Chasing Dolphins in the Ten Thousand Islands of Florida

Watching for dolphinsIt’s not even 10 AM, so I’m surprised to see the enthusiasm on this sultry summer morning in Southwest Florida. We launched from the Marco River Marina a little over an hour ago for a tour on the Sea Excursions Dolphin Explorer, a catamaran tour of the Ten Thousand Islands. After a slow cruise past three islands (dubbed “A” “B” and “C”) packed with colonial nesting birds – including large numbers of frigatebirds – we sweep back under the bridge to Marco Island and head out towards the gulf. In the distance, an abandoned sailboat lists against a backdrop of mangrove forest. Eager eyes scan the smooth surface of the channel. Will we see a dolphin today?

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Unlike most dolphin-watching cruises, this is a unique scientific study tracking dolphins in the wild.
  • The Ten Thousand Islands are the largest mangrove maze in the United States, best visited with a guide.
  • You’ll have a shell-strewn beach all to yourself. Heaven!

The Dolphin Trackers

“In two years, I’ve only had one day we didn’t see a dolphin,” said Kent Morse, our onboard master naturalist and official dolphin photographer. “Where we’re going today, about 100 dolphins have been sighted.” He points to a riffle in the surface of the water. “Watch over there, near the sea wall.” Sure enough, a dolphin surfaces. Then another. The chase is on.

Started in 2006, the Sea Excursions Dolphin Project is a study tracking the behavior, movement, and distribution of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins between Bonita Beach and Everglades City. Information collected about the dolphins seen on each day’s tour is Circling the channel markershared with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota to build a better database of dolphin behavior along Florida’s southwest coast. On each trip, the naturalist collects photos of the dolphins, tracks locations by GPS, notes their associations – family groups, pairs, maternity groups – and activities. And we’re here to help by scanning the water to point out any dolphins we see. “There they are. Four o’clock! I see something floating!”

Passing around a heavy photo album filled with photos of dolphin fins, Kent points out the obvious differences, such as bite marks and tears. Photographing fins helps him distinguish one dolphin from another. They all have names, of course. We spy Darwina (who was Darwin until she had a calf), Rangle, and dozens of others.

The captain keeps us on target through the entire journey. One shout of “Over there! Eleven o’clock!” by a passenger, with a confirmation by Kent, sends him in pursuit. We spend a great deal of time tracking a mother with a new calf to determine that indeed, this is a dolphin new to the study, and the lucky lady who spotted the baby names it Donna. “My parents went to Marco Island and all I got was a dolphin named after me?” jokes Kent. A few moments later, we spy a group of manatee drifting past.

Shore Leave

Mangrove-lined shoresWinding our way through the mangrove maze of the Ten Thousand Islands, we make a landing on the lee side of Keewaydin Island, a treasure of a barrier island lying between Naples and Marco Island. Accessible only by boat and largely preserved, it offers a broad sweep of beach with superb shelling. I pick up dozens of conchs and sand dollars, and photograph sea urchins on the shore. We spent nearly an hour roaming the shore, where dolphins approach in the surf, to our delight.

On the return trip, there is no shortage of dolphins. One is nosing about in the shallows by the mangrove roots, where roseate spoonbills are picking through the mud flats. Several more chase our wake as we pull within sight of the condos capping the southwest tip of Marco Island. At the end of the journey, Kent surprises us all with photos he took of us shelling and of the wildlife we saw—he has a printer tucked away in the back of the boat! It was an extraordinary, engaging experience, and by the looks of my shipmate’s smiles, I’m sure we’ll all return.

Practicalities

  • Make reservations in advance for your trip on the Dolphin Explorer to avoid disappointment at the dock.
  • Cruising through the Ten Thousand Islands means a steady dose of sunshine: slather on the sunscreen and wear a hat.
  • Brush up on the Dolphin Project before you go to make the experience especially memorable!

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