Steve Prosterman, dive safety officer for the University of the Virgin Islands, divides his time between supervising research operations and teaching scuba diving. After work, he likes to windsurf and swim in Brewers Bay, where he has been swimming with wild dolphins since 1982.
A female dolphin he has recognized for 18 years recently returned to Brewers Bay.
The returning female has a distinctive scar at the base of its dorsal fin, and Prosterman says he has heard reports of her swimming with other people as far away as Tortola. The scar on the female’s fin is probably from mating, which sometimes involves biting. She is usually alone, but sometimes there will be a pod of as many as six Atlantic bottlenose dolphin in the bay. They allow him to swim with them and welcome his touch. These play sessions often last hours, and sometimes he doesn’t swim in until after dark.
“Also had one I was pals with from 1982 to 1995 but did not see him after hurricane Marilyn,” Prosterman said.
The first time Prosterman swam with a dolphin, he was windsurfing, and startled to see a large fin break the surface as he raced along. He dropped his sail in the water, looked around for a minute, and found the dolphin looking up at him through the window of his sail.
The dolphins will play with Prosterman for hours, sometimes catching fish after stunning them with sonar bursts, and bringing him the gift.
“I don’t know what to do with it. Should I pretend to eat it?” he said.
When Prosterman is teaching new scuba divers, they often kneel on the sandy bottom of Brewers Bay and practice diving skills. Sometimes dolphin will circle the class, playing aggressively, or getting in the middle of the divers, to the point where Prosterman “gets the students out of the water.”
A few years ago, as Prosterman swam with his young daughter, the female dolphin arrived with her own offspring. One of the games the dolphin will play is to follow Prosterman as he free dives and comes up for air. The smaller lungs in the young dolphin and his daughter both needed air more often. The two pairs separated, youngsters and adults dove and returned to the surface in unison.
As the dive safety officer, Prosterman’s work is based in Brewers Bay, where UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies – the MacLean Marine Science Center – has a dock. He runs a fleet of seven boats.
“Our biggest boat is 34 feet. It was donated and really helped our education program,” he said.
The research done by UVI Marine and Environmental Studies has been supported by a $20 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation – the V.I. Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, known as VI-EPSCoR. The goal of the program is to promote stewardship of the coral reef ecosystem, which is critical to the economy of the Virgin Islands, as well as workforce development.
By educating native Virgin Islanders, the program aims to stem the emigration of young students seeking better economic opportunities.
The Marine Sciences Department has a lower percentage of local students than UVI as a whole, but since VI-EPSCoR, Prosterman has seen “more local kids in my classes.”
Prosterman also runs the hyperbaric chamber at the Schneider Regional Medical Center. The chamber treats “many divers and many medical patients.”
Most of the cases of divers getting decompression sickness are fisherman, going down too deep for lobsters. In 1984, when Prosterman began is working here, the chamber treated one diver per week. Through education, that number has been reduced to less than one per month.
After studying psychology at the University of Tennessee, Prosterman came to the Caribbean “looking for adventure.” He was working on an expedition in 1982 that included deep diving, and went to Catalina Island, California to train at the hyperbaric chamber there.
St. Thomas was given the chamber used by Tektite II, an underwater habitat placed off St. John and funded by NOAA and NASA.
Prosterman has been a scuba diving instructor since 1988. His job as the dive safety officer at UVI focuses on “seamless safety standards, so we can team with the National Parks and NOAA.”
“We are an AAUS – American Association of Underwater Sciences – school. More rules and requirements for diving for science than recreational diving.”
Professionally and personally, Prosterman has worked in the community, promoting safe diving and marine education.
“I always dreamed about having experiences with dolphins and when these real experiences started happening it did indeed feel like a dream – just as one would imagine,” he said. “It gives me a high that lasts for days or even more. It is a true gift and privilege to experience these interactions. She was there again Sunday, I just heard.”