Birthday Dolphins and Unexpected Rescues

Peach called, “Watch out!”

A wall of mud and water arced over the skipper’s head and sluiced over the three of us in the bow of her boat. “Well,” I thought, “this day is not turning out how I expected. Not at all.”

We had left the dock at the Fort McAllister Marina at 8:30 that morning to look for dolphins. I was on an all-volunteer research survey crew for The Dolphin Project (TDP). It was my first survey and I was excited to spot and record Bottlenose dolphins traveling, feeding, and playing in the rivers of the Georgia Coast.

I had trained to be part of this survey crew, which was permitted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. This designated us as a research vessel and allowed us to approach within 50 feet of a dolphin. Otherwise, it is illegal to approach closer than 50 feet. It is very dangerous for the dolphins, especially when boaters feed them. The dolphins become too comfortable with boat motors and begging. This can lead to dolphin injury or death from getting wrapped in fishing line, hit by high speed propellers, and other catastrophes.

The Ogeechee River, Fort McAllister Marina, in Richmond Hill, GA.
Peach Hubbard, Skipper of “Just Peachy”, takes us down the Ogeechee River to where our survey zone would begin.

We were starting from Richmond Hill, Georgia, just south of Savannah. Our plan was to be out for about 3 hours, stop for lunch, and then spend another 3 hours “on effort” before heading back to the marina. We planned to traverse two zones covering the Ogeechee River, Odingsell Creek, the Bradley River, and Ossabaw Sound.

Ossabaw Sound sits between two of Georgia’s wild barrier islands, Wassaw and Ossabaw Islands. Reachable only by boat, the salt marshes, beaches, maritime forests and rivers of these islands are incredibly important habitat not only for migratory shorebirds, but for hundreds of species of mammals, fish, sea turtles, birds, crabs, worms, snails, oysters and shrimp that live and breed in their protected nooks and crannies.

The morning started out with calm water and mostly blue skies. As we got closer to the mouth of the river and Ossabaw Sound, we started to see some chop. Chop in dark water in morning light looks an awful lot like the flash of a dolphin’s dorsal fin as it breaks the surface. Thousands of small, dark triangular waves glinted across the surface. I wouldn’t be able to see anything unless the dolphins surfaced within about 20 feet of the boat. Well. I took a deep breath and kept looking.

Nothing. Not even in the mouth of Odingsell Creek, behind the south end of Wassaw Island. “Huh,” said Peach, our skipper and President of the TDP. “I’m shocked. I’ve always seen dolphins here. Except when Wassaw Island was on fire.” What? I looked it up later and discovered that there was a fire in 2007 on the south end of Wassaw that burned over 1000 acres. So, there were always dolphins in this triangle of water surrounded by sand and marsh. Except back in 2007 when the island was on fire. And today.

We kept looking. But, despite it being the day before my birthday and despite my enthusiasm for being a newly-minted citizen scientist, we saw nothing that morning.

We stopped for lunch at the picturesque Delegal Marina. I loved looking out over the bright green spartina that stretched up and down Delegal Creek.

Our TDP survey crew takes a lunch break in the pavilion at the picturesque Delegal Marina on Skidaway Island. Left to right: Nicole Neininger, Photographer; John Scanlon, Team Leader, Peach Hubbard, Skipper. I’m the Assistant Team Leader today; Im taking the picture.

Then we headed through Hell Gate to travel along the northern edge of Ossabaw Island and down into the Bradley River. As we got closer to the mouth of the Sound open to the Atlantic, the wind and swell got worse. Now there was chop on top of swell. Dark grey clouds piled up, and it started to rain. Grateful for the anti-seasick pills tucked in my bag as insurance, I kept breathing and watching for the flash of a dolphin dorsal fin.

“There!” I shouted into the wind. “Dolphin, 3 o’clock.” Peach turned the boat in the direction of my outstretched arm. We watched. Another. “There, 2 o’clock!” We got two brief glimpses of dark triangular dorsal fins and a bit of their curved backs.

Normally we would approach to investigate and to take photos of the dorsal fins. This is the best way to ID dolphins. TDP has been contributing dorsal fin photos to the national marine data base since 1989. But no pictures for us today. As we bobbed, hoping for another glimpse, she said “I can’t get any closer. Write down ‘too rough, too shallow.’”

