Of dolphins and dedicated driftwood

This brings us to the last of the trip posts – I think, anyway. I’m not promising that I won’t write about some curious aspect of something I noticed while away, but at least this is the last describing the rough details of the trip. Feel free to be relieved. In years past, you’d have to blame the babysitter to get out of sitting through vacation slides, but here you can duck out and I won’t even know it.

We left Pinckney Island, mentioned in the previous trip post, and grabbed a quick lunch, checked into our suite (provided by our friends – suites aren’t something that The Girlfriend and I spring for,) and dashed back out to keep our appointment for a dolphin tour. Such tours are very popular, at the very least, in the southern reaches of the Atlantic coast, and probably through the Gulf of Mexico as well, and they vary greatly. We’d opted for an inexpensive, shorter one, and perhaps this showed. We certainly saw enough dolphins, but I’ve known for a while now how hard it is to get decent looks at dolphins and manatees, much less good photos. Dolphins often treat surfacing as a mere necessity, not anything to take the slightest interest in, so they do so very briefly and with almost complete unpredictablility. The appearance may be as long as two seconds, often shorter, and since the most interesting aspect – their faces – leads that appearance, you pretty much have to be lucky enough to be pointing in exactly the right direction and quick on the shutter to pull off a decent portrait. I’m still trying.

The tour area was a small bay where the dolphins frequented, probably drawn by the fish that were in turn attracted by some food source the bay provided. I know of tours where the dolphins come right to the boat, most likely drawn by being fed frequently, but these are often frowned upon by more than just myself. Wildlife should not be treated as pets, and inducing habituation for the sake of tourists is a pretty dismal excuse. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), like any other species, can be aggressive, defensive, or simply clumsy, despite their “smiling” visages, so encouraging close contact is simply inviting issues. These tours, however, merely took us into their midst, making a careful attempt to keep us facing in a decent direction, but nothing more.

We weren’t far from shore, either, and the view was almost as good from there, though it appeared to be private beaches. There was plenty of dolphin activity in our area, and in every direction – we even got glimpses of a “baby” dolphin (years in wildlife rehab make me put that in quotes, since the more appropriate term is “juvenile,” it just doesn’t give the right impression.) Speaking of juveniles, the young children on our boat were a hoot, excitedly pointing out every last appearance, though occasionally they were a bit misleading. “Mom! Look!” they would cry, and as nearly everyone on the boat craned around to see where they were pointing, they’d exclaim, “Jellyfish!”

We weren’t the only ones out there at the time. Another smaller tour boat was doing the slow circle with us, about 100 meters away, and a fishing boat. A father and his young son got some nice close encounters on a personal watercraft at idle (yes, they really do idle,) and a mother and daughter in a kayak did as well. I’m only guessing they were parents and children, though – perhaps this is the replacement for the windowless van painted with “Free Candy!” on the side; “I’ll take you on the dolphin tour your parents won’t spring for!” One would have to have a patience for jellyfish to pull that off…

I, just barely, managed to snag a face, more by chance than anything else:

… but as for adding to my stock with some nice, sellable dolphin images, it didn’t really happen. Those, and manatee photos, are subjects more accessible to photographers with decent underwater rigs and scuba-certification, who have frequent access to the areas where either species lives. North Carolina is not a scuba state – even the coastal waters are murky with poor visibility, and one can just about write off the inland lakes and ponds because of sediment. After all the snorkeling I did while living in Florida, I’ve been going through withdrawal, and while I had the gear with me on this trip, it received no use. The possibility of surf snorkeling was there, and we did get a chance in the morning to do some swimming off the beach with little wave activity, but sandy bottoms are boring. Rocky or plant-heavy inlets are much better for seeing something interesting. The Savannah area wasn’t a good choice either, since sediment is stirred up by the major port traffic and other areas are wetlands marshes, next to impossible to gain access to (unless you like long slogs through deep mud.)

By the way, if you’ve noticed that much of what I’ve posted here previously has been macro work, that’s primarily because that’s what I’ve been having the greatest opportunities for where I live – there’s little in the way of useful landscapes, sunrise/sunset opportunities, and of course exotic wildlife. But macro is a field I enjoy, however, and so managed to fit a little in while on this trip as well. The southern states are also well known for lizards, primarily the anoles and skinks, and several lived under the porch of my friend’s house, like this green anole (Anolis Carolinensis.)

We’d planned to get down to the Hilton Head lighthouse at sunset, but scheduling that simply did not work out. So seeing as how our suite was on the beach, I ventured out near midnight to go for a moonlit walk on the shore, all alone because the rest of the party was pretty wrecked by that point. While this might sound romantic and idyllic and all that, it probably fares much better without the large number of teenage idiots attempting to surf fish with no idea what they were doing, or setting off fireworks, or simply sitting around with the boomboxes blasting – do you get the idea why I don’t like tourist areas now?

The night was partially cloudy with a decent breeze, which meant times with very low light interspersed with brilliant moonlight from a waxing gibbous. Looking out over the waves, I saw a great effect as the moon, shrouded from me by the clouds, illuminated the distant water with a curious glow, and I could watch this approach as the clouds moved. Unlike what you might imagine, there was no rush of the light’s approach ended by a sudden glare (even a dim one); instead, when the light was still hundreds of meters away, the ambient light near me would simply increase and I would be in full moonlight as it edged past the amorphous clouds. A very neat effect.

Returning to our rooms, I came in quietly and set the alarm to get up before sunrise, because that’s what you do – not to keep repeating this point for anyone who’s been reading a while, but the best light is near sunrise and sunset, so if you’re serious about nature photography, you arrange your shooting schedule around these whenever possible. I had planned on slipping out without disturbing anybody, but The Girlfriend heard the alarm and roused herself to come along while our friends continued snoozing, which was fine by me.

The teenagers were all gone by now, having drowned (or maybe they just went back to their rooms,) but the beach was far from deserted, now populated mostly by couples waiting for sunrise like ourselves, and here and there by joggers. Shore images, naturally, work much better without crowds, but you can get away with couples or solitary people, so you choose your framing carefully, which can be difficult. I eventually sidled up to another photographer and explained how I didn’t want to get in his shot, nor did I want him in mine, so I was going to shoot alongside him if that was okay. He just laughed, and hit me in the head with his Nikon.

I also did a bit of photography just behind some of the dunes, which gave a bit more foreground interest and worked well to block many of the people on the beach (little tricks, little tricks.) In one location among the beach grasses, with a little footpath through the dune, sat a long piece of driftwood which bore a brass plaque: “Reserved for Hilton Head Island Photography.” Cheekily, I perched The Girlfriend on this and did some of my own shots, ’cause I’m a rebel. Nearby, the beach grass had been carefully gathered up and held down by clothespins so as not to interfere with portraits. This did not help my impression of Hilton Head Island Photography, since these were a cheap substitute for the professional Beach Grass Portraiture Retainers available from professional supply stores for $128 apiece…

This was the last day of our trip, and a nice way to start it off – sunrise on the outward leg had been spent on the road just outside Raleigh, woo hoo. The Girlfriend maintains that it was the best trip she’s taken, and she brought back lots of photos herself and several additions to her sea-turtle-themed decorations (anyone in the area will be able to recognize her car easily.) Since I caught flak for being slightly negative about our Florida trip on the blog, I’m avoiding any comments about this one ;-)

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