On board the Dolphin Explorer, it didn’t take long before we spotted our first pod of dolphins, about 30 minutes.
Participating in the Dolphin Project, our quest was to find and catalogue dolphin sightings, in an effort to continue the growing body of research gathered about Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that choose to reside in the shallow waters of the Ten Thousand Islands near Marco Island, Florida. Dolphins are protected by both federal and state laws.
The naturalist on board, James, said we picked a very exciting time to go on this adventure because early September was the time we could expect to see newborn calves. Since the Dolphin Explorer has been operating for eight years, and that is the length of time a female dolphin normally takes to start having babies, the potential to see one of the originally sighted dolphins becoming a mom for the first time, and for others in the pod to become grandparents provided extra allure.
Alas, no new babies revealed themselves in our three-hour morning cruise.
Navigating the shallows, we were looking for dolphins who were likely feeding. James said dolphins have no sense of smell and can swim and swallow their food at the same time. Many of his explanations were specially geared to children on board, although, of course, interesting to adults as well. Kids of all ages were invited to become researchers for a day. They were given a clipboard and worksheet on which they could note a particular sighting. They filled in the blanks about location, in this case Addison Way, the number of dolphins sighted (eight), and activities observed such as playing and chuffing, the fancy name for forcefully exhaling when first surfacing for air to clear the recessed blowhole of water.
From James, we learned that the water temperature was about 90 degrees and the average water depth is six feet, which subcategorizes the pods as estuarine dolphins. We also were supposed to assess whether the group of dolphins were a maternity group, a sub-adult group, a male pair bond, or undetermined. The naturalist’s explanation of these groupings, however, were somewhat overrun by excited passengers talking and pointing and taking photographs of the eight dolphins. They were to our left, then to our right, then straight ahead. James easily identified who was who among the dolphins by their “telltale” tail. The dolphin’s dorsal fin was particularly shaped and notched, so that like a snowflake, each was unique to an individual.
That “fin-factor” turned identifying the dolphin into a sort of a scavenger hunt. Several notebooks with photographs and additional information were distributed so that amateur researchers could match what they were seeing with the names that had been bestowed to the dolphins. Also, if a new dolphin was sighted, the passenger who spotted it first had an opportunity to name it. We saw no new dolphin on our particular voyage. James knew them all!
During this sighting, my ten-year-old’s favorite point of the excursion arrived. The dolphin surfed the boat’s waves as we motored to a new spot. James explained this was playful behavior while Gus enjoyed the dolphins’ four-foot leaps that occurred a couple of times.
Our next sighting occurred at 10:22 a.m. near the Isle of Capri. There were four dolphin here: a male pair bond and mom and calf. James again knew them all by name. The water depth was 10 feet deep. I had seen dolphin here once before, while kayaking after launching from a nearby restaurant.
Other nature-related sightings aboard the Explorer might include unique mangrove trees, manatee, osprey, wading birds, brown pelicans and terns. In fact, near Addison Way, several small mangrove islands were designated sanctuary areas.
The Explorer docked at Keewaydin Island for about a half hour. This uninhabited island offered a chance to take a walk on an eight-mile long Paradise Coast beach, collect interesting shells and swim in warm aqua waters. Among the shells easily spied were worm shell, calico scallop, lightning welk, moon snail, olive shell, and fighting conch, and less obvious were sand dollars and starfish. Additionally, a turtle nest was cordoned off which gave naturalist James an opportunity to educate the guests about sea turtles, especially loggerhead turtles. He also shared that he had spied a gopher tortoise near the path to the beach, doing its thing, eating Morning Glory vines and burrowing.
On shore, visitors can easily spy the golden silk orb spider, and numerous butterfly species such as the swallowtail, gulf fritillary, buckeye, white sulphur and zebra longwing – Florida’s state butterfly.
James also offered to take “family portraits” on the beach, which is another valuable offering of the Dolphin Explorer. Each family or group of visitors on board can go home with printed photographs taken and printed on board by the naturalist – photos of your group and nature and dolphins -- which double as a souvenir and a way to share your adventure with friends and family. (How smart is that for “free advertising?!”)
The voyage back to the dock enabled James to further inform guests about shells used as tools by early settlers, how shells generate, and the anatomy of a dolphin skull.
The Dolphin Explorer cruise is noted among the 100 Places that can Change Your Child’s Life, according to author Keith Bellows, an award-winning writer and editor and contributor to National Geographic Traveler Magazine. Due to the Explorer’s successful merging of education, tour and excitement for all ages, one can easily understand how explorers-for-a-day can be attracted to a life dedicated to marine science, with frequent voyages on the water among the social dolphins.
It’s worth noting the average number of dolphins spotted in the Explorer’s 2,400 trips to date is 11.5. So, disappointment is rare.