Spotting dolphins in the wild are on the top of the sand-bucket lists of many Pensacola Bay Area visitors.
These captivating marine mammals are so adored, even the locals are always on the lookout for them.
With more than 10,000 of these playful and intelligent bottlenose dolphins living in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, there are plenty of chances to see them.
I’ve lived on the Gulf Coast most of my life, and I’ve been lucky enough to see hundreds of dolphins in the wild. Believe me, the thrill of seeing them never wanes. Yes, I’m one of those who become downright giddy when I see a dolphin surfing through a wave or rocketing into the air and flipping or spinning just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. My biggest thrill was having one swim near enough to my ocean kayak that I could look into its eye as it looked into mine. What a phenomenal experience that was. Seeing a baby dolphin? Now, that’s a special treat.
With the abundance of bays and waterways such as the Intracoastal Waterway, around here, you just have to be in the right place at the right time to see dolphins. That’s not as hard as it may seem because there are plenty of spots to capture a glimpse of them surfing the bow wave of a boat or hunting for breakfast in the vast seagrass beds surrounding Santa Rosa Island.
While at the beach, I’m constantly scanning the outer sandbar in the Gulf. Dolphins, who live in pods, often cruise up and down the coast along that outer sandbar or in the deep trench in between sandbars when they’re hunting fish. Sometimes when they’re following schools of fish, dolphins will venture closer to shore inside the sandbars where beachgoers are swimming.
Photo by @saltytourspensacola
So, how’s the best way to encounter a dolphin in the wild? Here’s my pick for the top five best ways:
1. Take A Dolphin Tour
Chart a course for a dolphin encounter out of Pensacola Beach or Perdido Key on one of the many Dolphin Cruises offered. A variety of cruises are available to customize your experience from more intimate private sailing adventures, to jet ski dolphin excursions and cruises for larger groups. Ready to explore more? Here's a list of dolphin excursion companies in the Pensacola area.
Purchase an “observers” ticket to stroll out on the pier that spans 1,470 feet into the Gulf of Mexico where you can get a front-row seat to a wild dolphin show. Much to the angst of the anglers, dolphins are attracted to the pier by the fish they are catching. If the water conditions are good, you could see dolphins swimming under and around the pier, along with all sorts of our amazing marine life, including sea turtles. Learn more about the Pensacola Beach Pier.
3. Viewing From The Shore
Pensacola Pass is where many of the dolphin cruises head to, but if you’re not up for a boat ride, the crystal white sandy tip of Santa Rosa Island along the pass offers a great viewing spot for dolphins. In fact, the island’s tip is in Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Fort Pickens Area and features long stretches of beach along the Gulf of Mexico and Pensacola Bay from which you can relax and watch the water for dolphins.
Swimming, kayaking, paddle-boarding in the Gulf places you in the dolphin’s neighborhood, and it’s definitely one of the best ways to enjoy these creatures doing what they do best, being free and wild. Dolphins are wild, so keep your distance and avoid approaching them, especially if they have babies. If one smacks its tail on the water, it’s a warning to stay away. Otherwise, enjoy this amazing experience that’s like no other.
Want to captain of your dolphin cruise? Renting a boat gives you the freedom to explore on your own, and with miles and miles of bayfront coastline, you'll be able to pull up to the beach to enjoy swimming and picnicking. Take a look at the local outfitters offering Pontoon boat rentals.
Kimberly Blair is an outdoor enthusiast who never really felt at home in the concrete- and steel- covered prairie of Houston, Texas, where she grew up. After falling in love with the long stretches of undeveloped beaches during a spring break trip to Pensacola Beach in 1980s, she planted her roots in Gulf Breeze where she raised two children. Kim enjoyed a nearly 30-year career as a journalist at several Northwest Florida newspapers where she reported on business, the military, coastal lifestyle and the environment, earning numerous awards including being a team finalist for the Pulitzer Prize while at the Pensacola News Journal.
In 2015, she decided to leave journalism to join the creative communications team at Gulf Power as a media relations specialist. Kimberly and her artist husband enjoy strolling through the National Seashores, paddle-boarding, kayaking and, as newbie empty-nesters, long-distance cycling.