canoe is just perfect for following and watching dolphins. No engine noise spoils the situation. Sometimes I got very close to the two dolphins. The only disadvantage is that you are sitting very low which makes it a little difficult to see the fins behind the waves. So, to be able to see them better, I tried to stand up in the canoe. It worked for a few seconds before I lost balance and fell in the water with a big splash. Everyone who has tried to get in a canoe again in the water knows what I did for the next ten minutes. Every time you think that you made it you loose balance again and you are back in the water.

the sound of silence

Back in the canoe I went to the place and direction I saw the dolphins last, and luckily found them again. We followed the dolphins for about half an hour slowly going up and down the coast looking for fish. They didn't seem to be bothered by us at all, but also didn't seem to be interested in us. The moment out on the water so close to the dolphins with the sunset in the back and the raising full moon on the other side was really something special. The second team was just coming back but it was already too dark to take pictures for identification. It was getting really dark quickly and soon we lost the dolphins. Later I went through the catalog of dolphin identification photos (close ups of the fin and back) Ken and Diane have put together in their years of work here. Since they had no significant scars or nicks on the back or fin it was hard to tell which one we saw. And when I was out on the water I was just too excited and fascinited. I completely forgot to look for patters on the fin or anything like that. Victoria, who was in the other canoe with me for the last half hour, said 'that experience was worth the whole trip!' She said she doesn't mind if we don't see any more dolphins for the rest of the time, these moments were enough, and she really looked happy.

Friday, the weather was ideal to go out on the Atlantic again. This time we went out with two boats. I was with Ken and Victoria on the small inflatable, the rest of the team was on the big one with Diane. Again it was noon as we saw Beaked Whales close to us. This time there were three! I got some good pictures as they passed by. We were able to see them again three more times, each time with a 30 minute diving interval. Usually you loose them after one dive but the water was so calm that it was possible to see them even if they were far away. Even Ken, who is usually quite relaxed, showed a little excitement about so much luck we had this day. Ken also told us that very little is known about the Beaked Whales and no one has ever done any photo-id survey on those whales.

the reef

On our way back home we anchored at a reef and everyone went snorkeling. This reef is probably one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I don't think I've ever seen so many and different fish so close together (I have to admit that I'm not really an experienced snorkler or diver, though). Those strange shapes. The colors look almost unreal, so intense. I took as many pictures as I could with my small water prooved camera. Just when my last film was full I finally saw a small sea turtle. I tried to follow it, but it's very hard to keep up with their speed.

Back on the island Ken drove to Marsh Harbour to do some shopping (we were out of some basic food). On his way he found some dolphins and called us on the radio. Even though it's quite a long way I decided to go there with the canoe. The way seemed to be never ending. I was rowing as fast as I could. I really didn't want to get there when the dolphins were already gone, but I arrived in time. This time we saw five dolphins. One was a baby that always stayed close to it's mother. They always surface at the same time to breath. Since the five didn't always stay together I sometimes didn't know where to go, but again I got very close to them. I really recommend anyone who has the choice between a moter boat and a canoe to use the hand powered version when following dolphins. It's just not the same on a big boat. It's almost like being part of the water. On a motor boat I always feel a little like an alien, an intruder in the sea. Rowing back to the island was hard, but nothing can be really hard after those moments.


On one of the next days I managed to finish clearing that trail I started on day three. It's been hard work, but it felt good after it was done. This was also the first time I saw where this trail actually goes to. It leads to a beautiful small sand beach in the south of the island.

Just when I was about to jump in the water we got a message from the other team on the water that they found dolphins. We quickly got our things together jumped into the boat and went there. When we arrived, we found a single dolphin chasing fish into the rocks of the shore. We followed him (we don't know if it's a male or female, but we all called it a "him") going up and down all along the shore. The water was very clear and we got close so we could see him very good. Some of us entered the water to see him under water, but he just ignored us and went his way.

One time he used his fluke to hit the water very hard. Maybe he is chasing the fish this way. I don't think it was a reaction to our presence because he did it when we had stopped a few minutes before, were far away and not following him. It's very interesting to see him catching fish. He always chased them into the rocks where they can't escape. Later we decided to call him Rocky because of that. We still don't know if it's a male, but in case of a female we can still change it to Roxane...

Once as we followed Rocky he seemed to be interested in the boat and took a closer look. I tried to take some photos by holding my small camera into the water when he was close and pressed the button. Unfortuately the photos didn't turn out good at all. After some time it started raining but we decided to stay with our dolphin. We knew we would get wet even if we would drive home. One more time he hit the water with his fluke just next to the boat then he went for a long dive and we lost him. Maybe he had enough of us or that was his way to say good bye.


On Tuesday we planed to go to an old lighthouse that Ken and Diane will be using in the future for whale watching. It was also too windy to go out with the boates. Since I didn't want to go in a single car with 11 people, and I was not that interested in that lighthouse, I decided to stay on the island alone. I explored the island a little. The whole place seemed to be almost like paradise, but as I walked along the shore to the Atlantic I found really a lot of rubbish that got washed there from the ocean. It makes me feel depressed to see so much trash in such a beautyful place.

Until noon I just laid down on the white sand beach thinking about all the things that happened the last couple of days. Later I went the another beach that we called shell beach since it's full of small shells. I played a little with the hermit crabs that can be found all over on the island (especially on the compost where they must have been at least 200 hundred). Suddenly I saw a fin on the water not far from the shore. Fortunately the canoes were on the beach. I jumped in and followed the dolphin as fast as I could. The dolphin was chasing fish into the rocks again and soon I saw it was Rocky again! I watched him feeding and swimming along the shore of our little island. It's not easy to predict where he goes and where he will come to the surface again after diving, but he sometimes surfaced just next to me so close that I could almost reach him. After about 30 minutes I lost him in bigger waves. The wind was still very strong so I had to go back to the beach.

Last day. It was still too windy to go out but we watched the water from all beaches and from the tower. At 11 o'clock we got a message from some people on a island nearby. They just saw 9 dolphins at their dock. Since it's a sheltered place we decided to go there with our inflatable boats. The sea was very choppy and the ride was really uncomfortable but we wanted to see the dolphins. We found them quickly, but it was very hard to take photos. Water was splashing in the lens and the boat bounced so hard that sometimes is was impossible to even look through the viewfinder. One of the dolphins was a mother with a really small baby. Diane said it's the smallest baby she has ever seen. It was really funny to watch. It had to come out of the water almost completely to breath because the waves were so high. So many dolphins on our last day. Sometimes it happens that you don't see any dolphins for several days. We had only two day were we didn't see any. All in all we were really lucky. And we saw those strange but fascinating Beaked Whales really close.

Everything during my three week trip seemed to happen so fast, faster then I could digest it. It has been one of the best "vacations" I ever made and I felt really bad arriving back home in the cold winter of Germany. Everything seems gray, cold and unfriendly here. I felt like an alien here, I can't believe that this is the place I have to live again.

Now all that's left are my memories and a pile of slides and prints. But they are all just a cheap "imitation" of what I saw. On the other hand, there are people who don't have the chance to make a trip like this and that's why made this WWW page with this report and the images.

-David Hofmann-

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