KEY LARGO—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.
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!"