For many visitors to Destin, Florida, one of the highlights of the trip is experience aquatic life in the emerald waters of the gulf with some of the most amazing sea creatures known to man. The Gulf of Mexico is home to a number of different dolphin species, but the most commonly spotted here in Destin is the bottlenose dolphin. While many amusement park attractions have dolphin exhibits, there’s nothing more wonderful than seeing these animals in their natural habitat.
With around 40,000 dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, there are ample opportunities for vacationers on the Emerald Coast to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures. Dolphins live in groups (called “pods”) that usually consist of 10 – 30 members. Pods frequently work together to hunt schools of fish. These Dolphins are really friendly and can be just as curious about you as you are about them. They can often be seen swimming alongside boats, and while they may not get too close to swimmers, they certainly don’t pass up a chance to get your attention when you’re in their space.
While it is impossible to predict the location and habits of dolphins, there are a few things you can do to maximize your chances of seeing one.
If you prefer to stay on land:
Get out on the water for the best view:
For the best chance at seeing dolphins up close, it helps to be in their space. If you are a bit more adventurous, you have several options to choose from starting at $20 a person up to $400+ a person. Guided boat tours take passengers to well-known dolphin sighting spots. If your budget permits, build your own charter adventure with a private captain and vessel to see the dolphins at your leisure.
For those of you who like an adrenaline rush, there are high-speed boat tours you can take with 131 of your closest friends (this is a very popular tour) or take a jet ski/wave runner guided tour of the best spot where dolphins are known to play.
For those who want a little slower pace, there are several tour boat companies who offer 1.5 hour to half-day cruises. Some via a glass-bottom boat while others are on a relaxing catamaran.
If you’re up for a bit of a workout, rent a kayak and paddle over to Choctawhatchee Bay which is home to hundreds of dolphins. They are often seen swimming underneath the Destin Bridge and occasionally, they are spotted in the waters of the Destin Harbor.
Some people think that you need to keep your pontoon boat at the slowest possible speed in order to see dolphins, but dolphins actually like the wake! Only when safe—and legal— to do so, pick up the speed a little and it might make them a bit easier to spot. Please be cautious of the dolphins (and other sea-dwelling creatures) that might be nearby. Boat-propellers, anchors, etc. have led to numerous injuries and/or deaths to dolphins.
Many people find that early morning is a great time to spot dolphins. Dolphins tend to be more active in the morning and mid-afternoon when the waters tend to be calmer and there is less boat traffic, but you can see dolphins just about any time.
Dolphins enjoy the warm water temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for the large year-round population along Northwest Florida’s coast. Typically, males outnumber females in this region; however, females visit the region seasonally for mating (between May and August), which adds both to the dolphin population as well as the chances of spotting them.
It’s common for dolphin watching tours in the Destin area to offer fewer trips during the winter months due to reduced number of visitors to the area. Be sure to check on availability if you are visiting in the off season.
Wild dolphins have a reputation for being very friendly toward humans, although it’s important to note that actually touching dolphins is not allowed and is punishable by up to a several thousand dollar fine. These fines are effective because studies have concluded that human interaction — especially feeding — causes serious harm to the dolphins’ abilities to dwell successfully in their natural, wild habitats.