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Seeing is Believing: The Dolphin Whisperer

Dolphin pod, South Padre Island

The azure sky reaches down to touch the turquoise bay, heavens becoming liquid; sea turning into firmament. Suddenly, a dark arcing silhouette of a bottlenose dolphin breaches the water, stretching toward the clouds.

“Oh, they are welcoming us!” exclaims Captain Scarlet Colley, her voice rising an octave, as the big marine mammal crashes back into the bay, sending a rooster tail of spray skyward. “They sense we are coming. They are inviting us.”

We are on the Skimmer 2, a small power craft operated by Colley’s South Padre Island Dolphin Research and Sealife and Nature Center, a tour company that specializes in intimate encounters with near shore dolphins who live in the shallow waters around South Padre Island in southern Texas. Unlike large commercial dolphin watching boats, the Skimmer, or as Colley calls her, the “Mamma Mia boat,” holds only six passengers and, today, my partner and I are joined by a young couple and their nine-year-old son.

The small boat isn’t the only thing that makes this adventure different. We’re with South Padre Island’s only self-proclaimed “Dolphin Whisperer.”

Capt Scarlet Colley

Captain Scarlet Colley has been taking visitors to see dolphins for nearly 20 years. Photo BH

“I grew up in Germany with horses,” Captain Colley tells us as she motors the boat closer to where the dolphin leapt. “My parents were horse whisperers so I grew up with the idea of animal communication. The first time I came out onto these waters and saw the dolphins I started talking with them and they responded.”

At this point, I’m not sure if this woman is for-real or some kind of New Age crackpot.  

“Dolphins feel you,” she explains. “They speak with their bodies, but it’s not language like we think of it. It’s sensing. And don’t take their picture until you meet them.”

Hmmm, I’m thinking crackpot …

Fishing boat South Padre Island

A fishing boat drags the water in Laguna Madre. Photo AEW.

Colley eases back on the throttle and the boat idles in the water. Suddenly, we are surrounded by dolphins, their grey and white bodies swirling around the boat.

“Ah, they like you,” she pronounces. “We must have some happy people on this boat today. They won’t come to people who are angry or unhappy. Now you can take their picture.”

Each time she spots them, Colley’s genuinely excited. Her voice moves into that high-pitched, sing song rhythm people normally reserve for babies and puppies. The dolpins seem to like it too.

This captain is no beginner. She’s rated to operate 100-ton ships and she’s been plying these waters for more than 18 years, bringing visitors up-close-and-personal with the animals she considers her extended family. She knows their names, their histories, their behaviors, and even their quirks.

“I’ve lived with some of these dolphins their whole lives,” she says as a pale, whitish dolphin performs a figure eight near the bow of the boat. “That’s Lightening. See how white she is?”

Each time we spot pod or what Colley calls “a tribe” of dolphins, her little wire-haired dog, Rozzi, rushes up and barks good-naturedly. The dolphins don’t seem to mind the dog or the boat. The first pod of seven dolphins churn around us until a large barge comes rumbling by and they dash off.

Dolphins, SPI

It wasn’t long before dolphins began surrounding our boat. Photo AEW

“They love to surf the bow,” she says. “Watch for them in the wave.”

Sure enough, soon sleek grey bodies are streaking through the water right in front of the giant boat. They’re kids playing in the water.

On the boat’s starboard side a small green sea turtle pushes through the water, his triangular head and nostrils just breaking the surface. “Hey sweetie,” Colley greets the turtle. “Let’s see how he’s doing.”

She angles the boat closer, tracking the animal as he heads for a shallow shelf. “We’ve pulled dozens of turtles who were in trouble out of the water and taken them to the turtle sanctuary.”

She pulls alongside and we watch the animal munch on long strands of grass. “No, he’s good.”

A few years ago, Colley rescued a dolphin tangled in fishing monofilament. Mohawk, as they call her, is now six years old and Colley insists the animal always comes to her boat and signals thank you in dolphin body language.

We crisscross the bay and Captain Colley points out little blue herons, laughing gulls, oyster catchers, filling us in on the bio-history of each. When she’s not communing with dolphins, she takes birders out to see the local avian population. I wonder if she has similar dolphin luck with the birds.

Colley asks the young boy passenger, “How old are you?”

Nesting, South Padre Island

Colley also brings guests out to bird watch. Photo AEW

He shyly says he’s nine and that today is his birthday.

Suddenly, another pod of dolphins appears heading straight for the boat. “It’s happy birthday dolphins,” Colley shouts in her upscale voice.

A dolphin turns just before crashing into the boat, turning her body so that we get a full view of her face and belly. “Yes, you love birthdays don’t you, Tinkerbell?” Colley sings to the dolphin.

More dolphins crowd around the boat, waving their fins and smiling their dolphin smiles. Rozzi, the dolphin dog, is going crazy and so are we, madly snapping photos, trying in vain to capture these magical moments.

“Oh look, the grandmothers are coming now,” says Colley. “Hello my darlings; hello my babies. Thank you for visiting us.”

They come and keep coming. Dolphins are everywhere – in front of the boat, behind, on the sides. We can’t keep up, they are coming so fast. We are in dolphin heaven.

I put down my camera and just watch these amazing animals. It is pure magic.

Soon, way too soon, our 90 minutes are up and Captain Colley turns the boat toward the shore.

Dolphin Encounter

The dolphins were so close, we could see every scar and mark on their bodies. Photo AEW

I can’t stop smiling. I have, indeed, met the Dolphin Whisperer. – by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor

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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at realfoodtraveler.com.