A visitors to Keys prizes her face-to-face dolphin sighting

Orlando Sentinel

The smile is unmistakable -- the lips spread to reveal a fine set of teeth, the grin settling just in front of the cheek, the head tipped just so, as if to get a better look at me.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am getting the once-over. And from a bottlenose dolphin, no less.

I am aboard a friend's sailboat in Blackwater Sound. The jib and mainsail are billowing, full of the stiff breeze coming off Everglades National Park to the west. The sky is streaked orange and yellow as a picture-postcard sunset settles upon a horizon of mangrove islands. On this waning day in the subtropics, it is a glorious evening to be on the water, dancing with the wind, with dolphins at play.

They have appeared out of nowhere, just one at first, a small silvery-gray flash that arches its back neatly, diving again and again in the froth tossed aside as the boat's bow slices the water.

Then, on our port side, we spot a trio of sleek figures just inches below the surface of the gin-clear water. With flicks of their muscular tails, the dolphins race beside the boat, as if taunting us to a speed greater than our 8 knots. One rolls to its side and regards us with its wide grin as if to say, "Is this the best you can do?"

For a few seconds, I look the dolphin in the eye, and I fancy it gazes back. It is as if we are reaching across the wide gap of distinctly different evolutionary paths to share a brief moment of communication.

I blink, considering the thought. When I look back, the dolphins have disappeared, like ghosts segueing from conscious thought into the dark halls of memory.

Such encounters are the stuff of ancient sailors' lore, when the appearance of dolphins was considered a good omen, a sign of hope, a bit of entertainment. But here in the Florida Keys, surrounded by salt water, contact with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins is an occurrence so common that many locals have become immune to the excitement of a sighting.

The mammals' perpetually grinning faces have become symbolic of the Keys, synonymous with whimsy, wonder and nautical fun. Everywhere I look dolphins smile from billboards, motel signs and newspaper advertisements. They grace restaurant menus, mailboxes and marina gates. Their facsimiles are painted, sculpted and molded in plastic and displayed alongside passels of other tourist gewgaws on gift-shop shelves.

In the real world of the Keys, dolphins are friends, tools and even teachers. They are a delight, a wonder and, especially to visitors, engaging creatures with which we yearn to connect in some way.

An industry has sprung up around the dolphin. There are ecotours that go in search of them, aquariums that feature them "exhibiting behaviors," and programs that offer the chance to touch and swim with them.

Flipper, a '60s TV show that had a short-lived revival in the '90s, went a long way toward propelling the dolphin to the surface of the vast ocean of pop culture. The friendly dolphin (or dolphins, as more than one was used in the TV episodes and big-screen films) regularly got mop-topped teens Bud and Sandy Ricks out of tight spots. Bad guys out to do harm, boat motors gone kaput, sharks in attack mode -- Flipper was there to save the day.

Flipper's adventures, filmed in South Florida and the Bahamas, fueled the dolphin mystique for a generation of kids -- many of whom will shed their 40-something demeanor with little prompting to belt out the show's original theme song. So it's little wonder that so many visitors to this watery wonderland want to ease into the water for a meet-and-greet of their very own.

In the Keys, there are many opportunities to immerse yourself in the world of dolphins. When I succumb to my own Flipper-fueled curiosity, I decide to seek out the creatures on their own turf.

In dolphin territory Capt. Victoria Impallomeni is a petite 50-something Conch, born in Key West to a Navy family. She has a New Age bent, the opinions of an ardent environmentalist, and a quick smile that has left fine etchings in a face tanned from almost 30 years as a backcountry guide.

My friend Bill and I board her 25-foot boat, the Imp II, at a Stock Island marina one humid morning. We are soon skimming along the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, heading west to the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.

Shaded by the boat's green canvas Bimini top, we scan the rippling water while serene New Age music, heavy with harps and wood flutes, drifts from the boat's speakers. We are on the lookout for bottlenose dolphins, but so far we see no tell-tale dorsal fins.

We are crossing a shallow grassbed when Victoria suddenly throttles down and points: "There!"

About 200 yards away, I see four fins, one of which is tattered, as if a knife has sliced through it.

Victoria knows this pod of dolphins well. "That's Fillet," she says, putting the engine in idle. "We think she was hit by a boat propeller."

The boat sloshes on the waves as we squint into the sun. We are peering into the distance when, suddenly, a long, dark shape draws alongside the boat. Surprisingly, it is one of the dolphins, come to see what's up. We are quiet, motionless, unconsciously holding our breath as we gaze over the vessel's gunwale.

The creature spends a few precious seconds beside the boat before swimming languidly back to its small pod.

"They're working something," Victoria says. "They may be feeding."

We watch for 15 minutes or so, until their fins blend seamlessly with the chop of the water on the horizon.

The dolphins are out of sight, but Victoria is determined that we will experience their world. From a hold she produces two 2-by-3-foot boards. With the long nylon ropes tied to them, she'll pull us behind the boat like two belly-flopped skiers.

But first she pulls out a set of tuning forks with which she will prepare us to enter the water by "tuning" our bodies to open and balance our minds. After tapping one long metal fork against the other, she waves the vibrating wands in crisscrossing strokes about Bill's head and body, then mine.

In we go, fine-tuned, wearing our masks and fins. When we give a thumb's up, the captain gives the boat a bit of gas, then a little more. We grasp the boards and, faces in the water, glide inches above the sea grass. By pointing the board down, I can dive like a dolphin, gliding along the shallow bottom, where white patches of sand seem to shimmer with sunlight.

As I play, I imagine the board in my hands is the fin of a dolphin, and for a glimmering moment, I reclaim a childhood fantasy. It's just me and Flipper, out to right the wrongs of a world defined in saline blues and greens.

Cue the orchestra and chorus: "They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning . . ."

Freedom is a leap away Back in Key Largo, I sit at the end of a dock at Largo Lodge on Tarpon Basin, a swimming-pool-shallow body of water on the island's Gulf of Mexico side. Near the shore, where small waves lap with little enthusiasm, are fist-size Cassiopea jellyfish resting upside-down on the sea bottom, their short tentacles waving an invitation to prey. Among the jellies swim several small gray snapper and a school of tiny silver minnows.

Sooner or later there is sure to be drama in the shallows beside the dock, but I turn away from the slow, age-old hunt of the jellies to scan the basin, where I've seen the telltale fins of dolphins. I'm hoping they'll venture close to shore this afternoon, for I've heard wild dolphins often visit the six impounded in a small lagoon at Dolphin Cove, a swim-with-the-dolphins facility two doors down from Largo Lodge.

As I close my eyes and enjoy the salt-scented breeze, I hear the sharp clacks and clicks of the captive dolphins as they converse in the lagoon. I grin as I recall the words of a longtime Key Largo resident who would like to see them leap the wooden catwalk and fence that confine them and swim freely away: "I just want to row down there and yell 'jump!' "

My thoughts drift to Fillet and her pod near Key West, and to the dolphins near Key Largo that raced beside our sailboat like grinning silver-gray torpedoes, seemingly urging "faster, faster!" with each flick of their tails.

The encounters may have been brief and physically distant, but it is the serendipity of the moments -- like a salty gift bestowed by Neptune himself -- that seasons my memories.

Lisa Roberts can be reached at Lroberts@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5598.

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