Kayaking With Dolphins

If you paddle out to sea in Virginia Beach, curious creatures may await you.
Les Thomas

Maybe it's the fog that's spooking me. I'm sitting here as quietly as I can in a bright yellow kayak, 50 yards from the sandy shore of Virginia Beach. The water is bathtub smooth, but it won't be for long. I'm waiting for some huge sea creatures to explode to the surface all around me any minute. I feel like a human version of a rubber ducky.

There are 10 of us aboard kayaks as bright as crayons, reappearing in and out of the ghostly fog. Although the Atlantic is amazingly calm this morning, I've already been thrown once. That's why I'm soaking wet. I had to master the dreaded surf launch to get this far. You don't have to be an experienced kayaker, but you do need to be comfortable swimming in the ocean to go on a dolphin tour. Randy Gore, who owns Tidewater Adventures, started the tours five years ago. They've become so popular, he and his guides lead as many as three 2 1/2-hour tours a day on weekends.

A lot of paddling isn't necessary to find a dolphin. All you really have to do is position yourself and let one find you. "I consider sea kayaking a lazy man's sport," Randy says. "We rarely go more than a quarter mile off the beach. If you turn back and look at the beach, and all the houses look small, you're way too far. We try to stay together, at least within shouting distance."

Dolphins are migratory. They arrive in the waters off Virginia Beach in March and April and remain through early autumn. "This is a primary calving ground on the East Coast," Randy says. "From a dolphin perspective, it's a fast-food row."

They also have an astonishing sense of curiosity. "We've probably only had one or two trips where we didn't see them," Randy says. "Usually they stay 10 or 20 feet away, but sometimes they come within inches. They make eye contact. They look you right in the eye."

All at once, it happens. "There's one!" another kayaker exclaims. I turn in time to glimpse a silver form as sleek and smooth as an Italian sports car rise seamlessly from the sea and disappear. They are huge--about 11 feet--but what's surprising is how quietly they come and go. Before the morning is over we sight more than 20. Just before we head back to land, a mother with a calf at her side slips to the surface in a graceful arc 10 feet in front of me. She gazes at me for what seems like an eternity. I hope that it is as much of a thrill for her as it is for me. But I doubt it.

Tidewater Adventures: 110 West Randall Avenue, Norfolk, VA 23503; (757) 480-1999, 1-888-669-8368, or www.tidewateradventures.com. Cost: $40 per person. Tours are offered May-October. All gear is provided except bathing suit, hat, sunscreen, and water bottle.

This article is from the July 2001 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.