“THE DOLPHINS ARE HERE!” shouted Riory, one of the Dolphin Dream’s two deckhands. I had almost given up on encountering them on our first day at sea. We had been motoring south towards Bimini and then round the island ever since clearing Immigration in Grand Bahama that morning, and it was now late afternoon.
We assembled on the dive-deck, donned our masks, snorkels and fins and stood ready to make a giant stride.
And there they were there – six dolphins swimming off the stern, curious to check us out.
These were Stenella frontalis or Atlantic spotted dolphins, so named because they develop distinctive spots as they age. They were everywhere: their movements sleek, smooth, graceful.
The shallow, featureless sandy bottom was a perfect backdrop to their dance.
When they threatened to leave, Zack, the other deckhand, used an underwater scooter to engage them and steer them in our direction. His technique was to shoot straight down to the bottom and then spiral towards the surface. Often one or more dolphins would join him.
The sudden appearance of a lone common bottlenose dolphin seemed to intimidate the others, who departed. Soon, he too was gone. We had been in the water for about half an hour.
Zack signalled to us to form a tight group as Captain Scott carefully manoeuvred the boat closer and cut the engines so that we could ascend safely.
Then we waited as the boat caught up with the dolphins, and the captain signalled for us to jump back in.
Not every encounter that evening was that long. Sometimes the dolphins would depart immediately. At other times a curious juvenile and adult companion remained to play with us long after the rest of the pod was gone. This cycle repeated until dark.
I had boarded the Dolphin Dream the previous afternoon at Riviera Beach Marina, just north of Palm Beach, Florida. At 26m this former shrimp-trawler is one of the bigger US liveaboards. Despite the absence of stabilisers, the 10.5m beam and thick steel hull provided a smooth ride.
Shark trips are offered year round, although between May and August some dolphin charters are scheduled. With seven double cabins, the vessel can carry up to 12 passengers.
Riory had just graduated high school and this was his second summer on the boat, while for Zack, a boisterous 23-year old, this was his 30th trip. Both were accumulating seatime for naval careers.
Tall and powerfully built, Captain Wayne “Scott” Smith cut an imposing figure: blue eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, boat shoes, shorts and Hawaiian shirt. A man of few words, he spoke softly with a shy smile. Most of the passengers knew him from previous trips and were greeted with a warm hug.
The crew roster was completed by the chatty and very accomplished cook Heidi.

NEXT MORNING WE motored from our anchorage, and soon the call came: “Dolphins!” As I emerged onto the dive-deck, I saw seven lining the surface off the stern, waiting for us.
My fellow-passengers included highly experienced freedivers. Their deep spins and loops helped to engage the dolphins, but by 11am the encounters had tailed off. By then the dolphins would simply swim on, ignoring our attempts to engage them. This was their sleep time.
Like other cetaceans, dolphins rest by shutting half of their brain while keeping one eye open to monitor their environment. On that and subsequent days, it was not until the early evening that the dolphins would want to play with us again.
During these long interludes, Dolphin Dream repositioned to a reef where, after lunch, we could scuba-dive or snorkel. That day we headed to Eldorado Shoal, a reef-site where we laid anchor. Captain Scott had suggested I travel light as he could provide a BC and regulator at no extra charge.
Below the boat I was greeted by a solitary great barracuda. A sting ray in the sand eyed us wearily. There were some purple-veined fan coral heads, and I saw a squirrelfish and a small school of pinfish in the brown soft coral.
With a maximum depth of 10m and in a water temperature of 30°C, I stayed down for more than an hour.
It was an unremarkable dive, but a pleasant way to pass the time between the dolphin encounters.
The rest of the afternoon passed in leisurely fashion. Some of us relaxed in our cabins, others snorkelled off the stern. Riory was teasing the resident barracuda with a torpedo toy. Zack speared hogfish, which would be filleted and served as delicious sashimi next day.
Eventually, anchor was raised and we resumed our search. Captain Scott estimates that about 80 Atlantic spotted dolphins currently populate the western edge of the Great Bahama Bank, in an area covering 30-60sq miles, and with an average seven-knot boat speed that’s a big area to cover.
