Couple sits on a seawall dolphin watching

For the Love of Dolphins

Story and images by Ken Billett

Gorgeous blue-green waters shimmered in the afternoon sun. Waves, churned by outboard motors and a relentless wind, lapped against the sea wall. Behind us, the Tampa Bay Blues Festival was in full swing and Vinoy Park, in downtown Saint Petersburg, Florida, hopped to the beat and rhythm of electric blues. We’d temporarily abandoned our festival chairs and our palm tree-shaded spot, which we shared with several young EMTs on duty for the festival.

Two chairs in front of two EMT golf carts

Walking towards the water, I jokingly told Vicki, “We just left the safest spot in the park.”

Rolling her eyes, she ignored me and continued to the seawall. “Time to watch,” she said.

When we’re in Florida—or anywhere near saltwater—my wife has a single-minded focus: watching for dolphins.

The previous day’s storms stirred up Tampa Bay, causing the briny water to come alive. Marine life and sea birds returned to their routines, including that on-going struggle between predator and prey. The post-storm churn combined with a brilliant blue sky made for excellent dolphin-watching.

Vicki stood atop the sea wall, holding on to her festival hat against the fierce winds, and scanned the choppy waters of Tampa Bay. “Dolphins, where are you?” She asked aloud.

So, it begins.

Dolphin-watching…More like Dolphin-waiting

If patience is a virtue, then the payoff is seeing these magnificent creatures up close and personal. Being right on the Bay gave us a chance to not only see dolphins, but a few manatees, and, occasionally, a stingray skimming along the sandy bottom.

Clearly, we’re in St. Pete for the music. The Tampa Bay Blues Festival was postponed for two years due to COVID-19, but the unofficial price of admission included the beautiful surroundings with wonderful views of the water—all in a laid-back setting.

Observing dolphins doing their thing takes both patience and a bit of luck. Dolphins lope along in the water, their dorsal fins and exposed backs bobbing up and down, sometimes in rhythm with the waves, other times difficult to distinguish from the gray-blue color of the water, especially on an overcast day. Once you spot one, or two, however, tracking dolphins is another test of patience—and perseverance. Dolphins literally turn on a dime, accelerate towards their prey with lightning quickness, and, contrary to popular belief, don’t always come up for air two or three times per minute. They can hold their breath for extended periods of time.

This makes tracking them even more difficult. You have no reference point. Where you saw a dorsal fin doesn’t mean the dolphin is currently heading in that direction. Dolphins are stealthy, which is why they’re good hunters. Now you see ’em, now you don’t certainly applies to these magnificent sea mammals.

Vicki continued to scan the water. I stood nearby, doing the same. I also talked with the young EMTs, who had moved closer to the water. I say young because anyone under 35 is a youngster to me. They’re excited by the possibility of seeing dolphins doing their thing. I smiled to myself. As a native Floridian, I’m still amazed at the number of current Florida residents who don’t normally interact with the state’s natural beauty. A few years back, at this same festival, a young firefighter told me he had never seen a dolphin in the wild. Only at SeaWorld in Orlando.

Wow, I thought to myself.

Four EMTs stand near the ocean dolphin watching. Their golf cart is in the foreground.

No luck, thus far, spotting any dolphins. Vicki’s hands are on her hips. Determination on her face, even with her blue eyes hidden by sunglasses. I know that look.

Yes, dolphins, where are you?

Our last Florida visit, back in October 2021, was disappointing from a dolphin-sighting perspective. We stayed on the bayside of Anna Maria Island—just south of Saint Petersburg—but the lack of dolphins made for a frustrating vacation. We only sighted a few dorsal fins, and those were at a distance.

Capturing dolphins…Digitally, of course

After spotting dolphins, another challenge is capturing them on your smartphone. Again, the elusiveness and unpredictability can make even a seasoned photographer crazy. You have to learn to anticipate where the dolphins are headed and watch for any tell-tale signs that the dolphin is moving your way. One tell is a slight break in the water, similar to the wake of a motorboat. As the break continues to grow longer, you can usually look down and see a dolphin gliding through the water beneath you.

Bubbles, of course, are another sign that a dolphin is close by, but bubbles come so infrequently that they may not be a reliable indicator.

Much like spotting dolphins, patience is also a key to capturing them with your phone’s camera. For every decent dolphin picture I take, I have dozens of out-of-focus, out-of-range, and just plain crummy shots.

Dolphins rarely stay still for long.

  • Dolphin watching. Dolphin caught a fish along the seawall.
  • Dolphin watching

Dolphins bring…Joy

Dolphin tours are all the rage along the Gulf Coast and have been for many, many years. Most tourists visiting the beach want to see dolphins. They hold a magical, even mystical, place in our hearts and minds. They’re incredibly beautiful creatures who may just be smarter than we are, which, unfortunately, isn’t saying much.

Dolphins, even a sighting of them from afar, bring joy.

Vicki loves seeing dolphins. Seeing them brings her joy.

Joy. That’s what dolphins mean to Vicki. We can all use a little joy in our lives, so, if watching for—and, eventually, seeing—dolphins brings joy to my best friend, the most important person in my life, then that means dolphins are important to me.

Woman dolphin watching with a boat in the background

A couple, sitting on the seawall, pointed to their right. Skimming along the concrete wall, a dolphin chased a fish. We watched as the sleek gray mammal navigated along this man-made structure, using the wall to help it capture a meal. With my camera, I caught a brief moment after the chase when the dolphin held the fish in its mouth. More festival-goers leaned over the wall’s edge, snapping smartphone photos of nature in action.

Up close and personal. We’ve now seen a dolphin doing its thing. Vicki and I head back to our festival chairs under the palms. Satisfied that we’ve experienced the joy that dolphins bring. Magical. Mystical.

With summer bearing down on us, many Mid-Southerners have already planned their beach vacations. Endless opportunities for dolphin-watching await those who are patient and persistent—with a little luck thrown in.

Note: For the Love of Dolphins is a special edition of my Get Out of Town column and part of the Spring Travel Memories series.

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.

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