If you haven’t had a chance to take the Dolphin Explorer Eco-Tour and Cruise on Marco Island, you’re missing a highlight of your life or bucket list. I was especially interested in experiencing the Number One National Geographic Guide recommendation in Florida of top adventures for family members of all ages. Hundreds of positive reviews were also incentive to take the tour and I wasn’t disappointed, nor was my eight-year-old grandson. By the way, there were adults on the eco-tour without children and their enthusiasm was also contagious.
Directions to Rose Marina are clear and there are two options for tours, morning and afternoon so we chose the morning. We went into the Rose Marina Store to buy snacks, were tempted by the beach and boat-wear, hats and assorted souvenirs. Back outside, our group was escorted expertly through the maze of boats to the Dolphin Explorer cruise boat.
We were a large group of locals and tourists on the launch, all comfortable and laughing as Captain Bob McConville and Captain Greg bantered back in forth while explaining appropriate “boat behavior” and how to use the “head.” You know, the bathroom. It was in a rather conspicuous place and I didn’t notice a single passenger heading down the stairs even though the offers of cold water were numerous. Younger passengers were given a fun brochure about the dolphins and local flora and fauna information to complete during the tour, based on the things they saw and learned.
We left the marina and cruised under the Jolley Bridge headed east and quickly found some adolescent dolphins performing their smooth ballet moves through the water. Bob was able to identify the names of each dolphin based on the markings on the dorsal fin. Some have several peculiar notches on their fins, a distinctive mark or two or a unique flop that makes them recognizable. Because the Dolphin Explorer is a scientific project, they have kept a notebook of photos since its long-term study launched in 2006. The 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project is a long-term research study that photographs, names the dolphins and their offspring, catalogs the information and if you’re lucky enough to spot a new baby dolphin just born, you may get naming rights. Above the area of the two dolphins, a splendid male osprey perched in a stately barren tree overlooking the Marco River swooped down and grabbed a fish for his breakfast of “sushi,” as Captain Bob called it.
We cruised west past the A, B, C Islands and learned about the frigate birds that like to roost in this protected area with many other beautiful birds. You can recognize the frigate bird by its forked tail, black, sleek body and wings, and curved white beak. Incredibly, they can stay in flight for over 50 days without landing, underline incredible! The adolescents and females have a white patch under their heads and the males have a red patch. According to Captain Bob, the males can inflate the red patch/pouch to the size of a football when they roost. Why you might ask? To attract the females flying over of course. Wink wink.
And now, the *STARS* of the show! We turned right after passing La Peninsula and Twin Dolphins on Isles of Capri and headed to an area where the dolphin use the sea wall to help them herd and capture fish. By this point the participants on the eco-tour were thoroughly impressed with the knowledge shared with us. He answered questions on both ends of the boat with expertise and humor. It was obvious by his enthusiasm that his interest and love of wildlife was a life-long calling. Did I mention that Captain Bob is a Master Naturalist? And author/photographer of stunning nature books? His creds are genuine!
The notebook of dolphin identities carried on the boat is impressive. It shows via photographs identifying markings on their dorsal fins, their names and offspring. Some are called sub-adults (teens) based on the year they were born. Some stay with Mama for three or more years until branching out on their own. Sometimes two sub-adults bond and go off on their own, but rarely range farther than about 40 miles from Marco. Some come back to visit, have oysters on the half-shell with the “rents” (parents) and “hit the road” for more exploring.
Our boat left the area of Twin Dolphins and headed north in a flurry of foam that attracted several dolphins who jumped and played in the wake of the boat. The passengers took photos of the dolphins and enjoyed their antics immensely. Captain Bob identified each one and told us about the mothers and siblings with some fascinating anecdotes. You’ll have to reserve your excursion with The Dolphin Explorer to find out more, I can’t begin to share all we learned in this column; you won’t be disappointed!
(Ed. Note: Bob McConville writes regular columns for Coastal Breeze News, Stepping Stones, and Meet Your Area Dolphins, which keeps readers up to date on our local dolphins.)
Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!