On our recent Marco Island, FL family vacation, we planned to spend most of the time at the beach, soaking up the sun and playing in the Gulf of Mexico. But I didn’t want to spend our entire Southwest Florida vacation lying on the beach, so I planned a few afternoon activities throughout our vacation.
Our favorite was The Dolphin Study Eco-Tour and Cruise, which is the only Florida attraction featured in National Geographic’s 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life.
The Marco Island Dolphin Tour is an absolute must-do for any family traveling to the Marco Island area. It’s one of the most unique activities we’ve done as a family, and goes well behind just a regular tour. If your kids are interested in nature, or you want to add an educational component to your family vacation, I would highly recommend it. The naturalists and crew of the Dolphin Explorer are so great with kids and the boat ride is lots of fun.
Dolphin Explorer Marco Island Eco-Tour Review
The Dolphin Explorer Marco Island offers two cruises per day. These run at 9am and 1pm. Because we wanted to spend a quiet morning at our resort, we decided to book an afternoon cruise. Cruises run for approximately three hours. I definitely recommend booking this in advance because it is popular and can’t accommodate too many families.
The Marco Island Dolphin Tour and Study leaves from Rose Marina right on Marco Island, which was just a short ride from our hotel – the Marco Beach Ocean Resort. It’s recommended that you arrive about 20 minutes prior to your cruise. We got there a bit earlier, but enjoyed shopping at the Marina shop before boarding.
The Dolphin Explorer does offer cold water on board, and guests can bring food if you’d like. We ate lunch right before our cruise, but brought snacks for the kids since they always seem to be hungry for snacks. Included in your ticket is a souvenir photo and a shelling bag that you can use to pick shells at the stop.
At boarding time, we were introduced to both our ship’s captain and naturalist. The naturalist walked around the boat offering small clipboards with activity booklets for the children, as well as binders with laminated sheets featuring each of the dolphins they’ve cataloged during the project aboard the Dolphin Explorer. To date (updated in 2019), they have cataloged over 80 dolphins on this long term study, according to their website.
During our three-hour eco-tour and cruise, we saw somewhere between 13 and 18 different dolphins, including the playful one pictured above swimming in the boat’s wake. My kids had a great time identifying the different dolphins by comparing fins to the dolphin photos in the book.
The naturalist took photos of the bottlenose dolphins and printed them right on board, so the kids could see the dorsal fins better, making the identification easier. The naturalist spent the breaks in the action talking to the kids about the wildlife and habitats of the area – my children especially loved to see the osprey nests located throughout the Gulf. You may also see pelicans, egrets, eagles, and more.
During the cruise, we also had the opportunity to stop at an uninhabited island to do some swimming and shelling. Using our complimentary shell bags, we were able to walk around the waterfront of the barrier island collecting the best seashells we could find.
The naturalist walked around, answering questions, and taking photos of each family (these were the complimentary souvenir photos that were included in our ticket prices).
Marco Island, like the other islands in the area, is loaded with gorgeous shells. If you like shells and enjoy gathering them, this is definitely the perfect place to do it. There are so many shells on the beach. We brought a few bags of shells home after our vacation because we collected so many.
If, during your Dolphin Eco-Tour, you encounter a new dolphin, your tour will be able to name the dolphin. That didn’t happen during our trip, but we did see so many different dolphins. We loved watching them play in the wake of our boat.
My kids had a great time, and so did we. They are already asking if we can go back next year and do the tour again.
If you plan to do the Dolphin Explorer Marco Island, you’ll want to bring along sunglasses, sunscreen, your camera (or phone), and any snacks you want to have for the three hours.
In addition to the Eco-Tour, the Dolphin Study also offers sunset cruises (on select nights) and fireworks cruises (on the 4th of July). You can find out more, and book your tickets (definitely book in advance) at the Dolphin Study Eco-Tour and Cruise website.