How many times have you heard about whale-watching, seal-spotting and deer-stalking trips and the like that have ended up as a weary let-down, with eye strain, frayed tempers, sulks all round and a depleted wallet?
So when I booked for a trip on board LeBarge for a morning ‘Dolphin and Manatee Watch Cruise’ in Sarastota Bay on the Gulf Coast of Florida, the first thing I did was earmark a spot at the outdoor bar on the top deck of the 60-foot boat, with a modicum of shade from its real palm trees (!) in case the cruise drew a resounding blank.
Oh ye, or me, of little faith – I should never have doubted for a moment.
The things you most want to see on a ‘dolphin and manatee cruise’ are, naturally enough, dolphins and manatees, and the marvellous marine mammals seemed to know the script far better than me and never missed a cue.
LeBarge, in fact, has a dolphin and manatee guarantee – if you don’t get a sighting, there are free passes for your party for any other scheduled cruise! Family-owned LeBarge is billed as a floating tropical island, which might be pushing it a bit, but you get the drift with the full-size potted palms and models of mermaids on the double-deck, flat-bottomed boat, which has been part of the scene for 30 years.
It’s a familiar sight for the locals, especially those messing around in boats and the families who have homes around the tranquil bay, and it must be a familiar sight for the local wildlife, too, for it seemed to be accepted and hold no fears for the dolphins, which appeared not long after the two-hour cruise got under way.
There is a local population of more than 120 of the bottle nose beauties and a playful group was quickly spotted by an on-board marine biologist expert – so forget the elevenses and grab the camera.
Our clued-up Mote Marine-trained guide was a mine of information about the creatures, explaining their hunting techniques, physical adaptions and social hierarchy as they broke surface and played at the entrance to several residential creeks, which were lined with some rather swish waterside homes and their attendant boats.
The people who live there might well get a bit blasé about dolphins gambolling in the water just yards from their front lawn, but it was a delightful surprise for all on board LeBarge, which was able to quietly drift along nearby and give us a ringside view.
A couple of chaps in kayaks decided they wanted to join in the splasharound, but our concerned guide warned them off and gave them the hard word about harassing wild animals, which seemed to be relatively unconcerned and eventually switch-backed away across the lagoon.
And manatees? Yep, the massive, ponderous and gentle ‘sea cows’ were there, too. Not as playful and obvious as dolphins, a couple of the short-sighted, slow-moving mammals were meandering just below the surface on the fringe of some mangroves. Difficult to pinpoint without the help of our guide, the appealing and lovable – but by no means lovely – creatures, which allegedly spawned the myth of mermaids, decided shyness was the best option and melted away, sinking to leave a tell-tale rippled ‘footprint’ on the water.
The ‘watching’ part of the cruise was deceptively short (time flies when it’s fun and fascinating!), yet it took up quite a bit of the time we had in the bay, before heading back to the dock at Marina Jack Plaza, on the downtown Sarasota waterfront.
After a lunch stop, the boat gears up for an afternoon Sightseeing and Nature Cruise, followed later by an ever-popular Tropical Sunset Cruise with snacks and live music. There are also special event cruises, for Christmas and the 4th of July, for example, and the boat can also be chartered for weddings and parties – roll on the Lottery win!
The boat, dead easy to spot if you want to make a booking because of the palm trees and mermaids on top, is moored about 100 yards from O’Leary’s ‘tiki’ bar, a very handy and popular watering hole with a thatched roof and seats on a small beach near Baypoint Park, which is a great spot to people-watch with the lunchtime and after-work crowd.
You can meet lots of local people as well as watching them, and you’re soon invited to join in the banter, especially if you play along with one of the regulars in particular, a black labrador stationed at the water’s edge, who wants his frisbee throwing further out to give him an excuse to cool off. Surprising who you bump into, and with lite beers in hand, my wife and I were enthusing about our cruise when we were drawn in to a chat with a friendly couple who turned out to be the owners of LeBarge.
We were happy we’d been on the cruise, they were also happy we’d enjoyed it.
So cheers – and here’s to the next time!