Business

Damage to Ship Island means no more excursions for a while. But there’s a new option.

Hurricane Nate damaged some of the piers and boardwalks on Ship Island. The season for Ship Island Excursions was cancelled for the rest of the season by the National Park Service and instead boats will take people out on dolphin cruises.
Hurricane Nate damaged some of the piers and boardwalks on Ship Island. The season for Ship Island Excursions was cancelled for the rest of the season by the National Park Service and instead boats will take people out on dolphin cruises.

Hurricane Nate beat up Ship Island’s piers, canceling the Ship Island Excursions for the rest of the season, but the business launching a new dolphin-watching cruise instead.

Photos from Ship Island show Nate’s wind, waves and storm surge tore up the docks and boards from the wooden piers on the island and scattered debris over the beaches. About a foot of seawater got into the snack bar and buildings on the Gulf Beach and the ranger station next to Fort Massachusetts, said Capt. Louis Skrmetta.

The three Ship Island Excursion boats were moved to Gulfport Lake, safe from Hurricane Nate. The dock, south of U.S. 90, opposite U.S. 49 in Gulfport, survived the storm but the ticket office, the computers and some of the electrical systems were damaged. Gulfport is advertising for bids to build a new dock and portable restrooms that can be moved when another storm approaches.

Instead of shortening the season, Skrmetta said he plans to run the dolphin cruises possibly up until Christmas. Dolphins swim off the coast of Mississippi all year, he said.

Starting this weekend, Ship Island Excursions leaves the dock in Gulfport at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday for a 2-hour cruise looking for Atlantic Bottle-nose dolphin.

During nice weather and the weekends around Thanksgiving, “People are just down here looking to do something with their families,” he said. If the cruise is popular, he can keep going longer into the year since the larger boats have climate control, he said.

The fall cruises will be aboard the 65-foot Pan American Clipper, a wooden hull boat with two levels “and a soul,” he said. The boat was built on the shore in Biloxi in 1937 to take passengers to Ship Island and was used to catch oysters and shrimp in the winter.

This is the boat’s 80th year and he said, “It’s carried over 1 million people to Ship Island in its lifetime.”

The dolphin-friendly, 9-knot boat is slower, giving the dolphins a free ride in its wake, he said. Its rounded hull lets passengers on the lower and upper deck look directly down on the dolphins swimming along right next to the boat.

“It’s like a mother whale going up and down the Gulfport ship channel,” Skrmetta said. “You can see the pods approaching the boat.”

Passengers aren’t guaranteed to see a dolphin, but Skrmetta said when they spot dolphins on the ride to and from Ship Island, 99 percent of the time they swim right up to the boat. The Mississippi Sound’s average depth is just 10-12 feet, he said, but the man-made channel is 38 feet deep and just outside the Gulfport Ship Channel is where dolphins tend to be seen.

The boats are equipped with a public address system so the staff can interact with the passengers, telling them about the shrimp boats and the sailboats on the water, the massive cranes at the Gulfport Harbor and the birds and dolphins spotted.

A full snack bar and restroom facilities are available and the boat is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, so the whole family can take the tour.

Tickets are $19 for adults, $16 for military and seniors 65 and older and $12 for children age 3-10. Reservations are requested, especially for those with special needs, by calling 228-864-1014 and selection option 2. That number can also be used to confirm that weather conditions are suitable. Tickets can be purchased in advance at msshipisland.com or at the ticket booth at Ship Island Excursions one hour prior to departure.

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