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Feeling the Magic

She’s like the most enchanting woman you ever knew: both serene and sassy, so beautiful she takes your breath away. She’s captivating in the sunshine and sensuous in the glow of the moon. Like any fascinating woman, she takes her time in sharing her mysteries and secrets. Every day with her can be a new adventure.

“She,” of course, is the Gulf of Mexico, with all her creeks, bays, rivers and tributaries. Few waterways on the planet can compete with the beauty and diversity of our personal section, from the pristine barrier islands anchored by Sanibel and Captiva to the north, and the mysterious Ten Thousand Islands that begin at Marco Island to the south.

I’m privileged to call this watery paradise my home. Still, everyday life sometimes gets in the way, and too often I’m guilty of taking it for granted. But not this time. This week I turned off the computer, packed my sunscreen and took to the water to remind myself just what lured me here in the first place.

I like to call it “Karen and Her Excellent Adventure.”

Dolphin Explorer
Marco and the Ten Thousand Islands

Atlantic bottlenose dolphin faces all look pretty much alike, says naturalist guide Kent Morse. Their mothers may disagree, but that’s Kent’s story and he’s sticking to it.

Their dorsal fins, now, are something else altogether. Each one becomes a fingerprint, he says, with the life story of the individual dolphin etched into it. These unique markings allow researchers to document the lives and activities of the wild dolphins that inhabit our coastal waters.

Phase One of my Excellent Adventure begins at the Marco River Marina on Marco Island. Here, Morse, along with marine biologist/Master Captain Dave Strickland and 15 or so other guest “researchers” will spend the morning following these dorsal fins to gather data about these water mammals that share our little piece of Paradise.

Besides me, there are two Fort Lauderdale couples, a young Swiss family and a multi-generational family from Kentucky.  

We’re participating in the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Research Project, headquartered aboard the 33-foot power catamaran Dolphin Explorer. It’s the only U.S. study that involves the public on a daily basis.

Captain Chris Desmond, founder and director of the five-year scientific study, and Rocky Beaudry, president of the water activity company Sea Excursions and owner of the Explorer, are on hand to welcome us. Chris gives us our instructions (keep a sharp eye out and have fun), and sends us off into the Ten Thousand Islands.

As Captain Dave navigates into the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Kent shares his photo album of the dolphins documented so far, including their names, birthdates and general observations. His onboard database is far more detailed.

In the Explorer tradition, Kent announces, the first person to identify a new dolphin gets to name it. Some are named after their discoverers, while others reflect the characteristics of the dorsal fin. There’s Halfway (her fin has a notch in the middle) and Nibbles, whose lacy-edged fin looks like her calf Jason may have mistaken it for lunch. Captain Hook clearly has had a rough life, and so has Rake, whose dorsal fin bears deep, rake-like scars.

“Hatchet” and “Scar” may be fine for boys, I’m thinking, but if I discover a girl, she’ll get a respectable name, like Esmeralda, Princess of the Ten Thousand Islands.

Each dolphin, Kent says, has its own style and personality. Some venture out for miles, while others live their whole lives within a few hundred yards of their birthplace.

Ripple is especially playful. Even her toys—leaves, bean pod-shaped mangrove propagules and the occasional unfortunate fish, which she tosses about like a Frisbee—are recorded in the research notes.

We glide past the ABCs, a protected trio of tiny mangrove islands that have become rookeries to 20,000-plus birds, including snowy egrets, ibis, cormorants, pelicans and several varieties of herons.

No dolphins surface here, but we spot a spectacular soaring frigate bird and a great blue heron standing motionless on a sandbar.  

Captain Dave steers north into the Intracoastal Waterway. Beautiful island homes and docks give way to pristine mangrove-fringed wilderness, where each channel marker is topped with the twisted sticks and vines of an osprey’s nest.  

As we cruise, we’re learning valuable stuff. Did you know that a dolphin can manipulate her eyes independently? That her cone-shaped teeth are for catching fish—not chewing? Unlike penguins and some birds, these sweet creatures don’t mate for life. “No,” says Kent, smiling, “they tend to live for the moment.”

By midpoint in our tour, many dolphins are swimming around us. Kent, taking pictures and making notes, points out several of the regulars, including a couple of new moms with their weeks-old calves.

Now we’re chugging along the Back Bay shoreline of Keewaydin Island. Though some land here is privately owned, much is under state and U.S. protection. A spot of pink, in the shallow waters of the mangroves, turns out to be a roseate spoonbill, fishing around in the mud with its spoonlike beak for its lunch.

Suddenly we make a sharp turn, and Captain Dave beaches the catamaran on a thin spit of driftwood-strewn sand. Dave passes out mesh shell bags (“take no live specimens, please”), and Kent leads us along a narrow path through island brush to a magnificent strand of pure white beach facing an emerald Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of gulls are holding a convention at the shoreline. A lone sailboat is discernible in the distance. There are no homes, hotels, beach umbrellas or humans in sight.

Some of us lounge on towels and unwrap sandwiches; others scour the sand for treasures or take a swim in the Gulf. I tiptoe through the flocks of birds, which pretty much ignore me. Back aboard the Explorer, we motor slowly toward the tip of the island. Once past the no-wake zone, Captain Dave revs up the speed a bit.  “Let’s see if they’re dancing today,” he says.

“Dolphin jumping right there!” cries out a passenger. We all turn in time to see her fluke slide back into the water. Before we can point our cameras, she jumps again. I’m pretty sure she smiles at me. Not that big, open-mouth, tourist-show grin, seen only on trained captive dolphins jumping for food, but the illusion of a smile nevertheless. This really is playtime for the wild dolphins cavorting in our wake. Now there are three. They’re having a blast, and so are we.

