Taking time to save a dolphin

7 mins read

By Captain David Cargile

As we motored away from the dock, I reflected that my 22-foot bay boat Horsefish should have been named Porcupine, as all of the 18 rod holders were bristling with rods sporting popping corks and swimming tails of every color and description. My brother Ken, down from Douglasville, Georgia, for a trout fishing expedition, was grinning in anticipation as he checked on the freshly netted shrimp that filled the two live wells.  His grin faded a bit when I announced that I wanted to try a different location that morning. We had fished the northern reaches of the St. Helena Sound the day before and had a very productive day with a large and cooperative school of trout that had remained in place for several weeks. After reminding me several times of our late dad’s absolute rule that you never leave fish to look for fish, he reluctantly agreed when I assured him we would return to the hot spot before the day was over.
We moved out of Factory Creek into the Beaufort River and pushing Horsefish up on plane we headed for the St. Helena Sound, but this time we turned left into the Whale Branch rather than continuing into the sound. As we approached the bay next to the railroad trestle, I eased back on the motor, and we slipped into the bay to look for shorelines with shell beds that matched the pattern that had been holding trout.
I had picked exactly the wrong tide to go exploring, so there was very little shoreline to observe. What we did see was a crab trap float — a very unusual crab trap float that was moving through the water at a high rate of speed. Now making a wake is not normal behavior for a crab trap float, so we eased closer to see what was causing this phenomenon. The mystery was soon solved when a dolphin breached about five feet in front of the float and expelled a loud burst of air. The dolphin continued to submerge and then breach every few seconds, always with the float trailing ominously behind. The dolphin had become ensnared in the rope between the float and the trap. The weight of the trap was pulling the dolphin down while the float was preventing it from going to the bottom to try to free itself, and it was obvious that this had been going on for a while because the dolphin appeared exhausted.  We also became aware that two other dolphins were circling the area, breaching and blowing loudly, unwilling to leave their friend.
Ken and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘”that’s not going to happen.” He just nodded yes, and we immediately began tracking the float with the boat. The dolphin was now trying to escape from not only the trap but also the boat that surely must have appeared to be a stalking predator. Within minutes the magenta “bread trail” on my GPS looked like a plate of spaghetti. We were aware of the distress this was causing the dolphin, but the alternative was just not acceptable.
Suddenly the dolphin stopped, and the float remained stationary. I am not sure if this was due to a realization that we were trying to help or just exhaustion and an acceptance of what it must have believed to be inevitable. We eased alongside, and Ken was able to grab the float.
As we slowly pulled upwards on the rope, the dolphin floated closer to the surface, and we could see that it was very large, which meant it was likely a female. We pulled the dolphin as close to the surface as we dared, afraid that it might spook and we would have to begin the chase again. As the dolphin hung unmoving about 18 to 20 inches below the surface, we reached down as close to its back as possible and cut the rope.  The dolphin sank out of sight, and we immediately pulled in the float and about six feet of rope.
We floated for a few minutes discussing our theory that the weight of the trap would cause the remaining rope to unwrap from the dolphin’s tail, and agonizing a bit because we would never really know. Suddenly, the water next to the boat erupted, and a large dolphin stood on its head and waved its tail in the air. Just as suddenly it was gone. The message of “I’m Free” was loud and clear. We both stood with our mouths hanging open, stunned by what had just occurred. As we stood speechless, we heard the sound of dolphin blowing, and when we looked to our left, the two dolphins that had been circling were departing the bay, heading for the sound — but now there were three.
Still stunned, we sat down in the boat. Finally Ken said, “If we don’t catch a single fish, this will be a great day on the water.” I had to agree, and as I look back on memories of many great days on many of the world’s waters, this just may be the best memory of all … at least so far.
I think of that day frequently, and always with the same sense of awe.  Now, when I see a large dolphin, I always wonder if it is “my dolphin”. Kind of makes you wonder who rescued whom.

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