Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol Sgt. John Hollenbeck stands on the SAFE boat, which is used to protect Newport Harbor and surrounding waters. (Mat Luschek, Daily Pilot / August 30, 2013)

A pod of dolphins swam briskly Friday, maybe as much as three miles from Crystal Cove, too far away to be spotted from shore.

But the mammals didn't go unnoticed: An Orange County Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol sergeant looked on.

Marine life sightings are a perk for Sgt. John Hollenbeck, a watch commander at the Harbor Patrol's headquarters in Newport Beach, who spends patrol time scanning the horizon for anything that stands out — be it a stranded vessel or, perhaps, a spouting whale.

Hollenbeck, 46, loves learning about the ocean that he grew up by and now works to keep safe. He is fascinated by everything from its weather patterns to its sea creatures, often using such subjects for his long-time photography hobby.

"I've had a lifetime love affair with this ocean," he said.

Training his eyes on the waters, where the dolphins' small fins raised and lowered, he added that he could hardly imagine life without it.

Slowing down, Hollenbeck steered the Sheriff's Department boat among the creatures. He identified them as short-beaked common dolphins and recalled the many phone calls the department has received from residents concerned that boaters were trying to run over the creatures.

Upon answering such calls, he always explains that running over a dolphin would be quite difficult. Instead, he said, dolphins simply like to ride the boat's current, just as these creatures were moved rhythmically through the swell alongside the Sheriff's Department vessel.

Harbor Patrol staff respond to a wide range of calls throughout the week, Hollenbeck said.

Some, like the dolphin concerns, are more familiar and can be more easily handled. Others can be alarming, requiring immediate response and physical exertion.

Hollenbeck, who grew up in Costa Mesa and attended Orange Coast College, once considered becoming a marine biologist.

He ultimately decided he needed a profession that might be more financially stable. He applied to work at several local police departments, and his first offer came from the Sheriff's Department. When he learned of the Harbor Patrol, he sealed the deal.

But first, Hollenbeck had to pay his dues. He began in the OCSD academy eight weeks after graduating with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Cal State Fullerton, in 1989. Then, like all deputies, he worked in jail operations. Before he could transfer to Harbor Patrol, he was required to do street patrol next.

Once he joined the Harbor Patrol in 2007, he learned how to pilot a boat and memorized coves, not streets.

"You have to sort of relearn the way you do police work around here," he said.

The differences abound. To pull over a boat, so to speak, Hollenbeck now knows to approach from the side, not from behind.

He finds that patrolling the harbor can be more dangerous than other types of police work. It can also be smelly: The garbage truck that caught on fire during one of his street patrol shifts in Stanton may have been unpleasant, but the odor of the sticky substance spewed from a whale's blowhole is much worse, he said with a laugh.

Although Hollenbeck's role at the Sheriff's Department does not require that he go out on patrol, he prefers to check on the waters once a day to build community relations and help ensure all is safe. He also helps respond to dispatch calls when needed.

While doing either, his camera is always on hand.

Many of Hollenbeck's photos and videos liven up the OCSD Facebook page. They also decorate the walls of the Harbor Patrol office alongside photos taken by his peers, which he selects.

"I thought the staff here would like it, to give them a little bit of buy-in," said Hollenbeck, who also helps with various graphic design projects for the department, like the 9/11 commemorative badge.

The images, for Hollenbeck, serve as an avenue into storytelling. Some cue tales of adventure, be it the narrative of a cat barely rescued from a nearly submerged vessel or of a car plunged off the ferry with a family inside.

Others show a pure admiration of the surrounding area. He points out one, of a rainbow ending right at the station, and another, of a sunset viewed from the side of a boat.

"You can't not put the photo up," he said. "It's a beauty."