In the Florida Keys, visitors can meet, greet, and even take a swim with these gentle creatures.
By Kathryn Lemmon
Ever since Flipper swam across our black-and-white TV screens in the 1960s, the American public has been enamored with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. What’s not to love? They are highly intelligent and friendly to man. Giant, but gentle, they look you in the eye as if to say, “Come on in; the water is fine. Let’s play!”
Dolphin encounters “” structured or unstructured periods of time during which the public can interact with these creatures “” are offered all over the world today. The Florida Keys region is a major center for dolphin study and offers dolphin encounters at five different facilities. These locations give visitors the opportunity for a one-on-one encounter.
The Florida Keys stretch in a gentle southwesterly curve from the Florida mainland, beginning with Key Largo. As you drive along U.S. 1 from mainland Florida to Key Largo and then on to Key West (the Overseas Highway), a beautiful, watery view appears to your left and right. For convenience, locations within this string of islands are designated with mile marker numbers. The numbering system starts at Key West (MM 0) and increases from there. Although the islands have names, the mile marker system is a practical solution to help drivers find their intended destination. Be sure to watch for speed limit signs, since the smaller islands will require you to slow down.
By the way, you don’t have to drive all the way to Key West to find the dolphin encounter facilities noted in this article. They are located only as far southwest as MM 59.
So, what can you expect when you enter the watery realm of the dolphin at one of these facilities?
In most cases, before you and your dolphin friends meet, you will be given an orientation. An experienced trainer will explain the basics of dolphin anatomy, and provide specific information about how you can protect the animals and their habitat in the wild. You also will learn things you should and shouldn’t do while in contact with the dolphins, such as touching their blowhole, for example “” that’s a no-no. In addition, the trainers may tell you what kinds of behaviors you can expect from the dolphins while in the water with them.
If you have any questions, this is the time to ask. At the orientation session I attended for the Dolphin Discovery at Hawk’s Cay Resort, a teenage boy asked, “What if the dolphins don’t want to interact. Do you make them play with the humans?” The trainer replied, “That’s a very good question. In all honesty, you can’t make 400-pound animals do anything they don’t really want to do.” Her answer was certainly thought-provoking. We’d like to believe the dolphins enjoy their time with humans, but whether they play for treats, pleasure, or both, it’s tough to say. And, admittedly, the Dolphin Discovery is a structured encounter, in that the creatures are displaying trained behavior. “Natural” encounters also are offered at other locations.
After the orientation session, participants put on their life vests and either get into the water or stand in waist-deep water on a submerged platform. If the water temperature is cool, most facilities rent wetsuits, but you must decide in advance whether or not you will need one.
The size of the group in your dolphin encounter will probably be small, ranging from two people to perhaps seven or eight. The trainers make sure everyone gets a chance to observe each dolphin behavior. Smaller group sizes are generally better and allow more time for one-on-one interaction.
The Dolphin Discovery offers visitors the chance to enjoy plenty of touching, kissing, learning hand-signals, and playing games with the dolphins. Structured programs at other encounter facilities are similar.
It’s perfectly normal to feel a bit nervous around the dolphins, especially in the beginning. You’ll hear interesting dolphin vocalizations, which sound like clicks and clacks. Everything is carefully orchestrated by the trainers. As you go through the program, the trainers continue to explain what is going on and teach you about these creatures.
The dolphins in structured encounters are taught using positive reinforcement methods, which means they get fishy treats when they do as they’re instructed. Hand signals and whistles play an important part in prompting dolphin behaviors.
Your first touch of dolphin skin is thrilling. Up close, these creatures are bigger than you expect, and much quieter, too. It’s remarkable to have a 450-pound animal swim up beside you without hearing the slightest sound. Dolphins have large mouths, by human standards, and many teeth. Their cool skin feels exceptionally smooth, like a slippery rubber tire. They have expressive eyes and seem to sport perpetual grins.
Most facilities offer non-swimming encounters for folks who do not swim or care to do so. That way everyone can get involved. If you do take part in a swimming encounter with the dolphins, it might include having two dolphins push you backward through the water by pressing their snouts against the bottoms of your feet. Or, they might leap over your head as you tread water in the middle of the lagoon. Some facilities do a “leap over the stick” game, where two humans tread water side by side, holding a broomstick high overhead. On command, a dolphin comes up from behind and leaps over the stick. The dolphins are so quick and agile that you won’t realize what is happening until they are overhead. It’s a laugh-out-loud-type moment, one you will never forget. All in all, swimming with dolphins is a highly gratifying experience.
Most dolphin encounter facilities do not permit participants to have their cameras near the water, or to have observers photograph the experience. However, staff members are on hand to take photos “” or, in some cases, videos “” which are available for purchase after the program is finished.
The amount of time you spend in the water typically lasts from 30 to 45 minutes. As with most extraordinary experiences, the time passes all too quickly. You’ll no doubt come away with a new respect for the dolphins’ intelligence, plus an appreciation for their incredible rapport with their human trainers.
Fees for this experience vary, depending on the type of dolphin encounter you choose. Rates are approximately $55 for a short session with a dolphin trainer that does not include swimming, and approximately $150 for a full hour involving an orientation, swimming or wading, and personalized contact time.
