As Labor Day approaches, beach days get fewer and further between. But summer isn't officially over until Sept. 23, so families are rushing out to make the most of it with dolphin watches aboard local cruise ships.
The Cape May Whale Watcher runs two-hour dolphin watches from Schellenger's Marina, daily through the middle of October, when the dolphins head south.
Capt. Jeff Stewart Jr., whose father started the company in 1993, says while dolphins are the main event, it's something different every time.
"Sometimes we'll see a lot of bird life," says Stewart, who's been working on the boat since he was 8. "Just the other day we had a sea turtle and a shark."
The boat has seating on two levels. There is an indoor area with tables and a view of the ocean. There are restrooms and a snack bar on board, and strollers are allowed on the first deck.
The watch is a hit among young kids. That's why Jodi and Craig Chasse brought their daughter Ciarra. The Chasses, from Connecticut, had seen dolphins from the shore the day before and decided to try a dolphin watch.
"We'd been planning on going on a dolphin watch for a while," said Craig Chasse, "just to check out the dolphins and see what's going on."
He takes photos of wildlife, sometimes aided by the eyes of his 9-year-old daughter.
"Take a picture of the parasailor, Dad!" says Ciarra who, not surprisingly, is most looking forward to seeing the dolphins.
While most of the tour will be spent watching dolphins, the cruise through the bay is more than just a commute. Over the loud speaker, Stewart points out natural and manmade landmarks. It feels like a 3-D nature documentary as he rhythmically narrates the shore, which rolls by on both sides. The salt marshes, osprey stands, World War II era structures and swing railroads keep the kids entertained right up to the moment of the main event.
"If you look into the trees to the left you'll see a bald eagle resting in the canopy about 25 feet up," Stewart says over the loud speaker. Everyone on the boat stares into the trees. Stewart appears to be making it up, but as the boat pulls closer to the shore, to avoid the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, it becomes easily spottable. All of the sudden it spreads its wings and, as if it's been paid off by the Cape May Whale Watchers, flies directly over the boat.
Joanne Anderson is sitting inside with her 9-month-old son, Dylan.
"We came primarily for the kids," she says smiling at Dylan. "I'm here with my sister and her kids." Her daughter, Hallie, comes running in.
"I saw the bald eagle," says the excited 8-year-old. Joanne Anderson asks her about it, but Hallie's already pointing to something else. "Look, a big boat!"
The tour never loses sight of land. It's like touring Cape May from a whole new point of view. As we get farther from land, though, and Delaware is off on the horizon, someone spots a dolphin well off in the distance. The captain doesn't bother to point it out, which seems strange, but soon we learn why. For more than half an hour, the boat is completely surrounded by dolphins. They come right up to the side, sometimes even jumping. Stewart educates the crowd on everything from how they communicate (by slapping their tails on the water, a real crowd pleaser) to the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise.
It turns out the location of these dolphin tours is no accident. Stewart explains that Cape May is the northern-most calving ground for these creatures, so mothers and children are looking over the deck at more than 40 mother dolphins and their calves.
The Chasses, who initially spotted the dolphins, walk around the deck, checking out the dolphins from a variety of angles. Some people leave their seats upstairs and head downstairs for a different view. The snack bar, which stocks cookies, juice, ice cream, coffee and more, gets a lot of business, especially from the little ones. Binoculars can be rented from the snack area as well. As the boat continues around the island, away from the dolphins, the crowd returns to their seats to enjoy the sun and sea breeze. It's a perfect, late-summer day, something Stewart explains is not a requisite.
"It's a great rainy day activity," Stewart says. "A lot of people think, 'what happens to the dolphins when it rains?' Guys, the dolphins are already wet."
But what happens to the humans when it rains? They have that one covered, too. On top of the permanent indoor seating, the boats have expandable roofs that will keep passengers dry even right up against the railing.
As the watch winds down, Laurie Newton, of Egg Harbor Township, explains this is their typical end-of-summer activity.
"We come every year," says the mother of two. "I grew up in Wildwood Crest. You have to do the end of the summer, before school starts stuff."
Her daughter, Emily, is glad it's a tradition.
"I love doing this every summer," says the 12-year-old. "My favorite is always the dolphins. They're always out."
Back on the top deck Ciarra Chasse is satisfied with the tour. And her favorite part? You guessed it: dolphins.
"And now she's got like 400 pictures of dolphins," laughs her mother.
Cape May Whale Watcher
1218 Wilson Drive, Cape May
Cost: $28 adults, $18 children ages 7 to 12, free children 6 and younger
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through mid-October; two-hour tours
6200 Park Blvd., Wildwood Crest
Cost: $28 adults, $20 children ages 6 to 12, free children younger than 6
When: 9:30 a.m. daily; two-hour tours
Atlantic City Cruises
Historic Gardner's Basin, N. New Hampshire Ave., Atlantic City
Cost: $34 adults, $29 seniors, $18 children ages 5 to 15, free children younger than 4
When: 1 p.m. daily through Sept. 19; Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from Sept. 22 to Oct. 9; two-hour tours
Silver Bullet Tours
Wildwood Marina at Rio Grande and Susquehanna avenues, next to the Boat House and Urie's Restaurant
Cost: $28 adults, $15 children ages 2 to 11
When: 9:30 a.m, 12 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily; 90-minute tours