Beyond Description

Two Trips to Baja

If you read my first post, entitled The Shot That Started It All, you may remember my friend Sean.  In that post, I talked about the trip to Baja that he invited me on.  Sean, who is a world class photographer and videographer, has travelled all over the world during his career.  This place, though, impressed him so much with he diversity and abundance of sea life that he planned to return one year after that first trip.  I had the good fortune to be invited along on the second trip, as well.

On our first trip, we saw dolphins almost every day that we were out on the water.  Most days, it was small pods of five to ten.  The dolphins would race alongside the boat, easily keeping pace, no matter how fast we went.  They rode the way behind our engine and also allowed the bow of the boat to push them along, seemingly having the time of their lives.  The truth is, we had epic encounters almost every day on our first trip.  We saw five species of whales, including a blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived.  Dolphins swam around our boat just about every day.  We swam with sea lions.  It was unreal and not one moment was taken for granted.  

During the second trip, it was a bit different.  For most of the days we were there, and the second trip was longer than the first, we didn't see many dolphins at all.  We were nearing the end of the trip and had seen only a handful of them for the entire two weeks we were there.  In fact, overall, we had many more quiet days on the water during the second trip.  There were still epic encounters, to be sure, just a little more spread out.

Good Vibes Only

Our attitude never wavered, though.  Both Sean and I, even on slow days, were just stoked to be out on the water.  As Sean and I have gotten to know each other, we've found that we have many things in common.  One of those things is that even the opportunity to have the types of encounters that are possible in a place like this is enough to keep the stoke going.  As Sean said to me once, "If every day is epic, no days are epic."

Something else we have in common, although this may sound corny or superstitious to some, is the belief that nature will eventually reward that positivity.  This is especially true of the ocean.

So, despite the difference between the two trips and the number of dolphin encounters we had day to day, both trips had one thing in common.  On one of outlast days on the water, we were rewarded with dolphin encounters that defy description.


Before I get into trying to describe these encounters, bear with me while I set the stage for why these encounters were so powerful and affected me the way they did.

I've always loved watching dolphins.  There's just something about them that captivates so many people, including me.  Until the last few years, though, most of the times that I saw dolphins was probably the same way that the vast majority of people see dolphins, at dolphinariums (a term that encompasses aquariums, theme parks, or any tourist attraction that uses dolphins in shows or swim-with encounters).  Most people watching these shows and visiting these attractions are so enamored with the dolphins that very, very few, if any, stop to consider where these animals come from.  I was a guilty of this as anyone.  Of those who do wonder, many likely believe that they were reduced or born in captivity.

However, though perhaps occasionally true, most often this is not the case.  The fact is that dolphins are captured from the wild for the purpose of confinement in dolphinariums.  Methods used to capture dolphins are violent and many are injured and killed in the struggle.  

The Sad Truth

There are several methods used for capturing dolphins.  Perhaps the most "popular" method is to use a seine net - a large fish net that is weighted at the bottom and has floats at the top, allowing it to hang vertically in the water column.  High speed boats then chase a pod of dolphins into shallow water and encircle them with the net, which is then closed around the pod and tightened at the bottom.  This traps the animals in a "purse," in which they thrash around, often becoming entangled and drowning.  The ones who survive uninjured are then placed into slings and hauled on board capture vessels or into shallow sea cages.  

As cruel as that sounds, by far the most brutal capture method is the drive hunt.  Pods of dolphins, once spotted, are chased and driven with boats and noise toward narrow-necked bays.  Once the dolphins are close to shore, a net is extended across the bay, cutting off escape.  Exhausted and confined, the ones deemed suitable for captivity are taken.  Most often, the rest are butchered for meat and other products.  Rarely are they freed, and if they are their fate is unknown.

One drive hunt that takes place in Japan was documented in the 2009 documentary file The Cove.  To be honest, I've never been able to bring myself to watch it.  However if anyone is interested in learning more about dolphins, I have read and highly recommend the book Voices In the Ocean, by Susan Casey.  It's an amazing book and not just about the capture of dolphins, although she does describe that.

Now, to be clear, I didn't include any of this to criticize or judge anyone that enjoys dolphin shows. I only describe these things because by the time I was out on the water in the Gulf of California, I knew this was how dolphins are captured.  Knowing these things turned what would have already been an amazing encounter into something far, far more powerful.

Back to Baja

So, back to Baja.

We were out on the water, very near the last day of our most recent trip down there.  Off in the distance, we spotted a flock of sea birds circling and diving into the water.  This is an indication that there's a bait ball (a large school of sardines) and, often, dolphins.  So, our captain headed directly for it.  As we were approaching, it looked like the water on the opposite side of the bait ball was becoming churned up.  When we got close we cold tell it was a large pod of dolphins approaching.

As the dolphins got closer, the bait ball took off running with the pod of dolphins giving chase.  Soon, from another direction, a second large pod of dolphins joined the hunt.  A few minutes later, another.  Then another.  And another.  Soon, our boat was in the center of a megapod of dolphins that had to be 500 yards wide and 100 yards deep.  On the surface, we could see what had to be two thousand dolphins.  Amazingly, for every one we could see on the surface, another two or three swam beneath. 

We were in the middle of a pod of dolphins that was four or five THOUSAND strong.  I was photographing like crazy; shooting so fast that every few minutes, my camera would stop while the memory card buffered the files.  During one of these intervals, I lowered my camera.  Although I had been looking at the dolphins through my viewfinder the entire time, it was when I lowered my camera that I saw what was surrounding me for the first time.

As soon as that happened, as soon as I really saw what was happening, I was transfixed.  I knew my memory cared would only take a few second to buffer and would be ready again.  Somehow, though, I couldn't lift my camera.  In fact, I couldn't move at all, except to slowly turn my head from side to side and just watch the miracle (because I don't know what else to call it) that was all around me.  After just a few seconds, I wasn't even seeing it anymore.  It was something more than that. 

A Lasting Effect

It was something far more powerful and far deeper than that.

In fact, even now, over a year later, as I'm writing this, the emotions are flooding back.  My hands are shaking, and my throat is tightening up.  The experience that day, thatch inexplicably I was blessed with, remains so powerful, do deeply imbedded, and so raw that I'm fighting back tears.

It would take a Shakespearean mastery of language to be able to really describe it.  So, Beyond Description, is the only title I could come up with.