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Dolphin Research Center, Marathon, FL: Inside View

Updated on December 7, 2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013

Quick Facts About Dolphins

  • Dolphins are described as a marine cetacean mammal of the order cetacea, which includes all 76 known species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
  • Dolphins rank among the most intelligent marine species
  • The name "dolphin" comes from the Greek word "delphus", meaning womb, because of its shape
  • Dolphins use a sonar system called echolocation underwater to locate prey
  • There are 38 known species of dolphins
  • There are four species of dolphins that live in fresh water
  • Dolphins are native to all of the world's oceans and seas, and can be found in some large river systems
  • Orcas, also known as killer whales, are the largest of the oceanic dolphin species
  • Most dolphins stay in groups called pods for their entire life, which in the wild may be around 30 years
  • Dolphins form matrilineal family groups, meaning that the pod consists mostly of related females and it is usually the oldest female that is the leader
  • Dolphins possess a signature whistle that distinguishes them from other members in the pod, almost like having a personal name

That's Amore!

Everyone loves dolphins.

Dolphins are fascinating creatures, balancing a graceful beauty with a curious, almost comical, precociousness. They can be as mischievous as a child at times, and wildly entertaining. At other times, they might seem very demure, a deep intelligence that comes out in very pronounced ways. We marvel at their incredible nature. They are a joy to behold and they seem to capture our attention and leave us spellbound.

Almost everyone has been able to see these beautiful creatures up close at marine parks around the world at one time or another. Others have enjoyed watching detailed documentaries that educate us on their unique behaviors. Perhaps we have been inspired to read about them in books. One thing's for sure: We can never seem to get enough of these noble creatures.

One thing that seems to endear them to us is that dolphins seem to have a permanent smile on their faces. They always look and act so happy. They also seem to be as curious about us as we are about them. Perhaps that is part of why we seem so drawn to them.

I have often heard people who have been out on boats on the ocean speak about dolphins coming up beside the boat, either for an easy meal (fishing boats), or even chasing the boats, riding in the waves the boat creates, or playing across the wake left behind. They seem to play a lot.

I remember one particular time when I was out on the ocean and this one particular dolphin kept following our boat. There were three or four swimming in the immediate area However, this one in particular kept coming close, laying on his side, looking up at us in the boat, as if he was trying to figure out what we were up to. It was as if he was curious and studying us! I'll never forget that.

Dolphin Research Center, Marathon, FL

A markerdolphin research center marathon fl -
Dolphin Research Center, 58901 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050, USA
get directions

I recently had the privilege of visiting the Dolphin Research Center, located at 58901 Overseas Hwy, in Marathon, Florida. Marathon is located below the mainland of Florida, in the Keys, about halfway to Key West.

The Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, FL is an educational research center and small marine park. I would highly recommend it to everyone. There are memberships and donation levels that will accommodate you, no matter who you are.

For instance, for just $40, you can obtain an individual membership, which will pay for itself in less than two visits (adult admission $23). For 2, you can donate at the $50 level for the Adopt A Dolphin (Dolfriend) Level and receive admission for 2 all year long for just $50, which is only $4 more than the regular admission for two individuals. There are family memberships that will give you free admission all year long for different numbers of people, so please check their website out before you visit for more information.

I chose the Adopt A Dolphin at the Dolfriend Level and also received a certificate on the dolphin of my choice (Tursi), a picture of Tursi, and a subscription to Dolphin Society, a magazine published 6 times a year by the center that gives in depth information on the dolphins at the center, research being done, as well as updates on the individuals. There are other member benefits as well, so again, please check their website before you visit to find out what is the best and most affordable option for you.

Tursi, daughter to two of the dolphins who originally starred in the infamous movie "Flipper", showing off her usual charm
Tursi, daughter to two of the dolphins who originally starred in the infamous movie "Flipper", showing off her usual charm
Tursi, at the apex of her signature "whistling" leaps
Tursi, at the apex of her signature "whistling" leaps

What Does A Dolphin Eat?

