Sarasota Bay is home to around 150 bottlenose dolphins. These dolphins live in the bay year round, and sightings are common. Feeding or touching wild dolphins is illegal, and getting in the water with the Sarasota Bay dolphins is strongly discouraged, but there are a few ways to get up close and personal with these lovely and intelligent creatures.
Florida's Gulf Coast supports a large population of wild bottlenose dolphins that thrive in the warm, shallow, subtropical bays and inlets. Food is plentiful, with many types of fish in and around the rich sea grasses that carpet Sarasota Bay. The bay also offers the dolphins some protection from sharks, who prefer the open ocean.
Boaters will have no problem spotting dolphins in Sarasota Bay, but if one comes close, be sure not to feed or touch it. Dolphins, like other wild animals, should not learn to depend on humans for food or social interaction.
To swim with and touch a dolphin, visit Discovery Cove in Orlando, two hours northeast of Sarasota. Discovery Cove lets visitors interact with trained dolphins. Experienced dolphin trainers monitor the swim to ensure that both visitors and the dolphins remain safe.
What to Expect
At Discovery Cove, a trainer accompanies small groups of visitors into the cove's lagoon to spend 30 minutes with the dolphins. Swimmers can pet, rub and kiss the cove's specially trained dolphins. At the end of the experience, each swimmer gets a ride back to shore by holding onto the dorsal fin of a dolphin. Children younger than 6 may not take part in the dolphin swim.
The purported therapeutic effects of swimming with dolphins are disputed. A study published in 2005 in the British Medical Journal found that study participants with mild to moderate depression who spent an hour in the water with dolphins daily for two weeks showed improvement in mood. However, dolphin researcher Lori Marino has reviewed such studies and found that flaws in the design of the studies invalidates the results. In an article published in the journal Anthrozošs, Marino concluded, "there remains no compelling evidence that DAT (dolphin-assisted therapy) is a legitimate therapy or that it affords any more than fleeting improvements in mood."
Some of the dolphins in Sarasota Bay are learning to rely on humans for food and have been known to steal bait and fish off fishing lines. One particularly bold dolphin, dubbed "Beggar," takes scraps from boaters but often gives a nasty rebuke to anyone who tries to touch him: he bites. If you are considering jumping in the water with wild dolphins, remember that wild dolphins are different from their captive counterparts.