If there’s one creature many tourists come for in Florida, it’s the dolphin. Not many of them come with a plan for how they’ll spot one, though.
Luckily, there are plenty of locations across Florida where you may see one of planet Earth’s most intelligent and adorable creature. Check out our guide on where to swim with dolphins in Florida if you’re looking for a close-up experience.
Top Tips for Spotting Dolphins
Spotting dolphins is not always something that happens by accident. You might be able to sway the odds in your favor by following these tips.
Choose a day with good weather
You’ll want to pick a day where the weather is bright but cloudy enough to see the water’s surface. Things like high wind, rain, fog, or even bright sunshine can hinder your ability to see what’s out there.
Make dolphin-watching an all-day activity
You may not spot a dolphin until later, so set up someplace where you can watch for an extended period.
You might even invite your family out for a picnic or to play games while you watch for dolphins. There are several spots where whales, dolphins, or other marine life may emerge. It might help to look for more than one kind of animal at a time.
Give the dolphins their space
Do your best not to disturb the spaces where dolphins may swim. We suggest watching dolphins from the shore because they tend to hang out there to fish. Standing on the beach or wading out a little can give you a good viewing spot.
If you go out on a boat or other watercraft, be careful not to disturb the water. If you do see a dolphin, don’t move your watercraft closer to them. Leave them their space and watch them with either your naked eye or a good pair of binoculars.
That said, dolphins may swim closer to your craft out of curiosity. If you move through the water, you may look behind and see the dolphins jumping in your boat’s wake.
Dolphins usually come in groups
You’ll rarely see a dolphin swimming by themselves. Dolphins usually swim in pods of around 20 or 30. If you’re lucky, you may see them jumping out of the water in pairs.
Go where the dolphins’ food is
As with any animal, dolphins will hang around where they’ll find food. Dolphins like hanging out where there are small fish, crabs, jellyfish, and octopuses. More specifically, they like mullet, mackerel, and catfish.
Know the signs that a dolphin may be nearby
You’ll have to be somewhere that dolphins are likely to appear, but you’ll also need to know how to spot a dolphin.
- You might see birds circling above a spot in the water.
- Splashes or bursts of spray from below the water
- Oily slicks or areas where the water is still
- Waves or breaking wave crests moving in the “wrong” direction
When is the Best Time to See Dolphins in Florida?
You may see the most dolphins from late May through perhaps early August. During that time, you’re most likely to spot them between 10 a.m. and noon, and then from 2 p.m. till it gets dark. Dolphins will more likely be out in greater numbers in the morning, though you’re sure to see one later in the day too.
The Florida Keys are chock-full of dolphin tours. In particular, you may be interested in taking a tour of Dolphins’ Playground, which is part of Key West’s backcountry. Dolphins breed and feed in that area, so a dolphin tour may allow you to interact closely with them.
The Fury Dolphin Watch tour is the only tour in the Florida keys with the Dolphin SMART certification. Such a certificate shows guests that the tour protects the dolphins and promotes responsible observation of dolphins.
The three-hour tour allows you to watch dolphins in their natural habitat before cruising further into the Florida Keys backcountry. There, you’d be able to snorkel using high-quality equipment through the reefs and spot all kinds of other fish. The tour also includes complimentary beverages.
Marco Island is just as full of dolphin tours as the Florida Keys. Florida Adventures takes you around the Southwest Florida coast to observe dolphins, or you get your money back. While you do need to bring your sunscreen and food, the two-hour tour takes advantage of every second on the water.
Marco Island is also close to Dolphin Swim Miami, a marine facility that offers educational and interactive programs about marine life for families and individuals. You’ll learn all about dolphin psychology and behavior before stepping into the water to interact with a real dolphin. You can kiss the dolphin on its nose before you can hold onto the dolphin’s dorsal fin for a swim.
The Dolphin Encounter program offers a similar experience for people who aren’t comfortable swimming with dolphins. You’ll still learn all about dolphins in the wild, and then you’ll be able to interact with dolphins in shallow water. Although you won’t swim with the dolphins, you’ll get to play with them and watch them do a few tricks for you.
Blinds Pass and Lighthouse Point are among the best places on Sanibel Island to spot dolphins. Many fish, mainly mullet fish, live in these locations, so dolphins love to hang around for a meal.
Sometimes manatees swim in the same areas as dolphins so that you might catch a glimpse of a manatee swimming with a dolphin.
Several dolphin tours can take you places where dolphins will likely be swimming. One of the most popular tours is the Sanibel Thriller, where you ride a 55-foot power catamaran that tours the Sanibel and Captiva Islands.
You’ll often see dolphins breaching (when they poke out of the water) and diving in the boat’s wake. The tour guide will narrate the 1.5-hour tour while you enjoy your drinks and snacks all year round.
Similarly, the Adventures in Paradise tour runs all day and evening. Once again, you have the chance of seeing both dolphins and manatees together or apart. The tour serves soft drinks and water.
