The Dolphin Research Center

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One of our themes this month is dolphins - we LOVE dolphins in our family. I should have been a marine researcher - but travel called. So, I am always trying to get into the water, and if dolphins are involved, so much the better. I was so pleased to discover the Dolphin Research Center, in Grassy Key, Florida. The Dolphin Research Center has more than 20 years of Teaching, Learning, Caring for Marine Mammals and the Environment.  We've researched their website (and kids games) extensively, and wanted to share more with our Wandering Educators.


To that end, we were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Mary Stella, of the Dolphin Research Center, about their great, great work. Here's what Mary had to say...


Dolphin Research Center



WE: Please tell us about the Dolphin Research Center...

MS: Dolphin Research Center is a nonprofit marine mammal education and research facility located on Grassy Key (Marathon) in the heart of the fabulous Florida Keys.  Our mission is to promote the peaceful coexistence between marine mammals, humans, and the environment we share through research and education and to operate for the advancement of such research and education.

The health and wellbeing of the dolphins and sea lions that live here is
our number one priority.  We will undertake no program that does not honor that basic commitment.  We are funded by daily visitors who come to see the
dolphins or participate in an interactive program, and by private members
and donors.


We believe that the more that people learn about these amazing animals, the more they will care what happens to them and to the ocean environment.  We want to discover more about their abilities and intelligence and share that
information with the world.


We currently have 19 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, ranging in age from 2
years old to around 53 years old.  Most of them were born here.  The others
have come to us from other facilities for a variety of reasons.  Some are
critical care dolphins, some retired here or came when their facilities
closed, etc.  Our newest family member, Jax, was found orphaned in the St.
John's River in Jacksonville, FL when he was only about 8-10 months old.
He'd been severely injured, most likely by a shark!  At his age, he was too
young to survive on his own so after he completed his rehabilitation and
recovery, we offered him a permanent home.  He has integrated extremely
well into the family pod and plays all the time with our other youngsters.


Dolphin Research Center



WE: What was the genesis of the center?

MS: We were founded as Dolphin Research Center, a nonprofit, in 1984 so we're coming up on our 25th anniversary.  However, dolphins first came to this location in the late 1950s when it was the home of a fisherman named Milton Santini.  Milton accidentally caught a dolphin in his nets one day.  She was slightly injured and he brought her back here to heal.  Not as much was known back then about dolphins living in human care but Milton saw how she
responded to him and other people, to behavior signals, etc.  Milton became
an early pioneer, collecting and training dolphins for other places.  When
Hollywood producers were looking for dolphins to play the part of Flipper
in the first movie, they met Milton and Mitzi and ended up filming that movie
here.  Mitzi was the star, but four other dolphins also played Flipper. They had their specialties.  Two of those dolphins later got together and Tursi was the result.  Tursi still lives here, as do her offspring Talon, Pax and Gypsi.


Over the years, the facility has been different things - from purely entertainment as Flipper's Sea School to purely research as the Institute
for Delphinid Research.  When it was IDR, the owner wanted to show the
world that dolphins and whales are smart and should be saved, not slaughtered.  His research findings helped influence countries in the International Whaling Commission to adopt a voluntary moratorium on commercial whaling.


At that point, with his work done, the owner made an offer to Jayne Shannon
Rodriguez and Armando "Mandy" Rodriguez, who were his general manager and head trainer at the time.  He offered to turn over the facility and dolphins, including the debts, and lease them the land for five years. Jayne and Mandy had been working here for about 10 years and did not want
to see the dolphins in the family split up to go to other facilities.  So they
decided to make a go of it and founded DRC.  Although no longer married,
Jayne and Mandy still work together.  Jayne is our president and CEO and
Mandy is our executive vice president.


The principles and philosophies on which they founded us remain our guiding
lights today.



Dolphin Research Center


WE: What sorts of educational programs does DRC offer?

MS: Education is included in everything we do.  Let me make that point first.
We run narrated behavior sessions with the dolphins and sea lion as well as
indoor educational presentations every half an hour.  All of our narrations
and presentations are designed to teach our visitors as much as possible
about these amazing animals.  We show you everything we do including
research projects, medical behavior training, new behavior training,
interactive programs, etc.  In addition to the daily visit, we also offer
Dolphin Day Trips - half day field trips designed for school classes or
youth groups that include Q&A with Education Instructors, special
seminars/discussions, plenty of dolphin behavior observation time, etc.


Dolphins Dusk to Dawn is an overnight program that includes the above, plus
an overnight stay with activities in our nearby dormitory.


DolphinLab is an intensive, exciting, fun-filled multi-day experience.
Typically lasting a week, Dolphin Camp (ages 10-17), Teen DolphinLabs
(15-17) and Adult DolphinLabs (18 and older) feature a unique blend of
hands-on interactions with the dolphins, either in the water or from the
dock, as well as observation time, seminars, workshops and other
interesting and informative activities.  Topics and presentations are all designed to the appropriate age groups.  Our Adult labs feature a Career Focused series, too, with special Labs that focus on Research or Training.  Our Teen Basic DolphinLab as well as all four of our Adult DolphinLab programs are fully college-accredited.


Educators can bring a group to DRC for a private group DolphinLab.  We can
tailor these to the group in terms of length and subject matter depending
on your interests, time available, and budget.


We also have a terrific curriculum CD called Discovering Dolphins.  Geared
for grades K-8, it contains over 40 lesson plans and activities, all
written to national science education standards as well as Sunshine State
standards, etc.


If classes can't visit DRC, we often schedule Outreach presentations
throughout the Keys.



Dolphin Research Center


WE: What activities can visitors participate in?

MS: In addition to just paying General Admission and coming in to see the
dolphins and sea lion, we offer a number of different interactive programs
where you can get up close and personal!  These include Meet the Dolphin,
Play with the Dolphin, and Paint with a Dolphin, all of which take place on
the floating dock in the lagoon.  Dolphin Encounter (Deep Water and Shallow
Water) and Dolphin Dip are our in-water programs.  For a full day's
experience, we also have Trainer for a Day and Researcher for a Day.


Rather than paste all of the copy from our website to here for these
programs, here's a link:


DRC is handicap-accessible.  We can assist people with special needs to
participate in our programs.


We also have a five-day program called Dolphin Pathways that assists people
with special needs.  It's a recreational, motivational, educational program
with daily classroom activities and dolphin interaction sessions to help
people work toward their personal goals.



WE:  You support marine research and endangered species - can you tell us
more about this?

MS: Dolphin Research Center is also the licensed manatee rescue team for the Florida Keys.  We go out and assess injured, sick or orphaned manatees and are trained to rescue them if they need assistance or medical care.


DRC is actively involved in cognitive research projects.  I can't go into
depth on most of them if testing and publication are pending.  However, if
you'd like to see an article on a groundbreaking study that we did, you can
access it via our website in the Research Section.  Our study, called
Understanding of the Concept of Numerically "Less" is the first to
demonstrate conclusively that dolphins can grasp numerical concepts.


We continue to explore other areas of dolphin cognition.



WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

MS: I think that DRC is experiential education as its best.  Whether you spend a couple of hours or an entire week, you will obtain a greater understanding of these amazing animals and a stronger commitment to protecting them and the ocean environment.  It can be a life-changing experience that you'll always remember and treasure!


Thank you for the opportunity to talk about Dolphin Research Center!



WE: Thank you so much, Mary - the DRC is definitely on our to-do list!  We can't wait to come down and learn with you and your team. I am extremely impressed with all of your research and activities.


For more information on the Dolphin Research Center, please see:


All photos courtesy and copyright of the Dolphin Research Center.

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