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Dolphins abound at Shell Island

dpadpa 9/06/2016 Verena Wolff

Dolphin watching is a completely different experience at Shell Island in the gulf of Mexico.

Lorraine is not one for taking things slow. For her, it's full throttle forward as her motor boat bounces across the waves of Bay Point Marina at Panama Beach City.

The breeze is refreshingly cool, a relief from the hot climate of northern Florida.

Suddenly the 26-year-old slows down and stops the boat, then pulls out a strange-looking piece of gear. It's a hydrophone, or underwater microphone, with a long cord attached.

"I saw some dolphins," Lorraine says. She just doesn't want to guess where they are swimming. She wants to know precisely where.

So now she leans over the side of her boat and listens closely to an earphone attached to the hydrophone below the surface. Lorraine does not want to leave anything to chance.

"I searched a long time until I finally found the right tool to locate dolphins," she explains.

Suddenly there is a splashing and spewing of water, and a number of the sea mammals come up, swimming around the small boat.

"Whale watching" and "dolphin tours" are activities that are no longer really special in Florida. Many towns have signs up advertising such excursions. But sometimes it might mean only seeing some vague, shadow-like shapes from a great distance.

At Shell Island in the Gulf of Mexico, it is completely different.

Not only does Lorraine track them down, but dolphins are everywhere.

A native of the western state of Colorado, has been living in the so-called panhandle area of north-western Florida for a few years now.

She wanted a job working with dolphins and to show other people the beauties of nature. Now she has her own boat and her own firm.

She likes to take her guests to the most beautiful beaches of this otherwise lesser-known corner of Florida. To Shell Island, the beaches of St Andrews State Park and the more than 30-kilometre-long coastline of the city.

She'll tell visitors about the marine life, and give them a lot of time for snorkelling and relaxing.

Shell Island is an especially remote corner. In former times it was called Land's End Peninsula.

It has fine, snow-white sands and virtually tropical waters of every shade of blue. There are just a few other boats, a handful of sunbathers on the beach, and exactly two buildings. One is a wooden house perched on stilts, the other a small hut.

"The area was once classified as a construction zone," Lorraine said.

But nothing really ever came of it. "After all, Shell Island has no electricity or running water," she adds. But for that the island has its peace and quiet.

Even better than seeing it from Lorraine's boat is the view of the coastline from a helicopter. Up on high, the Gulf of Mexico almost looks striped, in turquoise, dark-blue and light green colours.

It is thanks to its sand banks that the water takes on so many different colours. In spots where the seaweed grows densely, the ocean seems as if it is bottomless.

Just how much is going on beneath the surface can be clearly seen from the air, especially when pilot Katie Dainson points out the marine animals at play below.

Often only a few metres from the shore, the dolphins spring up out of the water. Sometimes entire schools of them.

"They swim back and forth along the beach, playing among the waves created by the motor boats and jet skis," Katie says. Then the dolphins dive back below the water and swim out to sea in formation, while every few metres, flying fish are jumping up out of the water.

Just a few metres away, small black bull sharks can be clearly seen, each a little over one metre long.

"There's a whole lot of those here, but they're not dangerous," says the young pilot.

For more than 100 years, every shark attack has been registered at Panama Beach City - amounting to not much more than a handful. Only one attack was fatal.

"But that goes back more than 50 years."

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