The dog days of summer are upon us, but no need to roll over and play dead.
Why not take in a breezy little cruise on one of the many sightseeing tours that depart daily from the Clearwater Municipal Marina. Choices include a pirate ship, luncheon and dinner cruises, eco-tours and high speed-thrill rides.
On this day, we chose the Little Toot, a red, white and blue tugboat named after the classic children's tale by Hardie Gramatky. The 40-foot tug is reputed to be a real dolphin magnet because of the wake it creates — similar to that of a rooster's tail.
"The way the hull is manufactured makes for a bigger wake at slower speeds," said Tim Harris, who has owned the enterprise since 1998. "We usually cruise at about 12 knots, which the dolphins love. They'll start following the boat and jumping the wake. It's kind of like surfing for them."
Sightings are guaranteed or the next trip is free.
We boarded the 35-passenger vessel as storm clouds threatened in the distance. The captain, Cee Jay Stites, headed south down the Intracoastal Waterway and out toward the gulf and clearer skies.
"He always watches the weather very carefully," said his wife and first mate, Beth Stites.
As he piloted the vessel and searched for dolphins with his binoculars, she narrated the tour, pointing out the outdoor swimming pool where the movie Cocoon was filmed, a condo where actor Mel Gibson stayed and the fact that we were 300 miles from Havana, Cuba.
The ride through the clear, emerald waters was smooth and gently rolling. Passengers armed with point-and-shoot digital cameras peered over the sides searching the seas for the dorsal fins of the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.
Capt. Cee Jay, donning a Panama hat and khaki outfit, reassured the passengers the creatures would be found.
"We find them 95 percent of the time, but they're wild animals and they do their own thing," he said. "I tell them to stay put, but they don't always do what they're told."
Beth shared a story about the time they came upon a dolphin delivering a calf and how the other dolphins nudged the newborn to the surface for air.
She pattered about how dolphins shut down half a brain to sleep while the other half makes sure they get to the surface to breathe; how they have 100 teeth to capture, not chew, food.
Josh Lima, 24, came all the way from Cranston, R.I., to see his first live dolphin.
Others passengers, like Tony Martinucci of Chicago were return patrons.
"Last year, we saw a ton of dolphins. It was awesome," said Martinucci, 46.
On this evening, though, he wasn't feeling very sanguine about an encore.
Just then, Sarah Fowler, 20, of Sarasota spotted fins and within moments the Little Toot became the Pied Piper of the dolphin world.
For several continuous minutes, members of the pod jumped and frolicked within a few yards of the end of the boat, giving everyone a chance to get pictures and remark about their graceful beauty and intelligence.
It was a fitting close as the dog days of summer became the dolphin days of summer.
"When in a playful mood," Beth said, "they'll come behind us and give us a beautiful show like they just did."
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