• December 4, 2013

Brian Skerry Finds the “Afghan Girl” Dolphin

Brian Skerry

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.

The September 1992 cover of National Geographic magazine, featuring the spotted dolphin Nassau, who was then just a calf. Brian Skerry photographed her again, 22 years later, with her own child.
The September 1992 cover of National Geographic magazine, featuring the spotted dolphin Nassau, who was then just a calf. Brian Skerry photographed her again, 22 years later, with her own child.

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.

A mother and calf play a game with seaweed, while Nassau and Nautilus swim in the background. Dr. Denise Herzing has been studying a population of these spotted dolphins in the Bahamas for 30 years.
A mother and calf play a game with seaweed, while Nassau and Nautilus swim in the background. Dr. Denise Herzing has been studying a population of these spotted dolphins in the Bahamas for 30 years.

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.

There are 30 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Fay
    May 18, 2015

    How finite is the belief of time and how infinite our timeless Universe ~ my visit to this page a necessary part of divine Love’s adventure to be all in all, moving and experiencing those dolphin presences thru your perceptive lens Brian ~ thank you for following your soul and sharing the bounty with us.

  2. Helen Kordyl
    May 10, 2015

    Beautiful photographs Brian. I have been swimming with wild spinner dolphins for the last 15 years here in Hawaii and have hundreds of images and videos of the left game and amazing interactions between dolphins, their babies and with each other. I would love to meet you some day and share my stories and images of what has become “my life”. I too, have been following certain dolphins for 10 years and is only possible when they have some injury. I am now working on my book about the telephathic communication with Spinner dolphins and all of earth’s amazing creatures. I look forward to reading you story in the May issue of National Geographic. To swim with a pod of wild dolphins in their environment is an amazing experience – Dolphins are intelligent, playful and gentle being of the ocean.

  3. Mrs. Grace Schmitt
    January 20, 2014

    I have only had two close encounters with dolphins….one in Marine Land in Calif……….and another in Marine Land in Disney World. Those two times had me thoroughly convinced that they had a greater intelligence than mankind. One came to me, in an enclosed pool, where we could be nose to nose, and chittered with me. I answered in kind (though I do not know the dolphin language) but the dolphin answered in kind, and then swam around the large pool, and came face to face with me again. This had happened many times in that visit, and I felt a real communication with the dolphin. I hated to leave, but had children to take through the rest of the large park. I am now 90 years of age, and this is one of my fondest of memories. Dolphins are my first love, dogs come next and then horses. All of them are so intelligent, and better “people” than people. I wish I had the opportunity to see them in their own environment. as you do. Keep up the good work for dolphins and other species that are better that so called people.

  4. Anne-Maree Huxley
    December 19, 2013

    Thanks Brian. How special to be able to find her after all these years. I have swam with wild dolphins on many occasions in the US, Tonga and Australia – each occasion spectacular and this article took me straight back there – so thank you for reconnecting me to the joy and intelligence of our friends the dolphin!

  5. Elizabeth A. Gilberg
    December 15, 2013

    Dear Brian,
    I worked as a therapist, holistic healer and medium for many years. I’ve also battled chronic lyme disease and malaria and am currently bedridden. Back in 1998 I went to Hawaii for a month to study Hawaiian healing and vacation. At that time I did have chronic joint pain but the lyme disease was not yet diagnosed. One day while on Kauai I was awoken at 5 AM, telepathically, by a group of 12 dolphins a few miles away. They guided me to drive to the beach where they were, I went into shallow water and all 12 in this group met me and swam in circles around me. They communicated with me a beautiful message of love, peace, and oneness. After that they swam closer and gently prodded at me with their noses. Everywhere that they touched me I felt a tingling vibration, which slowly dissolved all of the pain that I had. They seemed to know exactly where I was in pain and how long to stay on each spot. It was truly a beautiful experience!
    Salem, MA USA

  6. donna coady
    December 15, 2013

    I once trained dolphins in the keys and soon found that they were much smarter than we were, I fell from the prow of a boat the 1st week that I was in the keys and 3 dolphins somehow got me to shore, Ill never forget this and firmly believe that they are not show animals, they have the same feelings that we do they have families and feel and care just like we do. Thank you for this article

  7. Peter John Haarhoff
    December 15, 2013

    Your use of words strung together is as discriptive as your photography…

  8. Greg Geuss
    December 15, 2013

    Brian, As always I enjoy your photos and articles.Since I got “certified”,I also got into photography.Truly to see our under water world is a awesome experience.You bring that life to the surface with your expertise.The Dolphins world is truly something to behold.As they are 1, always smiling and 2, seem to have not a care in the world.I had a recent close encounter with them in Belize.It is truly a special treat to have them around you.I wish you and your colleagues a future of great photos to come.

