I often think of my work as a collection of moments in the sea. The wildlife photographs I make are the result of firing the shutter at a precise instant when an animal is captured in a blend of light, color, gesture and grace. And though the resulting photo can be viewed for decades, the moment in which it was made remains a ghost—an apparition that quickly vanishes into the past. But such is the beauty of photography, the quest to preserve a moment in time and to tell a story with each frame.
For most of the past year I’ve been deeply immersed in a story about dolphin cognition. Among the locations I’ve worked has been the Bahamas, where Dr. Denise Herzing has been studying wild spotted dolphins for the last 30 years. Before joining her on a research trip this summer, I talked with her at length about not only her work, but about the photographic potential of shooting these animals.
To my surprise, Herzing mentioned that the dolphin calf that was photographed by Flip Nicklin and featured on the September 1992 cover of National Geographic magazine is still around. Her name is Nassau.
According to Herzing, shortly after the story was published (the last story the magazine has done on dolphins,) Nassau lost the tip of her dorsal fin in a shark attack. And since 1992 she’s become a mom herself several times.
So among the images I sought on this trip was a picture of Nassau, the cover girl from ‘92 now older and likely wiser, but still going strong. Like photographer Steve McCurry’s famous quest to relocate the “Afghan Girl,” I hoped to photograph this specific dolphin so many years later.
Before arriving on the research vessel however, I had learned that for the first time in 30 years, the dolphins had dispersed from the region in which they were usually seen. Some had been seen 90-miles away and others were still unaccounted for. My hopes of finding Nassau, it seemed, would be slim at best.
On most days, we found dolphins and I was able to make pictures. All wonderful, but the “Afghan” dolphin eluded me. Lying in my bunk each night, I anxiously wondered if I would find her. It was a big ocean, the dolphins were scattered and the clock was ticking.
On the afternoon of day six, Herzing shouted from the bow: “I think we found Nassau!” I raced to the pulpit and saw Herzing with a big smile—the cover girl was indeed among the pod of 12 dolphins. And her new calf, Nautilus, was with her.
For the next two hours I swam amongst this pod of wild dolphins, that for a brief time, allowed me into their world. Nassau mostly remained in the distance. But finally, for just a few moments, this grand dolphin dame swam elegantly near, with little Nautilus beneath in the infant swimming position.
The bond between dolphin mothers and calves is strong, with essential behaviors taught and learned. In the middle of this tropical, blue sea, generations of dolphins have contended with predators, storms and dwindling fish stocks on which they feed. On this day however, I saw dolphins playing games with seaweed, riding the bow of our boat and I saw a mother and calf touching each other tenderly as they swam. Like so many special experiences I have had before, this was a moment in the sea, an apparition that began to fade after I peeled off my wetsuit that evening.
Still, the picture remains and offers a glimpse into a complex society we are only beginning to understand.
Brian Skerry is a wildlife photographer for National Geographic magazine, specializing in marine wildlife and underwater environments. View a video interview with him on Proof, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.