Charlotte Harbor’s dolphins are spectacular animals. Dolphins are not porpoises, but dolphins can porpoise. And at times they make quite a show of it as they porpoise exuberantly across the surface at a high rate of speed, sometimes traveling nearly 30 feet at a bound.
If you’ve ever wondered whether wild animals ever do anything just for fun, then you need to spend some time watching dolphins around boats. The animals are clearly having a good time as they leap and body-surf in the bow wave or stern wake of large vessels. Sometimes they’ll spot a passing boat that attracts them and they’ll race to it, porpoising across the surface for a quarter-mile or more on an interception course to reach their target so they can drop into the wake.
I have heard it argued that these dolphins are not really playing, that instead they are using the wake of the passing boat as transportation to surf along to wherever they may be headed. I cannot say with certainty that this is never true. Maybe sometimes dolphins do travel via boat wake.
But when I watch pods of dolphins that take up position along the Intracoastal Waterway in Gasparilla Sound or down towards Cabbage Key, I am sure that they are just playing. When they’re “in the mood,” they will hang in the ICW and wait for an approaching boat with which to hitch a ride.
Depending on the boat’s speed and wake characteristics, they may ride for as little as only a few moments or for as long as a few miles until they decide it’s time for a change of direction. Then they’ll fall off that boat’s wake and pick up a boat going the opposite direction and ride with that one for a while, then repeat the process back the other way.
Sometimes they’ll spend hours just going back and forth up and down the ICW hitchhiking with boats. They’re not doing this for transportation — it’s recreation.
Eventually they will depart, presumably because they do have to go make a living at some point. And since they probably work up quite an appetite by swimming with boats for a few hours, I’d hate to be a small fish anywhere in the vicinity when they punch that time clock.
Transportation or not, those dolphins sure look like they’re having fun. Yes I know that it’s tempting to humanize wild animals by imposing our own emotions on them, but when dolphins do flips in the air, swim along upside-down looking up at us, or leap high and turn on their side to smack down flat onto the water’s surface with a rifle-shot slap, that sure looks like they’re having fun to me.
And here’s more evidence: They don’t always swim with the boats. Sometimes they’re just not interested and completely ignore all passing vessels. They have to be in the right mood to want to play.
Not all boats are created equal in the eyes of the dolphins. It seems to me that a cruising speed of about 9 or 10 knots is about their favorite. Dolphins can go much, much faster than that — up to about 20 knots — but that 9- to 10-knot cruise seems to be the speed at which they’re most likely to hang with a boat for a while.
But it’s not just about speed. It’s also about the wake. My little flats skiff makes barely a ripple at 9 knots so it doesn’t get much attention from dolphins. Some larger boats don’t do much better. Sorry, sailboaters, but the sleek, tapered, efficient and easy-to-push hulls of even large sailboats don’t produce much wake by design, and that means that they aren’t real dolphin magnets. Sailboaters, don’t get mad; I know that pretty much every sailboat in our area has had dolphins alongside at one time or another. But there is no doubt that the perfect dolphin boat is a good-sized displacement hull vessel that pushes a lot of water and makes a big wake.
To be a bit more specific, dolphins like stern wakes with steep-fronted surface waves. Those are best for body-surfing and for launching airborne. They also like bow waves, but for a different reason: When the narrow bow of a boat is being driven through the water, it wedges water to the side, creating a underwater pressure gradient or wave in which dolphins like to ride. This is why on some boats dolphins like to take up a position at the very front, just off to one side or the other of the bow.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.