Red eye flight from Seattle aside, my September visit to my parents’ home in Deltaville, Va., was off to a good start. When I arrived the weather was warm and sunny and the wind was looking good to get us out on my parents’ Beneteau 43, Marcnicliz (named for their three grandchildren Marc, Nic, and Elizabeth), which they keep at Deltaville Marina, just a few minutes from their home. My parents suggested we go to Cape Charles, and I quickly got a list of birds that I’d like to photograph ready. I had my cameras and lenses packed and was eager to get out on the water–ready for a wildlife adventure on the Eastern shore. But before we could get out on the water, our good fortune began to change. Storm clouds began to gather on the Bay . . . and in our cozy home.
My mom had to get a MRI on Monday morning to investigate a lump she had on her left thigh. The doctors quickly decided to send her to Newport News to see a surgeon on Wednesday. By Wednesday afternoon we had been informed that she had soft tissue Sarcoma, which is a rare and sometimes deadly form of cancer. To say that the wind had been taken from our sails would be the understatement of the decade. We learned that this particular form of cancer needs to be treated by specialized oncologists. As all of this was going on, heavy winds and rain had moved in, making it feel like Seattle in November. To top it off, I had apparently come down with some virus while traveling and was running a fever. I felt awful emotionally and physically and so did the rest of my family. It seemed that not being able to go sailing would be the least of our problems.
It seemed as if we got more bad news each day and the weather outside was simply atrocious. The rain pounded the glass and the wind howled sounding quite eerie at night. I wound up on antibiotics and continued to feel miserable and my poor mother had been thrown a curveball that turned her life upside down. It was as if we had been trapped inside and forced to deal with the scary monsters that life sometimes has to offer.
By the end of the week I slowly began to recover and the storms passed, offering up those blue skies and gentle breezes we had been longing for. Somehow the sky didn’t seem quite as blue though, and we no longer had time to sail to Cape Charles. The weather window we were being offered seemed to indicate a day sail or two would be the best we could hope for. I had to fly back to Seattle early Tuesday morning, so we would have to accept the conditions and rejoice.
My mom has always loved dolphins and even though my parents sail regularly, they haven’t reported seeing them often on Chesapeake Bay. Last year in September when I visited, they had seen dolphins a couple of times but I wasn’t on the boat either time. This year would be an entirely different story. We slowly motored out meandering between the channel markers as I sat towards the front of the boat with my camera in hand ready to capture anything the Chesapeake had to offer. As far as the wildlife went, it seemed pretty quiet on the way out. I could see the remnants of the osprey nests that had been filled with expectant osprey in May. Once we were out on the Bay, Dad cut the engine and we continued under sail. I have a 400 millimeter lens on my camera and had been scanning back and forth looking for anything worth photographing. It seemed fairly quiet and I thought that much like the rest of the week, things just weren’t going to work out. Just about that time, I saw a pair of dorsal fins parting the water about three hundred yards ahead of us. I yelled back to Dad that there were dolphins ahead. He spotted them as well and things were definitely looking up.
Was it possible that after the week from hell, we were going to be blessed with a visit from dolphins on the Chesapeake Bay? Not only was it possible, it happened repeatedly. We had the stereo on the boat playing and I don’t know if that attracts them or not, but they certainly seemed curious about the boat. Suddenly everything had changed. For a little while we were able to push all the scary thoughts aside and revel in all that the Chesapeake Bay’s waters had to offer. Dolphins surrounded the boat lighting our faces with bright smiles. They jumped out of the water playfully splashing and vocalizing. It was truly breathtaking to watch. I was torn between getting some good shots and just having the magical experience. Somehow I managed to find a balance between the two which made it that much sweeter.
The dolphins would surface and exhale loudly and then dive beneath the boat only to surface on the other side and repeat the process over and over. They were frolicking in the water just a few feet away from us splashing and carrying on. We were all laughing and enjoying every move the dolphins made. It was a one of a kind experience that I will always remember. It was also exactly what we so desperately needed at that moment. Being out on the calm waters of Chesapeake Bay and enjoying its amazing inhabitants was a truly magical experience. We were lucky enough to repeat the experience the following day over and over again. It was just unbelievable. The following day we sailed over to the mouth of the Rappahannock so that I could photograph some Brown Pelicans. Not only did I get to see the Brown Pelicans; the dolphins showed up like a welcoming committee and put on another show for us. There were Great Blue Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, Laughing Gulls, and Belted Kingfishers nearby. Instead of having trouble finding something to shoot, I was now having trouble figuring out what to shoot first. I would be panning and shooting a pelican in flight and I would hear a dolphin surfacing beside the boat. I felt like I had the photographer’s version of ADHD. In fact, with my 100-400mm lens, my problem was that the dolphins were actually TOO close for me to get them in focus when they were alongside the boat. It’s not the worst problem to have if you ask me! It was nothing short of fabulous and the Chesapeake had really put out the proverbial welcome mat for this visitor from Puget Sound.
My family and I were blessed with two days on the Chesapeake that we will never forget. As we sailed back to the marina in Deltaville, the sun was sending out beams of light in all directions from behind towering cumulus clouds over Stingray Point. It was a beautiful sight. The Chesapeake showed me that even if there are storm clouds on the horizon, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be beautiful sun breaks and magical experiences to follow.