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.
My best shot
There were up to 50 around the ship that day
Following the boat
The passengers look on
Which way to look next
Loads of fun
They start to drift off
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.
Only once on 6 trips on the RMS did I ever see another ship, though. I was in the main lounge reading late one afternoon when someone came in and started staring out the window. I asked what was up and he replied by pointing. I went over to take a look but it was way off in the distance, so I hurried up to the promenade deck to find most of the ship’s passengers leaning over the guard rail on the starboard side. How could something as simple as this become the focus of everyone’s attention? Obvious – because there was so little else to do!
All at sea
Now I may have built this up to much but the ship was not close – in fact it was only because it had three tall derricks that we could see it at all – the bulk of the ship was below the horizon. It was heading in the other direction so we only had its company for about 15 minutes before it was lost to us forever. I spoke with one of the crew saying about how this had been the first time I had seen another ship on any voyage. I got a travel weary reply that yes we are off the main shipping routes but you do see ships from time to time. The bridge will always try and make contact to get information from them, mainly about the weather and sea conditions but there had been some pirate activity in some parts and it was always good to know the way was clear – particularly at night. I wondered what the little RMS looked like from a distance. It had the appearance of a small provincial ferry at the back, and a coaster at the front. Apart from its distinctive yellow funnel it was a very ordinary looking ship, but to see it from a distance plying through the deep ocean waters would always be a bit of a surprise, I surmised.
There was very little other activity to look at but most people were still fascinated by the rolling of the sea and the spray, the ever changing cloudscapes, and especially the dramatic sunrises and sunsets. Seeing wildlife was a matter of chance. Although dolphins were common round Ascension and St Helena themselves, you rarely saw them out here – the crew would report if there were some chasing the bow wave. The odd whale might breach way off but I never saw them. One dull morning I went for a blow around the promenade deck. About 100m out from the boat, a large tern was struggling in the wind. We were about mid way between the islands and I wondered what had blown him so far off course and all alone out here. You could see by his flight pattern that he was utterly exhausted. I thought he might try for the ship but despite coming close by he flew overhead and continued on in a westward direction. That way, his nearest land would be Brazil – over 1000 miles away. Did he ever make it?
One species that made a regular appearance was the flying fish. I could sit on deck for ages watching them. I imagine it was the noise and wake of the ship that scared them but there may have been predators below. A shoal would emerge from the water, flick their wings modified from fins as wide as they could and glide two three wave crests away. If they caught the right breeze they must have been transported a couple of hundred metres in one flight. It was almost as if they were catching thermals in the water, or maybe just supreme knowledge of their abilities, but they would be seemingly about to hit the water when they would pitch upwards again and continue their gliding for another ten seconds.