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When you sign up for a trip on the Dolphin Explorer you not only get to take a great boat ride, wan-der on a totally pristine deserted beach and collect handfuls of beautiful seashells, you get the chance to get up close and personal with some of the most amazing creatures on the planet.... bottlenose dolphin! And, as an added bonus, you also get to be a part of a unique scientifi c project - in fact you become a citizen scientist. Underwritten and managed by Sea Excursions, the Dolphin Explorer is engaged in the only on-going daily dolphin study in this area. With the help of their passengers they chronicle every dolphin sighting, using 10 criteria to identify them by the shape and markings on their dorsal fi ns. Making a comparison to their chart of photos with the dolphins they see on each trip, the crew are able to rec-ognize individuals and build up a bank of knowledge about them.... who they associate with, where they spend their time, when babies are born and how long they stay with their mothers. Over the past four years they have sighted over 6,000 dolphin ( many of these are re- sightings) in Area 1 of their study ( between the Judge Jolley Bridge and marker 44). They have photo- identifi ed, named and cataloged over 225 dolphin, including 7 new dolphin babies seen this fall ( 2009) who were 4 to 7 days old when fi rst sighted - they knew their age because they had seen their moms a few days previously without them. Working in collaboration with MOTE Marine Labs, their reports are shared with NOAA, Rookery Bay, the University of Miami, Duke University and Florida Gulf Coast University. If you are lucky enough to take a good shot of a dolphin which is not already documented, you get to choose a name for it. The crew, who are the survey leaders, are incredibly knowledgeable about dolphin and are full of fascinating anecdotes about their society. Apparently dolphin are very promiscuous and can often be seen mating in all areas studied. The team's observations of one mother and her calf lead them to believe that a calf will stay with its mother until she has another baby, when the older calf will be left to fend for itself with a group of other young dolphin. The males take no interest in the raising of the babies but, as they get older, will often team up with one or two other males and spend most of their time hanging out with them (" sounds like my husband!" said one of the lady passengers on a recent trip). But learning about dolphin is just a part of this wonderful trip. As you cruise up the Inter- Coastal Waterway you'll also get to learn about the mangrove islands and nesting osprey you pass along the way. You'll then spend an idyllic forty minutes on the totally unspoiled beach at Keewaydin. It will feel like you are the only people in the world and with any luck your complimentary shelling bag will be bursting with treasures when you return to the boat and compare your fi nds. The crew will help identify your shells and give everyone copies of some of the photos they take on the trip ( they print them on their great little on- board color photoprinter). And, if you are under twelve, you can also take part in " The Dolphin Challenge" ... by participating in the Challenge's activities with the crew during the trip you will receive a Dolphin Patch and become a member of the exclusive Dolphin Explorer Club, which entitles one child in each family to free trips on the Dolphin Explorer until his/ her 12th birthday. Yes, you did read that correctly... you can really take as many free trips as you like as long as you are always accompanied by an adult! Who knew a scientifi c project could be such fun? ... if every science class was half as entertaining, and a quarter as informative, as a trip on the Dolphin Explorer, we'd all have a Ph. D. in science I'm sure! The Dolphin Explorer leaves Rose Marco River Marina for two, three hour excursions daily and you can make your reservations by calling 239- 642- 6899