One of the deckhands climbed to the bridge with binoculars. Spotting requires both knowledge of where the dolphins like to be at various times of day, and good eyes. “Is that why you hire such young deckhands?” I asked the captain. “No, I have better eyes than they do,” he replied.
One night we motored to the straits west of the Great Bahama Bank. It is here, where the bottom falls thousands of feet, that the dolphins hunt.
Captain Scott allowed the boat to drift gently while he pointed powerful lights off the stern. While we dined, the lights attracted small shrimp and other crustaceans. These, in turn, lured hunting squid, little eels and flying fish.
Finally the dolphins came, and they were leaping about in full force by the time we jumped in.
I saw one catch a sailfish. The scene reminded me of the night dive offered off Costa Rica’s Cocos Island where, in a mad scramble, whitetip sharks and jack use divers’ lights to hunt on a shallow reef. In the Bahamas the action is heightened by the dolphins’ greater speed and hunting precision.

IN HIS SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK Dolphin Tales, True Stories of the Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Captain Scott relates his relationship with some of the dolphins and their offspring that he has befriended over the 37 years he has been leading dolphin charters. He has named many that he recognised by their spotting patterns and scars.
One evening I was the last to jump when I saw a bandana floating down to the seabed. Assuming that a passenger had dropped it, I dived to retrieve it.
Zack scooted next to me and signalled to me to let it go. It was Luka’s toy!
Luka is now seven years old. She was originally named Luke because she is missing part of her fluke, and renamed Luka when it became apparent that she was female. She is the daughter of Sharkbait, born in 1987 – a photograph taken by Captain Scott when she was 10 hangs in the saloon. Prominent scars earned that dolphin the name.
Over the years, Captain Scott and his guests introduced a bandana into the interactions with Sharkbait and her offspring. She was pictured in 2004 with one of her calves, a bandana wrapped around her dorsal fin. Another photo, taken in 2011, shows her with Luka.
Now Luka was joined by more than 20 other dolphins who chased each other, biting the bandana off or carrying it on their flukes or pectoral fins.
I saw some break off from the game to dig their beaks furiously into the sand. They were using echo-location to hunt flounder or wrasse hiding just below the bottom. Then they would resume playing with us.
By this time I and the others who had until now remained mostly at the surface joined the freedivers. It was more exciting to watch the action from below, and it seemed to please the dolphins.
I was struck by how close they would glide past, without actually making contact despite my clumsy and inelegant movements.
It was getting dark, and Captain Scott motioned for us to return. “The dolphins didn’t want to leave us,” complained Riory when we got back on the boat.
Captain Scott, in a wide-brimmed hat, white long-sleeved linen shirt and loose light-blue trousers, met us on the stern deck. “How was it?” he asked.
One of the regular passengers, a petite woman still soaking wet, jumped to embrace him in delight. “You knew you’d get drenched,” I told him. He smiled, and opened his arms to hug me too.
Sharkbait made another appearance the next day. This time she was with a young calf, no older than one.
Although Captain Scott was not in the water with us, he recognised her scars in a photograph taken by one of the guests. While adults are known to sometimes “babysit” calves for other mothers, her swollen mammary glands suggested that the calf was hers.
In years of scuba-diving I have had a few highly cherished interactions with dolphins. None, however, matched the intensity, quality and duration of many of the encounters on this trip.
If you are considering going, you must accept some degree of unpredictability. When you get into the water there is no way of knowing how long the dolphins would hang around.
You also need to be prepared to entertain them. “If you just stay on the surface, they get bored and go away,” said one of the regulars, who had worked on the boat for five years but still returns as a guest every year. “They like it when you make an effort to be in their world.”
I was very privileged to visit that world and will surely return – although I plan to enhance my freediving skills before doing so.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Fort Lauderdale with Norwegian, or Miami with BA, Virgin or American. Catch a train to Mangonia Park Tri Rail Station and a taxi to Riviera Beach Marina, from where Dolphin Dream departs. As the trip is to the Bahamas, you have to clear US Immigration twice.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Dolphin Dream, www.dolphindreamteam.com
WHEN TO GO: Dolphin charters are offered between May and August. Some trips are organised via operators that charter the entire boat and resell spots.
PRICES: A six-night cruise costs US $2195 in a twin-share cabin. Return flights from about £480.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.visitflorida.com, www.bahamas.com