Dolphins Plus

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

As January winds down, we've learned so much about swimming with dolphins and manatees - one of our projects for January. We've profiled several interesting organizations that promote dolphin research. One of the coolest promoters of dolphin research and education is Dolphins Plus in Key Largo, Florida - SO very impressive! We were lucky enough to talk with Jill Richardson, Ph.D., the Director of Research and Education at Dolphins Plus. Here's what she had to say...


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WE: Please tell us about Dolphins Plus…

JR: Dolphins Plus is a marine mammal research and education facility, located in sunny Key Largo, Florida.  We offer a variety of public swim programs, classes for all ages, and research support for marine mammal scientists.  We also conduct our own research on behavior analysis, paternal-calf interactions, cognition, and concepts of personality, in addition to offering one of the most competitive internship programs for undergraduates.  I think it’s safe to say that we are extremely well-rounded!

Our site is comprised of natural seawater enclosures, nestled into residential canals that tap directly into the Atlantic Ocean.  We are home to 14, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Ding, L.B., Julie, Sarah, Grace, Samantha, Squirt, Lotus, Fiji, Bella, Jessica, Nica, Bob, and Elvis) and 1 California sea lion (Wono).  All of our animals are individuals, and they definitely keep us on our toes!  I can say, without a doubt, that working with these magnificent animals is a privilege and that, personally, they have taught me a lot about patience and strength.  I believe I can speak for all of the Dolphins Plus animal care staff in saying that we have been truly blessed to know them.

As part of our mission statement, we are committed to the conservation and protection of marine mammals worldwide through education, research, experiential learning, and environmental awareness.  We currently offer state-of-the art marine science programs to students of all ages who are interested in learning more about marine mammals, as well as our many, unique South Florida ecosystems.


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WE: What was the genesis of Dolphins Plus?

JR: Dolphins Plus is a family owned and operated business that opened in the early 80s and became one of the first marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation organizations in the United States.  It wasn’t long before the founders noticed the profound impact dolphins had on visitors, and they started to explore the therapeutic effects of swim interactions.  This ultimately led to the development of dolphin-human therapy programs, which continues today at Island Dolphin Care (, located on the same facility as Dolphins Plus).  Though these programs are considered “recreational therapy”, there have been many success stories about special needs children. 

Eventually, the focus of Dolphins Plus shifted towards education and research, which remain our two, top priorities.  We educate thousands of people each year and are committed to marine mammal conservation and contributing to a greater scientific understanding of these amazing creatures.  We also focus heavily on fostering environmental consciousness and believe in the power of experiential learning.


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WE: What sorts of educational programs do you offer?

JR: We have a large variety of educational experiences for students of all ages (7 – adult).  All of our swim programs are preceded by an educational briefing, during which time our guests learn about dolphin and sea lion biology, anatomy, reproduction, physiology, and conservation.  The briefing also incorporates an introduction to each of our unique mammal friends, with in-depth descriptions of their quirks and personalities.  This part is a little like parents bragging about their children, and sometimes we get a bit carried away!  One thing we all love to do is talk about our experiences with them.  We have trainers on staff that have been with Dolphins Plus for 15+ years, and each animal care staff member spends years fostering unique, intense bonds with the animals they train. 

Our programs range in duration from 1 full-day to 4 full-days, depending on the age of the student.  Each class entails a unique combination of lectures, hands-on laboratory classes, dolphin swims and encounters, and field trips (e.g. reef snorkeling and backcountry kayak tours).  Our classes incorporate state-of-the-art technology, and are taught in conjunction with Island Dolphin Care.   All of our lectures are taught by our highly educated staff and incorporate vivid images and educational videos, using PowerPoint as a presentation medium.  Students often comment on how much “fun” learning is at Dolphins Plus.  They are often surprised by how much they truly enjoy our lectures, which include classes like Dolphin Anatomy, Dolphin Intelligence and Communication, Dolphin Reproduction and Maternity, Coral Reefs, Ocean Conservation, Sea Lion Biology, Marine Mammal Care Lab, Dolphin Training, and an aquarium touch-tank tour!  And, of course, each student will have the opportunity of a lifetime to get up close and personal with our dolphin and sea lion family.  Every class incorporates dolphin swims and encounters, during which time students will be guided by our highly trained staff to interact, bond, and play with our dolphin friends.  These experiences are awe-inspiring and often leave the students speechless as they fully realize the unique beauty and wonder of these remarkable mammals.  In fact, many of our students are inspired to pursue environmentally conscious lifestyles and higher education in the marine science field. 

