A Morning Of Dolphins & Shells With Marco Island’s “The Dolphin Explorer” Boat Tour

August 13, 2023
dolphin explorer marco island,marco island boat tours,best dolphin tour on marco island

Fun fact: When I was like 10 years old, I started a “dolphin fan club”.  I was the only member, the president and treasurer, but it was basically about loving dolphins.  And so is this post.

My sister and I recently spent a few days on Marco Island, a chill little spot in southern Florida (on the Gulf side) that somehow kind of flies under the radar.  We spent most of our time at the resort, but one of the few things we made sure to experience was to spend a morning on The Dolphin Explorer.

Review of "The Dolphin Explorer" Boat Ecotour | One of the best Marco Island boat tours is The Dolphin Explorer, a unique ecotour experience that's fun & educational...why this is the best dolphin tour on Marco Island & in the Naples area! It's a research boat funded by tourism, so you get to take part in the science & learn a ton.

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Is The Dolphin Explorer the best Marco Island boat tour?

The Dolphin Explorer is run by the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project, and their unique approach makes it the best dolphin tour on Marco Island.  Rather than a regular tourism endeavor, it is first and foremost a scientific one that’s been going on for a couple decades.

The team “tracks and monitors the social behavior, movement, geneaology, and habits of the bottlenose dolphin population in the waters surrounding Marco Island.”  The tracking is done by photo identification rather using a tracking device—the dolphins’ dorsal fins act as their fingerprints!  (Absolutely wild.)

The research is fully funded by the tours, so they don’t have to rely on the fluctuations of grants or donations, which means they’ve been able to do this continuously for almost 20 years and have an amazing amount of consistent data on generations of dolphins.  It’s the only one in the United States that engages with and is supported by the general public.

They even occasionally help in dolphin rescues!  You can book directly on their website.

A dolphin jumping out of the water, seen on the best dolphin tour on Marco Island

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Where to stay in Marco Island

We chose Marco Island specifically for the JW Marriott Marco Island.  It’s a more traditional type of resort, the kind with multiple types of rooms, various pools, several restaurants, etc–a contained experience–that’s not as common in the U.S.  That was what my sister wanted to try, so that’s why we landed here.

The resort is beautiful, a great experience overall.  We stayed in the adults-only “Paradise by Sirene” section, which comes with some extra amenities and nicer rooms, plus access to an adults-only pool and section of beach.  If you’re looking for a more traditional resort experience in the U.S., I’d definitely recommend it.

See my (super) detailed review of staying at the JW Marriott Marco Island!

Storm brewing over the waters of Marco Island, seen from The Dolphin Explorer

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What to expect aboard The Dolphin Explorer ecotour

We didn’t have a rental car, so took an Uber from our hotel to the Rose Marina on Marco Island.  It was easy to find their little stand, and we were warmly welcomed by Bob.

They offer a few boat tour times throughout the day, as well as a sunset cruise a few days a week.  We already had a sunset cruise planned on a catamaran, so I chose the morning tour to avoid the worst of the day’s heat (given that we were visiting in July).

There’s a nice little store here that has snacks and drinks, souvenirs, sunglasses, sunscreen, etc. if you need something, or just want to kill time.

The Dolphin Explorer welcome booth

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We walked aboard The Dolphin Explorer right on time, and were greeted by Captain Eddie and James, the resident marine biologist.  They are so knowledgeable and do a great job making it really fun and educational, including activities for kids.

They gave us the safety schpiel and then talked about how the dolphin identification and tracking works.  They learn to identify and know all these marine animals on a first name basis just from their fins!!

Everyone got a copy (not to keep) of photographs of all the different identified dolphins, as well as interesting educational material on other animals and the overall local ecosystem.  The kids got a special set of things to track and fill in, and got a badge at the end if they completed it.

The Dolphin Explorer is staffed by a marine biologist and a naturalist, a unique opportunity that is fun & educational

The Dolphin Explorer is one of the best boat tours on Marco Island

Girl selfie on a boat

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You also learn a lot of about the local ecosystem.  Throughout the boat trip we explored the subtropical estuaries of the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

The Marco River that we were mostly traversing isn’t a traditional river, and is a mixture of fresh and salt water.  And a lot of those “10,000” islands (note, there are nowhere near that many, it’s just inspirationally named) are mangroves.  Marco Island sits smack-dab in one of the largest mangrove forests in the world.

Mangroves are amazing and SO important to the ecosystem.  They give natural infrastructure to help reduce erosion, bind and build soil, absorb storm surges during hurricanes, and provide shelter to wildlife during those types of weather events.

