The Outdoors Issue

The Elusive Bottlenose

The wisecracking captain of the Osprey opted out of the insurance industry to lead scenic tours out of St. Augustine

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After 25 years, Brooks Mitchell quit the insurance industry cold turkey to find his true calling. Now, the jovial 6-foot-2-inch captain chases dolphins and tells bad jokes. To wit:

"A boat is nothing more than a hole in the water surrounded by wood that you pour money in.”

“What does B.O.A.T. stand for? Break Out Another Thousand.”

Et cetera.

At 52 years old, with a newborn less than a month old, Mitchell isn’t really slowing down. He loves his new career, loves interacting with passengers and loves the Osprey — a 45-foot-long by 14-foot-wide pontoon once used as a water taxi in Downtown Jacksonville.

On a morning Dolphin Safari Tour last week out of Camachee Cove near Kingfish Grill in St. Augustine, Mitchell talks up passengers about where they're from — Canada, Utah, Nebraska, a few of us from Folio Weekly. It's a balmy day on the water, one you’d call unseasonably warm if the term “unseasonably warm” meant anything here.

Mitchell swears he spots dolphins on 90 percent of his morning cruises (he also captains sunset cruises and private charters).

St. Augustine’s bottlenose dolphins aren’t captive, so when there’s no dolphin in sight on the Osprey, Mitchell often compensates by beefing up the tour from 90 minutes to two hours, with a little more history of the St. Augustine Inlet, the Castillo de San Marcos fort and other major sites.

“Major” is a relative term. "You know the Conch House, right? It's not Sunday, though," he says, as passengers laugh.

As he takes the Osprey through the St. Augustine Inlet early in our voyage, no one has spotted a dolphin and he's getting nervous. This is, after all, a prime spot for the playful mammals.

On the morning cruises, Mitchell takes the Osprey through the inlet, around the lighthouse, in and around Salt Run and throughout Matanzas Bay.

After about 30 minutes, the chase is still on: “I think I jinxed us by allowing someone from Park City, Utah, on the boat,” he says.

He's already blamed me for hexing the search, and put more pressure on first mate John Jones to keep his eyes peeled. It's all in good fun, or maybe another chance to set up a zinger.

Then, a passenger spots a dolphin.

"Good eyes! You're hired," Mitchell yells. "John, you're fired." But the chase comes up finless. False alarm.

One dolphin does eventually save the captain, who tracks him so all of his 16 passengers get a close-up. "Of course, he's going out," Mitchell says as the dolphin swims around the boat and away. "He's playing games. He heard us talking about him."

Mitchell’s less happy we spotted one dolphin, and more frustrated we spotted "only" one dolphin. As the Osprey follows our one target, he talks a bit about him.

“These folks do not sleep,” he says. “They have two brains — one sleeps and one is awake.” (This is actually true. Researchers say dolphins can stay awake for more than two weeks at a time by sleeping with only half their brains. Weird, right?) “My wife tells me I have the same thing, except both my brains are usually asleep.”

Mitchell certainly aims to please. He facetiously promises mimosas to anyone who comes back again, then asks for some marketing assistance: “Don't tell people you only saw one dolphin. Tell them you saw like 20,” Mitchell says, chuckling.

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