Dolphins are carnivores, meaning they eat meat. A dolphin's diet can vary by habitat, but usually consists of things such as squid, fish, crustaceans, octopus, cuttlefish, crabs, shrimp, and lobster.

They locate their prey using echolocation, producing a sort of sonar induced 3D map of the area around them. This means that they can even locate prey that is buried under the ocean floor, such as flounder or sting rays.

At the Dolphin Research Center, very close supervision is given to the dolphins' diets. Their health is checked regularly by staff physicians and their diet adjusted accordingly. They generally have an allotted amount of fish for the day and they prepare these fish at the beginning of the day and put them in buckets. They are prekilled fish that comes from a distributor in New Jersey and the "sashimi" is restaurant quality. The staff will use these buckets throughout the day for performance and behavior reinforcement, as well as other rewards, or simply at meal times.

The Dolphin Research Center's website is extremely detailed and informative. You can find it at www.dolphins.org.

If you access their website, you can see detailed information on each of the dolphins that reside at the Dolphin Research Center. You will also learn the history behind the origins of the Center, which is very interesting. Tursi (my favorite dolphin at the center) happens to be a “Flipper” daughter... daughter to Mr. Gripper and Little Bit, who starred in the original Flipper movie. She was born on November 26, 1973. Her signature move is a delightful squeal at the apex of every leap she takes. You will see this on the videos they have of her on the website. They have videos of every dolphin and sea lion they have at their center, and you can access these videos on their website.

She is also nicknamed the Whopper, referring to her large size, at almost 9 feet in length and weighing over five hundred pounds. One of her identifying characteristics is her left blind eye. She also has a very distinct personality in that she will use this to her advantage, when she is not interested in what her trainers are asking. She may turn a “blind eye” toward her trainers . Yet, her blind eye has made her particularly sensitive to disabled patrons. Her trainers will never forget the time when she changed her usual athletic style to accommodate a boy who could not see. She offered him a slow, gentle dorsal pull and returned him carefully to the exact spot at the dock from which they had started.

She is only one of the unique dolphins here at the center and the more you learn about her, her offspring, and the other dolphins that reside at the center, the more you will be amazed. You can learn about all of them if you visit their website at dolphins.org where you can learn about each individual, along with their traits, peculiarities and amazing intelligence. By the time you get to the research center, you should know them all!

There have been many babies born at the Research Center over the years. Tursi has proved to be a cautious and capable mom, producing sons Talon and Pax, and daughter Gypsi. There have been babies born the natural way and through artificial insemination. One thing's for sure, genes play a big role in their behavior, regardless.

Tursi and Her Signature "Whistling" Leaps

Molly, the oldest resident at the Center, born in 1961, with a handler.  Joy Levine ©2013
Molly, the oldest resident at the Center, born in 1961, with a handler. Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013

Echolocation

How Echolocation Works
How Echolocation Works | Source
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013

Some Of The Things You Will Learn About Dolphins

You will learn many interesting things about dolphins while visiting the center. They cover many topics, such as these listed below.

How Does Echolocation Work?

For instance, dolphins have developed the use of a sonar system called echolocation to find prey when navigating and hunting for food.This allows them to see much better than with just their physical eyes.

Their clicks make high-frequency sounds, and the echoes of these sounds bounce back which enables them to make a mental map. Using this mental map they are able to avoid the smallest of obstacles while locating their prey. In just a split second, echolocation enables them to determine the size of objects, their location, how fast they are, and the density.

How Long Does A Dolphin Live?

In the wild, a dolphin's lifespan is usually around 20-30 years. However, they can live a lot longer in captivity, since they are fed regularly, protected from predation, and they receive steady medical care. For instance, the oldest dolphin at the Research Center right now is Molly, who is in her 50's right now.

Why Do Some Of The Dolphins Seem To Lay On Their Side? Are They Okay?