You learn a lot about the ecosystem on The Dolphin Explorer, including the mangroves

You learn a lot about the ecosystem on The Dolphin Explorer, including the mangroves

You learn a lot about the ecosystem on The Dolphin Explorer, including the mangroves

You learn a lot about the ecosystem on The Dolphin Explorer, including the mangroves

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We began spotting dolphins at regular intervals, zig-zagging to various spots that they tend to hang out.  As James photographed their fins and identified them, he was able to give us some background on the individual dolphins…which were loners, which were moms, which were best friends.

In total, there are about 130 bottlenose dolphins in the area.  They’re the keystone species here, at top of food chain, and so if their population stays stable it’s considered a good sign.  The dolphin population here eats about 1 ton of fish a day!

The dolphins here are more like social butterflies rather than traveling in pods…they flit around, hang out with each other or chill on their own.

The Dolphin Explorer is a research program that tourists can take part in, including identifying dolphins by their fins

The Dolphin Explorer is a research program that tourists can take part in, fun & educational

The Dolphin Explorer is a research program that tourists can take part in, fun & educational - a dolphin surfacing

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We picked a beautiful day for our boat trip, though it was definitely hot and humid.  I’d put a bit of sunscreen on and there is plenty of shade on the boat if you need it.  But I wished I’d brought my hat.

Do make sure you bring sunglasses!

The Dolphin Explorer is a research program that tourists can take part in, fun & educational - girl on boat

The Dolphin Explorer is a research program that tourists can take part in, fun & educational - beautiful day for a boat tour on Marco Island

girls on a boat

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The dolphins are curious and social when it comes to interacting with boats as well, and we had a couple that came up to us.  If they’re in the mood to jump, they love following the boat’s wake and leaping through that, so a couple times Captain Eddie got us going fast.

Nemo gave us quite a show!  I can’t remember what the other one was, but there was a second dolphin who also did a ton of leaping.

The Dolphin Explorer is a research program that tourists can take part in, fun & educational - the best dolphin tour on Marco Island - dolphin jumping out of the water

The Dolphin Explorer is a research program that tourists can take part in, fun & educational - the best dolphin tour on Marco Island - dolphin jumping out of the water

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A dramatic storm was shaping up on the horizon, which we kept an eye on (but never gave us trouble).  I was obsessed with how gorgeous the dark clouds were against the water color.

Having spotted quite a lot of dolphins, we headed to do some shelling as well.

The Dolphin Explorer is one of the best boat tours on Marco Island - watching a storm brew

The Dolphin Explorer is one of the best boat tours on Marco Island - watching a storm brew off Tiger Tail Key

The Dolphin Explorer is one of the best boat tours on Marco Island - watching a storm brew off Tiger Tail Key

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Given the range of their study and knowledge of the area, the Dolphin Explorer visits a variety of remote beaches, depending on the conditions of the day.

On this day we stopped on Tiger Tail Key.  They gave us little bags for shelling and we disembarked for about 25 minutes.

The Dolphin Explorer is one of the best boat tours on Marco Island - watching a storm brew off Tiger Tail Key

The Dolphin Explorer stopped on Tiger Tail Key for some shelling

The Dolphin Explorer stopped on Tiger Tail Key for some shelling

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I helped my sister collect some especially unique shells for her to bring home to her kids.

The Dolphin Explorer stopped on Tiger Tail Key for some shelling

The Dolphin Explorer stopped on Tiger Tail Key for some shelling - girl looking for shells

The Dolphin Explorer stopped on Tiger Tail Key for some shelling

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And boy, there are shells for dayyyysssss!  Lots are broken, but you can still discover some really cool ones.

The Dolphin Explorer stopped on Tiger Tail Key for some shelling

The Dolphin Explorer stopped on Tiger Tail Key for some shelling

The Dolphin Explorer stopped on Tiger Tail Key for some shelling

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So I think you can see why I think the Dolphin Explorer ecotour is not only the best dolphin tour on Marco Island, but one of the best Marco Island boat tours altogether!

Other awesome warm weather boat trips you’ll love:

Pin for later!

Review of "The Dolphin Explorer" Boat Ecotour | One of the best Marco Island boat tours is The Dolphin Explorer, a unique ecotour experience that's fun & educational...why this is the best dolphin tour on Marco Island & in the Naples area! It's a research boat funded by tourism, so you get to take part in the science & learn a ton. #florida #dolphins #marcoisland

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