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 becomes 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.
Like we say “leave only your footprints” in our crystal white sand to preserve its beauty; admiring these amazing creatures from a distance is equally important. It’s illegal to harass, feed, or swim with dolphins. Please don’t toss any fish or bait to attract them as this can disrupt their wild nature and put their young at risk.
So, how’s the best way to encounter a dolphin in wild? Here’s my pick for the top five best ways:
- Get a birds-eye view of wild dolphins at Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier. For $1.25, you can 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The National Seashore’s Pensacola Bay Ferry will soon launch its service in the spring of 2018 providing passengers excursions from Downtown Pensacola to Fort Pickens and Quietwater Beach on Pensacola Beach. Along the way, there will be ample opportunities to see dolphins that live in the protected waterways. Hint: watch the bow wave.
- 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.
“The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.” ~ Jacques Yves Cousteau