Dolphins in Port Isabel/South Padre Island


dolphins south padre island port isabel texas
A dolphin in the Laguna Madre Bay, with South Padre Island in the background.

Living on the edge of the bay in Port Isabel, I see a pod of dolphins travel by on a regular basis.  I usually spot them around the lunch hour, and then again in late afternoon or evening.  I wanted to get some up-close pics of these dolphins so I readied a kayak for a quick launch.  I would still need time to lug the kayak over 200 yards of rocks and sand but if they showed up on their relatively consistent schedule, then I should be able to get the boat in water as they were passing by.  They almost always take a channel that is only a few yards offshore.  Chances were good I could put myself very close to them as they swam by on their way to deeper water.

Less than a week later and it lined up for me.  I spotted them while I ate lunch during a random summer day.  I dropped my sandwich and burst outside to put my plan into action.  I had my chance to get a head start and sprint for the water with the kayak, but it was still just a hope because they could easily decide to swing wide and take a different channel further offshore.  I had the camera bag on my back and I grabbed the kayak and ran toward the Laguna Madre bay.

They were traveling fast and I was starting to think I might miss them.  If I didn’t put myself in their path, there was no chance I would get the shots I had in mind.  I started to panic a little and hit the water running, splashing loudly as I entered and then paddled frantically.

The pod was about twenty yards away and I saw a baby dolphin raise up, propelled to a stand with it’s tail.  It was looking right at me and did this a couple of times.  I was pushed into even more of a frenzy by the thought of up-close shots of a baby.  But the moment I saw two of the dolphins break off and swim at full speed with dorsal fins rigid and cutting the surface like a knife, I realized I was making a mistake by trying to catch up to them.

Some of the dolphins in the pod were more playful than the males that were circling me.

Two males, I assume, sped along the channel a few yards in front of me in a show of power.  They doubled back and did it again, but I had already stopped splashing and changed to a smooth and calm stroke.  Then the dolphins swam back toward the pod and I entered the channel.  They were still very close, and I tested my luck with another aggressive paddle toward them.  That didn’t fly.  The males broke off again and started circling me.  This time I was in deep water and I already know how powerful and protective a dolphin can be.  I stopped paddling and grabbed the camera.

Normally it’s cool to have a dolphin swim nearby, but this male is giving me the chills by showing me how separated I am from the land and his turf.

I squeezed off a few shots and in a short time I realized I was caught and moving quickly with the tide…further offshore.  I started to get very nervous.  I put the camera down and reached for the paddle that was balanced across and just in front of me.  The dolphins had stopped circling and were out of sight, but I could feel them underneath me.  Right then one surfaced just to my right, about three feet from me and looked right at me.  I felt he was giving me one more chance before he opened a can of whoop ass.  I said hello to him, in a submissive voice.  But my mind screamed that I should scramble for the camera and get the shot!

Then again, If I get whacked by a dolphin that is trying to protect a baby in the pod, I guess I still wouldn’t get the shot.  I decided not to make any sudden moves as this large male eyeballed me, then sank below the surface.  I gently put the paddle in the water and scooped out teaspoons until I felt safe enough to make full strokes toward land.  I stopped and saw the baby raise up again on it’s tail and it occurred to me that I really should have loaded the telephoto lens in the camera bag.