If you want something more private and customized to your touring needs, the Sunset Ride might work. They promise that you won’t pay a penny if you don’t see any dolphins on tour. Plus, you get a hand in where the tour boat goes, which carries six passengers. Two of those passengers can even sit in the crow’s nest 10 feet above the other seats, where you’ll better see any passing dolphins. Plus, you’re allowed to bring alcoholic beverages on the Sunset Ride.
Clearwater City has some of the most beautiful dolphin and sunset cruises in Florida. You can choose from tours like the Calypso Queens Cruises, Classic Cruises, Clearwater Beach Marina, Dream Catcher Explorations, and so much more.
You can even visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail in 2005 to a crab trap, now lives with a prosthetic tail.
The Little Toot boat is the only dolphin boat in Clearwater that can cruise the Gulf and the shallows, which means more intimate dolphin sightings. The boat looks almost like a tugboat, which creates a huge wave that entices dolphins to come out and play.
Speaking of creating a wake for dolphins, the Mega Bite boat’s massive stern creates a “mega” wake behind it. While you wait for dolphins to play in the boat’s wake, you get a tour of local points of interest and even celebrity homes along the shore.
If you don’t want to take a tour or a charter boat, you can always rent a wave runner. You don’t need a tour boat or a colossal wake to make dolphins play. Just exercise common sense and don’t look behind you too much for the dolphins.
Naples Pier is the premier place to spot dolphins. It often gets crowded as a result, so you’ll need to arrive early for a good dolphin-spotting spot. If you need snacks, drinks, restrooms, or a rinsing station, they provide that.
The Naples Princess sunset cruises go through Naples Bay, where you’ll see not only a pod of dolphins but also some beautiful Port Royal and Royal Harbor homes. Even that late in the day, you’ll still be able to see some dolphins in the waves.
Panama City Beach
In Panama City Beach, you can either do wave runner or boat tours with the Adventures at Sea touring company. You can also rent snorkeling material and pontoon boats. Some of those tours go out to Shell Island as well.
Panama City Beach Dolphin Tours works the same way with tours out to St. Andrew Bay. One of the world’s largest populations of bottlenose dolphins lives nearby, so you’re pretty likely to see a dolphin or two swimming around.
Blue Dolphin Tours will take you out to the shallows, where you can snorkel and wait for dolphins to come around. The tour boats carry six passengers at a time, but you can book a larger group if you wish. Your tour captain will instruct you on safely interacting with wild dolphins (who are used to human beings).
Fort Myers Beach
Sea Racer Tours combines the thrill of a fast boat ride with a close-up encounter with dolphins. Guests stand at the back of the boat while the huge wake draws dolphins out to jump and play. The captains try to find the best places for dolphins that day, covering a 15-mile area to provide the best dolphin tour experience.
Good Time Charters is all about looking for dolphins too. However, they also help you have fun snorkeling and looking for other marine creatures, like sea turtles, manatees, and starfish. They offer kayaking as well as boating tours to accommodate your favorite way to see a dolphin.
In Sarasota, Coastline Dolphin and Snorkeling Excursions offers, well, snorkeling and dolphin cruises from morning till evening. They have drinking water and allow alcoholic beverages, but you have to bring your own towels and sunscreen.
On the other hand, the Siesta Key Aqua Adventures has been a fan favorite for a long time. You can choose among several different tours, including the family-friendly Koko Island tour, where your kids can make believe they are pirates on a fun scavenger hunt.
You can relax on the beach and watch all kinds of marine life in the shallows, including dolphins.
New Smyrna Beach
Turtle Mound River Tours is currently the #1-rated dolphin tour in New Smyrna Beach, with sunset, family-friendly, and private tours available. They’re all two-hour-long narrated adventures intended to show off the breathtaking views of the Canaveral National Seashore, with several dolphins and manatees along the way.
Paddleboard NSB, located by the Black Dolphin Inn, offers kayak and paddleboard rentals if you want to explore the nearby shore, as well as guided tours.
If you want to see a few other wild animals in addition to dolphins, Backwater Cat Adventures could be worth trying. You get to drive your own 2-seat catamaran boat as you follow a guide in a lead boat around both Amelia and Cumberland Islands for 2.5 hours.
The goal is to find wild horses on Cumberland Island and manatees, dolphins, and sea turtles. They even provide waterproof jackets and pants if the weather’s a little cooler on your tour.
Amelia Island Cruises and Charters operates similarly in that you’ll watch dolphins, manatees, and more wild horses on the island.
Finally, Amelia Island Kayak Excursions offers guided kayak and boat tours through the Amelia Island marshlands. Up to 6 passengers can ride on the boats for 2 hours, with a chance to see some dolphins and manatees.
You’re welcome to bring your own snacks and drinks, though the boats will have a cooler with ice water. You even have the option of getting dropped off on the beach to enjoy a beach picnic and keep an eye out for marine life.