Those dolphin “smiles” may be an illusion, but the smiles on the human faces aboard the Dolphin Explorer this morning are 100 percent real.

As Dave points our research vessel toward home, Kent prints up some of today’s photos as souvenirs and presents the kids with Survey Team patches. The research project still has at least two years to go, continuing north through Naples to Bonita Springs. Don’t worry, Esmeralda, Princess of the Everglades, I’ll be back to give you your name.

Marco River Marina.
951 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco Island.
Dolphin Explorer
Capacity: 28 guests.
Tickets: $54 adults; $27 children;
$5 discount for seniors.
Reservations strongly recommended.
Contact: (239) 642-6899,

New Moon Sailing
Captiva and the Barrier Islands

Captain Mick Gurley, owner of the luscious, 40-foot Pearson sailboat New Moon, is very popular with both avid sailors and novices. It’s not just because he has one of the prettiest sailboats in Paradise. It’s also because he’s never met a stranger, and he lets enthusiastic guests get as involved in the sailing experience as they’d like.

Wedding couples swoon over New Moon’s bridal-white sails with the sea-blue trim, the desert-island backdrops and Captain Mick’s simple and meaningful ceremonies.  Adventurers and romantics appreciate the customized itineraries, from secluded beaches to funky island seafood shacks. And it’s really fun to watch landside observers gaze wistfully as she sails by—especially if you’re the lucky passenger onboard. Which, today, I am.

I discovered New Moon a decade ago, but it seems I was always one of the wistful ones on shore, or on some mission or other. But not today. It’s Monday morning, Mick has no charters scheduled till sunset, and at last, I’m going sailing just for fun.  

“Would you like to crew?” Mick asks as he hands me onboard.

“Of course!” I answer. “I remember a thing or two from a charter vacation in the ’80s.”

“Excellent!” says he. “First, please untie the ropes at the front of the boat. Ah, no, the front—the pointy end!” (Why didn’t he just say so?) Untying turns out not to be that easy when several ropes look identical. Mick steps over to get me started. If he’s smirking, he hides it well.

“OK, good,” says Mick. “When I tell you, push against those pilings with every ounce you’ve got. Now!”

Something is wrong, because those pilings are not budging one inch. Mick watches for a few seconds, then says gently: “Never mind, that’s OK. Why don’t you just relax over there? Maybe you can help me steer later.”

Which is how I have ended up, on Phase Two of my Excellent Adventure, lounging for three hours aboard the gorgeous New Moon with no more daunting a task than to slather myself with sunscreen.

The wind is at 12 to 15 knots, says Mick, just right for an easy sail from ’Tween Waters Marina on Roosevelt Channel through Redfish Pass to Upper Captiva Island. Over the centuries, Sanibel, Captiva and Upper Captiva islands have been connected and then separated; arranged and rearranged by the vagaries of shifting sands and a couple of unruly hurricanes. We’re sailing toward the northern tip of Captiva, with its fingerling of sandy beach facing the Gulf of Mexico, the lush little nine-hole executive golf course, the marina and other amenities of South Seas Island Resort.

Along the way we admire the few remaining quaint turn-of-the-20th-century cottages side by side with glamorous 21st century Italianate villas. Sailboats and fishing boats slap gently against their docks. Seabirds line up on nautical ropes like little soldiers for inspection. Colorful Adirondack chairs sit prettily in rows facing east, where the sun has recently risen. An osprey swoops and screeches when a helicopter overhead disturbs its peace. The water is so shallow near the mangroves that we can see giant West Indian manatees grazing on vegetation just below the surface.

Up ahead, an old wooden shack on high pilings appears to be growing out of the water. It’s one of the last of the 1920s-era fish houses that dotted the bays and harbors from Sanibel Island to Boca Grande. Followers of best-selling author Randy Wayne White’s mystery novels might recognize it as the inspiration for the laboratory of fictional marine biologist Doc Ford. Standing sentry at the end of a long boardwalk from the island, it belongs to the estate of the late, great artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Upper Captiva, accessible only by boat, has a pure white sandy beach adorned with a handful of colorful, island-style cottages. Originally the land of prehistoric Calusa Indians, then a haven for pirates, a tomato plantation, a fish camp and an escape for random hermits, the four-mile-long, 700-acre island is now more than 50 percent bird sanctuary. There’s a grass airstrip, a couple of island-style restaurants and several nice rental properties. This morning the beach is deserted except for a couple of day-trippers. They’re shelling among gnarled masses of bleached-out driftwood, tossed up in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma. A sailboat from the Offshore Sailing School flits by. Mick, who once was an instructor, exchanges waves with the captain.

On an all-day sail, I’d have my choice of two island stops: Cayo Costa State Park, with five miles of hiking trails and nine miles of beach, or a lunch stop at Cabbage Key, the former estate of mystery author Mary Roberts Reinhart. With its quaint bar, screened porch and every inch of wall space covered with dollar bills, it claims to have been Jimmy Buffett’s inspiration for the song Cheeseburger in Paradise.

“The menu hasn’t changed in 50 years,” says Mick. “Still have that fine Key lime pie and legendary stone crabs [in season].”

Alas, more than three hours have sailed by like the wind, and we’re headed back to ’Tween Waters Marina.

That talk about Key lime pie and stone crab has made me hungry. The ’Tween Waters Inn pool bar serves up a mean fresh grouper sandwich, and so does the iconic local restaurant/bar, the Green Flash. One of those sandwiches surely is labeled “A Most Tasty Finale to Karen and Her Excellent Adventure.”

Location: New Moon sails from ’Tween Waters Inn. 15951 Captiva Drive, Captiva.
Options: Customized half-day, full-day, overnight and extended sails; weddings and sunset charters start at less than $500.
Contact: Captain Mick Gurley:
(239) 395-1782, www.newmoonsailing.com.

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