  9. Diane Buccheri
    December 15, 2013

    Beautiful, Brian! I have a secret. The dolphins know more than we know.

  10. Gini Kopecky Wallace
    December 15, 2013

    Beautiful photographs and beautiful story that offer a glimpse into the lives and society of these fascinating creatures and the work Dr. Denise Herzing has been doing with them for the past 30 years.

  11. Yus
    December 15, 2013

    Playing is so stimulating for the brain

  12. solaiman mohammadi
    December 15, 2013

    hello dear .I am from Afghanistan .Is the magnificent Beauty from (Afghanistan) ? Thank you

  13. Betsy
    December 15, 2013

    Dear Brian, I worked with dolphins 20 years ago and I can still feel the impact of being in the water with them. It is not an easy thing to enter their world as it is under water. For many, the distance, inconvenience, and fear of water prevent the interaction. However, for those inclined to participate in their world, it is a life changing experience. For those who can not directly experience dolphins, you and Dr. Herzing share their world with commitment and beauty. Thank you.

  14. Janeadler
    December 14, 2013

    I have been through so many experiences so close and beyond….live on the water in south fl a diver for aliving for 15 years….I have saved them and they have saved me…if there is one thing I would ever want is ti have there life.

  15. Carol Alaimo
    December 12, 2013

    Brian, enjoyed reading of your quest to find Nassau and FELT your joy through your camera lens in finding her. While in Florida this past spring my husband and I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Denise Herzing and Ruth Petzold at a photography fund raiser in Stuart for the Wild Dolphin Project. We purchased a large photo taken by Ruthie of 3 of Denise’s “pod members”. I know your experience with Denise in finding Nassau had to be spine tingling. As I sit here mesmerized by the photo of these magnificent beings I marvel at the talent you photographers have in capturing such beauty for us “land lovers” to escape into. Thank you so much for sharing a truly beautiful experience. Bless you in your future endeavors. carol

  16. Sharon Marshall
    December 12, 2013

    I met Denise once. She is an amazing woman. She does fantastic work bringing the wonderful story of the dolphins to the world.

  17. Malcolm J. Brenner
    December 11, 2013

    More power to Dr. Herzing and all those trying to unlock the secrets of the dolphin mind!

  18. Ruth
    December 11, 2013

    Thank you for a wonderful article ! I am looking forward to hearing more! ENJOY !

  19. Dar
    December 11, 2013

    I had the wonderful fortune of swimming with wild dolphins for a week in Bimini. Truly, to fully grasp these magnificent creatures, you need to immerse yourself in their world, without restriction.
    Thank you Brian. For these pictures that remind me of how humble we should be to these sentient beings.
    And thank you for your work and your pictures that allow the world to see what you and I see.

  20. Ruth Petzold
    December 11, 2013

    Thank you Brian for pursuing Nassau and thank you Denise Herzing for the fantastic work you have done for the past 30 years providing us with a greater understanding of these magnificent animals !

  21. Jean Blair
    December 11, 2013

    Denise Herzing Is a truly amazing women. We have learned so much through her research with The Wild Dolphin Project. I’ve followed Dr. Herzing’s research for many years and am truly amazed by her accomplishments. Following this pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphin in the wild is an incredible task. I’m thrilled that Brian was able to photograph “Nassau” and her offspring.

  22. BG Sykes
    December 11, 2013

    Fantastic work, Brian..you are in good company aboard Stenella!
    BG Sykes

  23. Sonia Evete Caceres Medina
    December 8, 2013

    Por favor en espanol

  24. Leilani Tresise
    December 6, 2013


  25. Peter Potamianos
    December 5, 2013

    It is so nice to see what patience and resoluteness will do. Congrats.

  26. raman luthra
    December 5, 2013

    very very tipical job of this type photography but very nice pics very very goooooood

  27. Dawn
    December 4, 2013

    Amazing and Beautiful!

  28. Kristine Schmidt
    December 4, 2013

    Absolutely gorgeous!! Dolphins are magnificent animals. So glad you were able to find Nassau again.

  29. Judy
    December 4, 2013

    I love your work, Brian. Great piece. How exciting to find her again!
    I long for the day that all people respect dolphins and whales. Why is their intelligence and empathy so obvious to some, and not to others? Currently, in Taiji, Japan they capture entire pods to take some for marine parks, and brutally kill the rest. Please people, don’t support the animal entertainment industry.
    Thank you Brian, for giving us a peek into their natural lives, as they should be living them.

  30. Junaid Khalid
    December 4, 2013

    Dear Sir.
    I cant imagine what feeling you had the time you saw her.. it was indeed a blessing for someone to get such feeling. I wish you all the luck and hope this endavour would make a mark in your accomplishments. I personally got moved by the idea Afghan Dolphin.

    Dubai -Uae

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