Florida Coastal Naturalist Lisa Mickey halts her eco tour in the most biologically-diverse estuary in America to point out an ailing dolphin with a split dorsal fin, followed closely by her newest calf.
Mickey and her colleagues at the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach have been watching the mother for months to make sure her calf can still nurse. They’ve named the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin Bolt, after the jagged rip that resembles a lightning strike.
“We’d love to help but we’re here to observe nature, and sometimes, nature takes its own course,” said Mickey, a salty eco-expert who shares her knowledge of the 4,000 species that live in the Indian River Lagoon during a Dolphin Discovery Boat Tour.
Barefoot Captain Gary Kessler slowly maneuvers the 40-foot pontoon boat closer so passengers can get a better glimpse. Some stand to snap photos, while others marvel at the symbioses of mother and child searching for dinner near J Hook Island.
Mickey tells the mix of tourists and natives that Bolt is not swimming with the characteristic up and down motion of the other dolphins. She floats more than dives but Mickey adds that her calf is now able to find fish independently.
Bolt and the dolphins found in the lagoon are unique to their oceanic brethren, with a lighter color, smaller body size and longer flippers. They can swim faster than an Olympic athlete and travel up to 25 miles a day looking for food. They don’t chew fish, just bite and swallow.
The boat heads to a condo boat dock, decimated by last October’s Hurricane Matthew, that is a popular dolphin feeding ground. Seven dolphins frolic and dive as schools of fish scatter, fluttering the surface water.
A passenger asks how the dolphins sleep, and their guide explains that they never go into a full sleep or they would drown. They let half their brain sleep, while keeping one eye open for danger. Another asks if sharks can be found in the estuary and Mickey said the river is a bull shark nursery, where sharks enter through the ocean at Ponce Inlet, have their calves, then head back leaving their babies to fend for themselves.
The boat offers a view of the oldest lighthouse in Florida, the 175-foot tall Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is the turn around point for the dolphin tour. Mickey gives a brief history of the bright red beacon then directs the captain to head toward an island rookery, where seven different species create more than 200 nests before heading north for their annual migration.
Mickey draws attention to a great white egret flashing his tail feathers during a mating dance to attract a female companion. Egrets mate seasonally, not for life. She explains the ritual that includes fetching a perfect stick for the nest, making him worthy to be chosen as an appropriate suitor.
The up-close adventure through the backwaters of the lagoon is just one of several offerings at the nonprofit Marine Discovery Center, whose mission is to educate about the importance of preserving the lagoon’s diverse ecosystem. The center offers guided kayak tours, educational lectures and adventure camps to showcase the unique beauty of the 156-mile long estuary that stretches from Ponce Inlet to Jupiter.
The dolphin tours are $29 for adults, $26 for seniors over 62, $13 for children 10 and under or $75 for a family of two adults and two children. Advance reservations are required.