As far as you can go – the Queens of the Ocean

The captain allowed us plenty of time with the dolphins, but I feel it was the dolphins who tired of us first. The breaches started to diminish and I noticed the fins were appearing further and further away.  Then we were left with just a few hanging round the boat and the captain decided we should move on.  He turned up the engines and we continued south west parallel to the coast of St Helena but still a couple of kilometres from the shore.  Against the deep brown cliffs we could see puffs of spray every 30 seconds or so.  This time the captain was much more cautious and dropped the engines down to their lowest speed as we got within 300m.  Then he cut the engines altogether, and we were left with the swell of waves rolling all round us, and the snort of a whale’s blowhole as the only sounds.  Attached to the clouds of spray we saw a long thin line of thick skin, barely breaking the surface of the water.  It sat there almost motionless while it breathed.  But it was quietly submerging after each breadth below the waves, returning to the surface within a couple of minutes each time.  But then it arched its great body and we saw the whole mid section of a female hump backed whale , and then its massive tail fins slip so easily through the surface with hardly a splash as it started to dive deep down.

The captain was on the lookout again, and off in the distance another kilometre or so to the west he spotted another tell tale spouts.  We headed out that way, but this meant leaving the lee of the island and we were soon in rougher water.  It was not so bad as we moved forward but when he cut the engines we started to be tossed about.  He spotted that there was not one whale, there were three.  A single female that he had originally spotted, and a mother with her calf back towards the island.  We tried to watch the first, but the waves made it very difficult for the captain to keep us steady.  Added to the fact most of his manifest were on one side of the boat it was in danger of capsizing.  Just before he decided to take us back to the leeside, our whale lunged out of the water and slipped downwards with a farewell wave of her forked tail before disappearing forever.

The mother and calf were not going anywhere and the captain gently turned the boat round, battled as slowly and carefully as the choppy waves would allow back to the lee of the island and we were able to come to a halt barely a 100m from the family.  At first it appeared that the mother only was on the surface.  But then someone spotted that the calf was resting up on the neck of the mother, if indeed you can call that bit between the eye and the rest of the body a neck on a whale.  To see such tenderness expressed so simply by some of the most massive creatures that have ever been on earth was sheer bliss.  And although you sensed the mother knew we were present and hanging around she were sure she was confident enough not to let it trouble her.  I learnt from some marine experts on island that St Helena was treated by some humped backed whales as a nursery; a quiet zone away from the sexual hunting that goes on when the males are around, or the drudge of feeding that must go on in the Southern Ocean – constantly searching for krill shoals.  Here the children could grow up, become confident, be away from predation by orcas, and bond closely with their mothers.  And to see that bonding happening right in front of us was a magical moment.  Eventually , the mother’s tolerance came to an end, and she dove with her calf in tow, and the experience was at an end.

As far as you can go – The Dolphins come to play

But before all that we had a mission to say hello to two species of the ocean.  About 5km offshore the captain stopped the engines and the crew took up locations around the boat, one up in the raised bridge.  All the tourists looked too but we were inexperienced spotters and it was one of the crew who eventually shouted up to the bridge and pointed south west of us.  The captain thrust the engine forward and we circled round to that heading.  For about a minute we made progress at full speed and then dropped down to half, but he needn’t have worried.  We were soon joined by the animals who were too inquisitive to keep away.  These were pan-tropical spotted dolphins.  At first we saw a few gently breaking the surface with their fins, one at a time, then two or three together. Some were to starboard, others to port.  If you looked down you could see them under the surface keeping pace with the boat.

I recognized the game the operators were having with us.  Yes they did have to search a little for this pod, but they knew ultimately they would find them; to an extent that sitting quietly in the open ocean was just to raise our anticipation.  There was no question of us being disappointed.  And here we were, in amongst a pod of 50-100 dolphins all playing about in the water around us, maybe even for us.  A few would breach , toss about in the air and fall down, some would just do a little jump, flick their tails and pop back under the surface.  I took hundreds of photos and plenty of video from my little camera.  Most of it was useless as by the time you focused in on the jumping dolphin and took a shot he had already gone back beneath the surface.  You just had to anticipate the action and keep shooting – thank heavens for the days of digital photography.  In some ways it was better not looking down the lens of the camera and I took time out of my hopeless photography just to wallow in this spectacle happening all around me, hearing the whoops and cries of the people on board as yet another magical trick was presented somewhere round the boat.