For those curious about how the animals are cared for, a couple of facilities (the Dolphin Research Center and Theater of the Sea) offer a version of “trainer for a day” sessions, where you can go behind the scenes with the professional animal care staff. Other facilities offer even more intense seminar-type experiences that allow you to spend up to several days interacting with and learning about these fascinating mammals.
To make your dolphin dream come true, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums offers the following advice to assist you in selecting the interactive dolphin program that best suits the needs of your family:
*Generally, parks and aquariums with dolphin programs have minimum height and age requirements. Check with them in advance to determine whether your children or grandchildren can participate.
Facilities vary on whether or not they require reservations, so familiarize yourself with the park’s policy. *Some require reservations several months in advance, while others allow same-day reservations. Group size is limited, so planning is wise.
*Since a variety of dolphin interaction programs are currently available, make sure you know what you can expect. Ask the following questions:
1. How many participants will be in each session?
2. What kind and how much contact with the dolphins is possible?
3. Will participants need to be competent swimmers? Certain programs take place on the dock or on a submerged platform, so no swimming is required. Other programs require treading water (with a life vest, of course) for the entire session.
4. Will professional trainers be present and actively involved the entire time? This protects both the dolphins and the human participants.
Overall, your experience with dolphins will be greatly enhanced the more you learn about these wonderful creatures. Don’t be too shy to jump on in. It’s an experience you’ll always remember.
The following campgrounds are situated near the dolphin facilities mentioned in this article. This is not a complete list, so please consult your favorite campground directory or the listings in FMC’s Business Directory, found in the January and June 2003 issues and online at FMCA.com.
Florida Keys RV Resort
106003 Overseas Highway
Key Largo, FL 33037
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
P.O. Box 487
Key Largo, FL 33037
Fiesta Key KOA
P.O. Box 618
Long Key, FL 33001
Key RV Park
6099 Overseas Highway
Marathon, FL 33050
Dolphins Breathe Deeply
Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are mammals, not fish. A special nostril called a blowhole, which is located at the top of their head, enables them to receive oxygen. Dolphins exchange 80 percent or more of the air in their lungs each time they take a breath “” much more than humans, who exchange only approximately 17 percent.
Dolphins take an average of two or three breaths per minute, and their breathing is voluntary. Thus, they cannot sleep as humans do. Rather, they shut down only a portion of their brains while resting, so that they can rise to the surface occasionally to breathe.
Dolphins can dive to depths of 150 feet, and some dives last eight to 10 minutes. They can stay submerged for 15 minutes.
Dolphin Encounters In The Florida Keys
The Dolphin Research Center is located at MM 59 on the gulf side of Grassy Key. The center’s focus is on behavioral research, and it maintains liaisons with university programs and independent scientists around the world. This not-for-profit facility has received numerous conservation awards. It offers DolphinSplash, which permits close encounters without swimming; Dolphin Encounter, a swim with the dolphins; and DolphinLab, a week of training sessions, swim sessions, seminars, and more. Other interactive activities are available. For more information, phone (305) 289-1121 or visit www.dolphins.org. Photos on the center’s Web site allow you to “meet the pod.”
Dolphin Connection is at Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key (MM 61). It offers two programs, neither of which require participants to swim: Dockside Dolphins and Dolphin Discovery. The former lets you become a trainer’s assistant; the latter puts you in shallow water on specially designed aquatic areas. Resort guests get a reduction in price and can observe the dolphins playing anytime, day or night. Phone (888) 814-9154 or (305) 743-7000, or visit www.dolphinconnection.com for more information.
Theater of the Sea is situated at MM 84.5, at Islamorada. This marine animal park has been entertaining visitors since 1946. You can take a guided tour of this park, which offers a veritable zoo of ocean creatures; see dolphin and sea lion shows; and ride in a “bottomless” boat. Dolphin, sea lion, and stingray swim programs also are offered, as is a “trainer for a day” program. Participants in the swim programs interact with dolphins that exhibit a variety of trained behaviors, including kisses and dorsal tows, all in a natural ocean water environment. A wade program that does not require swimming also is available. For more information, phone (305) 664-2431 or visit www.theaterofthesea.com.
Dolphins Plus is in Key Largo at MM 100. Dolphins Plus offers a Natural Swim and a Structured Swim with the dolphins, as well as a Sea Lion Encounter that does not involve swimming. The dolphin programs include an educational briefing and an opportunity to swim and interact with the dolphins in a natural ocean water basin. This location offers extended programs “” ranging from three to five days “” that focus on general study of dolphins and their habitats. For more information, phone (866) 860-7946 or (305) 451-1993, or visit www.pennekamp.com/dolphins-plus/.
Dolphin Cove can be found bayside at MM 101.9 in Key Largo and is the Keys’ newest dolphin facility. It is the sister facility to Dolphins Plus. Dolphin Cove offers two swim programs. The Natural Swim consists of freestyle snorkeling with the dolphins, with a goal of keeping the encounter as natural as possible. In the Structured Swim, the dolphins perform trained behaviors with participants. Other activities include tours to Flamingo, a remote outpost inside Everglades National Park. For more information, phone (877) 365-2683 or (305) 451-4060 or visit www.dolphinscove.com.