Friday, 6 October 2017

Travel tales: dolphins in the Black Sea

Riding the trusty fishing boat over the blue waters, jellyfish floating past below like ghosts of the sea, the whole set-up felt more like Greek Island hopping than catching a local boat down the coast of Bulgaria. Our destination? The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nessebar, 15km or so down the coast from our hotel in Elenite.

The captain's mate did little to quell our island-hopping fantasies, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Captain Birdseye; the slight paunch, the jaunty red neckerchief, the weather-beaten, silver-sprinkled face. All that was missing from the seafaring cliche was the sailor's hat (and perhaps a smarter pair of trousers).

As we got out into the deep, inkier waters of the Black Sea, the teeming resorts of Sunny Beach and Sveti Vlas mere toy towns on the distant cliffs, Captain Birdseye began gesturing pointedly at me - or more specifically, at the camera hung around my neck, there as always like an extra limb. A stream of excited Bulgarian tumbled out of his mouth as he pointed repeatedly between me and the front of the small boat, leaving me in little doubt that myself and my camera were being summoned.

Using the closest thing I had to sealegs, I wobbled my way to the front, clinging to the railing, unsure why I'd been singled out among the 10 or so passengers on board. I assumed Captain Birdseye was showing me that I could take better photos of Nessebar up ahead, so I stayed put for a couple of minutes, snapping away - mainly in a bid to placate him than out of any real urge to take photos of the vast and misty sea, before heading back to my seat after a polite amount of time had passed.

But my bum had barely met the plastic before he was in front of me again, gesturing; diving, swimming - the man was a charades hero - before we made out the word 'dolphin' in his broken stream of Bulgarian-English. He was trying to tell us that there were dolphins up ahead. By this time the whole boat, no doubt drawn in by the convoluted game of charades, was paying attention. Cue a stampede to the front of the boat to try to get a glimpse of the dolphins.

But there was nothing there. A small boat broke the flat horizon a couple of miles ahead, but other than that, there was nothing between us and the distant shore of Nessebar. We had misunderstood his gesturing.

Then I saw it. What it was exactly, I couldn't have told you, but a black shape briefly broke the surface next to the other boat - a fishing boat, as it transpired, whose very purpose lured the dolphins towards it.

As the inky gulf between us and them dissipated, more and more dolphins leapt out of the water, disappearing and porpoising over and over, as if performing for us. Our captain killed the boat's engine and we idled through their territory, carried only by the the wind and the tide as they played around us, surrounding the boat on all sides, swimming right alongside the boat for metres at a time.

Taking photos of them was tricky, never knowing where they were going to surface next, but we all snapped away hopefully. I managed to catch a few shots of black blobs that may or may not be fins and tails. But this one was about the experience - all the better for having been spontaneous - rather than the Instagram shot.

Once we'd made our way through the dolphins' territory and left them safely behind, our captain powered up the engine again, speeding us towards Nessebar. We kept our eyes peeled the rest of the way, but the Black Sea offered up little more than the occasional jellyfish. On our return from Nessebar a few hours later, we craned our necks left and right, hoping to catch another glimpse of a tale or a fin, but the fishing boat was long gone, taking the dolphins with it.

One of my favourite things about travelling is the spontaneous events like this, things that all the maps and guidebooks in the world couldn't help you find. See also:

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  1. Thank you for posting. What a fantastic experience to see the dolphins, I have been Whale watching several times, in the waters just off of my home city in Lofoten ツ

  2. awww... I took this trip in september, it was magical! thanks for the reminder.