A bird above the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge looks down an intricate network of color; blue-green water shimmering in the morning sun, spindly white beaches, and groves of dark mangroves swirl together as though painted. This pristine estuary system boasts hundreds of species of wildlife and is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world.
Though the Gulf of Mexico is home to twenty-six species of whales and dolphins, many of these are rarely seen and spend their entire lives in deep, pelagic waters, hundreds of miles offshore. But the bottlenose dolphin—perhaps the most beloved and familiar marine mammal—can be found with ease up and down the Florida coast.
As our bird approaches Marco Island, a bout of splashing catches its eye in Caxambas Pass—silvery fish flash in the sunlight, corralled by sleek gray bodies. A pod of bottlenose dolphins is rounding up their morning meal. The behavior, athletic ability and charismatic “smile” of these animals have attracted the attention of humans in both science and popular culture for hundreds of years. This fame, in part, is due to the fact that they are the most common species of dolphin on the planet, found along coastlines in all but the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. In each unique location, they’ve developed specialized feeding strategies and behavioral systems suited to their environment. Some populations migrate to between regions during different seasons, and some are permanent residents to specific ecosystems. In the waters surrounding Marco Island and the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge, bottlenose dolphins can be found every day of the year and will live their entire lives within a five mile radius.
10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge is the perfect habitat for bottlenose dolphins. It covers 35,000 acres of marine and estuary habitat, with mangrove forests lining the shores of many islands. Mangrove roots provide nursery habitats for a multitude of fish species along with certain sharks and crustaceans. Once the fish mature, they leave the protection of the mangroves and become part of the food web in the estuaries and coastal waters of Southwest Florida. In other words, they become lunch for bottlenose dolphins, which are regularly seen hunting in the waterways of the refuge and around Marco Island. Look out for dolphins swimming in short bursts of speed and creating large splashes –– you might even see a dolphin burst from the water with a fish in its mouth!
Bottlenose dolphins are highly social animals and often travel in groups. They live in fission-fusion societies, meaning that groups of dolphins merge and separate regularly. On one day, you might see two dolphins together, and on the next day those same two could be socializing with twenty others. More often than not, the larger groups of dolphins consist of females and their babies –– these groups are called nursery pods. Most males dolphins will form a close bond with one other male that can last a lifetime. The two males travel, hunt, and court females together, sometimes creating alliances with other males to fend off threats or gain access to resources. When groups of dolphins socialize, they tend to be pretty active at the water’s surface –– a leaping dolphin may be playing, fighting, fishing, or trying to mate, so it’s important to give them their space. If they’re curious, dolphins may come towards your boat of their own accord.
It’s no secret that the bottlenose dolphins around Marco Island love to bow ride and surf in the wakes of boats. It’s not uncommon for them to leap in and out of the waves right next to traveling vessels. For this reason, the best way to see dolphins up close in the area is with a private tour operator. Local captains know how to safely navigate around dolphins and within the waterways of the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Dolphins can be struck and harmed when approached by inexperienced boaters, so taking a dolphin tour from Marco Island is both safer for the dolphins and allows visitors to devote all their attention to these captivating animals.
Bottlenose dolphins are beautiful, intelligent and playful—no trip to Southwest Florida is complete without seeing them in their natural habitat. Booking a Marco Island based dolphin tour will allow you to experience these incredible animals up close as they travel the cerulean waterways of the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge.