Dolphins of Socorro
"A remarkable display of trust by a wild dolphin."
With the increase in environmental awareness in most diving communities, touching marine life has become taboo. But, what if a dolphin invited you to touch it? Could you resist? Should you? Although this may sound remarkable, there is a special pod of wild dolphins in Revilligigedo Islands (aka Socorro) that do want you to touch them and without enticement from food. These bottlenose dolphins approach divers, hover vertically in the water and wait to be stroked like pets. I had heard about this phenomenon of Socorro as well as the abundant sharks and manta rays commonly seen there and was intrigued enough to sign up for a week on board the dive vessel Solmar V.
The dive guides briefed our group on what to expect before we set off to find some of these friendly cetaceans (or should I say, allow them to find us). Mid-way through our dive, several dolphins arrived and did exactly what we had heard they would do. The divers reached out to the dolphins and began petting them like a lap dog. One even came in for a quick belly rub with a new born circling her nearby. This was an incredible display of trust. It was simply amazing. I thought to myself? Are they enjoying the free massage or is there a more complex social behavior going on? My instincts told me it was the latter. Regardless, I saw no harm in the activity going on before me.
While the petting session was taking place, a giant manta ray hovered over me allowing the rising bubbles to tease its underside. To the left of me were ticklish mantas; to the right affectionate dolphins; this was too good to be true. However, touching mantas is not permitted. Fish, unlike mammals, have a coat of slime on their skin that protects them from infection and other harmful elements. Removing this coating could injure the animal. All of the divers abided by this rule and simply watched these beautiful animals from arm’s reach.
It was inspiring that day to see dolphins trusting humans. They have many reasons not to based on our historically abysmal treatment of them. Many marine mammals around the world are held captive in small aquariums to entertain humans with silly tricks and in some communities, such as Taiji, Japan, dolphins are hunted commercially and slaughtered for food. When I saw the dolphins of Socorro stretching out to us for a rub I thought there is hope. Is there an evolutionary process taking place? Is there a bridge being developed between species? If humans can act responsibly down there and cultivate our relationship with these wild yet sentient beings, hope can turn into reality.
Getting the Shot
•Getting to Socorro is half the battle of getting good imagery. The three primary islands, San Benedicto, Rocas Partida and Socorro are 250 miles from the tip of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The 24 hour open ocean crossing is well worth the pitching and yawing.
•Once there, do as the dive guides tell you to do and wait for the dolphins to come in and play. It's that simple.
•Ask yourself, are you more interested in touching the dolphins or getting good photos? It is not easy to do both.
•Be sure to take some test shots first and adjust your exposure and flash settings for up close wide angle. Getting near to the animals is not the problem.
•I found the biggest issue in getting quality images was dealing with the other divers. Of course, everyone wants to get in on the interaction so finding a window to shoot required a bit of patience and gently easing myself in for a shot.
•The other problem I had was one of the best problems one could have. I was so focused on shooting giant mantas that I didn't notice the dolphin spa going on behind me. In hind site, I should have been focused more on the dolphins and given the mantas a back seat.
Join Mike on a photo expedition to the Revilligigedo Islands in May 2021 on board the Solmar V.
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