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Delighting in dolphins

Published August 06. 2011 09:01AM

When my husband and I opted to spend his birthday in St. Augustine, it proved to be an excellent choice.

The oldest settlement in America offered interesting historic tours, the best bed and breakfast I've ever found, and so many activities that we couldn't do them all in our brief three night minivacation.

Our bed and breakfast was directly across from the municipal pier where all the boat rentals and tours are offered. Our first night there, we listened to an exchange between a boat captain and a family that was paying for a private excursion.

"Where do you want to go?" asked the captain. "I'll tailor this trip to whatever you want." The couple pointed at their eight-year-old daughter, saying she could pick what she wanted.

The youngster had an easy time doing that. "I want to see dolphins!" she smiled.

Indeed, whether you're eight or 80 or anywhere in between, dolphins are absolutely fascinating.

Living here in southwest Florida and spending a lot of time on the water, I see dolphins on a regular basis. But no matter how many I see, the next sighting is as exciting as my first.

Dolphin and sunsets are two things of which people never tire. Both were special parts of our St. Augustine vacation, thanks to Captain Zack McKenna and his St. Augustine Eco Tours.

Our first morning there we saw St. Augustine in a unique way - in our kayaks with Captain Zack as our nature guide. I scheduled the trip ahead of time with him because I read on the Internet that he is a leading dolphin researcher. I thought he could tell me things I never knew about dolphins.

I was right. He's a wealth of information about these amazing marine mammals.

Everyone gets the impression dolphins are gentle creatures. The researcher says that's absolutely right. Their inclination is to protect humans, never to harm them.

"There have been hundreds of documented stories about humans being in trouble in the water with sharks swimming by. We hear time after time about dolphins surrounding the humans to protect them," said the researcher.

Man hasn't been that kind to dolphins. In times past, dolphins have been lured into areas then killed. Even now, some boaters aren't very protective of these gentle creatures.

Yet, the dolphins never retaliate, according to the researcher.

He said a dolphin can and will kill a shark by using its snout to ram a shark's heart with pinpoint accuracy. But they only do that when threatened.

When a dolphin is giving birth, other dolphins will surround it, protecting the mother and calf. "If a calf dies, the dolphins actually go through a long grieving process. I've seen cases where the mother, surrounded by other dolphins, will push a dead calf around for days. It's their way of grieving," McKenna said.

What surprised me was when the researcher said dolphins never sleep completely. "They always keep one eye open and one side of their brain awake while the other side sleeps," he said.

McKenna spends part of each day studying the migration patterns of bottlenose dolphins. He says he can identify every dolphin by its fin and has a large photo catalog of the dolphins around St. Augustine.

After we finished our kayak tour with him, we went onboard one of the St. Augustine Eco Tour research boats for the sunset tour. It was an invigorating, informative ride but I wondered why they called it a research boat.

I got my answer when the boat captain lowered a sensitive microphone into the water after we located several dolphins. The underwater microphone was so sensitive we could hear pistol shrimp snapping their claws, one way they communicate with each other.

The amazing sound was when we heard dolphins communicating with each other. I describe their sounds as clicks, snorts and shrill-like whistles. How fascinating it was to hear this firsthand as the captain explained what the sounds mean.

For years, one of my very favorite recordings is Dan Gibson's recording of Angels of the Sea, dolphin sounds set to music. It's so soothing that I've fallen asleep plenty of nights listening to it. But I never knew one dolphin sound from the other until the research boat trip.

The more I see dolphins and learn about them, the more fascinated I am with these gentle creatures of the sea. A lot of people are like that.

When friends and relatives come to visit us in Florida, we take them for a kayak trip, if they are up for it. The first time we went kayaking with Pennsylvania friends Moe and Colleen, they were doing great on their inaugural trip.

All of a sudden Moe stopped kayaking and froze in place. Her eyes were wide and she was speechless. All she could do was point.

At first, from the look on her face, I thought she saw an alligator. No, that happened on a later trip when Moe and Colleen saw a 14-foot alligator as they paddled by.

Moe's first moment of awe was when she saw a dolphin frolicking in the water about 10 feet in front of her. "That's the first time I ever saw a dolphin up close," she said.

You can see dolphins and listen to the sounds they make by going on the Internet.

But nothing beats being up close and personal with these aptly named angels of the sea.

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