An Atlantic adventure with marine mammals, near an island threatened by casino development

What wild dolphins – and an island called Bimini – teach

Posted:  Wednesday, January 28, 2015 - 12:00pm
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BIMINI — Swim with wild dolphins somewhere near the Atlantic Gulf Stream, and there are no fences as you drift in the blue-green waters. But then, to the left, to the right, and up from depths they suddenly arrive, polished silver glinting. They may come close and look you in the eye — you, the human, so mesmerized, faced tucked behind goggles, snorkled breath. Mostly, though, they sweep past, assessing, inviting, laughing. They click and whistle to each other, maybe even to you.

“Humans look at other beings, and we see what's on the outside, the outer shell,” said Shannon Thompson, who annually leads a small adventurous group to the Bahamas to swim with wild dolphins. Our brains tell us there's a separate interior that we understand only intellectually. Dolphins use sonar to perceive the world around them, and when they consider us, they ‘see’ us in a completely different way. They see right through us, literally.”

And, they play.

“Wanna race?  Nah. Not really...,” said Deedee Conover, a Camden lighthouse keeper and lifelong swimmer, who slipped off the stern of a sports fishing boat every day for a week in April 2014, just to get to know these large marine mammals.

At 80, she has seen much of the world, but the dolphins offered a different magic. The trip was not just about snorkeling around coral reefs. It was about communicating with animals whose intelligence is keen and only partially understood, even by those marine biologists and researchers who work their lives in the water with them.

“The eye was so close without touching me,” said Deedee. “The approach was from my left and I didn't know he was coming until I slightly turned my head and looked in his eye. That  was a wow moment for me, maybe even a ‘I like you, too’ from him.” 

Deedee was part of a larger group making their way from Camden, Lincolnville, Rockport and Rockland to the small Bahamian island of Bimini early last spring. It is a trip that will be repeated this April with a whole other group, but again led by Thompson.

“I initially organized this trip to get back to the dolphins myself, and also because I love organizing things,” she said. “I think it’s a good trip for people who don’t usually like to do groups. There’s plenty of time for your own space.” (She has four spaces left for her 2015 trip, see below for information and links)

Last April, the swimmers, ranging in age from 45 to 80, barely knew each other; they had seen posters around town advertising the trip earlier in the fall and each put down the deposit to carve out time to learn about dolphins.

By early April, they — school transportation director, corporate sales director, real estate agent, reporter, filmmaker, Boston college professor — had earned a respite from harsh winter weather under way back north, where it was still snowing. 

Traveling 1,400 miles southeast, they left New England and found not only dolphins, but an island with its own unique and spirited community, with extreme variations in poverty and wealth, and an economy heavily reliant on tourism — not too dissimilar from Midcoast Maine.

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Just 53 miles east of Miami, Bimini, a cluster of three small islands, is a district of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, that small country most North Americans regard a station in the Caribbean archipelago of winter-escape destinations. That perception is what now threatens not only its identity, but the marine environment that sustains its economy.

The land barely rises above high tide, is less than a quarter mile wide and just five miles long; yet, it is home to some of the world’s most habitat-rich waters. Its 1,600 residents love their island, and many have been engaged for several years in fierce battle against developers expanding casino hotels and condos there.

Stand on the top floor (there’s only three) of the Seacrest Hotel on Bimini, and open doors at the opposite ends of any given room — one facing west to Miami, the other east to the wide Atlantic — and immediately, an ocean breeze bathes even the most winter-weary bones with healing warmth.

And depending on what point on that hotel porch one stands, directly below is the old bungalow where Ernest Hemingway penned Islands in the Stream. Across the narrow street is the bar where he drank, and at the docks, the boats that still take fishermen into the Gulf for bone fish.

A little further, yet still in view, are the famous mangroves. Somewhere in there, on a map known only to locals, is a swimming hole where lithium and sulfur percolate up from a fresh water spring beneath the salt water, thought to be saturated with healing powers.

Those mangroves are where Martin Luther King found his solitude and where he wrote his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. He rode into the mangroves in a skiff designed and built by Bimini native Ansil Saunders, who will till this day, at age 88, will tell you how he took “Dr. King each day to the mangroves to write.” It is also where King wrote, just four days before he was assassinated, his speech to the Sanitation Workers.

And those mangroves are where developers now want sink sand in order to build more lodging. That multi-million dollar dredging and filling project is an environmental battle that threatens the fisheries on Bimini, and and has organizations such as Bimini Blue Coalition filing lawsuits in the country’s capital in Nassau.

Meanwhile, the dolphins continue speed by, offshore, in the deep aquamarine waters the Bahamas are famous for.

The dolphins

Deedee Conover is tough. She sprained her ankle somewhere on the Florida highway, and by the time she reached the Fort Lauderdale airport to catch a puddle jumper to Bimini, her leg was so swollen she could barely walk. That mattered little to her, though, as she shrugged off the pain. The next day she was in the ocean, swimming toward wild dolphins. Next to her was Sue Armstrong, a 78-year-old grandmother from Iowa.

