Remembering to Play: Out at Sea with Commerson's Dolphins

It was a quiet weekday morning. The roads were clear aside from the occasional speeding truck and the wind whistled along Ruta 3, carrying dirt into the open windows of our Hertz rental car as pebbles drummed the bottom of the vehicle. I sat in the back seat, peeling boiled eggs and groaning about the early morning drive.

We nibbled at our simple breakfast and anxiously searched for the small white shack docked in Puerto Rawson as we neared our destination. Located about an hour drive from our hostel base in Puerto Madryn, this house was the Estacion Maritima office - our tour company for a day of Commerson's dolphin watching

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What are Commerson's Dolphins?

Named after the French naturalist, Dr. Commerson, who officially described the unique dolphins in the mid 1700's, the Commerson's dolphin is the smallest known dolphin in the world

From photos, the dolphins looked like mini orcas (also known as killer whales, despite not actually being whales). Professional photography found on the company website and Google image search featured delicate dolphins leaping out of water in packs, their faces and fins glowing a waxy black color paired with a body of white. 

"I'm never going to see them like that," I thought, worried that I wouldn't be able to share the experience on my blog. It feels like these days if it isn't on social media, it didn't happen.

That's some Sea World stuff. This is the big ocean. These kind of tours are hit or miss, right?

That is true. We can't control nature.

Tourism companies in the Chubut Province of Argentina's Patagonia boasted about how playful these dolphins were, though. About how easy it is to see them and how they love racing with the boats. But I still couldn't believe it. I thought for sure it was a marketing ploy. 

When did I become so skeptical?

I checked into the tour office to pay for the tour ticket and waited for our guide to arrive.
 

Out to Sea from Puerto Rawson

Within 15 minutes, my life jacket was placed on me and tightly secured as our guide, Richie led me and about 10 passengers to our boat. 

I didn't know what to expect. I'd never seen a Commerson's dolphin before - I didn't want to get my hopes up. Though they are exclusively in the southern tip of South America, there is a second subspecies in the southern Indian Ocean. Unless I was planning on coming down here again (a pretty out of the way vacation) - this was my chance.

Unfortunately though, Richie explained, if there is bad weather coming or if they are with their young, the dolphins won't reveal themselves. Time to see.

We exited the fishermen's port, passing a group of sea lions sunbathing lazily.

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We rode for about 10-15 minutes observing the nearby industrial fishing boats when I spotted a black dorsal fin pop out of the water at a distance. It disappeared just as quickly as it surfaced. 

Did I imagine that?

Richie was concerned the next day's pending storm was keeping the dolphins at bay. They didn't want to play. A random surfacing here and there wasn't enough indication of our welcome, so our captain knew we had to move on.

We left the area and went further out. It was clear the team did not want to disturb the dolphins. They are in their natural habitat and we were to play by their rules.

I was fine with that: respecting nature is always a priority.

As we rode farther away from the fishing boats, more dolphins started appearing. I hooked my feet onto the edge of my seat, as recommended, held tightly onto the safety ropes and hung my upper body over the boat in search of a better view.

My face was so close to the sea I could taste the salt from splashes of water building up along my lips. I squinted harder, dangled lower, and eventually saw a pair of dolphins racing below us.

I froze with joy.

"I see them! I see them!" I squealed.

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Alex, hanging beside me, saw them too. We considered taking a photo but were afraid to miss the moment in an effort to share on social media (oh, the dilemma). In the split second of deciding to ignore our cameras and stick with the experience, a dolphin popped up directly in front of our faces and splashed us!

I'd never been so happy to be splashed with salt water. 

Things were looking up and I was sure the underground network of dolphins were spreading the word that it was playtime. 

Another boat appeared and we started taking turns racing the dolphins in order to help the other boat's passengers get some photos (talk about teamwork). That's when we started seeing the best activity.

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The dolphins became quite comfortable around us and started dancing as trios: swirling, jumping, and racing around the boats and each other. 

A true adrenaline high.

Once I got my photos though, I put my phone away (I also didn't want to drop it into the ocean). I wanted to play more. I worked smart: I got my photo and learned about the dolphins and fishing region. Now it was time to play: they were waiting for me - how could I deny the opportunity?

I wanted to go back to hanging over the boat to get another splash. 

And I sure got it. 

An hour and a half of sea, glee, and the cutest dolphins I've ever seen. What more could I ask for?

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xx 'Til next time... keep exploring xx

- Olivia Christine