Jacob Nickerson

Captain Jacob Nickerson gives dolphin tours off of Johns Island. 

There are a multitude of tours for the taking in and around Charleston. I’ve participated in a number of them through the years, some with visitors from out of town and others just for my own enjoyment and edification.

I’ve toured Fort Sumter after a boat ride through the harbor and listened to stories about various points of interest aboard a horse-drawn carriage. There was a tour of a dungeon that once housed captured pirates and another that weaved its way along some of the alleys and side streets where various ghost stories still haunt the shadows.

I’ve toured the gardens, some of the grand houses on The Battery and even took a food tour designed to explain why things taste as they do here.

Whether looking at the architectural remains of early settlers at Charles Towne Landing or tasting tea grown in the fertile soil of Johns Island or listening to a group of singers entertain while keeping the Gullah language alive, I’ve taken the opportunity to enlighten myself as much as possible about this place that’s been my home since my teenage years.

In some cases, I so enjoy spreading the word about what we have here so much, I’ve even toyed with the idea of being a tour guide myself. It was a new and different tour that I examined recently, though, that brought an additional appreciation for yet another reason that makes where we live so unique and special.

This tour is part nature and part nautical. It’s also educational as well as entertaining. Let me take you along for the ride.

The Flipper fallacy

On a recent warm, but overcast morning, I hopped aboard Captain Jacob Nickerson’s skiff and let him take me on a dolphin tour. Jacob was born in Los Angeles, moved with his family to Georgia in his pre-teens and now is a nature guide for St. John’s Tours on Johns Island.

Nickerson, 40, with his wife and two children, lives in West Ashley and was a surfer as a young boy in California. He was hardly an animal lover or naturalist. “I grew up in L.A., I didn’t even have squirrels,” he smiles as he guides the boat up Bohicket Creek.

Nickerson’s been a tour guide in the creeks and estuaries for the last 16 years. There are no guarantees, but he’s never been skunked. He’s always found dolphins, or maybe more appropriately, they’ve always found him.

As we head to the north Edisto River, we’re transported to some of the most scenic and pristine views one can imagine. We pass Wadmalaw Island and Rockville. I’d never seen either from the water.

All the while, Captain Jacob is scanning the various vistas, pointing to different landmarks while simultaneously gauging the current and wind.

He cuts the motor. Barely 50 yards away, a mother and calf break the surface. We hear the air escape the blow hole. Moments later, dolphin are swimming by on either side of the boat.

It’s against the law to feed these graceful animals. The captain estimates there are 350-400 dolphins that are full-time residents in the brackish waters from the Edisto River to the Isle of Palms. The adults weigh up to 400 pounds and can reach speeds of 30 miles an hour.

In these rivers and creeks, they’re the apex predator. Their only enemy is a boat motor.

By nature, they are curious. But they are wild animals and deserve to be treated with respect. “So many people think we’re here to see Flipper,” says Jacob, referring to the trained dolphin from a long ago TV show. “Flipper was not a documentary, it was a show.”

Ride the tide

The dolphin behavior you might witness varies with the tide, season and time of day. We caught the falling tide during my trip, usually not the optimum period for activity. Even so, there was plenty to see and Captain Jacob was a fountain of information.

From the river, I could see Seabrook Island to the left and Edisto Island in the distance to the right. As we approached Botany Island, the captain explained we were about to see a bald eagle nest. It was empty as its occupants are part-time residents, but the size of the structure was massive. It was 6 feet high and about 4 feet wide. Imagine a Mini Cooper parked in a tree.

As we turned for home, an osprey flew past us clutching a wiggling fish.

The reflections on the river of tin roofed houses at Rockville and fishing boats docked at Wadmalaw paint a scene not easily replicated.

For the captain, it was another good day in his office. The biology major from the left coast has found the call of the wild in the tidal creeks and rivers along some barrier islands.

Most of his business comes from those visiting Kiawah and Seabrook throughout the year. For those of us who call this home and think we’ve seen and done it all ... this is a terrific opportunity to see and enjoy parts of the Lowcountry we’ve never taken the time to appreciate.

Reach Warren at peperwarren@gmail.com