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Our guide was none too pleased to be booked for a sailing trip on the Fourth of July, what with the amateurs plowing through the waters. Beaufort's marina was packed exactly one day of the year, and this was it. My family and I braved the busy waters for a private sailing trip to Cape Lookout with Ron White, a marine biologist and diving instructor who runs ecology tours. When he greeted us, he was wearing a "Save the Wetlands" T-shirt. White's boat, the Good Fortune, is a comfortable old 42-foot sailboat of solid wood, heavy enough to take the ocean waves at a graceful porpoising pace.

Steering through the open ocean, he talked our ears off about the impact of tourists on Cape Lookout's bird habitats, the effect of Fish and Wildlife regulations on increasing the dwindling shark populations, and about working for that agency relocating species from land being used for development. Suddenly we found ourselves in the path of a school of dolphins. They'd come extremely close to the boat, but then would suddenly vanish back into the waves. First Mate Willie, a rather mellow big red dog, started barking like crazy. "Portbow, Willie, portbow!" White called, and right away Willie was in position.

Cape Lookout was predictably crowded with motorboats parked along the banks. And the water was crowded with jellyfish, but evidently not the poisonous kind; White picked one up in his hands to demonstrate. Snorkeling in the clear warm water felt decadent, but there didn't appear to be much to see. Then White picked up a "sea potato" plant and pointed out the various creatures living on it. Later he dipped under water and pulled a conch shell off the drop-off wall for us all to see the octopus inside. It was getting rather pissed off to find itself part of a tour, extending angry tentacles from the shell, so White put it back where he found it.

On the way back, we passed what appeared to be the same school of dolphins and a giant yellow PT boat full of tourists. It was painted with jaws suggesting a cartoon shark, and the word LOOKOUT. It seemed to be running on a jet engine. The competition, we joked.

Above our heads we heard a low flying plane and saw our captain delightedly waving. "That's my friend, he just sold his boat and bought a seaplane." Then he pointed out the boat in question, right in front of us. It was at least twice the size of the Good Fortune, with a concrete hull. "It's taken them a whole year just to get it back into the water!" he said in amazement, guessing that his friend was flying over to see if the thing would actually float.

"There must be a great community of people out here," I said, thinking how cool it would be to recognize a friend flying a seaplane above my head. "A lot of eccentric people," he said in a curiously low tone, and turned the wheel to head back toward the marina.

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