Trip 1 on the R/V Suncoaster: 30 Jun 2001 - 3 July 2001

Now I know what my future colleagues are paying for when they buy boat time.

What follows is a random account of my past three days looking for dolphins on the R/V Suncoaster, which wandered around between 5 and 100 miles off of the Gulf Coast of Florida.

The morning of Friday, 29 June, I got an e-mail from Bob & Nancy Griffin. They run the Off-Shore Cetacean Research Project at Mote Marine Labs. They needed an assistant for a trip. Was I free from 6:30 the next morning until sometime Tuesday?

Of course I was. No problem. I mounted my trusty Free Spirit 10-speed all terrain bike "Tree" (a Goodwill bargain at $60) and headed off to that bastion of overwhelming consumerism in the East, the Wal-Mart on University street. As luck would have it, it even stopped raining, once I got there.

I spent money that I don't actually have on a big white sun hat, clip-on polarized amber-tinted sunglass lenses, 8 tabs of the motion sickness drug Bonine (meclizine hydrochloride), a strap for my glasses to keep them from falling into the Gulf...and a nifty little snorkel set that I've been coveting. So I would have something to do when I got back.

I headed home to pack. As luck would have it, it even stopped raining again, once I got to campus. I thanked Tree, and piled my belongings under one of the hair-dryer chairs in the B-Dorm laundry room. When I first moved in to B-Dorm I had thought they were just gaudy decoration. Silly me.

Five hours of sleep later, I was up before dawn for the first time possibly in years. The sun rose as I made the very familiar ~seven mile trip. I stowed my bike inside the trailer that houses the offices of at least four different marine mammal projects.

The R/V Suncoaster is about 105 ft long. For each of the 12 researchers on board, time on her is worth $3,000 a day. Yeah, I felt special.

Doing nothing is hard work. Nancy and I were looking for dolphins, particularly for Atlantic Spotted dolphins, Stenella frontalis. Bottlenose dolphins are well and good, and recorded accordingly, but these off-shore Spotteds are little known and of special interest.


Looking for dolphins meant sitting or standing above the wheelhouse or at the bow. From 7:00 AM until 8:00 PM. Looking attentively at... well, very little. There were three things that we saw with any regularity: sargassum, flying fish, and clouds.

Well, and trash. Over the course of three days I saw: a balloon, two plastic bleach bottles, a plastic oil bottle, a plastic half-gallon jug, a single rubber glove, a plastic coffee cup, two styrofoam cups, and a plastic soda bottle. And I was mad.

Above the Wheelhouse

The view

Back to nothing. It's hard! Of course, we weren't actually watching for 13 hours straight. Every half hour - hour the boat would stop at a "station" for the other researchers to collect data.

The main project being conducted involved red tide conditions. Once when we were at station Nancy pointed out different peoples' projects, and Jason stopped entering data into Microsoft Excel long enough to explain what he's doing for his doctoral work here on the Suncoaster. He collects water samples and analyzes them for iron content. This is a little tricky, since the boat is made of iron. Iron content is important because it enables lots of cyanobacteria to grow and produce nitrogen. Then they die, and other things come along and use the new Nitrogen, particularly Karenia brevis, the red tide organism. High iron content is due to iron-rich dust blowing over from the Sahara.

Wow. I ponder this. I presume it means that it's not inconcievable that excess errosion in Africa could lead to greater quantities of dust in the trans-Atlantic winds, leading to heavy growth of cyanobacteria in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to an outbreak of red tide, which shows a fairly strong correlation with high dolphin mortality. Desert expansion in Africa killing dolphins in Florida. Another reminder from mother ecology...

During stations Nancy and I took down environmental data and then took short breaks when the boat was stopped. Long enough to grab a couple of candybars in the galley (there's always a bowl of them sitting out... they say the sugar helps with seasickness) or put on some more sunscreen or take a very short nap. Sometimes by accident.

Being on the boat was very tiring, especially at first. The first day it was a combination of lack of sleep and new surroundings, but even Nancy had trouble staying awake in the afternoon. Right after lunch the sun would be directly overhead. My tummy would be full, and I'd be sitting in the deck chair on top of the wheel house. Quiet. Hot. Bright. I'd be looking at the same deep blue water and Sargassum wind-rows I'd been looking at all morning. A slight breeze off the bow. The hum of the engines. And I'd start to drift off....

The strangest part about that was that I wouldn't actually fall asleep, just almost. And then I'd see things. Boats, sea creatures, objects floating in the water. Sometimes in detail. None of them actually there. Like mirages in the desert...

The Bunks across from me

Anyway, Nancy had as much difficulty with this as I did, so we woke each other up for a while, and finally decided to take turns watching and napping.

At night I had some of the best sleep I've ever had. Snuggled securely into my top bunk, starboard side of the fore cabin. Completely dark. The engine drones, the boat rocks up and down, and I sleep long and dark and deep, my mind stringing thoughts together and dreaming long strange dreams. I could have slept happily in there all three days and the trip would still have been worth while.

My Bunk

As regards the rocking of the boat, the waves were never higher than 4 ft. Usually it was even calmer. This means I still don't know exactly how prone I am to seasickness. That first day I was tired, as mentioned before, and felt rather "off." My mantra was "I'll get used to it... I'll get used to it..." I took a tab of Bonine every 12 hours for the first 36 hours, but after that I figured I was used to it, and I was.

I didn't bring much with me, and I used even less. What I found most worthwhile was Ryan's walkman and his copy of "Duct Tape Aesthetic," as well as The Sysop's Collection Tape 2 and Fraggle Rock's "Music and Magic." I listened to these a lot.

The food was excellent. Breakfast was from 6:00 - 7:00, lunch from 12:00-1:00 and dinner from 6:00-7:00. It was plentiful and tasty, and I ate a lot of it. I miss it now.

The boat had quite a collection of movies. I'd actually seen several of them (thanks to Ryan), which was just as well, since I never had movie-length free time. Over the course of the trip I saw people watching bits of "Contact," "Being John Malkovich," "Chasing Amy," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "Drowning Mona," and a few others.

Finally, the dolphins. We did see dolphins. Six times on Saturday, a single time on Sunday, and four times on Monday. I missed the group of Spotteds that came by briefly on Saturday, and also a bottlenose feeding bout that night because Nancy didn't wake me up. The sighting on Sunday was a lone bottlenose that came over to the boat and then left--Sunday was a long empty day. Then Monday I saw groups of spotteds, twice, both when Nancy was inside. The first a group of five, for four minutes, and the second a group of ten, for seven minutes. They only left when the boat stopped. I think I handled it pretty well. Rather than standing there staring at them, as I was inclined to do, I estimated their distance and angle from the boat, hit the "mark" button on the GPS, grabbed the still camera and hung it around my neck, and took as many pictures as possible while counting individuals and different spotting patterns. We'll see if I got any worthwhile ID pictures. If there are good ones, I should be able to get copies and put them up. They're very beautiful.


Monday night I stayed up late (until 11:15!) and watched the sunset, then the stars and lightning. Other people were relaxing too--fishing off of the back of the boat (poor Julie's first catch ever was only half of a fish) gave way to reading and quiet talking.

I tried very hard to get a picture of a flying fish doing its thing, but no luck.


Only Half a Fish!

Jason with a pirahna

Coming back - the Sunshine Skyway

A very large boat

Under the Skyway

Almost to land, and more's the pity