We marked down two dolphins, traveling, on the event sheet, along with longitude, latitude and times spotted, and turned to continue down the Bradley River. After about 20 minutes and increasingly hard-to-ignore winds, the skipper declared that we were turning back. We backtracked to the mouth of the river.

Just as we were about to break back into the sound, Nicole, the photographer, shouted “There. A boat. They need help.” Indeed, there was a jet boat bobbing in the three foot swells, with a woman, two men and what looked like at least 3 kids. The woman was waving her arms in the universal signal for “Please help! We’re screwed!”

Their motor had quit, and they drifted helplessly, pitched by the growing swells and shoved by the wind into the waving marsh grasses. There were four kids, as it turned out, who were crying and working themselves into near hysteria.

Peach, in her 20-foot Carolina Skiff “Just Peachy”, approached to offer a tow and get a tow-line from them. After 10 minutes of getting beat up by the swell and pushed farther into the marsh, we still didn’t have a line.

The owner of the disabled boat took a line in his hands, jumped into the rough waters, and swam towards us. Halfway to our boat, the line slipped from his hands. He made it to us, but without the tow-line. We hauled him on board and then we noticed the blood. “I landed on oyster beds and cut my feet up. I’m sorry about the blood. I’m so sorry about this.”

Bleeding and nauseous from the unrelenting swells, the boat owner hung his head in his hands. He looked miserable. I shared one of my chewable seasick pills. Meanwhile, his friend kept throwing the line, hoping to get it close enough for us to grab. After one toss landed a foot short, I lay on my stomach, scooted forward under the railing, and reached down into the swells to grab it. Got it!

So, we began the laborious process of tying the line to our bow, and then towing them out. Backwards. Bow to bow, with about 25 feet in-between, we backed out of the marsh. “Just Peachy” labored and growled and pulled, making slow but steady progress through the swells, chop and waving marsh grass. As the swells rose they lifted the boat, lifting the engine above the water. As the swells ebbed, the boat dropped towards the muddy marsh bottom. The depth finder read 8 feet, “But I don’t believe it,” Peach muttered. The pitch of the growling engine changed. Faltered. Whined.

And that’s when the motor bottomed out, hit the mud, and threw up that arc of mud and water all over us. “We’re in for it now,” I thought. “Maybe we’ll end up stuck in the marsh, too. And Sea Tow will have to rescue two boats.”

But no, the workhorse Carolina Skiff held on, laboring, and finally hauled us and the other boat clear of the marsh far enough so we could move the tow- line to the stern of our boat, and start to head home.

We towed that boat for about an hour and a half through the swells of Ossabaw, eventually into the calmer waters of the Ogeechee. We chugged back up river all the way to Fort McAllister Marina.

At the marina, we coiled line, stowed cushions, and gathered bags. It was 5 pm. We took a crew photo, and I got in the car for the 45 minute drive home. Those crew photos were blurry, it turned out, from the crust of salt on the lens. At home I would discover that crust of salt and silt from the muddy marsh bottom covered most of my body.

Our crew was smiling and salt-crusted after an exciting, but somewhat unexpected, day out on a dolphin research survey for The Dolphin Project. Left to right: John Scanlon, Team Leader; Ruth Goldstein, Assistant Team Leader; Peach Hubbard, Skipper, Nicole Neininger, Photographer.

Later that night, in an email, Peach wrote “Thanks for being a great trooper today, Ruth. TDP Surveys can be unpredictable! You were a super crew member, I look forward to working with you again.”

I’ll take it.

I might not have gotten to count many dolphins, but I sure had an experience I will never forget. I’m proud that I didn’t need my seasick pills, which gives me confidence for next time. And if I ever get into a tricky situation involving wind and waves, I know which boat I want to be on.

Thanks, TDP. I’ll be back.

The Dolphin Project (TDP) is the longest running and largest all-volunteer, non-profit (501c3) research, education and conservation organization dedicated to the protection of the wild, estuarine Bottlenose dolphin and our shared environment. They run dolphin surveys monthly, and provide education and outreach at events up and down the coast of Georgia and southern South Carolina. For more information on TDP, to volunteer, or to donate, check out their website here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: