"We have people who make a point of coming back every year during their vacation and people who never thought of taking a whale-watching cruise who just stumble upon us and think it's a neat way to spend a few hours," said Capt. Jeff Stewart, who operates the 100-foot Cape May Whale Watcher from the Miss Chris Marina here.
It is a neat way to spend some time on the water seeing picturesque back bay and beachfront areas, spotting shorebirds, and of course, looking for marine mammals.
On thrice-daily cruises, which Stewart runs through November, watchers get a quick tutorial on how to easily spot dolphins and whales and their habits in the water. Voyages with any of a half-dozen other operators in Cape May, Wildwood or Atlantic City offer similar experiences.
So confident that you will see a marine mammal are these boat captains, some of them even offer a guarantee with the purchase of your ticket: If you fail to see a dolphin or a whale, you may return for a free cruise at a later date.
On a recent afternoon cruise on the Cape May Whale Watcher, it was clear no free vouchers would be offered that day. So abundant were the bottlenose dolphins in an area where they were feeding near the Cape May Lighthouse, passengers quickly lost count.
Calling it an "exceptional year" for dolphins, Stewart said there may be as many as 3,000 plying the waters off Cape May.
"There must be hundreds of dolphins right here," said Laura Gladysiewicz of Brick Township, who marveled at the dozens of pods of dolphins that swam around the boat. "It's amazing to see them jumping out of the water like this. I never would have thought we would have seen so many in one day."
Stewart's tour starts out leisurely cruising out of the marina, situated along Cape Island Creek in the back bay of the Victorian beach town, where in the marshes you can spot a myriad of birds, like egrets and great blue herons, while the captain narrates via a public address system.
Then the boat meanders out the Cape May Canal into the Intracoastal Waterway, past Cape May's marinas, homes and businesses, and the U.S. Coast Guard Station.
Eventually, the boat slices through the waves into the deep blue Atlantic Ocean, where a hundred pairs of eyes are doing nothing but scanning the horizon for the first glimpse of ... something.
"Look for the spout, that's how you'll see a whale," Stewart coaches. "The dolphins, you'll see them popping in and out of the water a lot easier then you'll see the whales."
Based on his experience leading voyages every day, or from up-to-the-minute reports received from his network of captains, Stewart heads just offshore to where he thinks he'll find some marine wildlife.
But since no one can predict what Mother Nature has in store, it's impossible to know what you'll find on any given trip.
This summer, so far, has been terrific for spotting pods of bottlenose dolphins that have been frolicking, feeding, mating and calving, Stewart said.
Last summer humpback and finback whales hung out for weeks in a particular spot about 20 miles out, he said.
"We saw very few dolphins all summer because every day we were heading straight out to the spot where the whales were," Stewart said. "This year, we've seen only a few whales so far and a ton of dolphins. You just never know how it's going to go."
For a faster-paced ride, board the Silver Bullet Speedboat Rides and Dolphin & Whale Watching. Sailing from the Wildwood Marina in Wildwood, the 70-foot boat is billed as the world's largest and fastest speedboat.
And if you want to take in the tall casinos that line the shore while you search for whales and dolphins, hop aboard the Cruisin 1, a comfortably appointed vessel that leaves from Gardner's Basin in Atlantic City.
Said Cruisin 1 Capt. Jeff George, "It's just fun for people to get out and experience the water, whether they see a whale or a dolphin or not."
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or email@example.com.
Cape May Whale Watcher:
10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. (two hours, dolphins only) daily. $25 adults, $15 children ages 7 to 12, small children free with paying adult. 1 p.m. (three hours, whales and dolphins) daily. $35 adults, $20 children 7 to 12, small children free with paying adult. Second Street and Wilson Avenue, Cape May. 1-800-786-5445 or 609-884-5445.
Silver Bullet Dolphin Watch, Wildwood: 9:30 a.m., noon, and 2:30 p.m. (90 minutes) daily. Additional cruises 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. $25 adults, $12 children 11 and younger. Wildwood Marina. 609-522-6060.
Big Blue Cruiser, Wildwood:
10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. (two hours) daily. $24 adults, $14 children ages 6 to 12. Cruise at 1:30 p.m. (three hours) is $30 adults, $18 children 6 to 12. 4500 Park Blvd., Wildwood. 609-522-2919.
Atlantic City Cruises: 1 p.m. (two hours) daily. $30 for adults, $25 seniors, $15 children 5 to 15. Gardner's Basin, Atlantic City. 609-347-7600.
Thunder Cat Boat Ride, Wildwood Crest: 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. (75 minutes) daily. $23 adults, $10 children 3 to 12. Cruise at 4 p.m. (40 minutes) $18 adults, $10 children. 1001 Ocean Dr., Wildwood Crest. 609-523-2628.
See a photo gallery from the Jersey Shore at http://go.philly.com/whales
On the cover: Bottlenose dolphins frolic off Wildwood.