It's interesting to note that dolphins are as curious about people as we are about them. The dolphins at the center have been observed "people watching" many times. They seem attracted to people, and will usually acknowledge their presence by swimming over and rolling on their side, watching for a minute or two.

Some dolphins seem to be more drawn to people than others. Some in particular get very excited around children. They also seem to be very sensitive to people's emotions, as well as intuitive to handicaps.

Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Talon, son of Tursi, and yet another one of the many interesting dolphins at the Center.  Joy Levine ©2013
Talon, son of Tursi, and yet another one of the many interesting dolphins at the Center. Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013

Interacting With The Dolphins

Interacting with the dolphins... this is what everyone wants to do. We want to touch them, interact with them, see what it's like to look into their eyes, swim with them.

Well you can do all of these things at the Dolphin Research Center. To be sure, swimming with the dolphins is not an inexpensive endeavor. But what rich rewards if you are able to afford the experience.

If anyone in your party is handicapped or in a wheelchair, don't count them out. They will do their best to accommodate anyone, so please call ahead to find out your options.

You can find all the information you need on all the experiences they offer on their website listed above. Just click on the Programs tab. You will find that they have a program that will fit any budget. Their prices start at just $25 to interact briefly with a dolphin, "shaking" a dolphin's flipper, and giving them a "backrub." This is the most affordable option and probably the most crowded, though usually they only take a max of 4 people on the dock at any one given time.

You can play with a dolphin, paint with a dolphin, have a dolphin encounter, explore with a dolphin, and have a dolphin dip.

The most expensive of the public dolphin interactions is the Dolphin Encounter, at $199, although this does include park admission for all day. This is a 20-25 minute program where you actually swim with the dolphins.

There is also the Dolphin Dip at $119, which also includes all day park admission. In this encounter, you stand on a submerged platform and interact with the dolphin, learning about them in the process. This program also lasts for 20-25 minutes.

There are more expensive options, tailoring needs to private groups. There are also programs, discussed later in this article, like Researcher For A Day, or Trainer For A Day, that give you detailed instruction on care and daily life of these marine mammals. These are full day options and range from $525 to $675.

There are also college courses available to take at the center as well. More information on all these options is on their website.


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Joy Levine ©2013Joy Levine ©2013Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013

More Cool Facts About Dolphins

Did You Know...

  • a dolphin's snout, or beak, is called a rostrum?
  • the fatty tissue below a dolphin's skin that helps it to keep warm in the water is called blubber?
  • the forehead of a dolphin is referred to as a melon because of its shape?
  • dolphins use their blowhole not just to breathe, but also for vocalizations?

Interesting Individuality Displayed In Dolphins

It's so interesting, to learn the different behaviors of individual dolphins. We all know these are very intelligent creatures. Still, it's fascinating to learn more about these creatures from the trainers and biologists that work with them every day.

For instance, it was found out that one dolphin is more “people friendly”... taking part in the Mammal Care and Basic Training Programs, and Enrichment Dolphin Lab classes. She particularly enjoys all the interaction with the new human friends and loves to see how can mess with all the Dolphin Lab students. The particular dolphin in question, Aleta, will make sure that all the signals given by the students are perfect.... ensuring quality assessment. Otherwise, she will do a totally different behavior than the one requested or none at all.

When I read this, this was so funny. What intelligent creatures to mess with our minds like this, eh?

Also, Gypsi seems to be a people lover. When she is at a particular lagoon, she will join in with not only the lagoon she is assigned to but the other docks as well, even joining in dorsal pulls and other behaviors with the guests.

Molly, the oldest dolphin at the Research Center, is in her fifties. Even at such a ripe old age, she enjoys interacting with guests and has even learned a new behavior, crowd splashing. In fact, she gets so excited during this behavior, she ends up doing a speed run around the whole lagoon.

Pandora is the resident “Sweety.” She enjoys loving from the trainers as her reward, taking in all the kisses she can receive. What a doll!

