Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Discovering a “New Normal” on the Dolphin Explorer


A local dolphin popped up for a quick look at the citizen scientists on board. Photo by Bob McConville

A local dolphin popped up for a quick look at the citizen scientists on board. Photo by Bob McConville

Hurricane Irma made landfall on Marco Island September 10, 2017 as a Category 4 storm. Islanders and surrounding inhabitants hung on for dear life as winds gusted as high as 140 miles an hour. Every business was affected to some degree, some more serious than others. If not plagued by the severity of the harrowing winds, the swells from waves and surge from rising waters also took their toll.

It will take time, lots of time, for many entrepreneurs to get back, rebuild and start all over again. For others, the opportunity for shelter meant that the “new normal” would begin more quickly. Such was the case for the dolphin survey team on board the Dolphin Explorer.

One week after Irma the Dolphin Explorer was back in business. Environmental Scientist/Captain Michael Tateo (left) and Naturalist Bob McConville explored the island’s “new normal” status. Photo by Steve Gimmestad

One week after Irma the Dolphin Explorer was back in business. Environmental Scientist/Captain Michael Tateo (left) and Naturalist Bob McConville explored the island’s “new normal” status. Photo by Steve Gimmestad

On September 17th, just one week after Irma struck, guests were anxious to get out on the water and see what was happening. As a naturalist for this survey group I was just as excited to be out with these folks under the skillful hand of environmental scientist and Captain, Michael Tateo.



Before we left the dock at Rose Marina it was decided that a slow, deliberate approach would be taken since the amount, and types of debris in the area waters was a complete unknown. Finding dolphins along the way would be a bonus, and we had no idea if any would even be in the region because of the changes that they, too had to endure.

Almost immediately, we noticed several of our cetacean friends in the Marco River. Several sub-adults (those dolphins old enough to be on their own but not yet fully mature) began to play just a short distance from our location. Jayson, Jing Jing and Coco were socializing, and they were quickly joined by adult female, Cosmo and her two-year-old calf, Honeymoon. Another female named Sparky was also there. Coming over to join the party were mom Rakes and her one-year-old Tigertail. It was a great start to our day and even more exciting to see these mammals behaving normally.

On the east side of the Jolley Bridge a few more regulars showed up. Two big males, Bangle and Finch, were following and adult female named Darwina. Two more sub-adults were close by as well.

There are three small islands in that vicinity that serve as a nesting area for many of our birds and it was encouraging to see so many of those feathered friends still in the trees. It seems that the nests survived there quite well. Great egrets, snowy egrets, brown pelicans and magnificent frigate birds were seen in abundant numbers.

As we cruised back under the bridge, heading west on the Marco River, we were once again on the lookout for any debris in the main channel. Remnants of a crab trap bobbed up and down at the surface in one location while tree branches were noticed elsewhere. The puzzle to be solved: Was this a branch or is there a tree attached to it?

Again, a slow and steady pace kept us on our toes.

We noticed several pool cages that were felled by Irma’s powerful winds and several docks that had caved in along the main portion of the river, victims of the mighty force of water.

As we exited the river and began our journey to the backwaters we found a few more dolphins, actually one of my favorite females. Her name is Halfway and it was great to see her yearling, Wyatt, in good health right next to her. Halfway is one of the most productive mothers in our area, giving birth to a new calf every three years, like clockwork, since 2004. Her offspring include Seymour (2004), Simon (2007), Kaya (2010), Skipper (2013), and Wyatt born in 2016.

In all, over a dozen of our local dolphins were seen over a three-hour time span. A stop on Tigertail Beach gave our guests the opportunity to explore the shoreline and seashells were plentiful. Starfish and sand dollars were additional treasures found by our treasure seekers.

Captain Michael and I were both as excited as our citizen scientists on the trip with the discoveries of the day. Our dolphin population appeared to be in good health and behaving normally. Ospreys were feeding on fish from the waterways and the shoreline did not seem changed in any drastic form.

Structural damage to buildings seems primarily superficial. In the short amount of time since Irma descended upon Marco Island most businesses are up and running again, electrical power has been restored and the drinking water supply is back to normal.

Normal…I should say a “New Normal.” After an event like Irma it is inevitable that change occurs. Structures WILL be rebuilt, businesses WILL reopen and lives WILL be emotionally healed. It’s just a matter of time, a short time, and our island WILL be better than ever.

I urge anyone who had plans to visit Marco Island or Naples to keep them. You will not be disappointed! The beaches… they are still here and as beautiful as ever! Area fishing…the fish are still here! Dolphin watchers and citizen scientists… the Dolphin Explorer is open for business, as are many other water activities. Come on down!

Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours, providing walking tours of the western Everglades. He is also a naturalist on board the Dolphin Explorer and author of the pictorial wildlife book “Beyond The Mangrove Trees.” Bob loves his wife very much!

One response to “Discovering a “New Normal” on the Dolphin Explorer”

  1. Eva Wansha says:

    I am blessed to be able to visit Marco on a yearly basis as a Christmas/ birthday gift from my Mom.I have been on the dolphin explorer and met Bob. I am coming back this winter and I plan on being on the boat again. Bob is very knowledgeable and friendly. I can’t wait. Soooooo much fun. I highly reccomend this to everyone that visits. Be blessed.

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