Written by QUENTIN ROUX
It was a typical back-water tour, viewing all kinds of sea and bird life, but when it was over, the participants would have more than just a little to write home about.
They’d be able to say they’d helped save the life of a playful dolphin.
The six people, two young German tourists and four Midwesterners, were with tour guide Ron “RJ” Michaels on personal watercraft near Coon Key off Goodland when they encountered a dolphin that appeared to put on a show just for them.
Michaels is with Capt. Ron’s Awesome Everglades Adventures, owned by Ron Hagerman, a longtime Marco resident.
“He was performing for us,” said Michaels, “chasing fish into shallow mud, doing U-turns, kerplunking his tail and wiggling and splashing.”
Michaels recognized the animal and its cavorting from a few days previously, when it had done similar gyrations for him and another group of riders.
“So, I actually anticipated showing them (the latest group) that area … the dolphin shooting in the mud and chasing fish,” Michaels said.
By now, everyone had turned off their motors and sat watching as the dolphin put on its show.
As it made its third pass, however, it became stuck.
“He’d slid farther,” Michaels said. “He was lying on his side, worm dancing, but he could not get back in the water.”
The animal, he said, struggled for quite a while, but eventually appeared to give up and simply lay passively.
Michaels, a former assistant curator at a marine life park, waded ashore and approached the animal cautiously.
He gently laid a hand on the dolphin, making sure not to touch near the blowhole, eye, belly or tail.
“I tried to reassure him in a quiet voice,” Michaels said.
He tried a push to see if he could scoot the 600-pound dolphin closer to the deeper water, but to no avail.
“So we all decided to give it the heave-ho,” he said. “We put a life jacket underneath him, and worked it under his body. He seemed to know we were there to save him.”
After moving the dolphin about 6 inches at a time for about 30 feet, the group got it to slightly deeper water, where it clearly became aware of flotation, Michaels said.
A couple more shoves from the group, and the dolphin glided into deeper water.
“One woman was high-fiving everybody and another was in tears,” Michaels said. “It was one of those magical moments when you’re just lucky to be there.”
He added the tide had been going out at the time, and that the animal might have run the risk of serious sunburn.
But at the same time, he said he was convinced other boaters in the area would have alerted officials from the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission to come give a helping hand.
Owner Hagerman said his tour guide had decided to help the dolphin because it was clear the animal wasn’t injured.
If it were an injured animal, he said, the procedure would have been to alert the FWC.
The team of tour guides always encounters something new out in the backwaters, Michaels said.
“We’ve seen dolphin throw fish in the air, and batting one toward us with his tail, for example,” he said.
“We find lots of stuff, too,” said guide Avi Langer, displaying a pair of shades totally encrusted with small barnacles. “Isn’t that cool?”
Next he showed off a perfectly symmetrical piece of shark cartilage, and also some peculiar round beans the size of small marbles.
“They are said to blow over here from Africa,” Langer said, offering one as a good-luck charm.