Bumping into dolphins under water doesn't happen often, but Ralf Ãstrom has been lucky
Seeing dolphins under water has always topped the wishlist of my wife Jaana and I, ever since we started diving in 1989. It is common enough to see dolphins in tropical waters, but rare to see them below the surface. In 2000 dives we have seen wild dolphins while scuba diving on only four occasions - though we have heard them more often.
All the encounters have been brief, and though it sometimes seemed we had caught the dolphins off-guard, we think they usually knew we were there before we saw them.
The first encounter was in the Red Sea, when a small pod of dolphins passed us just at the edge of visibility. The rest of the dive group did not believe us until later, when they saw the picture I had been lucky enough to shoot.
Then, while we were hovering under the dive boat doing a safety stop in Turks & Caicos, Jaana suddenly signalled that something was behind me. As I turned, I saw a dolphin staring at me from less than 1m away. It filled the frame of my 15mm Nikonos.
Slowly it started to circle the boat, and the other divers jumped in with their snorkels. The dolphin didnt stay around for long (see picture). It was probably Jojo, the dolphin released by Earth Island Institute. It is always worth saving some frames on a roll of film for the safety stop.
Later, in Belize, we were leading a group of tourist divers along the outer barrier reef at a dive site called Abyss, close to South Water Caye. Visibility was poor, and while we were ascending to the top reef we suddenly saw four big shapes swimming towards us. I immediately realised that they were dolphins by the way they swam, but a couple of the other divers later confessed that their heart rates had shot up.
At the last moment the dolphins turned and continued at speed towards the deep. I guess they were hunting and just wanted to do a quick check on the strange bubble sounds.
The last and strangest encounter occurred a couple of years ago in the Maldives. Jaana and I were photographing lionfish around a lone coral bommie on the sandy bottom in about 26m. The other divers in our group had gone ahead towards shallower water, and we were running out of bottom time.
Just as we were about to go, three dolphins swam towards us, utterly absorbed in a game they had devised - passing a conch shell between them. I slowly swam into their path until I was some 5m away, and aimed my Nikonos.
Realising that they were not alone, the dolphins stopped in their tracks. We stared at each other for what seemed like minutes but was probably seconds, then two of them broke away. The other one continued staring at me. I managed to trigger the camera shutter and, of course, the last frame in the roll.
The last dolphin turned its head as if to ask: Hey, where did my friends go and quickly swam after them.
We were so perplexed by the incident that it took the beep of our dive computers to warn us that we were running into decompression time, and make our way back up.