“Hey, Ric, I think I saw a fin,” I shouted, looking through my binocs; sitting on the crow’s nest aboard Toftevaag, the beautiful 60-foot classic wooden research ship. Ric, the skipper of the ship and the Principal Investigator of the Spanish Dolphins Project immediately handed over the wheel to another volunteer, peered through his binocs and exclaimed delightedly: “There! They come.”
And within five minutes an entire group of dolphins converged around the ship. Were we lucky or was it just a good day; whatever it was, it was the most beautiful sight I had seen in years. The dolphins danced together, jumped together in complete sync, teased us ofcourse and provided a whole round entertainment. So many of them! We, the volunteers, had to get skin samples of these cetaceans (mammals residing in water), visually track the group, record sounds and video-film their behaviour. A couple of volunteers had to climb into the zodiac to get closer to the lovelies and use lassoes to get the skin samples. Ofcourse, they left no stone unturned in coming as close to us as possible and obliged us in every way. It almost seemed that it wasn’t just us who were happy to be in such esteemed company. The feeling was mutual. I swear I felt them smile at us all the time!
The Spanish Dolphins project is a research and conservation programme of the Earthwatch Institute; for the common Mediterranean dolphin. It monitors the population of the dolphins which is fast becoming an endangered species.
When I was chosen to be a volunteer for this project, my joy knew no bounds. I was thrilled because I love dolphins and the high seas. The thought of being on ship in Spain and aiding the researchers in the wonderful conservation work that they were doing, was exhilarating. Though I always lived close to the ocean, I had never been in the high seas before; barring a few boat rides with my family at the Gateway of India. This was really an opportunity of a lifetime.
I prepared myself thoroughly for the trip – from Malaga to Almeria in September 2003 – by doing extensive reading and collecting the required items like binoculars, sleeping bag, large sunglasses, foodstuff for the ship etc. I also had to travel light, because there wasn’t too much storage space in the ship; and we had to carry our own luggage, ourselves (yes, can you believe that?!! There was no such phrase as ‘travel light’ in my personal dictionary and it was some harrowing experience.
Finally the day arrived! The long flight to Madrid and then the small one from Madrid to Malaga was super exciting. I couldn’t wait to get there and start with the task at hand. We had to stop-over a day in Malaga before going to the Marina to board the ship. The next morning, we reached the marina, with our luggage in tow. I met with the other volunteers and then the crew; who took us to Toftevaag – our ship. We had to cross over a few small boats to reach the ship.
Oh!! Is this Toftevaag? I asked myself softly lest anyone should hear the utter shock in my voice. OMG! This is… small!!! Are we going to be in the Mediterranean high seas in this?? Or is this just a small ship which will take us to the real Toftevaag? And that’s when I realised… this is IT! Despite reading about the 60 foot long ship, I had conjured images of a luxury liner in my mind (yes, you are right – just like the Star Cruise Ships – Virgo etc).. and this was such a disappointment. Well, who was to be blamed for such fantasies? Hmm… “Ummm… never mind, I’ll deal with it, I am brave,” I told myself.
Nonetheless, it was a lovely day. The three member crew – The captain and two lovely European sirens, took us through the safety instructions and later, for a lovely dinner to a typical ‘chiringuito’ bar by the beach. There was no other activity planned for the day and we just had to acclimatise ourselves to the ship. There was no reason to complain, the folks around me were very sweet. 10 people from all across the globe who had come together for the love of dolphins. It was very heartening indeed. We spent time with each other. We were made to feel at home by the captain and the crew; and finally, in the evening, we laid our sleeping bags on the deck of the ship and called it a day.
The next morning, we had to rush to the marina for our daily chores. Whilst there were some who didn’t believe in taking a daily shower, I couldn’t think of starting my day without a shower and completing my prayers. Mediterranean or Mars, my morning routine would never change. I was all set. The crew and other volunteers ate the non-vegetarian breakfast while I gorged on my Nestle breakfast bars. It was a happy beginning to a promising 12 days ahead!
It was when the ship started its journey that things began to look ‘not so promising’! The sea was very rough. No! That’s an understatement. It was unbearably rough. I just couldn’t handle it. It was the worst day to set off on our journey. I puked in the first 30 minutes of sailing out… all the bars… ewww. It was a miracle that I lasted so long! Seriously! I looked around, some people looked uncomfortable, but no one had puked. I felt a rush of embarrassment. I didn’t want to become a liability. Petite little Indian girl who couldn’t handle a tough situation? Oh no! I decided to ‘act’ brave and smile J Said a little prayer and decided to walk down to the lower level to answer a nature’s call.
That was a BIG mistake. The moment I climbed down the steps, I felt dizzy and thought I would pass out. Ric called out immediately, ran downstairs after me, and dragged me back to the deck. It was a harrowing experience; but getting back on the deck definitely made me feel better. I was advised to rest on the deck and I did so dutifully. I felt horrible that I was soon becoming a liability, but didn’t have a choice. I closed my eyes and drifted into sleep; as that was the only way to get rid of the dizziness.
After a while, I stirred back into consciousness. Everything around me seemed quiet. I was scared to open my eyes, thinking that I must have slept off the whole day because of nausea. Slowly and surely, feeling a bit coy, I opened my eyes and realised it was broad daylight. I was relieved to see that it didn’t seem like a lot of time had passed. I looked around to see where everyone was… and to my utter delight… there was pin drop silence. Yes, I know I am being a sadist… but I was thrilled to see that every single person on board, including the captain; was asleep. LOL! The rough waters got to everyone and the entire crew was dizzy and had no choice but to lie down on the deck. Ric had anchored the ship in the middle of nowhere and everyone was resting. I heaved a sigh of relief. I wasn’t so bad afterall! 🙂
The rest of the days were much better. We started using ear patches, wrist bands which held out pulse tight and tablets to combat the choppy waters. A typical working day in good weather conditions involved sailing out in the search of dolphins at sunrise; for about 8 – 12 hours, covering 40 – 50 nautical miles. Breakfast was prepared by the crew and the volunteers helped with casting off. Luckily, Ric spared me from ‘doing the dishes’ chore; as I was the only vegetarian on board. Every hour, following the rhythm of the ship’s bell, each volunteer would change duties to be able to discover all aspects of the research programme. From steering the ship, looking out for the dolphins from the crow’s nest, listening to the hydrophone for dolphin whistles, analysing the sea water for salt, oxygen and chlorophyll, to entering the data on the computer, we did it all. Depending upon how the sea was, the ship would be back in port between lunch and sunset.
Once in port, it was time to take care of the household necessities – like shopping, cooking, dish washing and cleaning the ship. Volunteers would take turns to do all these assigned duties. The extreme heat, the sea-sickness and food for vegans were some of the hazards, but the magical show of dolphins bow-riding the waves would take away the nausea and anxiety from everyone; and all one could think of was capturing these ‘kodak moments’.
It was the trip of a lifetime and some presents I got back home were friends for life – the dolphins and the volunteers.