Ever since watching “Flipper” as child, coming up close and in person with dolphins was always something I just had to chalk off in my mental checklist of must do life experiences.
Working with dolphins, one of nature’s most personable and charismatic creatures, features on many a bucket list of anyone looking to harness both beauty and adventure, and with good reason. The experience is simply magical in stirring your soul and providing memories that will remain vivid for a lifetime.
My opportunity to fulfil my life’s dream came with a trip to Europe’s most westerly point, the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago jutting out in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 1600 Km off the coast of Portugal. The location is remote and thus is lacking in a real mainstream tourist industry but it is ideal for people like me, being a prime location to volunteer with dolphins.
As well, the islands are an outpost for migrating whales and are populated by loggerhead turtles, making it a vital site for conservation studies and those interested in preserving the oceans as they are and the majestic life they hold within. Arriving at the islands my fellow volunteers and I were greeted by a dark, dramatic landscape of volcanic rocks and cliffs providing a breath-taking backdrop for our trip.
The scenery also came to life when walking around the small islands, as warm mud pools and mineral pools bubbled under foot on São Miguel and Teceira.
Arriving in the kind of place I had only ever really seen in wildlife documentaries made me suddenly very aware that although I was indulging in a passion, I am no Sir David Attenborough! However, the scientists and researchers who I worked with were great at easing any concerns I had at just how useful I could be.
The first day of the programme was spent on land, talking us through all the challenges and tasks we might face, as well as some of the wildlife we might hopefully encounter. It was also great to hear how the dolphin volunteer programme works in conjunction with the University of Azores and other organizations to make sure all research being carried out makes a real difference. It was also great to be in an environment where everyone was working towards the same goals, and filled with the same awe for their surroundings.
Animal spotting formed the basis for most of our activities as it allowed all subsequent research to start. The anticipation as we waited for the tell-tale signs of water splashing and protrusions from the water only builds and builds, and the rush of exhilaration that took over me as we actually spotted groups of dolphins and whales made all the patient waiting worth it.
However, my personal highlight was photographing dolphins in the water being close enough to stroke them and fall under their enchanting spell. The sky was blue, the water warm, my excitement levels giddy; this was the reason I came to volunteer with dolphins out here in the ocean surrounded by nature’s greatest hits. Another bonus was seeing the dominating outline of an orca glide through the waterline, another memory seared into my retina to be stored until the end of my days.
It was a trip to rival anything I have ever done, but one that gave me the greatest level of fulfilment I have ever achieved. To volunteer with dolphins was an experience to last a lifetime and was better than any full HD plasma screen could muster. In the flesh, and in the water, it was simply eye-popping.
Tom has taken part in a couple of volunteer expeditions and being a volunteer with dolphins has clearly made a distinctive mark in his memory.