The Dolphin Research Center

“You can’t make a five-hundred-pound dolphin do anything he doesn’t want to do,” isn’t the actual motto of the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, but it might as well be.  Happily, the dolphins generally seem to want to play with visitors to the DRC.  Swimming with dolphins is one of the Keys’ more popular tourist activities, despite the fact that most people who come in to the DRC – including this writer – come in with a radically inaccurate impression of what “Swimming with dolphins” actually entails.  Most visitors come in expecting the experience to be like playing with a big wet dog.  It’s more like attending a symposium on the behavioral psychology of dogs, and then attending a reception honoring some of the research subjects.  Let me explain:

First and foremost, the Dolphin Research Center is a not-for-profit education and research institution.  It was founded as such in 1984, though there have been dolphins living at facilities of varied type on that spot since 1958.  (Among the branches of the family tree are the three dolphins that, Olsen-twin-like, shared the role of Flipper.)  The Dolphin Research Faility today is home to a family of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, and to two California sea lions.  Their mission is, according to Mary Stella – my tour guide at the DRC, and source of the quote that opens the above paragraph – to “promote peaceful coexistence, cooperation and communication between marine mammals and humans and the environment we share through research and education”.

In other words, to teach people like me that dolphins aren’t big wet dogs.

Visitors to the Dolphin Research Center have five basic options:

Option 1: Just pay the entry fee ($13-$20) and wander around.  A perfectly reasonable option, especially for people with very small children, but it seemed to me a bit like going to Wrigley Field before a Cubs game, getting a hot dog, and leaving.  You’ll certainly have a nice time, but you’ll be missing out on the best parts.  You may, however, get to observe…

Option 2: “Fun Facts” is the closest thing the DRC does to a traditional “Let’s give a big hand for Stormy and Nemo’s double backflip!” dolphin show, though the focus is wholly on education and information, rather than circus-y show business.  Gone is the ringmaster’s patter and all references to “tricks”.  In place of hype is an entertaining lecture on dolphin care and behavior, visually aided by the stuff going on right in front of you.

Option 3: “Play with a Dolphin”.  $50, plus admission.  Pre-play slideshow briefing on dolphins, which is actually more of a quick lesson on dolphins than a how-to, then you go out on a pier with a trainer and throw balls and rings, get the dolphin to imitate you spinning, clapping, and laughing, give some pats, etc.  The closest you’ll get to the wet-dog deal.

Option 4: “Dolphin Splash”.  $100.  Think “Wading with Dolphins”.  You get in the water from a platform and are involved in an educational presentation about dolphins, in which they get fish and you get to touch them.  An employee keeps up a stream of patter the whole time, as other visitors watch your experience from the edge of the lagoon.  Very similar to “Fun Facts”, above, but you are out on the pier helping insead of on shore clapping.  A good alternative for those who are reticent to jump right in to…

Option 5: “Dolphin Encounter”.  $165.  The big one.  Comprehensive preswim briefing, including what to expect, how to give the dolphins hand signals, and some do’s & don’t’s.  (My favorite: “Avoid the blowhole”.)  You decide whether or not you want a wetsuit or a lifejacket or neither, and hit the lagoon.  Once you’re in the water, the trainer will tell the dolphin to rely on you for instructions.   You can get the dolphin to imitate you, or you can go right for the fun stuff: The “Foot Push” and the “Dorsal Tow”.  If this were free, I might do it every day.

There are advanced options – Trainer for a Day, Researcher for a Day, and Dolphin Camp, among others – but the five above are your best place to start.  And that’s for everybody, by the way; the DRC will accomodate all ages and abilities as very best they can.  Yeah, it’s a little expensive, but you can think of it as a donation to a good cause: The Dolphin Research Center was hit very, very hard by Hurricane Wilma, and is still not back to 100%.

When viewers of the BBC sent in nominations for the Beeb’s “Fifty Things To Do Before You Die” list, “Swim with dolphins” came in at the top of the list.  Even if it isn’t #1 on your personal version of that list, it’s still worth the trip to Grassy Key.  Good luck.   Have fun.  And avoid the blowhole.