27 December 2008
Dolphins, Photography and Dreams
Back in my twenties, when I was moving my first steps as a cetology geek, I was assigned the task of recording cetacean sightings at sea by Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, who was my thesis co-advisor. ‘Find a boat and report what you see’, he said. Little was known back then - it was 1986 - about the distribution and ecology of whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea. So I managed to embark on board a mid-size oceanographic ship and set out to defy my own seasickness, looking for dorsal fins and flukes from the upper deck of R/V ‘Bannock’, together with my colleague Benedetta Cavalloni.
Our very first cruise brought us to the Sicily Channel, where on the second day at sea I made one of my best sightings ever. A mixed group of nine common dolphins and one bottlenose dolphin came to ride the ship’s bow for a relatively long time. We had seen a school of striped dolphins on the previous day, but that event has faded in my memory. The early mixed Delphinus / Tursiops group, however, was not going to be forgotten.
The large bottlenose dolphin behaved as the leader and immediately positioned himself right in front of the bow, enjoying the pressure wave generated by the fast-moving ship and not allowing any of the smaller common dolphin group members to gain his apparently privileged position.
For some reason I had loaded a roll of black & white film but I soon realized that this wasn’t a good way of capturing such a colourful moment. I quickly got rid of those photos and inserted a roll of colour slides into my Pentax LX all-manual reflex camera.
Then the magic started. The morning light was beautiful and sharp, the dolphins lively and playful. Common dolphins were swimming fast on both sides of the ship, leaping at unison in golden water spry, gliding in the deep-blue water and showing their ochre-coloured flanks and amazing grace. I was absorbed by the difficult task of aiming, focusing and setting appropriate shutter speeds, but fully aware that I was shooting extraordinary photos. My first good photos of any cetacean species in the wild, something I had been dreaming about for years. I was there, eventually, and the beauty of the moment transcended my expectations.
At frame number 36 I was ready to change roll, but my camera kept going. At 38 I started worrying a little, but I had been hand-rolling my film and it wasn’t unusual to get a few additional photos. After frame number 40 I grew really nervous. What the hell was going on there? All the beauty disappeared and a thick fog filled my eyes. I kept shooting like a madman, telling myself that the roll was about to end, but it did not. In my hurry, I had failed to insert the tip of the film deep into the slit of the manual winder drive, and no image could be exposed. The camera had been shooting on idle. I opened the camera back and frantically tried to re-insert the roll, but the sighting was over. All the dolphins had left and even the morning light now looked kind of grey.
Some months later, Benedetta and I were invited to present our work to a public of specialists at the Milan Natural History Museum. These included Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, the eminent cetacean expert Luigi Cagnolaro and two scientists who had been pioneering field research on cetaceans in the Ligurian Sea: Michela Podestà and Luca Magnaghi. I was proud to be given an opportunity to report on our exploratory cruises and show the photos and data we had been collecting in the central and eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, that was my first public presentation and I felt overly nervous and uneasy. I desperately wanted to show that Benedetta and I had done a good job, but I was much too anxious for making a good impression to anyone. At the end of the slide show, after my disappointing talk, someone from the floor asked if we really had sighted common dolphins, particularly in a mixed group. A sighting of this species turned out to be an infrequent record, even back in the mid 80s. Could I project any slide to confirm our identification?
That was a moment of panic. As I was too ingenuous to find a clever excuse, I ended up confessing my technical mistake with stammering words, something that made me feel ridiculous and unfit. I cannot tell whether mouths really curved into ironic smiles and heads started shaking, or it was just my imagination. I felt horrible anyway. I had been unable to document an important sighting. I couldn’t even manage to use my own camera. Did I stand any chance to ever become a cetacean scientist?
Afterwards, Giuseppe asked me to show him the black & white photos and although these were no Bob Talbot’s, the identification of dolphins in the mixed group was unquestionable. At least our credibility was ok, but that whole experience was going to leave a lasting shade... in my dreams.
Since then, I have been regularly dreaming of extraordinary sightings: orcas swimming up a river, hundreds of dusky dolphins socializing in a beautiful sandy lagoon, sperm whales performing spectacular behaviours meters away from my boat. I was there with my camera, all excited for this opportunity to document something special, but unable to take a single photo. Have you ever experienced difficulty to walk or run in a dream, your legs suddenly turned into lead? I had a similar feeling about taking photos of the animals, and it felt painful.
Eventually, after many years, this kind of dreams stopped bothering me. Perhaps I managed to overcome my frustration, or alternative frustrations and nightmares came to replace that particular one. Today I can laugh at my early experience and tell myself that I should have set aside the camera to simply enjoy the wonderful sighting.
Giovanni Bearzi © 2008