It doesn’t take long to see that Dolphin Explorer owner/operator Bob McConville has mastered his craft.
The cheerful tour guide develops an instant rapport with his clientele even before they leave the parking lot at Rose Marco River Marina.
Once on the water, you can see that McConville and his crew are doing something they love—and their enthusiasm quickly transfers to the passengers.
These are exciting days for the Dolphin Explorer, mainly because they’ve upgraded to a brand new 47’ excursion catamaran, built by Cooper Marine in St. Petersburg.
“She’s 16 feet wide, 47 feet long,” McConville said. “We’re able to hold 49 passengers plus two crew. With the motors on the back we’re 54’ long.”
That’s a major upgrade considering the original held just 24 passengers.
McConville, who started with the Dolphin Explorer in 2011, purchased the business in May, 2018. He immediately ordered a new boat.
“We knew the potential was there,” he said, “having a 24 passenger boat and seeing how many people who wanted to come on board but weren’t able because we were sold out—sometimes two or three weeks in advance. Turning that many people away, it just made sense to get a bigger boat.”
McConville sees the Dolphin Explorer’s success as something that is good for Marco Island.
“To get that many more people out on the water, enjoying Marco Island, we’re great for the economy,” he said. “It’s not just a boat tour. People are flying down here, they’re renting hotel rooms, timeshares. Eating at restaurants, renting cars. So what we do is bringing a lot of people to Marco Island. We’ve put over 10,000 people on the water in 2019. The potential to do over 12,000 a year is certainly there.”
Obviously the dolphins are the star of the show. And it doesn’t take long to see that everyone involved with the Dolphin Explorer loves—and knows the local dolphins.
“The dolphin research the team is doing is absolutely amazing,” McConville said. “There’s nothing else going on in South Florida that monitors the dolphin activity. Everybody loves dolphins and likes to go out and see them. But we’re able to catalog, and tell which dolphin is which. We’re in the third generation now. We have some grandmothers out here running around. And the fact that you’re watching them grow up out here on the water is almost like watching your family.”
The tour left the marina and headed east, under the Marco bridge and past the ABC islands, where many species of birds roost. Then it was down the Marco River towards the Gulf of Mexico. That’s when things got really interesting.
Captain Michael Tateo spotted dolphin feeding along the seawall in front of La Peninsula off the point on Isle of Capri. Tateo started with the Dolphin Explorer as an intern while he was earning his degree in environmental science. Born and raised here, Tateo loves what he does—and it shows.
Tateo would identify a dolphin and shout out the name and location to McConville, who while photographing the dolphins, took time to note the different dolphins in his log. The Explorer’s data is shared with Mote Marine in Sarasota and also with National Geographic.
Suddenly the boat was surrounded with dolphins, who followed behind in the wake of the boat. The passengers were as thrilled as the crew. After things slowed down, McConville told the passengers how rare this particular occurrence was. He rattled off the dolphins who were part of the show.
“Ginger, Wyatt, Skipper, Simon, Halfway, Jason, Kona, Ben, Aubrey. Also, MP2 and Shane were there,” McConville exclaimed. “That was an absolutely exciting sighting, seeing that many dolphin at one time. I counted three or four hundred dolphin. A good day on the water. Moms, new babies, sub-adults, adult males, adult females. So there were dolphin of all age groups. Good, good trip overall.”
While the passengers enjoyed the shell collecting portion of the trip, McConville reflected on the popularity of the Dolphin Explorer.
“Everybody loves dolphins,” he said. “They always look like they’re smiling. We kind of sneak in the education. So when they walk off the boat and go home, they realize they learned something while they were on the boat. Even if it’s something about a seashell, how the manatee eats or what they eat. The dolphins have socializing habits. They can actually go home and monitor the dolphin that they met through our data base. In this specific area we have about 110 dolphins that we recognize and see on a regular basis. In order to get logged in our catalog, we have to have seen that dolphin a minimum of 10 times in a year. So there are 110 dolphins that we know fairly well.
“We started our (dolphin study) program in 2013, so a lot of our adults were already adults. One of our females, Halfway, had a two-year-old baby by her side when we met her. In order to be mature enough to have babies they have to be eight years old. If that was her first baby, she’s at least 20 years old. Some of the boys can live into their 40s-to-50. So some of these guys have been around since the Mackle Brothers were still building homes here.”
McConville is good at engaging the youngsters on the boat. He has a Dolphin Challenge handout so youngsters can keep track of how many dolphins they see.
Like any business with the reputation of the Dolphin Explorer, which earns a 5-star rating with TripAdvisor, a top staff is paramount.
“The staff is absolutely fantastic,” McConville said. “Everyone on the crew is very well educated. Captain Michael Tateo is a graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University in environmental science. He was born here on Marco Island, knows the waters very, very well. That’s a big plus. And his education makes him one of the most valuable members of the team. Our naturalist Kent Morse has been with the Dolphin Explorer since Day 1. So he’s been studying the dolphins for years. Nobody knows them better than Kent. Our weekend captain is Ed Farr. Eddy Farr is an environmental science graduate from Mercer University. He’s a former science teacher. He’s been doing dolphin studies in Florida for over 20 years.”
McConville is a Florida Master Naturalist who’s been studying the dolphins for nine years. But his real magic is his ability to operate an impeccably-clean boat, while interacting with staff and passengers in a comfortable, effortless way. As the Dolphin Explorer heads back to the marina, McConville excitedly shares with the passengers just how special of a day they experienced.
“To see the number of dolphins we saw today is very rare,” he said, “it probably happens once or twice a year.”
The Dolphin Explorer is a three hour tour, with trips scheduled at 9 AM and 1 PM. During slower times, they only do one tour a day. This season McConville expects to amp it up to three trips a day to satisfy the demand of winter season. Adults are $64, children $45 (two and under are $10). There is a $5 senior discount for those 60 and over. Online booking is available at dolphin-study.com, or you can call 239-642-6899.