CAPE MAY — “Gentlemen, let’s drop all lines,” Capt. Jeff Stewart Jr. announced over the rumble of boat engines as crew members untethered the vessel from the docks at Miss Chris Marina, home of the Cape May Whale Watcher.
With a bird’s-eye view of the stern and one hand on a big metal wheel, Stewart, 35, sounded the horn and navigated the boat and its passengers out the Cape May Canal and into the Delaware Bay on a cloudy Thursday morning.
Grabbing a black microphone connected to the boat’s loudspeaker system, Stewart kept up a stream of facts about the canal, ecosystem conservation, Cape May landmarks and marine mammal migration, sleeping and eating behaviors. There wasn’t a script, note card or fact sheet in sight.
“When the dolphins are under water for longer periods, what do you think they’re doing?” he said into the mic. “They’re eating, having a little sushi for breakfast.”
After logging more than 8,000 dolphin and whale watching trips in the Cape May area over the past 11 years working at his family’s marina and business, you might think nothing would surprise Stewart anymore, but you would be wrong.
“I’m really getting spoiled, because I get to be here for everything in between,” he said as he spun the wheel to the right to follow a pod of dolphins diving in and out of the water. “The dolphins’ behaviors still surprise me, and my favorite is when we see the whales.”
The Cape May Whale Watcher, which has about six captains on staff, runs up to three cruises a day, which can get crowded on weekends and during the summer. They run rain or shine — “because the dolphins don’t care,” Stewart said — but not in stormy conditions.
Wearing black sunglasses and a red polo emblazoned with the word CREW, Stewart matched all other staff aboard Thursday morning’s two-hour dolphin watch, where visitors see dolphins about 98 percent of the time and whales about 60 percent of the time.
“Do you ever think about how a dolphin sleeps? No, probably not,” he narrated over the loudspeakers, earning a few laughs from the deck below. “But you can’t just lay on the floor of the ocean and sleep, can you?”
With a fair complexion, strawberry blond hair and two small silver hoops through each ear, there’s no mistaking him for anyone other than the son of Capt. Jeff Stewart Sr. and first mate Mary Stewart.
The father of two graduated from Stockton University with a degree in business management and worked for a yacht manufacturer before joining the family business. In the offseason, he and his father work on transporting, restoring and repairing boats.
The elder Stewarts started the sightseeing company in 1993 and bought the marina in 2001, saving it from becoming a condominium complex. Stewart Sr. still conducts tours and, according to his son, won’t be retiring from life at sea anytime soon.
“My mom has also been instrumental since the beginning,” Stewart said. “Without my mom, we wouldn’t exist. We also wouldn’t eat.”
Driving Thursday’s tour boat, which can hold up to 400 passengers, into the ocean, up the shoreline and into the Cape May Inlet, Stewart reflected on the uniqueness of the land at the southern tip of the county.
“It’s such a tight-knit community. We all help each other out,” he said of other tourism businesses in Cape May. “This part, the tours, is the best. It’s stress free. I couldn’t give this up — being with family every day, on the boat, with the dolphins.”
On any given day, families, couples and other passengers on the Whale Watcher encounter several members of the Stewart family. Mary is often in the gift shop, Stewart’s sister Brigid conducts hiring, training and education, other sister Mary helps operations run smoothly and Stewart’s wife Leeanne works on marketing, customer service and reservations.
Sometimes, a pint-sized Stewart will be up on the bridge with her dad, scouring the water for signs of humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins, which breed and feed in the bay and ocean from March through December.
“She loves it,” Stewart said of his 6-year-old daughter, Lillian. “I hope she can do well in school, go to college and become a doctor, lawyer or whatever she wants. If she wants to be a captain, that would be great, if she chooses that. I got to make the choice, too, though it wasn’t a hard one.”