Dances with Dolphins

In the Red Sea, 30 miles south of Port Ghalib, Egypt 12:00 p.m. (09:00 UTC) Saturday, 12 June 2010 25 16 N, 34 57 E

The dolphins did come to dolphin reef, and we got to play around with them for a while. It was a bit of a circus, though. There were usually two or three commercial dive boats in the lagoon at any given time, each with a couple of motorized dinghies that zip a dozen snorkeled snorkelers to this part of the reef or that at different times of the day. This doesn’t exactly create a traffic jam, and the reef is so big with so much to see that it doesn’t feel crowded, but you’re not alone either. When the dolphins finally did arrive, surfacing gracefully as they lolled about in the protection of the reef, they were besieged. A motorized dinghy or two would circle about them, trying to plop the snorkelers into the water in their path, and then pick everyone from the water again when the dolphins moved away, to try again. Could the dolphins like this? Of course, we can’t claim to be holier than thou, because at one point we hitched a ride from one of the dive boat dinghies (the staffs are exceedingly nice and courteous) and joined along.

Finally, the dolphins were left alone, and everyone had returned to their boats. We understand that they are sociable animals, and like people. But they also come into the lagoon to rest and sleep, and shut down their sonar, which takes energy to run. All these boats buzzing around can’t help that.

When we were back aboard, Sima saw them approach the boat, and was itching to go back in. So she did and, as Paul watched with the binoculars, Sima got up close, and swam with them for a while, by herself. They didn’t seem to move away as they had when the large group was about. Paul soon followed, and we had about 20 minutes with them by ourselves. Until the next dinghy came buzzing in, and splash splash splash, another dozen snorkelers. So we turned home, stopping at a coral outcropping on the way back to say hello to the smaller fish.

It was fun seeing dolphins so close up, and we’ll post some pictures of them underwater. Others have talked of playing with them, twisting about in a sort of underwater embrace. We didn’t get any of that, but they did swim close enough to almost touch, but always almost.

But this was not the highlight of our stay at Dolphin Reef!

Late one afternoon, a Zodiac approached, and Hani introduced himself. A good-looking Egyptian with a fine command of English, he offered his hand in greeting. “Do you need anything?” he asked. “Any troubles? Is there anything I can do for you?”

We invited him aboard, and spent some time chatting. It turned out that he was working on a nearby HEPCA (“Hurghada [an Egyptian city on the Red Sea’s Coast] Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency”) boat that was moored nearby. It was chock full of bookish scientists who were moving about the Egyptian coast counting whales and dolpins. Oh, how we ached to meet them and chat them up about what they knew and what they were doing. But we couldn’t well invite ourselves over, so we did the next best thing, and invited Hani and any guests he’d like to bring to come back for a sociable after his work was done for the day.

At about 7 p.m., Hani did come back, with two others. Did we want to come to dinner aboard the boat and meet the research crew? Did we?! Oh boy!!

We came aboard the HEPCA vessel at about 8 p.m. We had a wonderful dinner. Sima, who loves to cook, has perhaps become somewhat less enamored of doing it for days and weeks on end, especially with no fresh produce for about a week now, and was ecstatic about the opportunity to “eat out.” It was a great spread, highlighted by fried chicken, which we both ate.

Our hosts were wonderful. They were youngish and mostly female, from Italy, Australia, Egypt, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, each from different academic institutions on loan to HEPCA to study whales and dolphins in the Red Sea. We learned that, despite Jacques Cousteau’s Red Sea legacy, no such study has been done in the past. The researchers noted that they would be the first to track just what kind and what amount of whales and dolphins make the Red Sea their home. They walked us through their research room, an oversized cabin stuffed with computers, and described to us their methods.

One of the researchers, Marina, took the lead in telling us about the project, and from her we learned quite a bit about dolphin habits. And the Egyptian staff on the boat made sure that there was a cold drink in our hands at all times.

We ended the night on their observation deck, lying flat on our backs watching the moonless, star-speckled sky, trading knowledge about the constellations we knew.

We went back to the boat late, to get ready for a departure the next day. It was a wonderful evening.

Now we are enroute to Port Ghalib, 100 miles north from Sataya Reef. We left yesterday at 4;00 p.m., and knocked off 70 miles in the first 12 hours with favorable winds behind us. But then the winds shifted, and we slowed to a knot and a half in a stiff headwind. Our ETA changed from 1 p.m. today to 6 a.m. the tomorrow morning! This is drag not only because it makes for uncomfortable seas, but also because we sought to get to Ghalib in time to see the U.S. play England in the World Cup, tonight at 8:30 p.m. local.

We had been hoping for a wind shift all morning. The forecasts are unreliable here, as one calls for the wind to be from the west, the other from the east. Mother nature has cooperated by sending it right down the pipe from the due north. A little to the right or a little to the left, and we could maybe put up a little sail and make some headway. Paul’s sister Cathy is providing additional data to us from the comfort of her home in New Hampshire, and that has helped. An hour ago, an alarm went off. It was the “WIND SHIFT” indicator on our autopilot, which tells us about sudden changes in wind direction. So this might be a good alarm! But the wind had shifted only a little bit at first. Paul stood in the cockpit, making like Carlton Fisk, waving his arms to the side, trying to blow the wind further fair. It worked, and Paul jumped about on deck, fists pumping high. Yess! Yahoooo!!

The wind has veered well to the northeast, and the boat speed climbed from two to three and then four knots. And now six knots as we hoisted bigger sails. They fill, Leander heels over, and pounds through the waves. If this can hold for four more hours, we’ll be in. We’ll see.

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