Ever since marine researchers discovered dolphins just might rival humans among the world’s most intelligent mammals, people have been fascinated by the lively marine creatures.
In the Florida Keys, where dolphins are studied year-round, visitors to each of five centers can have a unique and wonderful encounter — sharing an in-water experience with these gentle animals while learning about them.
Before any in-water encounter, the facilities provide in-depth briefings that cover dolphin behavior, facts about the engaging creatures, and how to safely and respectfully interact with them. (FYI, during your encounter, don’t be surprised if the ever-curious dolphins use their sensitive bottle-shaped noses to give you the once-over — or present their chins to be scratched or even kissed.)
So where can you have an intriguing dolphin experience in the Keys?
Dolphin Research Center, mile marker (MM) 59 bayside on Grassy Key near Marathon, specializes in presenting marine mammal education and research programs to the public. Founded in 1984 as a nonprofit facility, DRC is home to a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions — most of whom were born there.
Enjoy daily narrated dolphin and sea lion behavior sessions and educational presentations to learn about marine mammals and the environment — plus interactive programs like Trainer for a Day, Researcher for a Day, swim and wade sessions and even the fun-filled Paint with a Dolphin.
At Dolphins Plus in Key Largo, Ocean Bay Drive at MM 100 oceanside, you can experience natural or unstructured swims with other participants and dolphins, structured swims or one-on-one interactive sessions with dolphins and sea lion encounters. Natural swim participants revel in the natural beauty and behavior of dolphins while snorkeling; structured swim participants follow a trainer’s instructions for hands-on interaction.
You’ll also find extended education programs, including Trainer for a Day and a three-day Dolphin Exploration Lab, that focus on a general study of dolphins and their habitats.
In addition, dolphin therapy programs are offered on the premises to individuals with disabilities and their families. Coordinated by the not-for-profit Island Dolphin Care, these remarkable programs involve educational, recreational, and motivational activities.
Islamorada-based Theater of the Sea, MM 84.5 oceanside, offers dolphin, sea lion and stingray swim programs, along with bottomless boat rides, parrot shows and continuous marine shows featuring dolphins and sea lions. Plus there’s a guided marine life tour that features tropical fish, sea turtle, alligator and crocodile exhibits — and don’t miss Theater of the Sea’s four-hour adventure boat tour, which includes a bay ride and snorkel time.
Dolphin Cove is a marine education and dolphin swim facility at MM 102 bayside in Key Largo. There you can choose from natural or structured swims, shallow water encounters in waist-deep water or Trainer for a Day programs that include dolphin interactions and a glimpse into marine mammal care and training.
Based at Hawk’s Cay Resort, MM 61 oceanside on Duck Key, Dolphin Connection offers a group of appealing dolphin encounter programs. Dolphin Discovery allows supervised contact with dolphins from a submerged platform, while Dockside Dolphins offers interactions without entering the water. You’ll also find a fascinating three-hour Trainer for a Day session that includes a behind-the-scenes look at dolphin training.
Of course, all five centers maintain high standards for safeguarding the physical and emotional health of the dolphins under their care, and the environment these creatures call home.
There’s no substitute for an unforgettable firsthand dolphin encounter at one of the places described here. But if you can’t make it down to the Florida Keys quite yet, click here for webcam previews from Dolphin Research Center, Dolphin Cove, and Island Dolphin Care.