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04 May 2012
Swimming with dolphins, watching for whales

by Pankti Mehta

Pankti is the daughter of Sangeen and Milan Rajnikant Mehta. She has completed her media studies from Mumbai and London and is now working as a journalist in Mumbai.
She went on an Azure Adventure in picturesque madeira, Portugal, a surreal boat ride lets you get up close with entire families of our striped and bottle-nosed marine friends.

I was struggling in the icy water then, to maintain a balance between gasping for air and for wonderment, as I am struggling now, with a whirlpool of cliched phrases swimming through my head. There are so many adjectives I could use, should use, to paint you a picture of the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira.

But if I tell you its inky waters are breathtaking even at the less-glamorous noon (as opposed to romanticized dawn or dusk), and that its picturesque European streets exude the quaint charm of a happy people, you'll suspect hyperbole. And then, the dolphins would enter the plot.

But every so often, these cliches prance around you loud enough to drown out others, the 'too-good-to-be-true' kind. What did it for me was finding myself immersed in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of the city of Funchal, surrounded by dolphins so close I could touch them.

If you are making the trip to Madeira, do not skip this swimming-with-dolphins experience. At 65 Euros (about Rs. 4,000), it's not expensive. And, in terms of sheer awesomeness, it belongs on everyone's list of things to do before you die.

For those afraid of the fathomless deep, there is also the option of whale-watching and dolphin-spotting from aboard the boat (48 Euros, or Rs. 3,000).

Based on online reviews, my friends and I picked a company called Rota dos Cetaceos, pretty Portuguese for Route of Marine Mammals.

The two-and-a-half hour trip began with a briefing from a diver and a marine biologist on safety measures and the dolphin's nuances, along with a film about the types of whales and dolphins we were likely to encounter.

Lifejackets strapped on, we boarded the 12-seater boat and set out on our quest for our striped and bottle-nosed marine friends. The company has dedicated land observers stationed at watch points to alert the boat about where the dolphins are - yes, just like on the Discovery Channel.

If you don't find any in the two hours, you get a complementary ride on another day. We, however, were lucky; after about an hour of false alarms, we were finally guided to a spot where about 15 dolphins were playing in the water in all their bottle-nosed glory. From aboard the boat, you could see gray silhouettes through the glassy blue; occasionally, a dolphin leapt out of the azure sea.

Gingerly, I slipped into the water alongside these beautiful creatures. The experience was more magnificent, more other-worldly, than I can describe.

As I slipped on my scuba mask, lowered myself into the water and clung to a rough rope that dangled from the boat, I looked about to see an extended family of slick gray dolphins around and under me.

If they're in a friendly mood, the boat biologist will tell you to let go of the rope and swim into the gathering. We weren't that lucky, but I did hold back tears as babies almost brushed past me, adults gliding at a slight distance, surreally silent, peaceful, almost regal.

I blindly pressed the button on the retro, disposable film-laden underwater camera I am so glad I invested in. When I look at the points, I still feel a sense of awe at just how close, and how many, they were.

Hauled back into the boat, the marine biologist presented me with a certificate stating that I had swum with the dolphins on April 27, 2010. As if I would forget the date.


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