Every day for a week, the group climbed aboard Captain Al Sweeting’s sports fishing boat and moved to a shallow spot 20 miles to the northwest of Bimini, where ocean depths are no more than 40 feet. To New Englanders accustomed to a steel-grey Atlantic, the turquoise shades of water were intoxicating.

Some days the wind blew from the north, some days from the east or west. While rain hung over mainland Florida, the clouds broke up as they moved east toward Bimini.

On the bow, faces turned hungrily toward the sun, eyes scanning the horizon. They were not disappointed. A splash of foam and a silver leap over the waves signaled dolphins were on the approach. All of a sudden, they appeared from beneath the hull, spotted dolphins and bottlenoses, two species swimming together.

“Sometimes they want to play with the boats, sometimes they want to play with humans, and some days they just want to hang out with each other,” said Sweeting, a native of Bimini, who gave up fishing expeditions and now dedicates his boat to marine research. His wife, Kelly, is a marine scientist and conducts college field courses with the Dolphin Communication Project.

A graduate of the University of Miami Class of 1988, Sweeting grew up on Bimini. He is descended from a band of British Loyalists who left North Carolina during the Revolutionary War and resettled in the Bahamas, which became self-governing in 1964. He knows the waters, and the ways of his 50-year-old government (with no Environmental Protection Act, Freedom of Information Act, and no Marine Mammal Protection Act) like the back of his hand.

Dolphins, so tuned to their environment, can hear the noise of boats cutting through the water tens, if not hundreds, of miles away. That sensitivity to their environment contributes to their high intelligence, and is a strength that also contributes to their vulnerability.

It is why the tremendous opposition of, and appeals to, the U.S. Navy to modify its underwater sound testing, which has been blamed on marine mammal deaths since sonar was developed more than 50 years ago. The Navy has admitted that its experiments and amplifications have killed whales and dolphins, which become so stunned and disoriented that they beach themselves and die.

To the consternation of marine mammal protection groups and environmentalists, the U.S. Navy announced in 2013 that it would continue its five-year plan for sonar and underwater explosive testing in the Pacific resulting in lawsuits now under way in federal court.

But in April, off of Bimini, the wild dolphins were at ease.

Surrounded by clear, shallow waters, Bimini is separated from Florida by the Gulf Stream, the strong Atlantic current that sweeps up from the Caribbean along the U.S. before it turns east, and splits toward Europe and West Africa. The Gulf courses along a deep ocean trench that falls to 6,000 feet beneath the blue Atlantic, where fish are abundant and dolphins feed.

Those dolphins — and sharks — also move east toward the Bahamian Bank, swimming in small groups of three or four, or in large groups 30 to 40.

Thet point at which Sweeting’s boat heads is one of their favorite spots along their customary ocean routes. And that is where groups of humans come to swim with dolphins, one of the few places in the world.

Swimming with dolphins in captivity has been a tourist attraction for decades in vacation spots —  Florida, Mexico, Thailand — where captive dolphins exist in small pens, some ripped at birth in the wild from their mothers (It has been recorded that those mothers mourn for a long time).

It is now widely regarded inhumane to confine dolphins to water parks and train them for human amusement.

Less controversial, though there remains debate, is the practice of “asking” dolphins in the wild if they want to interact with humans. There are reservations whether it is even right for humans to seek out this engagement.

Off of Bimini, the emphasis is on waiting to see if the dolphins, who are moving about on their daily routine, want to engage with humans. There are strict codes to follow: Swim quietly through the water. Do not splash with the plastic fins (the dolphins’ echolocution is so sensitive, human sounds are to be kept to a minimum). Keep arms still. Do not touch the dolphins.

There are several dolphin-watching businesses on Bimini, and they all head to the same spot, though at different times of the day. If the trips coincide, they keep a respectful distance from each other. Other boats back away if a group is in the water swimming with dolphins, boat engines cut to neutral. A catamaran with snorkelers may quietly drift by.

But there are those who do not know the codes, or are simply too stupid and greedy to care.

Sweeting glared across the water at a large motor yacht filled with partiers, lasering in on the captain high on the bridge as she gunned engines, trying to herd dolphins for her passengers. The bulky, top-heavy vessel followed Sweeting’s vessel too closely and the peace on the ocean evaporated in a clash of values: A predatory chase versus a quiet unfolding of what might be.

The dolphins meanwhile, swam away.

But a day later, the wild dolphins were back. As Sweeting cut his engine, the humans awkwardly slipped off the stern and into the green water. The dolphins dove down and six women dove with them, down 10 feet and more. It was a slow, hypnotizing show as the dolphins looped around the swimmers.

“An interaction with the dolphins is a reciprocal exchange, one taking the lead from the other, co-creating a conversation through movement,” said Thompson. “I can initiate a dive and be followed by two or three dolphins who will twist and spin an inch from my body as we spiral back up to the surface, and wait for me to recover my breath so I can do it again.”

For Jenny Swing, of Rockland, it was a meditative state enhanced by a quiet underwater world.

