Some years ago, when I was still living on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I was having lunch at the Rodanthe Pier when I noticed that almost everyone in the restaurant had stepped outside to look at the ocean. Curious to see what had caused such a stir, I followed. The summer sun sparkled off the glassy, perfectly formed waves that rolled in, one after another. I was marveling at the clarity of the water – it was one of those rare days when the Atlantic is so calm that you can see through the waves – when I realized what everyone was looking at. Frolicking within the translucent blue breakers were hundreds of dolphins. Sunlight penetrated the waves, exposing their sleek bodies as gray silhouettes. The dolphins played tag with the waves, alternately surfing along their crests and sliding back down their faces as they bodysurfed to shore. A nanosecond before each wave crashed into the beach, they darted back to deeper water behind a sandbar, waiting for the next swell.
I have seen hundreds of dolphins over the years; I have even surfed beside a dolphin or two who shared a wave with me. But I had never seen so many dolphins in one place, and certainly had never before witnessed such behavior. What animal, other than humans, engages in cooperative group play? Since that day I have believed that dolphins have a higher intelligence and were put on this earth for a very special purpose, but I had no proof. To test my theory, it would be necessary to get up close and personal with dolphins. Fortunately, I was on an extended tour of the Florida Keys, and the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key afforded me just such an opportunity.
Milton Santini, a local fisherman who lived on the site of the present day center in the mid-1950’s, captured Mitzi and other Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and formed Santiniâ€™s Porpoise School. Mitzi starred in the original pilot movie Flipper, along with five of Santini’s other dolphins. Following Mitzi’s demise in 1972 the facility was sold several times until it was acquired by present day owners Jayne Shannon-Rodriguez and Mandy Rodriguez, who founded the not-for-profit Dolphin Research Center.
The DRC is dedicated to dolphin research and education and manages a dolphin breeding program. Currently, 19 dolphins live in the center’s ninety thousand square feet of pristine seawater lagoons, with low fences separating them from the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Raised platforms and benches surround the various pools, allowing guests an excellent view of the marine mammals during and between regularly scheduled narrated shows, which begin at 9:30 a.m. and run concurrently throughout the day until 4 p.m. Presentations such as “Dolphin Fun Facts,” “All About Babies,” and “The Secret Lives Of Dolphins” are included in the general admission.
Interactive sessions, available for an additional fee, include activities such as “Paint With A Dolphin,” “Play With A Dolphin,” “Trainer For A Day,” and the popular “Deep Water Dolphin Encounter,” where guests are pulled around the pool as they hang onto the dolphin’s dorsal fin. I chose to “Meet The Dolphin.” As I settled into a comfortable cross legged position on the edge of the dock, the trainer signaled the dolphins to “bring me a gift.” Both of them immediately disappeared beneath the water. A few moments later they surfaced, offering me a rock and a piece of seaweed, which I gingerly plucked from their jaws. The trainer blew a short, shrill blast from her whistle, tossed a couple of live fish to the dolphins, and sent them away to circle the pool. She instructed me to stretch my hands out over the water, palms down. When I had done so, she again signaled the dolphins. Instantly, they reappeared, one directly in front of me and the other in front of the trainer. Using their powerful tail fins, they rose halfway out of the water and positioned their outstretched side fins directly under my flat palms; I had the honor of shaking hands with a dolphin.
On the day I visited, several of the sessions centered around research. One dolphin was being trained to “recycle” – I watched her searched the pool for trash, retrieve a plastic water bottle, and deposit it into a recycling bin on the edge of the floating dock. Other research is attempting to measure whether dolphins have specific math abilities. Initial testing confirmed that Talon and Rainbow, two of the dolphins involved in this research, could be trained to understand that 2 is different than 6. The next step was to always ask Talon and Rainbow to choose the board that had the fewest dots on it. The ability to pick out the smaller number without being trained on that specific number meant that they understood the concept of â€œless.â€ Dolphins are even being trained by the Navy to locate underwater mines and patrol for terrorists who might attempt to attack a ship from beneath the water.
My day at the Dolphin Research Center was the highlight of my Keys tour and I highly recommend this attraction. In addition to the educational benefits and pure delight of being so close to dolphins, I came away from the experience with a reinforced belief in the intelligence of these gentle mammals. I simply can’t shake the feeling that they are on this planet to help man and that they know so much more than they let on.
With the exception of New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day, the Dolphin Research Center is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission $19.50 for adults, $16.50 for seniors 55 or older, and $13.50 for children aged 4-12 (children under 4 free), but an additional discount coupon is available on the DRC website. Interactive programs are priced from $25 (“Meet The Dolphin”) to $650 (“Trainer For A Day”). Dolphin Research Center is located on Grassy Key, which is in the Middle Keys, just a short distance northeast of the City of Marathon.