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Off Cape Henry, dolphins break the surface of the water in twos and threes every few seconds.

A couple of tourist families - one from Williamsburg, another from Pittsburgh - lean against the railing of the Atlantic Scout, a rigid inflatable boat, to get a closer look.

They’re already pretty close. The families are close enough to hear the throat-clearing sound of a couple of the marine mammals exhaling, before they gulp more air and disappear beneath the green waves.

Mike Mizell from the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center points out a dolphin mother and her calf as they emerge less than 20 feet from the vessel. Younger passengers gasp and point.

The Aquarium has offered dolphin boat tours for many years, but the new Atlantic Scout gives a different experience.

The older boat - the Atlantic Explorer - looms out of the water. Eye level from the deck is around 10 feet.

The Atlantic Scout is much lower to the water. You may as well be standing on the surface of the ocean.

Mizell has worked on the boat tours for more than two decades. He says the Scout offers a different kind of encounter.

“This is more of an immersive experience. … People may see dolphins from their hotel room or off in the distance, but there’s a chance here that they really get to see, hear, maybe even smell a dolphin, depending on what’s going on out there on the water,” Mizell said.

The smell is largely absent from the sunny afternoon trip last week, but the dolphins were plentiful. Mizell hopes this kind of up-close exposure is more than just a thrill.

“We feel like any time someone can make a connection like that, they’re going to be interested in doing their part in conservation in general, but kind of focused on dolphins,” Mizell said.

Tours depart daily from the boat dock at the Virginia Aquarium.