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Day With the Dolphins

Nature tours by Boat Explore Port Aransas’ Beauty
Written by Melissa Gaskill. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

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A sleek, gray bottlenose dolphin briefly breaks the surface of the water in a smooth, rolling motion. From my perch aboard the Mustang, a 65-foot trimaran, I catch just a glimpse, but before long, the dolphin emerges once again, this time with a second leaping next to it. Captain Tim Sonbert slows to an idle, and as the boat drifts, more dolphins appear. Parents and kids point and squeal with delight, and cameras click away while the dolphins play.

Dolphin 2425Woody’s Sports Center is at 136 W. Cotter Ave. in Port Aransas. Call 361/749-6969.

More Texas dolphin tours

Fins to Feathers Dolphin Tours, Port Isabel/South Padre Island

Sealife Nature Center Tours, South Padre Island

Sea Life Safari Tours, South Padre Island

Galveston Baywatch Tours, Galveston.

Dolphin Connection, Ingleside/Corpus Christi

Dolphin Dock, Port Aransas

Our Dolphin Watch Nature Tour departed from Woody’s Sports Center in Port Aransas beneath a sunny sky, accompanied by the sound of wind through the surrounding palms and Jimmy Buffett songs on the sound system.

Owner Billy Gaskins brings a long history to his operation. “I had my first job as a kid at Woody’s,” he says. “Woody himself is long gone, but he gave any kid the chance to earn some money working on his docks.” In the late 1970s, Gaskins left Port Aransas to attend college in San Marcos, but he eventually returned to his coastal roots on Mustang Island. “In 1985, my dad and I bought one of the old nine-car ferry boats, made a bay fishing boat out of it, and operated off the docks at Woody’s.”

A few years later, Gaskins bought another boat, and he started offering dolphin-watching tours in 1992. Since the beginning, he says, he aimed to show people on his tours not only the dolphins, but also examples of the accompanying marine life. “These days, I use a shrimp trawl, and we pull in seaweed and lots of critters, which we return to the ocean after showing them to passengers,” he says. “If you shake the sargassum, all kinds of things fall out of it—crabs, shrimp, many kinds of fish. That kind of became our trademark.” When he had the Mustang custom-built in 2003, Gaskins included an open, waist-high “touch tank” the size of a banquet table on the covered lower deck to give his passengers a closer look.

On today’s outing, we first explore the channel between Port Aransas and St. Jo Island, heading toward the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, Sonbert points out landmarks such as the Lydia Ann Lighthouse and a sunken World War II ship called the S.S. John Worthington. He makes sure we notice the seabirds flying overhead or bobbing on the water, along with ships heading toward the port of Corpus Christi—some with dolphins surfing their bow waves. He then turns around and into the Lydia Ann Channel, a passage between St. Jo and the Lighthouse Lakes, a complex chain of mangrove estuaries, sloughs, and open flats or lakes in Redfish Bay. Some of the 400 or so dolphins that call this part of the coast home often hang out in the channel.

We chug past the Lydia Ann Lighthouse, the channel’s namesake. Built in the 1850s and named for the first keeper’s daughter, the lighthouse once helped guide ships into the pass between St. Jo and Mustang islands. These barrier islands and natural pass-es constantly move, however, in response to storms and waves. The pass by the lighthouse had traveled a few miles south by 1907, when the Corps of Engineers fixed it permanently in its current location with two long, granite jetties. The lighthouse shut down in the 1950s, but in 1973, grocery-store mogul Charles Butt purchased it and restored it. The lighthouse began beaming once again in 1988.

Sonbert announces that youngsters can help steer the boat, and a long line of eager would-be captains forms behind the wheelhouse. Then, first mate T-Joe Miguez gets to work deploying the Mustang’s shrimp trawl, and those same kids crowd around to watch. The net drags behind the boat for 10 minutes before Miguez winches it up and dumps its contents into a large tub. He carries that tub to the Mustang’s touch tank and transfers the animals over one by one, identifying each as he goes—menhaden, pin perch, piggy perch, squid, shrimp, flounder, inshore lizardfish, a large male blue crab, and a female blue crab. The female crab carries a mass of eggs on her abdomen, and Miguez carefully returns her to the open water. As he lifts a striped burr fish out of the tub, it puffs up like a small, spiny balloon. Kids and adults alike jostle for a position to watch these creatures swim and scuttle about, tentatively touching whatever holds still long enough.

“We learned early on to do the net and tank at the end of the trip,” Gaskins says. “Once we start, dolphins could be jumping through hoops around the boat, but the kids are so focused on that tank they wouldn’t notice.”

As many as 26 species of whales and dolphins appear on the Texas coast, with bottlenose dolphins by far the most common. They sport gray backsides and pale underbellies, erect dorsal fins, and distinctive tails, and they form highly functioning social groups, called pods, of up to eight individuals. Pods live year-round in the same area, so Gaskins sees the same dolphins over and over.

“We’re out there all the time, and we recognize some of them by their markings and how they act,” he says. “Lydia Ann Channel is the center of their community; it gives them calm waters and access to all the fish that come in and out of the pass.”

The dolphins have everything they need here. Aboard the Mustang, dolphin-watchers have everything they need, too.

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