Want to meet the world’s oldest known dolphin?

Her name is Nicklow, she’s 68 years young – the oldest living dolphin in the world – and she calls the emerald waters of the Bradenton Area home. But if you want to find her, you have to know where to look. For that, Captain Sherman Baldwin, general manager of Paradise Boat Tours, is here to help.A Master Level Captain licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard and graduate of New England Maritime, Sherman grew up boating in Cape Cod Massachusetts. As an adult, he’s sailed all over the world. But it’s been watching the waters of the Bradenton Area for nearly 20 years where he feels most at home now.

Spotting Dolphins in Bradenton Area Waters

Bradenton Area bottlenose background

Our dolphins, the common North American bottlenose, exhibit some characteristics that are decidedly uncommon for the species. For one thing, like Nicklow, they tend to live a long time – usually between 45 to 55 years old, about 10 years longer than the average. 

The reason why has something to do with the second unusual behavior: they tend to stay close to home. “Which is fairly unique,” says Captain Sherman. “A lot of dolphin populations… migrate big distances. Our dolphins stay local, and a lot of the reason is the abundance of food in our bay and the health of our bays and estuaries.”

The dolphins know a good thing when they see it.

And because of this long life and tight-knit population, our dolphins are also some of the most-studied anywhere. Says Captain Sherman, “dolphin researchers will come from around the world to study our dolphins to use as a baseline of behavioral information to study their own dolphin populations.”

So, you could say our dolphins aren’t shy about being watched.

Spotting Dolphins in Bradenton Area Waters

How to find them

You may be surprised to learn that dolphins aren’t so different from us. We’re both mammals. We all like to have fun. And most of us are motivated by food. So, if you want to find dolphins, “You go where the fish are,” Captain Sherman declares. “They’re voracious eaters. They eat 10% of their body weight a day.” And when dolphins find a good meal, they don’t keep it to themselves. “Dolphins communicate miles apart with squeaks and whistles that travel through water,” he continues. “They will tell their buddies five miles away, ‘Hey there’s fish up here. Come on in… the swimming’s great.'”

To know where the fish are, it’s best to take a tour with an experienced dolphin observer like Captain Sherman. “Every morning, while we have routes that I train our captains to take, we also give them regular feedback where we’re hearing that fish are.”

And where the fish are, dolphin are soon to follow.

Let the dolphin come to you

Once on the boat, the hunt is on. But it’s more of an educational journey than a chase. As you cut leisurely across the calm waters of the bay, your captain aided by a first mate, will fill you with fascinating facts about the area’s ecological system and the animals living there. Their knowledge is encyclopedic. But their delivery is 100% entertaining – especially for inspiring wonder in the young ones. 

When the dolphin have been sighted, the goal is to observe without upsetting or stressing the animals. “You know… we really stay out of their way. We don’t stress them at all. The dolphin will come to us. We don’t go to them.” Captain Sherman (or one of his captains) only need go about 50 yards. From there, he shifts into neutral or shuts the engines down entirely. 

“They often come right around the boat,” he says. “Cause they’re mammals; they’re curious like we are. So they’ll come around and they’ll check ya out.” He continues, “I always say to kids when we’re on the boat… one of the coolest things is looking at a dolphin look at you.”

“And you know, kids get it.” He adds, “I believe at the end of the day, there’ll be some marine biologist that’ll get their start on one of our tours.”

Spotting Dolphins in Bradenton Area Waters

But don’t get too close

Whether on a boat or by yourself, when you see dolphin it’s easy to get excited and want to make them all your new best friends. But Captain Sherman urges restraint, for your benefit as well as theirs. 

“Never go in the water with them,” he cautions, “Which I always say, would you go pet a bear at Yellowstone National Park? No. Would you pet a dolphin? No. They are wild animals.”

He continues, “Don’t get too close. Never go into a middle of a pack of dolphins… when you’re on your boat. If you wanna get about 50 yards away, sit there. Often they’ll come near you, because they’re curious, and you’ll get a great show.”

And as hard as it is to say good-bye, it’s important not to linger too long. “Take it all in. Let everybody see. Then move on,” he advises. “Let them go about their life, unstressed.” Which also means, do not feed them. On this point, Captain Sherman is adamant. “We never, ever feed our dolphins,” he declares. “Nothing. EVER.”

Spotting Dolphins in Bradenton Area Waters

How will I know if I see Nicklow?

There are around 165 to 175 dolphins living in the waters of the Bradenton Area, so there’s no guarantee she will be one of the dolphins you see. But there are clues to look for that will increase your odds.

“We see her from time to time,” Sherman says. “She’s kind of distinctive in her dorsal fin: it’s… a little gray,” he laughs.

“She’s an old lady.”

For more information about Nicklow, or to schedule a boat tour for your family, visit Paradise Boat Tours at seedolphins.com.