Dolphins; photo by Sam Bland

EMERALD ISLE — The morning after Christmas day, I decided to go for a jog to burn off some of the decadent food and goodies that I had enjoyed while lounging at home the day before. Stepping out the door, a gloomy gray sky held promise of an intending rain along with a brisk north wind that stung with wind chill near freezing.

I headed out along the deserted holiday roads for a few miles and eventually made my way out onto the hard packed open beach strand that was shrinking due to an incoming tide. The beach was empty on this raw day except for a few people who were obligated to provide their dogs some relief. Waves from the ocean raced up the beach and chased me higher up the beach like a sanderling scampering in the surf. About every five minutes, a set of larger waves would roll in with brown pelicans and gannets gliding above the crest. Just as I was about to jog off the beach towards my house, a large splash about a hundred yards offshore caught my attention.

I stopped and stared out into the emerald waters as a set of waves started crashing off shore. Then as if launched by a submarine, three Atlantic bottlenose dolphins rocketed simultaneously from one of the waves and continued to leap three or four more times. The trio was joined by other dolphins as they continued to jump and ride the waves for about a minute or two. It was like a marine mammal troupe version of the Cirque du Soleil. I have seen dolphins leap from the ocean before, but this was different, this was special.

I raced home, put on some dry warm clothes, grabbed my camera gear and rushed back to the beach. Maybe twenty minutes had passed and I was back at the same spot where I saw the dolphins. Without a fin in sight, I watched the pelicans gliding gracefully above the surf as the gusty north wind pushed at my back.

If I have learned one thing in attempting to photograph wildlife, is that patience is a virtue of necessity. Sometimes you get lucky and an opportunity will come to you without a lot of effort. But more than likely there is a lot of waiting followed by more waiting.

So I settled in and waited. Staring out at the ocean is not a bad way to pass the time as I watched the tops of the cresting waves being blown out by the stiff breeze into millions of droplets that showered down like rain.

After about an hour, I scanned the sea with my binoculars and saw a large dark object on the surface of the water about a mile away. What I fantasized to be a humpback whale turned out to be a large cloud of cormorants flying low over the ocean. Just as I was about to lower my binoculars, I saw a dolphin rocket straight into the air, curl into the shape of a “C” and stick a nose first vertical landing with only a tiny splash.
I race-walked down the beach towards the dolphins as they continued to frolic. I finally reached the group just as they settled down, but I could follow their location as their dorsal fins sliced through the water. With my camera ready, I waited and watched for a set of bigger waves to arrive.

Out in the distance I could see the swells approaching and the dolphins sensed them as well as they positioned their streamlined bodies to catch the waves. It was on, as five to seven dolphins leaped out of and rode the wave. As the set of waves continued, so did the dolphins. I tried to keep up and get some photographs, but they were all over the place and to be honest, I just wanted to watch.

There is a scene in the new movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” where a photographer passes up on a once in a lifetime opportunity to photograph a rare animal. The photographer decides instead to live in the moment and see the animal without the distraction of the camera. This is a feeling that I completely identify with and have yielded to on many occasions, and thus, I stepped back from the tripod and just watched. The set fizzled out and the dolphins moved down the beach. I hoped that the show wasn’t over, but I didn’t care since I was filled with a memory that will last for a long, long time. I savored my moment and was now ready to capture some photographs of these magnificent creatures performing their acrobatic antics.

With my long camera lens pointing out to the ocean, a man walking his dog walked up and asked what I was taking pictures of. As if on cue, the dolphin show was now into act three.

“Oh” he said, while almost buckling at the knees, “I’ve got to get the family.”

So, I had some company.

The dolphins were amazing in ways that I cannot adequately describe. They were elegant and graceful while also powerful and athletic. There was what appeared to be playfulness along with a little rough housing. Their display had the handful of people on the beach cheering, laughing and clapping. All the while, I was firing away hoping to get a few pictures to capture this beautiful moment.

By now, a few hours had passed as a steady rain began to fall. The larger waves were no longer cresting on the outside sand bar due to the flood of the high tide. The dolphins had vanished as I stood on the rise of a sand dune scanning the water for them.

Alone, standing in the rain, I felt a sense of joy and happiness. Yet, I was a little emotional as well because I would have loved to have shared that extraordinary beautiful moment of dolphin behavior with people who I know and love. But at least I have a few photos to relive the moment.