We also offer a variety of “For A Day” programs, such as “Trainer for a Day”, “Veterinarian for a Day”, and “Researcher for a Day”.  These programs are designed to be an all day, one-on-one interaction between our guests and our respective staff members.  These classes, and our Dolphin Body Language Workshop, are designed to incorporate adults into the process of learning.  We can’t let our kids have ALL of the fun!


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WE: What activities can visitors participate in?

JR: Aside from the educational programs described above, our dolphin swims are divided into either a “structured” or an “unstructured” program.  During the structured program, our “human toys” enter the water to participate in a series of hands-on, trained behaviors with our dolphins (e.g. belly rubs, foot pushes, and kisses), mediated by an experienced dolphin trainer.  The unstructured swim program involves entering the water with snorkeling gear to swim in our dolphin enclosures.  This program was designed to simulate what swimming with dolphins in the wild might be like, and thus, does not involve hands-on contact. 

Our sea lion swim is very similar to the structured dolphin swim, with interactions between the swimmer and sea lion mediated by a trainer.  In conjunction with our swim programs, we work with special needs individuals in a safe, enriching environment.

Above all else, I think the greatest gift we offer our guests is that of respect and admiration for animals that generate boundless curiosity and wonder.  It is not uncommon to observe participants brought to tears by their interactions and experiences, and it is something we feel honored to be a part of.  All conservation efforts begin with single individuals, and I truly believe we are the catalyst for many.


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

JR: Dolphins Plus founded one of the first marine mammal rescue organizations in the late 1980s, the Marine Mammal Rescue Foundation, which merged with the Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC, in January 2003.  We currently provide funding for, and work closely with, MMC in their efforts to rescue, rehabilitate, and release stranded or injured marine mammals.  Our curator, Art Cooper is the Chairman of MMC, and two other Dolphins Plus staff members, Kyle Lane and Billy Budd, are on the MMC Board of Directors.  In addition, all of our animal care staff, educators, and veterinarians work as dedicated volunteers for MMC year-round.  We ultimately hope to contribute to a greater understanding of marine mammals in order to improve efforts to conserve and protect them in the wild.  This commitment is also exemplified by our participation in various national and international scientific conferences, including oral and poster presentations.

We also support non-invasive dolphin and sea lion research implemented by both staff researchers and outside principle investigators.  As part of this research program, we also offer 4-6 week internships to college students interested in gaining practical experience in the field of marine mammal science, care, and training. 



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

JR: As an educator, there is no greater joy than inspiring others.  Fortunately, my job is made easy by the magic of my surroundings, but I have made it my life’s goal to teach as many students as possible about the wonder of marine mammals and our imperiled oceans.  Perhaps one day, one of my students will become the next Jaques Cousteau or Sylvia Earle, and he or she will become the voice for an ocean in desperate need of support, passion, and love.  When that day comes, I will feel confident that my contributions made a difference in not only the lives of future generations but in those of these magnificent, graceful creatures who have taught me more about truth, respect, and inspiration than I ever imagined possible. 



WE: Thanks, Jill. We are so excited to learn about Dolphins Plus, and can't wait to visit. Your organization does such very important work!



For more information on Dolphins Plus, please see:


dolphins plus


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Comments (1)

  • Hugging The Coast

    11 years 7 months ago

    Seeing and interacting with dolphins is a life-enhancing experience. When you're in close proximity to these magnificent creatures, you can almost feel their intelligence like a vibration. Thanks, Jesse, for letting us know about Dolphins Plus and the valuable work they're doing!

    --Doug DuCap, Southern Food Editor/Wandering Weblog:

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