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Swim, play and learn with dolphins at DRC

Updated on March 27, 2014

Get to know dolphins up close and personal

If swimming with dolphins is on your "bucket list," what are you waiting for?

It's an amazing experience. Interacting with dolphins in their environment gives an appreciation for these incredible animals - their beauty, power, sleekness, sense of humor, and intelligence.

My favorite place to learn about and interact with dolphins (Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins) is the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in Grassy Key, Florida.

DRC is a natural-water marine mammal facility that proudly and prominently features the words of Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum:

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught."

All photos and the "Dolphins at Play" video were taken by me and are used with permission from the Dolphin Research Center.

We're entertainment for the dolphins

The dolphins at DRC have all either been born at the facility, been rescued from natural disasters (one was stranded in Louisiana in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill), or retired to DRC from other facilities.

They live in a natural-water environment; their home lagoons are part of Florida Bay. They've been known to play with the fish that share their habitat, hide "treasures" (one dolphin loves scarves) among the rocks in the lagoons, and one of their trained behaviors is to bring "presents" to visitors: sea grass, small rocks, even mangrove pods.

As you stop in front of each lagoon, some gray-face friends will invariably come over to check you out. If you wave to them, talk to them, or point a camera, you'll probably get an even bigger reaction. A couple of the dolphins even seem to be posing for pictures.

The lagoons are not separated from the Bay and, in certain seasons, small fish and even jellyfish make their way into the lagoons. I wasn't at DRC to witness it - but as testimony to the dolphins' slightly wicked humor, there's the story of the jelly toss. The dolphins apparently saw how people reacted to the presence of jellyfish; avoiding them whenever possible. So the dolphins started catching jellyfish and throwing them at people on the dock or boardwalk - just to see the people run.

Playtime at the docks

Not all sessions between trainers and dolphins are structured - some are simply "playtime!"
Not all sessions between trainers and dolphins are structured - some are simply "playtime!"
All the dolphins want to get in on "recess" - which can include playing ball
All the dolphins want to get in on "recess" - which can include playing ball
As special "treats" during informal session the dolphins will get ice cubes or gelatin cubes as snacks
As special "treats" during informal session the dolphins will get ice cubes or gelatin cubes as snacks
The dolphins don't "have to" participate in these sessions - but they all seem to want to!
The dolphins don't "have to" participate in these sessions - but they all seem to want to!

Participate at your own comfort level

As you enter stroll around DRC, you'll notice a prominent schedule board that lets you know when and where the various sessions will be.

Sessions with the dolphins (or the three sea lions who live at the facility) are narrated by staffers from the Education, Animal Care and Training Departments or students from DRC's College of Marine Mammal Professions, who let visitors know what they're seeing and its significance for the dolphins. Some trained behaviors are safety- or medical-related - the dolphins need to know how to move through gates from lagoon to lagoon, or how to present their tails for calm, non-traumatic blood tests for periodic health checks.

Research is not only part of DRC's name, it's also a fundamental mission. DRC has researched and published scientific studies on dolphin cognition, furthering the goal of learning how dolphins think and learn. All of the research at DRC is non-intrusive, based in natural and trained behaviors.

Stay dry - or get wet with a dolphin

Interaction level
Meet The Dolphin
Stay (almost) dry on a floating dock as a dolphin swims by for a back rub. And "shake" flippers with your new dolphin friend
Paint With A Dolphin
Choose your colors and hold your shirt while the dolphins create a custom work of "art" for you!
Play With The Dolphin
Take part in dolphin playtime from the floating dock - although you will probably get splashed
Dolphin Explorer
Play learning/research games from the floating dock
Dolphin Dip
Stand on a submerged platform and interact with the dolphins
Dolphin Encounter
Swim with a dolphin - including the "dorsal pull"
Researcher For A Day
Shadow one of DRC's research team for the day - including all interactions with dolphins and/or sea lions
Trainer For a Day
Spend the day as an assistant trainer

Dolphins at play

Dolphins play "Slip and Slide!"

In the video, Luna the dolphin is playing "King of the Dock" with other youngsters at DRC. The game was invented by the dolphins themselves - one jumps up on the dock and the others try to get her to slide off. Looks like Luna won this time!

Showing off on a beautiful day at DRC.
Showing off on a beautiful day at DRC.

Training the way it should be

As a "dog person" who trains and competes with my dogs, I'm fascinated with training and interactions between people and animals.

All of the training at DRC is based on positive-reinforcement, just as I strive to do with my dogs. Years ago, when I started training, it was different and not always positive. When I started visiting DRC, I saw that positive reinforcement does work. The dolphins joyfully look forward to their training sessions and exuberantly work with people. And on days when they don't, there's no "punishment," no negative consequences. The dolphins still get their fish and the trainers come back another time.

I learned that it's okay if my dog, on occasion, just doesn't want to work with me on obedience. We'll try it another time when we're both in the mood. And it's okay. I've learned that from the dolphins.

Find the Dolphin Research Center in the heart of the Florida Keys

Dolphin Research Center:
58901 Overseas Highway, Grassy Key, FL 33050, USA

get directions

The "tail walk"

Dolphins are powerful animals, supporting themselves out of the water in the "tail walk" behavior.
Dolphins are powerful animals, supporting themselves out of the water in the "tail walk" behavior.

Welcome to the Dolphin Research Center

© 2014 HopeS

Do you have a favorite place in the Florida Keys?

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