Tuesday, March 22, 2011

CROW's 'Wonders Of Wildlife' cruise engages passengers, spotlights dolphins

For people who truly enjoy the bounty of nature's beauty here in Southwest Florida, there may be no better way to view wildlife in a completely natural setting. Better still, being able to take a guided boat excursion to get a close-up look at marine creatures and critters commonly found along our coastlines, without disturbing their environment, would be a "win-win" for humans and animals alike.

Recently introduced by the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW), a program called "Wonders Of Wildlife" — or simply "WOW" — offers nature enthusiasts a terrific opportunity to get a closer look at dolphins, manatees, osprey and other animals via chartered sea vessel.

Offered on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, the "WOW" program brings guests closer to animals then they would be when on the shore. However, as CROW volunteer Molly Burgess pointed out, the boats still are kept at a distance so that animals remain comfortable and safe in their marine habitats.

"The first time I went out to make my presentation, I kinda waited before talking about the animals you're gonna see on the cruise," said Burgess, who began volunteering at CROW in November. "But then I found out that the dolphins really steal the show."

"We like to tell our passengers that there's about a 90 percent chance of seeing dolphins during the cruise," said Capt. Jim Walker. "But the truth is that our chances are a little bit better than that."

According to Burgess, who hails from Chicago, Ill., she did quite a bit of research about the habitats and characteristics of dolphins before taking part in the "WOW" program.

"I like to share maybe two or three good facts about them, then I'll let the passengers kind of take the reins," added Burgess. "You don't want to bore people with too much information. You want to engage them."

Departing the Adventures in Paradise kiosk at Port Sanibel Marina at 3:30 p.m., the CROW-sponsored excursion slowly makes its way up the Intercoastal Waterway, passing forests of mangrove trees and channel markers, many of which are occupied by shorebirds perched at the top.

One of the first highlights of last Thursday's cruise, Burgess spotted an osprey nest — with a mother and her two chicks — situated on top of a Manatee Zone sign. She noted that osprey mating pairs stay together for life, and that they will usually stay in the same nest for long periods of time.

"The mother osprey will remain in the nest until the chicks are old enough to take care of themselves. Then, she leaves," said Burgess. "And sometimes, it takes the young ospreys a while to realize that mother's not coming back."

Along the way, Burgess spoke about the mission of the wildlife clinic, and the fact that they will treat all sorts of injured wildlife, from butterflies up to 145-pound sea turtles.

"We're pretty lucky to be able to care for more than 4,000 patients every year through nothing but donations," she said, adding that larger animals — including dolphins, manatees and larger sea turtles are transported to Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Fla. because they have the facilities to care for sizable sea creatures.

After reaching the open waters, the boat increased speed and found its way to the middle of San Carlos Bay, between Pine Island (to the west) and Cape Coral (to the northeast). There, passing vessels stirred a mild wake here and there, with one speedboat accompanied by a pod of playful, leaping dolphins.

"We'll see the same pod of dolphins sometimes, from Lighthouse Beach all the way up here," explained Capt. Walker. "You can identify them by the irregularities in their dorsal fins."

Burgess noted that dolphins, which have a territory of approximately five to eight miles, communicate with each other through a series of clicks and squeaks. They breathe through their blowholes, not through their mouths, and can swim at speeds up to 20 mph.

Upon finding several more pods of dolphins, passengers pointed, smiled, laughed and clicked away with their cameras. As one group would pass along the port side of the vessel, then disappear under the water, another pair would pop up right behind the boat.

The 90-minute program ended at a relaxing pace, with the sounds of the Beach Boys playing softly over the boat's speaker system, and Burgess answering several questions from the inquisitive crowd.

"I like to pop around, talk with everybody and see where they're from," added Burgess. "I'm definitely a people person, so I really enjoy talking with the kids and engaging conversation about wildlife. We want to make sure that everybody has a good time."

CROW's "Wonders Of Wildlife" excursion tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children (Kids 3 years and under are free). For each paying passenger aboard these guided trips, Adventures in Paradise will donate $1 back to CROW.

Please check CROW's website (www.crowclinic.org) Calendar of Events for their "WOW" scheduled boat excursions.

To learn more about future wildlife presentations or to reserve a seat on an upcoming "WOW" outing, contact CROW by calling 472-3644 ext. 227 or call Adventures in Paradise at 472-8443.JEFF LYSIAK

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