Usually, when you think of encounters with wild dolphins, you picture scenes of small cetaceans surfacing and leaping free out in the open ocean. However, there are some parts of the world where dolphins – particularly Bottlenose Dolphins – will swim into and even live in intercoastal bays, lagoons, and rivers. One very interesting place where dolphins can sometimes be found is the Homosassa River, on Florida’s northwest coast. The Homosassa River is a very unique Florida coastal waterway. It is about eight miles long, and is fed by several springs. Because the Homosassa is spring fed and is connected to the ocean, half of the river is saltwater, and half is freshwater. I say it’s a unique coastal waterway for Florida because of the landscape around it. Most Florida intercoastal rivers and other waterways have a muddy bottom with mangroves all around, but the Homosassa River has a mix of muddy bottom and rocky bottom, and the river is littered with rocky islands topped with green “caps” of plants. Though much of the surrounding land is salt marsh, many of the Homosassa’s shorelines are rocky, too.
Our first dolphin sighting in the Homosassa River was, surprisingly, near Buzzard Point, which is part of the freshwater section of the river, not far from the springs. It was so intriguing to watch a dolphin swim, not through an open sea, but through a narrow river with docks to one side and swamp to the other. Interestingly, some of the local people in Homosassa, Florida say that dolphins being spotted in the freshwater reaches of the river are not rare…again, this river is only about eight miles long, so, although Bottlenose Dolphins can not survive in freshwater for very long periods of time, the dolphins which swim into the freshwater areas of the Homosassa can easily make it back to the ocean before doing any damage.
The dolphin spotted near Buzzard Point, however, was more elusive and, unfortunately, we soon lost sight of it.
Later, though, we came across a group of five dolphins just east of a part of the river known as Tiger Tail Bay. The dolphins were heading westward, and we followed them. At first, everything was just going casually – we were idling either beside or behind the dolphins, who were surfacing normally, still heading westward, through Tiger Tail Bay. Later, though, as we neared Beli Island, the action began to pick up a little. The dolphins began a round of what appeared to be socializing, One made a beautiful spyhop, then flukes began lifting, melons bobbed in the waves and the dolphins did a little splashing and rolling at the surface.
When the dolphins were through with their socializing-like behaviors, one dolphin headed into the entrance of what appeared to be a narrow creek (I’m not sure, but it may have been the entrance to Sams Bayou, maybe?) This dolphin then swam into shallow water, and, after making some splashes with its flukes and peduncle, began to swim in a circle. Instantly, the other dolphins raced into the scene, one “porpoising” as it flew in closer. A few seconds later, after the first dolphin had swam in a complete circle, a school of Striped Mullet exploded from the water, and the dolphins began to catch them as they came falling back down to the water. I immediately recognized what this was – a genius feeding technique used among a few populations of Bottlenose Dolphins, and something that I’d wanted to see since the beginning of the previous year – mud netting!
You may have seen “mud netting” featured on an educational TV program about dolphins. In this hunting strategy, one dolphin swims around a school of fish in shallow water, beating its tail against the muddy bottom as it goes, and encircling the fish in a “net” of muddy plumes. Terrified and confused, the fish leap out of the net in an escape attempt, only to be caught in the waiting dolphins’ jaws! This kind of behavior has, so far, only been documented in a few areas on Florida’s west coast.
At this point, our boat motor was turned off, and we were simply drifting and watching in amazement. Then, after the dolphins had completed that round of mud netting, they began to swim right toward us! The group went past the back end of our boat, into another section of the creek, and began another round of mud netting within thirty feet of our bow! Unfortunately, this round of netting was unsuccessful, and no fish leaped out of the muddy circle. After their failed attempt in the creek, the group of dolphins swam into a different area – a little cove, and began yet another round of mud netting. This time, it was successful.
Around the end of that mud netting round is when we left the dolphins. We had been following them for a fairly long time, and we didn’t want our boat to “overstay its welcome” and begin to be a bother to the dolphins. On the way back to the springs, we spotted one more lone dolphin east of Tiger Tail Bay, but we didn’t stay with it for very long.
That day was an amazing one for me. Though it appears that dolphin sightings in the rivers along Florida’s big bend are less common than in other coastal areas of Florida, and there’s a chance that I may never see dolphins in the Homosassa again, I’ll always remember this inspiring day, and I hope that all those who read the adventures posted on Whale-Tales will enjoy hearing this story and seeing the photographs as much as I enjoyed living these moments.