Reese, the youngest of the Dolphin Research Center's dolphins at six months old, is showing strong interest in people already. He is already showing interest in the trainers at dock time as well as giving full back rubs, even including interest in fish at this early age.

There are so many interesting creatures at the Dolphin Research Center, and the more you learn about them, the more it will endear them to you. You will learn about their resident sea lion, who already is blind in one eye and still loves to cuddle with the trainers. You will learn about the two babies that will be born in October of 2013, so stay tuned for that.

They do shows almost every half hour, explaining the details of the dolphins at the their center as well as the research they do.

Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013

Get Involved

If you are a nature enthusiast, a marine biologist wannabe, or just want to learn more about these beautiful creatures, there are so many ways to get involved. The Dolphin Research Center has many programs tailored to specific interests for individuals.

Some of the programs are pricey, but they are incredible opportunities for those who can afford them. They have programs for people interested in learning what it is like to be "Trainer For A Day," or "Researcher For A Day." In these programs, you shadow the trainers and staff, and see what it's like to care for these magnificent creatures throughout the day.

Depending on the program, you will learn what is involved in the care of these creatures, what research the center is involved in right now, and what educational programs they are designing and constantly updating for the visitors.

You can find a list of all the programs they have to offer, as well as the different dolphin experiences on their webpage.There are volunteer opportunities, and internships offered. You can also find out about any career opportunities by clicking on the careers tab.

There is a program designed for everyone, and one that will appeal to all ages.

Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine  ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013
Joy Levine ©2013

What Do You Think Is The Most Interesting Thing About Dolphins?

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Plan Your Trip Wisely

It is a day trip well worth the money and the time, but plan your trip wisely. Visiting the Keys, as you well know, proves to be rewarding in itself. But you can spend a lot of money in a short amount of time once you're in the Keys.

However, with a little effort and planning, you can also find ways to cut the cost of your trip down to almost nothing.

We planned this trip around the visit to the Dolphin Research Center. We counted on the admission there. However, in order to bring the costs down, we brought our own food for the whole day. We ate on the way down, and after we visited the center, we picnicked at the beach. We made a day of it, snorkeling and swimming in the waters around a quieter beach park along the way that was slightly off the beaten path. We walked across the road and fished on the other side until the sun went down.

There are so many activities in the Keys that you can do. You can sail, snorkel, dive, fish, explore the beaches, and so much more. There are many beaches where the water is so shallow so far out, you can walk no more than knee deep for hundreds of yards. There are many places that you can rent boats, jet skis, catamarans, skiffs, kayaks, paddle boards, bikes, and other beach and water related equipment.

But if you want to save money, you don't have to rent anything at all. You can just open your eyes and enjoy your surroundings. Bring a set of binoculars. Definitely bring a change of clothes. It's also wise to bring rain gear as showers pop up frequently and violently quite often in the Keys. The weather can be very unpredictable from one moment to the next. The good news is, though, that even if there is rain, it doesn't usually last all day.

Just by being observant, we saw abundant sea life including two large spotted eagle sting rays chasing each other, birds of all kinds, colorful fish, a sea cucumber, and even some fascinating bioluminescent creatures after sundown that we have as of yet to identify.

The next time you visit Marathon, FL, which is only about half way to Key West, FL, (which means you can make this trip in less than 2 hrs from Miami), make sure you set side the time to travel to the Dolphin Research Center. They provide the facilities you are looking for, at the most affordable price for any comparable facility in the area.

Plan your visit wisely and then spend the whole days soaking up the wonderful culture of the Keys and enjoying all it has to offer. It will be a trip you will remember for a long time.

Then, let me know how it goes! :)

Marathon, Florida Joy Levine ©2013
Marathon, Florida Joy Levine ©2013
Sunrise Joy Levine ©2013
Sunrise Joy Levine ©2013
Sunset in Islamorada, near Key Largo Joy Levine ©2013
Sunset in Islamorada, near Key Largo Joy Levine ©2013

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