With news of forthcoming plans to film a sequel to the hit 2011 movie Dolphin Tale, residents of Southwest Florida treasure that a trip to the movies is not required to see dolphins.
The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico bring no shortage of these lovable animals to this part of the Sunshine State. Once there, picturesque rivers and fish-filled estuaries provide a perfect setting for dolphins to swim, play, and feed.
These graceful mammals can be frequently spotted from land in places like Cape Coral or Punta Gorda, as they swim throughout the lower Caloosahatchee and Peace Rivers seeking a plentiful diet of small fish. Boaters know that seeing dolphins on the flats of waterways, such as Pine Island Sound, Charlotte Harbor, and Estero Bay, is even more common.
Many local businesses feature nature trips, where guests get tantalizing opportunities to witness dolphins up-close. While snapping a perfect photo is challenging, these highly-intelligent creatures often swim with the boat or jump through waves of its wake.
Dolphins are found throughout the world’s oceans, but generally prefer life along the shallower continental shelf. Florida’s waters are ideal, however, since these sleek cetaceans favor warmer temperatures and rarely venture to seas colder than 50° F.
With lifespans exceeding 20 years, dolphins navigate local waters throughout the year. Closely related to whales and porpoises, dozens of species exist, but the bottlenose dolphin is most frequently inhabits the Gulf of Mexico. Though offshore varieties migrate with currents and food supplies, coastal dolphins instead form local pods and rarely venture from familiar territory.
In fact, lucky boaters claim repeat encounters with specific dolphins, based on individual markings or behavior. These observations are supported by scientific research, including GPS tracking of three free-swimming dolphins by the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.
Findings from the nearby research facility indicate that resident dolphins occasionally visit off-shore, or pass through backyard canals, but typically swim throughout the main estuary.
On a recent, mid-summer visit to Pine Island, I was blessed to sight numerous dolphins without leaving land. Located at the island’s northern tip, the small community of Bokeelia offers an ideal lookout, where Pine Island Sound collides with Charlotte Harbor. Bokeelia also sits directly across from Boca Grande Pass, an inlet that provides access to the Gulf for the estuary and its marine residents.
Dolphin watchers further benefit from depths that rarely plunge more than 6 or 8 feet and Pine Island boaters can attest they are often substantially less. Grey colored bottlenoses mature to an impressive size, averaging 8 feet in length and 400-600 pounds in weight, and are capable of kicking up quite a fuss in the shallows.
Though unlikely to match the drama of ambitious teenagers saving the Clearwater Marina Aquarium from closure in Dolphin Tale, the access to these beloved mammals in the waters of Southwest Florida is second to none.
For more information, visit the Facebook community page for Pine Island.
Also be sure to view the above Slideshow for a closer look at local dolphin encounters.
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