In a deserted Venezuelan anchorage,
a cruising couple has a one-of-a-kind encounter
In 1988 my wife Caron and I spent 10 weeks cruising the lower Caribbean. A gentle sweeping arc took us and two parrots from the Grenadines to Belize aboard our Cheoy Lee 44, roaming on the way through the Venezuelan Islas Los Roques, where the weather and fishing were spectacular.
One day, we decided to explore some nearby sand flats and a fringe reef by dinghy, maybe go around to windward and drift-fish across the flats for bonefish.
Caron got her rod set up while I searched for signs of fish. Suddenly she said, “I saw a big school feeding, near the base of that pole sticking out of the water, 60 yards ahead.”
The trades were steady at 12 knots, which precluded a leisurely drift, so we paddle-sailed toward the pole. When we were 30 yards from it, the water exploded in a boiling frenzy. Then I saw the fin. “SHARK I yelled”.
Caron grabbed the binoculars, and as she watched, the water exploded again, this time more violently. Then we heard the whistle. It took 10 seconds for us both to reach the same conclusion because we both said at once, “DOLPHIN!”
Still watching through binoculars, Caron said, “Mark, I think it’s stuck. At least it hasn’t moved since we got here.” The bottle-nosed dolphin raised its head out of the water and shouted, presumably to us, “Wee-aht, wee-aht, wee-aht. “We decided to get a little closer.
At 10 yards away, the dolphin raised its head again and whistled. “I think that means, ‘close enough, people,”’ Caron said. I dropped the anchor and we came up with a plan. Below us was about three feet of water with a clear run to open ocean. I’d start the outboard, idle it, and we would drift in to inspect. If the animal became aggressive, we’d exit at full throttle.
Our adrenal glands were in overdrive while we tried to slow the drift with our hands. Ten feet away from the pole, the motor stalled. “You going to start it?” Caron whispered, sweat streaming down her face. “Not yet,” I whispered back. Without the motor, the only sound was the dolphin breathing. As we floated past the pole the dolphin brought one eye out of the water and watched.
“I saw a baitfish net wrapped around its tail,” I said. “Me too,” Caron agreed, “and a white cord, nylon braid. I thought part of it was pink. Maybe it’s cut into the fluke - not deep, but probably painful.”
Conventional Wisdom says: Don’t try to help a wounded wild animal, especially not an animal of this size.
Short on conventions of any sort, we decided to try: idle the motor, drift downwind, grab the pole, free the dolphin. Any trouble and we’d run.
The plan worked. Caron grabbed the pole and I cut the net away while the dolphin just stood there, so to speak. I pulled the cutaway fishnet into the dinghy and the dolphin swam away. The whole rescue took less than 15 seconds.
The next morning, I was fixing a wobbly charcoal grill and Caron was sunning in the cockpit when we heard it: “Wee-aht, wee-aht. “ Before long, Caron was hanging through the lifelines, petting the dolphin on the forehead. It swam, did some low jumps, and even raised its tail out of the water, seemingly to show us the cut was healing.
A while later, Caron asked, “Did you leave the winch handle in the dinghy?” I checked the two holders. “Nope, they’re secured,” I replied. “Then what’s that?” she asked, pointing.
“It’s a winch handle,” I said. While we were having this exchange, the dolphin rose out of the water with a green glass beer bottle in its mouth. It rested its chin on the side of the inflatable for a moment and dropped the bottle in the dinghy. The first day we got: One slightly corroded winch handle, one red plastic sandal (minus the toe straps), and the green glass beer bottle.
The next day we did even better: Another green glass beer bottle, a four-inch stainless steel pin to something, a white ceramic coffee mug (encrusted), and a large gold coin. Each time the dolphin brought us something we’d jump up and down and applaud wildly. Thank God it was a secluded anchorage; we must have looked like lunatics. By dinnertime, the dolphin had a name: Scraps.
On day three the call, “Scraps is back!” went out six times. We got a length of PVC pipe, a glass instrument dome, two aluminum beverage cans (small applause), a wire door to a fish trap (no applause), and a gold medallion with a cut emerald in it (big applause).
The next morning we had to sail on to meet friends in Bonaire. Scraps was a little confused when we put the dinghy on davits, but with a wave and a flip we said goodbye.
We never miss when we tell people how we met our most unique cruising friend, especially when Caron ducks down below to retrieve the gold medallion from its hiding place. Thanks again, Scraps, wherever you are.
Mark D’Ambruso is a toy inventor and avid traveler. He and Caron make their home in South Florida, where they are planning to build a 47-footer to carry them on an open-ended South Pacific to Mediterranean cruise.