The most common, and beloved, of Florida's dolphin species is the seemingly smiling bottlenose. Bluish gray on top with paler undersides, these highly intelligent mammals are regularly spotted following seabirds and fishing boats in coastal waters. It is against federal law to feed, touch, harass, or swim with wild dolphins, making respectful watching the best way to enjoy and help protect these charismatic creatures.
Fury Water Adventures, Key West
Key West's inshore residential pod of about 300 coastal Atlantic bottlenose dolphins stays close to home year-round. Since the dolphins frequent a few different areas within a ten-mile radius of Key West, the boat captains and crew of Fury Water Adventures' Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Tour have developed a mutually respectful bond with the pod. Although the dolphins are not trained, fed, or lured into or near the boat in any way, they recognize the individual dolphin-watching boats and build relationships with them, says captain Lisa Riley, who's been a dolphin-boat captain for more than nine years and guides three-hour tours aboard Fury's 36-foot Dolphin Cat catamaran. "Each dolphin has a different personality, and it's amazing how you feel like you get to know them," she says. "Just when I thought I had seen it all, one dolphin came along the side of the boat when our engines were off. I waved, and she turned sideways, looked me in the eye, and stuck her tongue out. It flapped along as she swam along the side."
The Florida Aquarium Wild Dolphin Cruise, Tampa
Downtown Tampa may seem like an unlikely place to start a wild dolphin tour, but that's where you'll board the Bay Spirit II, the 72-foot catamaran owned and operated for the Florida Aquarium's Wild Dolphin Cruise. From the downtown aquarium, the double-decker boat travels through one of the main shipping channels into Tampa Bay, which boasts a healthy population of dolphins, as well as manatees, sea turtles, and sharks. "Tampa Bay is fairly shallow, with an average depth of just 12 feet, which supports sea grass beds and makes dolphin viewing a bit easier than in deeper habitats," says Lauren DeLuca, a captain of the Bay Spirit II. "The catamaran is the perfect viewing platform to experience the amazing behaviors of our wild dolphin population in their natural habitat."
Marine Discovery Center, New Smyrna Beach
Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Preserve, located on the northern end of the Indian River Lagoon system, is home to a permanent pod of about 400 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that don't mix with ocean dolphins. The Mosquito dolphins have smaller bodies and longer flippers than their ocean counterparts, as well as a distinctive way of hunting fish. To observe the wild pod in action, take a two-hour Marine Discovery Center pontoon boat tour deep into the lagoon. In addition to seeing the dolphins feeding, mating, and playing, you may get to experience their round-up—a cowboy-like maneuver involving herding fish onto a sandbar and pouncing on them.
Practical Tip: Fury Water Adventures and the Florida Aquarium are certified Dolphin SMART tour operators. The national Dolphin SMART program promotes responsible stewardship of wild dolphins in coastal waterways. See the program's website for more information.
Fun Fact: There's a fin chart aboard the Dolphin Cat identifying about 30 of the Key West dolphins that the captains and crew have named. Most of the named dolphins—including Split Fin, Chopper, Grandy, and Hang Nail—have unusual markings on their fins or are the offspring of a named dolphin. Grandy's son Eddie Munster doesn't have a telltale widow's peak, but he was born during Halloween week 2013.
By the Numbers: Bottlenose dolphins can reach swimming speeds of more than 18 miles an hour, can rise up to 16 feet out of the water, and can make up to a thousand clicking noises (to track prey) per second.