G. K. Sharmin
When I was a kid (don't do the math, OK?), one of my favorite TV
shows was Flipper, the series about two brothers in Florida who
had a dolphin for a pet.
A pet dolphin! How cool was that? Every week the friendly finned
one would save one of the boys from danger - or help them save someone
Flipper was strong and graceful and fast and oh so smart. He made
my family dog - a perky chihuahua mix that had mastered the fine
art of mooching table scraps - seem just the tiniest bit ordinary.
And TV-wise, Flipper sure beat Lassie by a big wet bottlenose.
So of course I asked for a porpoise for Christmas. The fact that
we lived hours from the nearest seawater didn't seem like such a
huge obstacle to me. Totally unreasonably - I thought - Mom and
Dad refused and stubbornly ignored my fervent promises to feed it
But even my skeptical parents would have been impressed by the
Dolphin Research Center (www.dolphins.org), an educational, research
and dolphin-human interaction facility on Grassy Key.
The non-profit center is home to some 16 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins,
about half of whom were born at the facility, plus a pair of California
Don't expect some slick Shamu show where trained animals jump through
hoops and take bows on cue. Kibby, Pax, Aleta, Merina, Delphi, Talon,
A.J., Tursi and other center residents are just too cool to do that
human-is-ring-master stuff. The center's performances, if you want
to call them that, are more low key and natural.
Slap on some sunscreen, pull up a seat next to one of the lagoons
and you can watch as trainers encourage dolphins to whistle, laugh,
shake their heads and make "pfffftt" noises.
Ever wonder how a vet takes a dolphin blood sample or diagnoses
an upset dolphin tummy? You'll find out if you slide down to the
adjoining lagoon for the next session. Then in a little while, another
group of dolphins will practice their acrobatics. There's a different
narrated talk every half hour. As the trainers explain dolphin life
and activities to us humans, they sit on a floating dock with a
cooler of fish close at hand. When dolphins do the requested behavior,
they get a treat.
Sometimes, though, the dolphins just aren't in the mood, said media
relations coordinator Mary Stella. When that happens, the session
is over. Nobody forces the dolphins to "work" when they
don't want to. They still get fish later though. (And they eat a
lot of it - $800,000 worth every year.)
Far more commonly, however, Flipper's cousins thrive on interaction
with bipeds of all ages and really ham it up for visitors. In addition
to jumping and splashing, they'll blow kisses and bring presents,
such as mangrove pods or coral rocks. Sometime they'll even toss
one of their hoops your way to entice you to play with them - even
if there's not a session going on.
Other places in the Keys
to interact with dolphins
World offers a variety of dolphin encounter programs in the
You can also swim or wade with dolphins at Theater of the
Sea in Islamorada.
Plus, a marine mammal research and education facility in Key
Largo, also offers swim-with-the-dolphins opportunities. www.Pennekamp.com
(scroll down and click on Dolphins Plus) or www.dolphinsplus.com
"They do respond to our enthusiasm and attention," said
Stella, who adds that she
RESEARCH CENTER HOURS AND PRICES
Dolphin Research Center is open seven days a week, 9 a.m.
to 5 p.m., except New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of
July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
admission is $17.50 for adults, $14.50 for seniors and $11.50
for kids 4-12. Children under 3 get in free. Other programs,
including Dolphin Encounter, Dolphin Splash and Dolphin Lab,
is free; limited bus parking also is available.
are easy to negotiate in wheelchairs and restrooms are wheelchair
greets the dolphins every day the same way the rest of us say
hello to our co-workers in the morning.
Though an undeniable connection exists between us landlubbers and
our water-dwelling fellow mammals, reality is a little more complicated.
Take those tales of wild dolphins rescuing stranded swimmers and
otherwise bonding with us bipeds with a large grain of salt. Delphi,
Kibby, Pax and their colleagues are tame and habituated to people,
Stella said. Your average dolphin swimming around the ocean is not.
And while a wild dolphin probably wouldn't attack, he might want
to play with you as he would with his pod buddies - not understanding,
of course, that humans aren't designed to roughhouse with 450-pound
playmates and can't hold their breath underwater for eight minutes.
Still, the call of the water is strong and many of the center's
50,000 annual visitors are prepared to pony up some extra bucks
to meet the dolphins on their own...uh, turf. The center runs a
number of human-dolphin interaction programs, from a simple meet-and-greet
or play-with-the-dolphins session, to the $650 Trainer for a Day
experience. All sessions are supervised by trainers and the more
involved programs include a class before you're allowed in the water.
The center also offers a Dolphin/Child therapeutic program and a
week-long Dolphin Lab for kids and adults.
The center's research efforts, though not as headline-grabbing
as the swim sessions, are a serious priority. Current programs include
dolphin intelligence, calf development and communication. The DRC
also is the only organization in the Keys authorized to rescue and
transport injured manatees.
Education is a big part of the center's mission too, and I certainly
learned something important: that a visit to the Dolphin Research
Center is better than having a dolphin for a pet. You get all of
the fun with none of the feeding or clean-up. Looks like Mom and
Dad were right again.