Visiting the Dolphin Research Center Florida
The Florida Keys are much more than its tropical setting of palm trees and stunning beaches. It is home to Everglades National Park where wildlife roam freely. But, we were also pleasantly surprised to find several animal adventures along the keys that ranged from butterfly conservancy to a wild bird center. We loved our visit to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon last summer. Though, the one place my kids looked forward to visiting was the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) near the turtle hospital. See what this special place has to offer visitors and especially the dolphin lovers.
The non-profit Dolphin Research Center was founded in 1984 by Jayne Shannon-Rodriguez and Armando Rodriguez with the goals to provide a caring home for the dolphins along with a facility for dolphin education and research. Unfortunately, marine mammal research has only been around for about 40 years. This is the DRC’s mission statement:
“Through education, research and rescue, Dolphin Research Center promotes peaceful coexistence, cooperation and communication between marine mammals, humans and the environment we share with the well being of DRC’s animals taking precedence.”
There were 27 bottlenose dolphins and four California sea lions at the facility during our visit. More than half of the dolphins were born at the center through responsible breeding and the rest were rescued or came from other facilities for various reasons. The US Government determined those dolphins could not be released into the wild since they cannot survive on their own. This center is now their permanent home.
The center offers several programs that allows visitors to really get up close and personal with the dolphins. These encounters include feeding, swimming or shirt-painting with the dolphins for extra fees. But, there are plenty of other opportunities to observe the dolphins with training and educational sessions throughout the center every half hour. It’ll be hard for anyone to be bored here. Daily schedules are posted so you can plan your visit accordingly.
The center is building a new visitor and gift shop area which will open soon. Walking inside looked liked a peaceful garden. Though, most of the action is in the open area with several lagoons that backed into the Gulf of Mexico connected by some pathways. While it’s not comparable to the ocean, these areas are bigger than the dolphin enclosures we’ve seen in other places.
It was surprising to see the enclosures are only separated by about a foot tall fence from the ocean. With the heights the dolphins jump, they can easily leave if they want to. There have been no records of escapees which is a testament to how well they are cared for at this facility. And it really is the only home most of these dolphins know.
They had barely opened and there were already several activities going on. We saw the group planning to swim with dolphins. But, a couple of these dolphins nearby doing their daily exercise caught our eyes. There is a small area for the visitors not doing the paid activities to watch the trainers feeding or interacting with the dolphins.
We loved watching the trainers feed the dolphins. The staff told us that the dolphins are fed fresh, restaurant quality fish daily. The dolphins also receive supplements, vitamins, herbal remedies and medication to ensure their good health. According to their website, food and healthcare cost about $300,000 annually which doesn’t include personnel costs.
The trainers and volunteers do their research and routines of studying the animals and doing physical and mental stimulations everyday out in the open. The research and data results from this facility enables them to understand the dolphins who are widely known as intelligent animals.
The knowledge, which are shared through journals and conferences, also helps how to better meet the dolphins’ needs. The visitors are here as observers and some lucky few get to be teacher’s aides at dolphin school. It’s a wonderful way for visitors to learn more about the dolphins and their behavior. There are also live trainer educational presentations in the theater for more learning opportunities.
A couple of the dolphins quickly came close to us as we were walking. My kids were so excited to get the dolphins’ attention. The dolphins were checking out all the visitors and they kept following a couple of us. They sure love the attention they were getting. One of the things I have always loved about the dolphins was that they always look like they’re smiling. Look at these faces!
Are you familiar with a couple of dolphin movies in the 1960s called Flipper? We found out that a daughter and a few grandkids of the Flipper movie stars are residents here.
My kids were lucky enough to meet a couple of dolphins, touch them and give the dolphins a couple of instructions on how to flip. Of course, it was a major highlight and an unforgettable experience. This is an extra cost on top of the admission fee. The cheapest interactive program is meeting the dolphin and the most expensive is the Ultimate Trainer for the Day which includes many of the other programs plus hanging out with the trainers all day for the best learning experience.
It was amazing to see them call many of these dolphins by name without hesitation. Time and time again, we wondered ‘How can they tell them apart?’ We loved watching the enthusiastic staff interact with the dolphins and it was clear how much they enjoyed caring for them. There was always someone around to ask questions about the dolphins. The sessions also encouraged questions from the visitors so we could all learn something new.
The many learning and behavioral sessions aren’t scheduled shows like the ones in SeaWorld or other animal parks. The animals don’t put on a show for the viewing public. Research by students and trainers and sometimes visiting scientists is actually happening while visitors are wandering around. The DRC has a training institute that offers an Occupational Associate’s Degree in Marine Mammal Behavior, Care and Training. Another plus for the center was that it was also the Florida Keys’ licensed manatee rescue team.
During our visit, we also had the opportunity to watch the staff weigh several of the dolphins. They used a scale on a platform that the dolphins had to try and jump into. It was so interesting to watch some dolphins attempt to get on the scale. Some were pros and even showed off a little while a couple required several tries. And there was one who didn’t even want to get on the scale.
The sessions are unscripted in this learning environment. So, there’s a slot of spontaneity and one never knows what the dolphins are going to do. It is their choice to do any of theses activities, interactive programs and sessions. We witnessed some of the dolphins eager to do the activities, do unprompted jumps and a couple who just swam away. No dolphin was forced to do anything and the staff just simply moved on to the next willing dolphin.
It was heartwarming to see the love and genuine caring atmosphere between the trainers/staff and the dolphins. It was also fantastic to see some of the dolphins positively react and seem to relish to all the clapping and interaction from the visitors.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to see the sea lions in action. We caught a glimpse of one of them swimming in this area of the lagoon.
My kids are a little older now but the admission price also includes some fun in the Family Sprayground near the entrance. They still thought it was a cool area. It was filled with interactive “toys”, water blasts and mists for younger children. It’s a perfect place to cool off under the Florida heat. And if things are a bit quiet, you can also hear the dolphins’ recorded sounds here.
Visiting the Dolphin Research Center was inspiring and educational and such an enriching experience. We repeatedly saw that they follow through with their promise that the welfare of these animals is of utmost importance to the employees and the center. We loved that they are providing a caring home for the dolphins and sea lions while conducting educational sessions and research and offering fun, interactive programs. Do not miss a visit here if you are in the Florida Keys area.
Tips for Visiting the Dolphin Research Center
- General Admission Tickets (as of Feb. 2017) – Adults: $28; Children (ages 4-12) $23. Save $3 by buying tickets online.
- The general admission ticket allows visitors to enter and exit the grounds within the same day. Dolphin Encounters are extra and range from $65 to an ultimate trainer for the day for $695. Visit their website to see the various interactive encounters available.
- Dolphin Camps and Labs. If we lived closer, my daughter would have gladly spent part of her summer here. They offer several camps for kids and several Dolphin Labs for Teens and adults during the summer.
- Hours: Open daily from 9AM – 4:30 PM all year (closed on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas)
- There is a food concession inside the center to buy breakfast sandwiches, lunch or snacks.
- Free parking onsite.
- This is a non-profit center. Remember that all fees and purchases are used to feed and care for the dolphins as well as the personnel cost and facilities upkeep. You can even help by “adopting” one of the dolphins or becoming a member.
Have you visited the Dolphin Research Center or similar facilities?
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Disclosure: The Florida Keys and Key West Tourism and the Dolphin Research Center graciously hosted us for a complimentary visit. We appreciate their hospitality. All opinions and photos are our own.