Anchor Adventure #1: Dolphin Encounter at Gulf World Marine Park

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PANAMA CITY BEACH- Thousands of vacationing families enjoy our area every summer, but what about the locals who call Northwest Florida home? Sometimes we forget about the adventures in our own backyard. That's why the NewsChannel 7 "Today" crew is doing a series of stories called Anchor Adventures, to remind you that just because we live here doesn't mean we should miss out on the wonder.

Meredith TerHaar starts off our series with a dolphin encounter at Gulf World Marine Park. It's one of just a few places in the nation where visitors can interact with dolphins in a safe way that is both educational and unforgettable.

The encounter begins in a classroom, where participants learn about the biology of dolphins, how they communicate with each other and mate. Conservation efforts are also an important focus. Just a few minutes later we leave with a greater appreciation for the creature we are about to meet. First things first, we learn some hand signals to help us communicate with our bottlenose dolphin, 8-year-old Maya.

Everyone in the group gets to interact with Maya in the same ways, but in a different order to keep her interested and engaged. Meredith's first interaction: A big dolphin kiss! Immediately afterwards Maya starts whistling, like she is talking! The trainers explain the more enthusiasm we have, the more Maya responds. "The dolphins are always excited to meet new people. If you come in with that same energy you are going to get an even better experience out of this encounter program," explained Laura Berg, a Gulf World Marine Park trainer. Maya shows off her smarts by imitating us, and her vocal abilities with an original composition we get to direct!

Everyone is in awe of this playful, docile creature who takes each participant for a spin around the habitat. Holding on to her dorsal fin, her powerful tail propels us at a surprising speed. In the wild these sleek swimmers can reach speeds of over 18 miles an hour.

The encounter surpasses expectations. "This has been the best experience, I have loved it. Touching the dolphin and interacting with it has been wonderful. I couldn't ask for a better day," said Beth Harmon who was visiting with her kids from the midwest.

All too soon it's time to say good-bye, and Maya doesn't disappoint, waving her tail at us. It's a fitting end to an experience we'll never forget!

Our Anchor Adventures continue Tuesday as Jim Loznicka explores the Marianna Caverns. Then Wednesday Donna Bell takes an Ecotour aboard an airboat.