Sailing into the sun: Dolphin-watching and more in Panama City Beach, Florida

Playful wildlife, expansive beaches and spectacular cuisine are defining features of this waterfront town in the Florida Panhandle

  • Apr 19, 2023
  • 1,054 words
  • 5 minutes
With 43 kilometres of coastline, it’s not difficult to find beaches that aren’t overly crowded.
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I kneel at the sailboat’s bow with bated breath, my eyes zig-zagging across the endless expanse for silhouettes of dorsal fins. As the sun recedes slowly into the horizon, its orb casts a syrupy golden glow onto the ocean below, causing the ripples along the surface to look like zebra stripes. Was that a wave or a dolphin? I ask myself every few seconds, the slight bobbing and swaying of the boat certainly not in my favour as I try to focus my gaze on various black shapes. 

I’m a passenger onboard Paradise Adventure’s “Ohana” sunset sail in Panama City Beach, Florida, with dolphin sightseeing expected to be the main attraction of the evening. As Nolan Pho, our captain, steers the small vessel out into the Gulf of Mexico for a panoramic view of our surroundings, the low rumble of the sailboat’s motor and the steady smacking of waves against its hull composes a charming nautical tune.

“Look! To the left!” Nolan abruptly shouts. I gasp and whip my head around just in time to catch a brief glimpse of a bottlenose dolphin about 20 metres away dipping back under the water.

“Another!” he yells again, pointing just to the left of where the previous dolphin was. This time, I can fully watch the slow, graceful arc of the animal’s back before it dips downward again. 

A pair of herons angelically glide over the ocean.
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Dolphins are plentiful during a sunset cruise.
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“Oh man,” I smile giddily, thinking it couldn’t get any better. And yet, it did. For the next 45 minutes or so, dozens of dolphins rise and descend above the ocean – frequently in pairs. Since it is a calm evening, the sail isn’t very useful, but the boat’s engine produces bubbles which some curious dolphins seemingly enjoy playing with.

We continue watching a steady stream of dolphins swim alongside us until the sun is nearly set. At that point, Nolan turns off the engine, enabling us to drift gently along the ocean. I stare at the sky – a silky blend of oranges and yellows – and it feels as if the entire town of Panama City Beach is engrossed by the sight. The sunset brings a stillness with it, and for the next 15 minutes, I don’t spot any dolphins or hear anything except for the soft slosh of waves. Then, as the sun finally sinks into the horizon and the water takes on a hazy lilac hue, the dolphins begin to appear at the surface again as if it were like clockwork. 

When I reminisce about my time in Panama City Beach, I keep returning to this magical experience. With the Gulf of Mexico having the largest concentration of bottlenose dolphins found in U.S. waters, spotting these creatures out on the water is extremely likely. And with an average of 320 days of Florida sunshine each year, seeing dolphins while enjoying a beautiful sunset in Panama City Beach is also very probable. 

Fret not, though. If you are prone to seasickness or dolphins aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other activities to do while in Panama City Beach – from stunning state parks to award-winning cuisine.  

Here are some must-see highlights.

Beaches and piers

The sun sets below the Gulf of Mexico on a warm November evening in Panama City Beach, Florida.
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A view of the water below while standing on Russell-Fields Pier.
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With Panama City Beach’s coastline stretching 27 miles (about 43km) along Florida’s Panhandle, you never have to travel far to find clear emerald waters to swim in and crystal-quartz beaches to lounge on. Ranking third on TripAdvisor’s 2019 list of the Top 25 Beaches in the U.S., the waterfront town has more than 100 clearly marked and easily accessible public access points to the ocean. 

If you’re trying to avoid sandy toes but still want to enjoy beach views, you can stroll along the Russell-Fields Pier for a daily fee of $3. The pier is one of the longest on the Gulf of Mexico – stretching over 1,500 feet – and is a central landmark of the city. If you like fishing, it is also a popular spot for anglers who can rent rods and buy tackle on-site.

Pier Park and the SkyWheel observation wheel 

For those hoping to do some shopping, Pier Park is located directly across from Russel-Fields Pier. With 124 shops to explore – from commercial storefronts to local businesses – this enormous outdoor mall has become Panama City Beach’s premier shopping and dining complex. To give your feet a break, check out the Skywheel observation wheel near the end of Pier Park. Standing nearly 200 feet above the ground and holding 30 glass gondolas, the SkyWheel delivers a wonderful birds-eye view of Panama City Beach. 

St. Andrews State Park

From piers to hiking trails, there are many ways to explore the park.
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St. Andrews State Park boasts incredible coastal plant communities.
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Hoping to spot some gators? If you spend a day at St. Andrews State Park, you may get lucky. The state park, one of two in Panama City Beach (Camp Helen State Park being the other), is a paradise for wildlife watchers. With the Gulf of Mexico on one side and St. Andrews Bay on the other, the park contains more than 1000 acres of land and offers a unique environment for many Florida animals. 

While exploring the park, you’ll come across the aptly-named Gator Lake, where alligators are known to frequent. The forest surrounding the lake is also home to many insects, small mammals, reptiles, wading birds and large raptors, with the park being a popular migratory stopover for numerous bird and butterfly species. To get around, you can rent bikes or walk along two nature trails on foot, where you can appreciate oceanside dunes and coastal plant communities. For those who want to spend more time at the park and stay overnight, St. Andrews also has full capacity campsites available for booking.

Where to eat

Firefly offers an ever-evolving menu of award-winning cuisine.
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The shrimp tacos are a must-order at Runaway Island.
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For those seeking a casual-fine dining experience, Firefly is a must-visit location. Not only is the food delicious – I’d recommend trying their She Crab Soup and Firestarter Sushi – but the atmosphere is warm, classy and romantic, with a lit-up oak tree in the centre of the restaurant. For lunch the following day, check out Runaway Island, a beachfront restaurant where you can enjoy tasty tacos loaded with fried shrimp, lime cilantro aioli and pico de gallo. After finishing your meal, you can walk straight to the beach and beyond, as the restaurant has steps that bring you down to the sand.


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