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Time to travel with dolphins

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- A friend called Friday afternoon with an invitation to a happy hour.

"You can't stay chained to your desk all day," he said. "You need to get out."

He was right. Sometimes I forget just how lucky I am to be living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. The bay, the beaches, the gulf ... we've got it all. Too bad many of us never take time to enjoy it.

We go from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned cars and drive to air-conditioned offices, seldom stopping to take a look around. Fortunately, my friend twisted my arm and shamed me into dusting off the sea kayak for a paddle under the Skyway Bridge.

The tide was low, so we had to drag the plastic boats across a mud flat. There was a pool to our right, and as soon as we hit the water, fish scattered in every direction.

"Looks like we found a new honey hole," I said. "Next time we will bring our fishing rods."

We paddled across the grass flats and skirted the channel. We had the place to ourselves, then a dorsal fin surfaced about 20 yards away.

In all the years we've been fishing, diving, sailing and paddling, we had seen our share of dolphins. It is easy to take these creatures for granted. But every once in a while you'll see one do something that restores the sense of wonder you haven't felt since you were a kid.

"Look ... there it is," I told my friend. "It's swimming about a foot off the bow of your kayak."

The dolphin stayed with us for about five minutes, then some maniac on a Waverunner ripped across our path and scared it away. We stopped, took a sip of water and swapped dolphin stories.

"I remember one time surfing north of San Diego, I had a whole pod of dolphins playing in the waves with me for more than an hour," he said.

I thought back to a rainy fall morning on Clearwater Beach three or four years ago that I still find hard to believe. My training partner and I had been paddling the 2-mile stretch of beach north of Pier 60 for several years.

We were out at least once a week, rain or shine, and we always paddled at dawn starting in the same direction, north. On this particular morning, I spotted a momma dolphin and two babies following about 100 feet behind.

"They're not following us," my buddy said. "They are just feeding in the swash channel."

So we pressed on, hit our turn-around point and headed back. About 10 minutes into the return trip, I noticed the dolphins were following us back down the beach. Our paddleboards, which resemble long surfboards, made little noise. As we moved along in the gentle rain, the only sound was our hands cutting the water, stroke after stroke.

We were side by side, about 10 feet apart, when I told my friend, "If we are real quiet ... " Before I could finish my sentence, the baby dolphins surfaced about a foot in front of our boards. One swam with my friend, the other swam with me.

"The only thing in the world that could be cooler than this is if they swam between us," I said. About 30 seconds later, the baby dolphins surfaced between our paddleboards and swam with us for another 100 feet.

It was almost as if the momma dolphin had been watching us for weeks, months, maybe even years, and told the kids, "It's okay to play. Those guys are cool."

We paddled along in silence, smiling from ear to ear, then a man rounded the pier in a fishing boat, his outboard smoking, and the dolphins disappeared.

"I think dolphins are like dogs," I said. "They know who likes them and who doesn't."

After we passed beneath the bridge and turned for home on the recent trip, we lamented the fact neither of us had thought to stick a few dollars in our baggies to buy a beer at the tiki bar on shore.

"It doesn't matter," my friend. "Seeing a dolphin like that, up close and in the wild, is better than any happy hour in the world."

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