On the Waterfront – Sailing Into History: Dolphins in the Midst

On the WaterfrontSailing Into History: Dolphins in the Midst

(Pensacola, Florida; April 26, 2022) – The ex-USS Ponce (LPD 15) has arrived at her final berth in Texas at the scrapper’s yard.

So, it’s time for another ‘On the Waterfront’ sea story about the Proud Lion and the adventures of her intrepid crew, of which I was an intrepid part!  So, intrepid reader, grab some intrepidly strong Navy-worthy coffee and get ready for the intrepid adventure!

I’ve seen whales at sea numerous times.

The first time I saw a whale ended up being a whale of a tale as the whale sailed high in the air, balancing on its tail before the tale ended with the whale whaling hard on the water by the impact of its leap.  I was an F-14D Tomcat reconnaissance camera technician with VF-213 deployed aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) back in late 2001.  I was on the flight deck talking to my leading petty officer.  He was looking to port, and I was looking to starboard.  I was in the middle of a sentence when his eyes went wide, looking at something behind me with clearly evident shock.

I pivoted around, expecting something rather nasty to be bearing down on us.  You know, a crashing airplane, a hostile gunboat, a barbed comment—the usual.  Instead, a humpback whale had breached off our port side.  It was in mid-air when I spun around, and it looked freakishly like it was posing for a Pacific Life insurance commercial.  It vanished back into the depths in the blink of an eye, and I wasn’t even sure my eyes had eyeballed it for real until John, my LPO, asked me, “Did you just see that?!”

Following that encounter, we had pods of sperm whales swimming in formation with our strike group numerous times.  It’s an interesting experience when you’re getting ready to launch airplanes, but the carrier has to slow down because a pod of whales is running on the surface alongside you!  Sadly, the cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54) reported striking a whale and killing it on another day. The strike group was running at high speed during a launch cycle when the giant mammal surfaced unexpectedly just in front of the ship.  We all had whale watches out since we knew whales were in the area, but this one came up literally right in front of Antietam.  Tragically, it was killed by the impact.

However, I’d yet to see dolphins cavorting in a ship’s bow wave.

A shipwreck in Strait of Tiran, as seen Feb. 19, 2011, by the sailors on board the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) on approach to Aqaba, Jordan, for a port call Feb. 20th. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller)

I’d worked with dolphins while assisting my older brother with a science fair project at the Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, back in the late 1980s.  I’d seen dolphins swim up and circle around my dad’s boat numerous times.  But I longed to see dolphins leaping through a ship’s bow wave.  Hell, for all I know, dolphins did cavort in Carl Vinson’s bow wave…but it’s kind of hard to see a carrier’s bow when you’re up on the flight deck.

I finally got my wish on February 19, 2011, as USS Ponce (LPD 15) sailed through the Strait of Tiran.  We were transiting the strait prior to pulling into Aqaba, Jordan, the next day.  Sunset was falling over us (I think it tripped on the horizon), and I was on the fo’c’sle with a couple of guys.  The threat level wasn’t high at all, so there was no security detail set or anything like that.  It was shaping up to be a quiet night.

I was up there more out of curiosity than anything.  I’m an indefatigable tourist at heart, so I always want to see where I am and where I’m going.  Having never been to this particular part of the Middle East before, I wanted to see what I could see before nightfall overtook us.

We passed an old shipwreck on our port side.  It was some kind of merchantman, half-keeled and rusting away peacefully.  Once it was sliding astern of us, I went over to the starboard side to see if there was anything interesting on that side of Ponce.  Oh, boy, was there ever!

There was a pod of common dolphins zipping along with the Proud Lion.  The sleek critters were easily speeding through the water, keeping pace with the ship, an occasional flick of the flukes sending one slicing into a playful leap before the dolphin punched back into the sea with a grace far exceeding that of the greatest Olympic diver.

I called over the guys and we all hung there like fools, jaws on the deck, watching this event we’d all heard about, but none had seen.  I, however, like to think I’m pretty cool under pressure (especially under 14 lbs. per square inch at sea level), so my brain kicked my rear into gear and I began photographing the dolphins.  I told the guys to hold my legs so I could lay on the deck and shoot literally straight down the bow of the ship without risk of falling overboard (that must have been a pretty curious sight for the gang up on the bridge…).

A pod of common dolphins provides an energetic escort to amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) as the ship transits the Strait of Tiran on its way to a scheduled port call in Aqaba, Jordan, on Feb. 20. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller)

The best thing I captured that night wasn’t a photo or the video clip I shot.  The best thing I came away with was the memory of an incredible, irreplaceable moment in time.  I don’t know if the dolphins thought Ponce was some odd, giant life form, or if they even cared.  Their priority simply seemed to be taking advantage of the ship’s bow wave to have some fun surfing through the sea along with us.

We arrived at Aqaba the next morning and, lo!  Another small pod of common dolphins escorted us the rest of the way to the pier.  The water was so unbelievably clear that you could see the bottom of Ponce’s hull as the dolphins cavorted around us (which is, itself, kind of a freaky thing to experience).

These weren’t moments of mystic magnitude.  No great spiritual summoning of soul-altering revelations reflected in the resplendent turquoise waters off Jodan happened during those encounters.  Nope.  But, then, not everything has to be some superlative summit of emotional experience to be a meaningful and lasting memory.  Sometimes, the moment is just beautiful for its own sake, including because of how fleeting that moment is.  Watching dolphins keep pace with a ship going well over ten knots while playing in the bow wave was one such moment.  Getting to see them escort us in the next morning was simply a bonus, an extra cherry on top of the event.

A pair of common dolphins swims along with the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) as the ship approaches Aqaba, Jordan, for a scheduled port call Feb. 20, 2011. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller)

There are always moments of breathtaking beauty in unexpected places if we look for them.  The silent grace of those dolphins playing around Ponce were two such moments, and those are the treasures no one can ever take away from me!  No matter that Ponce is now on the eve of being scrapped.  For myself and my shipmates on the deck during those two encounters, the ship will forever sail on, escorted by a pod of happy, playful dolphins in gloriously azure waters.

Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/mGQvsbEuBAo

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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