Dolphin Research Center

Marine mammals the center of attention, research

rmccarthy@keynoter.comMay 26, 2008 

Even on a day when temperatures near Marathon dipped to as low as 49 degrees, the Dolphin Research Center was abuzz with activity.

The nasty front, which created bitterly cold, whipping winds at the center’s bayside location, did not deter many tourists from enjoying all the 5-acre facility has to offer.

A troop of Girl Scouts was on hand watching 29-year-old male Sandy perform tricks during the interactive Dolphin Fun Facts session. Trainers and narrators work with the dolphins to help the audience achieve a better understanding of their physiology.

“If a dolphin is going by and waving that pectoral flipper at you while you’re learning that if you X-ray that flipper it has a ball and socket and fingerlike phalange structure of a human hand, the dolphins [are helping] to educate people in fun ways about themselves,” DRC media relations coordinator Mary Stella said.

Fun Facts is just one of a myriad of different programs through which the DRC helps to both entertain and educate the public about all things marine mammal-related. In various forms, the Dolphin Research Center and its predecessors have been operating on the same Grassy Key site since 1956.

A storied past

What eventually became the Dolphin Research Center in 1984 was begun by a local fisherman named Milton Santini, who lived where the facility is today. Santini captured several Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and formed Santini’s Porpoise School.

“He brought the first dolphin back here and that was Mitzi, who went on to star in the first “Flipper” movie — and that predates the TV show,” Stella said.

The first movie was released in 1963 and starred Luke Halpin as a young boy living in the Keys who convinces his father to take in an injured dolphin. The movie’s plot was reportedly based on Santini’s relationship with Mitzi, who died in 1972 and is buried on the property.

“Two of those dolphins that lived here and played the part of Flipper, some of their descendants are still here today. So we always talk about our second- and third-generation Flipper dolphins,” Stella said.

The DRC has 19 dolphins today, including three born within the last year. Their average lifespan in the wild is in the 20s, but life expectancy in captivity can reach into the 50s. Theresa, now in her early 50s, has been at the DRC longer than any other dolphin or human.

In 1977, whale conservationist Jean Paul Fortom-Gouin purchased the facility and renamed it the Institute of Delphinid Research. The facility was closed to the public during his time in the Keys, which he spent researching dolphin language and reasoning skills.

“Over the years we were different things from purely entertainment, to purely research. Jayne and Mandy Rodriguez were the general manager and head trainer at the time Jean Paul owned it,” Stella said. “When he was finished with his work he made an offer to them to open it as a facility and they took the chance. That’s when they founded this as a nonprofit education research facility and the goal was to teach the world as much as possible about these animals and to provide a place where people could learn more about caring for them; where young people who want to work in this as a career could come.”

Today, the DRC is a major international tourist draw for the Keys. Even on one of the coldest days in recent memory the place was packed and several different languages could be heard chattering in the cold.

Stella said the DRC relishes its role as not only a tourist destination, but as a vehicle to educate the public about marine mammals and environmental conservation.

“We truly believe that the more you grow to understand these marine mammals the more you care about what happens to them because the number one threat to marine life is man,” she said.

Programs abound

The DRC has a paid full- and part-time staff of roughly 70 people, as well as numerous interns and volunteers. They offer several different programs — none scripted — by which visitors and the center’s 19 dolphins can interact.

In the Dolphin Encounter, visitors from age 5 and up are able to play with the dolphins in their lagoon for 20 minutes. Guests learn basic hand signals so they can ask the dolphins to perform interactive behaviors including the always-popular dorsal pull.

You can be a trainer or a researcher for a day, working alongside a DRC employee, or play and even paint with a dolphin. All About Babies is a theater presentation explaining dolphin gestation and early life development.

DRC even offers weeklong Dolphin Lab classes, which are now fully college accredited through the Florida Keys Community College.

“Because we are nonprofit, we’re funded by people who come through our doors to visit the center or do our programs,” Stella said.

These programs help fund ongoing research projects at the DRC, such as whether dolphins have specific math abilities and observation of the mother-calf relationship. Stella says what is nice about the DRC is visitors witness the research as it happens.

“We’re very unique in that we demonstrate our current research projects. If the public is here when we’re doing it then they get to see what we’re doing,” she said. “We don’t really have any behind the scenes.”

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