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The Dolphin Whisperer

Meet Scarlet Colley, patron saint of the Laguna Madre dolphins.

By Melissa Gaskill

Around Port Isabel, many people call Scarlet Colley “the dolphin whisperer” for her uncanny ability to communicate with a pod of about 250 bottlenose dolphins that live year-round in the nearby Laguna Madre. Anyone who has been out on the Laguna Skimmer with her knows that the name fits.

Scarlet has closely observed these dolphins for 20 years. She calls them a “tribe” rather than the scientific term “pod,” and believes each dolphin tribe is unique.

“I know this one, but I don’t know and can’t speak for dolphins out in the Gulf or in Florida,” she says. “If I lived with aborigines in Australia for 20 years, I couldn’t tell you about people in the rainforest. It’s the same with dolphins.”

On tours — which are limited to six people — Scarlet’s husband, George, often turns off the engine and dolphins come to the boat. But only if they’re not busy, Scarlet says.

“Maybe they’re sleeping or feeding their babies,” she points out. “We don’t chase them or get in close. If we don’t back off when they’re feeding, it’s like if you had someone tap dance on your dinner table. I would love to see more tourists understand that dolphins need their space and to speak up when boats run right up on top of them.”

In the past 10 years or so, Scarlet has noticed mother dolphins teaching their babies to stay under longer, which she attributes to people operating watercraft close to the animals.

Scarlet’s son Seth Patterson has watched her hold people accountable for such behavior.

“If she sees someone doing something that is unsafe for dolphins, she’ll call them out on it,” he says. “She’ll wave down a Waverunner going right up on dolphins and explain why that’s a problem.”

Fortunately, he adds, she is a great educator with an endearing personality, good at explaining her reasons.

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The law requires boats to keep a distance from marine mammals, including dolphins, but Scarlet goes beyond that.

“Dolphin watch captains should have training,” she says. “It would be a better experience for everyone. If the dolphins are sleeping or have a baby, we leave, and people accept that. It’s about them, not us. No grouches allowed on my boat. Dolphins are very sensitive and can feel the people on the boat. They don’t have time for grouchy.”

Originally from Germany, Scarlet attended high school and college in Texas. She moved to Austin as an adult, but a few years later a shopping mall went up in the fields behind her house where her children played. That was 1994. When she asked the kids where they wanted their next playground to be, they said the beach, so she moved to Port Isabel. She had grown up showing and jumping horses, but left her horse life behind in Austin. In Port Isabel, dolphins would fill the void.

Scarlet started volunteering at the University of Texas–Pan American Coastal Studies Laboratory on South Padre Island. In 1995, an Elderhostel group came there for a dolphin tour, but the teacher didn’t show up. She filled in, and saw her first dolphins.

“I called them and they came to me, just like calling a horse,” Scarlet recalls. “I was raised by horse-whisperer parents and had spent my life talking to horses. You can’t take a five-foot jump with a horse if you aren’t feeling right. So it was easy to talk to dolphins.”

Scarlet and George met, appropriately enough, on a dolphin watch boat he had piloted since retiring as a fishing boat captain. The couple bought the first Laguna Skimmer in 1997 and began offering bird, dolphin and photography tours.

“Everyone said we couldn’t make a living taking just six people, that we were destined to fail,” George says. “We just said we’d never know if we didn’t go for it.”

Eight years ago, the Colleys opened a small nature center across from the Port Isabel Lighthouse, displaying rescued sea life and offering touch tanks for educational purposes.

“We opened it because we felt there was no voice for the sea creatures,” Scarlet says. “One of our important messages is that we don’t want sea life to die for a souvenir. Once you hold a live starfish in your hand, you won’t buy a dead one.” 

The Colleys don’t feed, touch or swim with wild dolphins.

“I tell people that we feed them joy, touch them with our hearts and swim with them in our dreams,” Scarlet says.

Dolphins use a technique called echolocation, bouncing clicks and whistles off their prey — or dolphin watch boats — and that is their way of touching us, she says.

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Patterson, who was about 12 when the family moved to the coast, recalls that his mother immediately took to the ocean.

“Every chance we got, we were out at the jetties snorkeling or out in the bay with a net looking for critters,” he says. “She really embraced the marine ecosystem. The first time she got out on a boat and saw the dolphins, she was captivated.”

Patterson, now manager at Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville, shares his mother’s love of nature. He is perhaps a bit less enamored of the dolphins.

“There were always more pictures of dolphins around the house than there were of me. All she talked about was dolphins, and I felt a kind of sibling rivalry. Even today she calls and tells me all about them. I have to admit she has a special relationship with them. They behave differently around her. I joke that she calls herself the dolphin whisperer, but there’s no whispering,” he says, referring to her way of calling out to the animals. “She should be ‘the dolphin hollerer.’”

In addition to Seth, Scarlet has three other children — Shane, Heather and Gabriel — and George has a daughter, Mary Ann. The couple live in a cozy, eclectic house they’ve mostly built themselves. Two dogs, three cats and a potbellied pig roam the colorful tile floors, fish aquariums line a wall, and an injured hummingbird recuperates in a box in the bathroom.

With two grandchildren now in college, Scarlet thinks about retiring.

“I hope the next generation will care,” she says. “I need someone to come in and take my place.”

Patterson expresses skepticism about that happening.

“She’s one of a kind. No one could fill those shoes. The problem with looking for a successor is that anyone else will look at this as a business, and for her, it is a complete and utter passion.”

Scarlet agrees any successor would need the right enthusiasm.

“In the movie Avatar there is a beautiful line, ‘I see you.’ That’s how I feel with dolphins. They know I’ve been there for them. For someone to take over for me, they have to come in and learn the dolphins’ ways.”

Grouches need not apply.

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