“My mind was certainly silent except for fleeting thoughts of how to move toward or stay close to them,” she said. “They seemed to be fully intentional about their interactions with us, not to mention their conscious choice to even be with us.”


Bimini

The Bahamas consist of 700 islands and cays, with a population of approximately 320,000. Its name, “Bahamas,” means shallow water in Spanish, and it is those shallow waters of remarkable shades of deep blue and aqua marine that draws fishermen and tourists.

Bimini also figures greatly in the minds of spiritualists, who are attracted to energy lay lines that are said to prominently cross the island. Groups come Canada and Scotland every year to “see” the energy hot spots and convergence lines.

There is Spook Hill and Radio Beach, where we are advised, to slow down and listen.

The lost city of Atlantis, some say, lies near Bimini, deep in the ocean depths.

And Bimini has also played a pivotal role with rum-runners, the slave trade, drug traffickers, and human smuggling. 

There are artists and writers living there, and deeply creative personalities. And there are the free spirits, like the man who used to rollerskate every day in the nude while he meditated.

Biminites leave for education and for opportunity; yet, there are some who return to the island they love. They eke out a living there mostly because they want to there. They run bakeries and bars, electronic stores, make jewelry, teach yoga, run fishing trips, build homes and operate hotels.

Ashley Saunders grew up on Bimini and got a scholarship to Harvard to study anthropology. He returned, and has been building a stone house — a work of art, really — three stories high, and embellished with tiles and conch shells, stone and treasures collected on the beach. It is the strongest house on Bimini (conch shells, consisting of calcium carbonate, are tough) and resistant to the deteriorative tropical forces, like sun, rain, wind, rust, rodents and termites.

“I’m building it to last forever,” he said, knowing how easily hurricanes can demolish buildings on his low island. “That is my model. One thousand years from now, this should still be around.”

While his house draws visitors all the time, he worries about the future his island. After years of traveling, Saunders returned, and dolphins play a large part in his spiritual connection to his home.

“They have touched my heart,” he said.

Bimini is not a wealthy place, but it is a complicated place, this northwestern outpost of the Bahamas, and now some of its more activist citizens are locked in a fight with a global casino heavyweight, the Singapore-based casino company Resorts World.

Over the past several years, the citizens of Bimini have watched as Resorts World acquired a condominium development at the north end of their island and began expanding it in what was wild land. First, more condos were built, then a 10,000 square-foot casino, then a high speed ferry, the Bimini SuperFast a 32,000-ton cruise ship, capable of carrying 1,500 gambling passengers, began running to Bimini from Miami.

In 2014, Resorts World Bimini, a subsidiary of the publicly-held Genting Group, began to dredge the beach on North Bimini Island to build a pier for its gambling ship. The 750-acre Resorts World Bimini became a destination for tourists from Miami, and when they unload, the population doubles on the small island.

On South Bimini, the island’s small airport is now being expanded to accommodate the growing business.

In the global picture, it is like many other current developments — another rural spot is discovered by resort corporations, there is construction, and there are the spinoff service jobs — maids, wait staff, landscaping — for the local population. But on Bimini, the development is compounded with the dredging of sensitive coral reefs and destruction of critical habitat, the filling of mangroves and reefs destroyed nursery grounds where young fish and sharks feed and grow. 

With Bimini Blue Coalition, some residents joined in a lawsuit against Resorts World Bimini and tried to stop what they said was illegal dredging and filling, done without proper environmental permits or accountability. But the Bahamas does not have the environmental laws that the U.S. has, and Nassau, the country’s capital, is a long way, politically and geographically, from Alice Town, Bimini.

The controversy continues as Biminites, used to their quiet independence, adjust to the presence of a large commercial casino culture, complete with gates, yachts, and high rollers.

It is a clash of values, and the struggle continues on Bimini to protect its ecology so that the economy, as well as a way of life, doesn’t collapse. Without fish, there is no fishing, no diving, no snorkeling, no swimming with wild dolphins. By default, the bottom drops from the tourism trade.

An effort is underway now to establish a North Bimini Marine Reserve, and pressure is on the Bahamian government to make it happen. The goal is to protect mangrove forests that serve as a nursery for sea life, as well as the marine ecosystem.

Maine and the Bahamas share the same Atlantic Ocean, similar pollution problems with floating garbage and plastic, and similar social issues that emerge from economies that have depended for centuries on fishing and ocean resources and now facing shrinking resources.

And citizens continue to debate what is more sustainable and beneficial to a local economy, conventional resort development or ecotourism.

Through it all, the wild dolphins keep moving. Fast, with heart, they cut through the water and leave the humans behind. And if they so choose, they might spend some time with people waiting for them, hoping for an encounter.

“I can swim languidly next to a dolphin who slows to a human's pace at the surface, our eyes mere inches from each other,” said Thompson. “I feel like they're dialing in to my true inner being, my pure essence, the real me inside the shell of my personality.” 

To reach Shannon Thompson and learn more about the Bimini trip, email shannonlynnthompson@gmail.com; 207-975-2992.

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Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657