ST. PETERSBURG — The Dolphin Queen set sail from the municipal marina Wednesday after a solemn promise from captain Christian Obenshain: The 10 slightly-sunburned, gift-shop-outfitted souls aboard would spy a bottlenose dolphin in the next 90 minutes or their next trip was free.
The trip had the elements of a classic dolphin tour, a tourism staple of the local waterways. Jimmy Buffett’s Son of a Sailor crackled on a Bluetooth speaker. Bud Light cans were sold for $5 from a cooler. There was a soothing breeze.
The abnormal part was the inescapable smell, like dirty aquarium water with a hint of overturned port-a-potty, plus all the dead fish. Little pinfish and porgies were scattered in every direction, between the occasional belly-up mackerel or mullet.
Red Tide wrought havoc on Tampa Bay this week. St. Petersburg cleaned up more than 470 tons of dead fish killed by the noxious algae bloom, and there looked to be many more tons to go. Birds and mammals could be threatened next, experts say. There has been concern for weeks over how Red Tide might harm a tourism industry still recovering from the pandemic.
But on Wednesday, a group of vacationers braved the conditions and paid their $39 in hopes of seeing a wild dolphin, an often magical experience, even for locals. Everyone aboard said they were enjoying the trip, though obviously it would have been better without the signs of a toxic bay all around them.
“It is sad to see,” said Todd Burson, who was in town with his wife and kids from Mount Vernon, Ohio, and staying in a vacation rental in Indian Shores.
As Capt. Ken Grimes explained the history of Tony Jannus’ first commercial airplane flight over Tampa Bay, a shrimp boat puttered past, flying a faded Jolly Roger flag and dragging huge nets full of fish carcasses as part of the ongoing cleanup.
Burson said his wife heard about Red Tide on the news a couple weeks back and they discussed it briefly, but never seriously considered canceling the trip, which they’d craved since the pandemic started. They were having a great vacation, he said, though it wasn’t perfect. The day before, he’d cut his paddleboarding expedition a little short because of the effects of Red Tide.
“We’re all feeling it after swimming in the ocean,” Burson said, “the sort of itchy feeling in our throats.”
Obenshain, who owns Pier Dolphin Tours, said a boatload of people began coughing almost all at once during a recent cruise. He’s glad to still be selling tickets, but said bookings are down by at least half. Business had been booming after the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We were selling out, on Mondays,” he said, motioning toward the 10 paying passengers on a boat that can hold more than 50.
Earlier in the day, he’d taken a group of 10- to 12-year-olds to Weedon Island Preserve as part of a summer camp. They’d dipped their nets in the water in a spot where they always pull up fish or at least see them jumping. There were none.
“It feels like everything is dead out here,” he said.
Even the dolphins are acting strangely, he said, gathering in larger than normal groups, in spots they usually don’t go and jumping out of the water more than he’s ever seen.
The boat cruised past massive waterfront homes off Old Northeast and Snell Isle. Grimes pointed out an empty lot covered in grass, and said over the microphone that it was recently listed for more than $16 million. The boat powered through a thick wave of dead fish, clustered in a long column stretching from the sea wall far out into the bay.
Grimes pointed out the home of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, flying a Florida flag, and told everyone the congressman recently came outside to greet a dolphin tour. Then someone pointed out a dead puffer fish floating next to an overturned horseshoe crab.
The boat pulled up to “bird island,” a mass of mangroves in Coffee Pot Bayou where hundreds of brown pelicans and their babies roosted in the branches.
Sanah Ibrahim, of Tampa, stood on the bow and said she’d forgotten about the Red Tide when she booked tickets for her, an aunt and a cousin, who were visiting from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a lovely boat trip, a lovely captain,” Ibrahim said, “but it smells. I would wait until Red Tide is over to try it again.”
The aunt, who declined to give her name, looked into the murky, reddish-brown water and said she was unimpressed. She lives “only 20 minutes from the Red Sea,” she explained, and that was a lot nicer.
“It’s not always like this,” her niece responded.
Grimes scanned for dolphins. Nothing. “I don’t know,” he said. “This is where we usually see them.”
Allison Crispin and Christina Cote were visiting from New Hampshire and staying in Tampa. They’d already been to Busch Gardens.
Crispin had never heard the words “Red Tide” until an hour earlier. They’d arrived at the St. Pete Pier and were shocked by all the dead fish, Crispin said, “but I still had absolutely no idea what Red Tide was.”
So Crispin appreciated it when Grimes explained over the microphone that it’s a harmful algae bloom that can deplete the oxygen in the water, killing the fish.
Cote wore a Go-Pro camera strapped to her head, hoping to capture video of a dolphin, her favorite animal.
A few minutes later, someone shouted: “Twelve o’clock!”
A pair of dolphins came out of the water off the bow, swimming side-by-side, went back under, then surfaced again.
“Oh my God!” someone else shouted.
Then there were more. A big dolphin jumped high out of the water and flipped, then did it again and again. The tourists got their photos and videos. The dolphins, the crew knows by names like “Chip” and “Notch” — references to their dorsal fins — were very much still alive. Whether it stays that way is to be determined.
Erin Fougeres, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in St. Petersburg, said dolphin deaths are expected. More than 180 died along Florida’s west coast due to lingering Red Tide in 2018 and 2019. Dolphin deaths tend to come later than fish deaths, she said. They breathe air, so oxygen-depleted water doesn’t kill them, but toxins build up over time as they eat Red Tide-affected prey.
At least six dolphins have washed up dead in the area recently, Fougeres said, a small uptick from normal, and the strandings are notably happening on the bay side of the peninsula, near downtown St. Petersburg. Usually, Pinellas County strandings happen along the Gulf beaches. (Anyone who sees a dead or distressed dolphin should call (877) WHALE-HELP.)
Back at the marina, Cote was satisfied.
“That was great seeing them,” she said. “Exactly what I wanted.”
Three more dolphin cruises were set for Thursday, the first one in less than 24 hours.