Gulf side, Florida Keys,set along the single road that runs the length of the Keys, palms trees and mangroves line the road, yet up ahead you can easily spot the giant blue sign with the golden highlights, and a little further in, the dolphin and her baby jumping in permanent joy. Dolphin Research Center in the heart of the Keys, sets on Grassy Key, the entrance to the Marathon area, home to a pod of dolphins and small group of sea-lions, and perhaps one of the most beloved spots in the whole of the Keys.
My last visit was in 1996. A week’s stay for DolphinLab, one of their hands-on experiences, but now more than a decade on I’m, returning. Perhaps its my most excited visit while on our vacation in the Keys, perhaps its that DRC had remained so deeply in my heart that I couldn’t wait to stop in. We passed it on our way into Marathon, taking all my strength not to make the right into the parking lot. I did convince Laura to let us visit early, our day was set for the following, walking through the gift shop and swapping stories with the shop staff.
My previous visit had occurred during one of its most historic: a dolphin activist had illegally dumped two former Navy dolphins, Buck and Luther, into the waters off of the Keys. Rescue units were quickly put on alert and soon Luther was back with the Navy in Key West. Buck would be rescued around Vaca Cut near DRC and would return there under their care. We were able to watch the Navy vet check on him, his weakened body for not being able to care for and feed himself, he’d grown weak, but would soon recover under their care. That was a great week, but sadly, I would learn later, Buck hadn’t truly recovered in full, and would die too young, the victim of someone’s personal arrogance and stupidity.
Dolphin Research Center is all about the animals. Once home to Milton Santini’s performing dolphins, who under his care would become the first “Flipper” dolphins, eventually Santini would leave in the wake of the death of his beloved Mitzi. This first “Flipper” dolphin and the 4 others who played Flipper (both males and females played the boy-Flipper, but often females were used as they tend to be “prettier” and with less scares) was dear to the fisherman-trainer and to this day remains buried and memorialized on the DRC property.
Eventually a research station it would be turned over to Mandy Rodriquez and Jayne Shannon-Rodriquez who created Dolphin Research Center. Their passion for dolphins and sea-lions became home to a full pod of animals unable to return to the wild, who would be studied for behavior, training, and other important elements that help with rescues, rehabilitation and releases all around the world. The animals are DRC are either rescues that cannot be returned to the wild for a variety of reasons, who are rescued from land-based shows, or were born at DRC.
Their lives are played out in natural lagoons, blasted from the coral many years ago by Santini, a natural environment enhanced with separate lagoon areas, research towers, a fish house, offices, the main building for their gift shop and more. Here research continues, educating the public is done so playfully and with entertainment, and interactions let people have up-close encounters that allow them to come away with a new found appreciation and desire to help and protect dolphins, sea0lions and their environments.
Many changes have occurred since my last visit. So much remains the same. I renewed friendships with almost half the pod: Tursi, the flying, laughing dolphin, Kibby the charmer, Rainbow who I had fed, Sandy who I had done my training session with. Jo is gone, but I’d prepared her food bucket, and Santini, AJ, and Talon who I’d swam with. Gone are Buck who died too soon and another I’d swam with, Stanley. So many memories, so much that still deeply touches my soul.
But that is what is at the heart of DRC. A place that lingers within you. While we visited an older couple walked around asking about a variety of dolphin. It was obvious they were some sort of contributors, seeking their favorites and feeling as important as any of us who’ve given money over the years. DRC is a non-profit, requiring monies from ticket sales and donations and for all who give to DRC, its a place of giving from the heart.
For it is here that the heart is touched so deeply. These are visits and donations that become a part of you. People here become personally involved and giving is a natural reaction. So too is visiting and seeking out that special dolphin or dolphins that have touched your heart.
Dolphin Research Center is open most every day of the year, though does close from time to time to recognize its membership. Memberships are at a variety of price points and offer a chance to make a difference in an animal’s life, educate others, and continue the good works done here.
Interactions are a variety of opportunities from an in-depth week of DolphinLab to short interactions with dolphins or sea-lions such as painting a t-shirt, getting a hug, or playing games. Check their site for the most current offerings, plus pricing and when these open for reservations. Do plan on making reservations. DRC is a very popular place and reservations can close soon after opening, especially during “in season.”
For more on DRC, visit us here at Rori Travels Florida where we’ll share even more. Also, their website for everything from online gift shop to the current pod to how to become involved. And the next time you’re in the Florida Keys, plan to stop and visit DRC and become a part of this wonderful community. ** We were guests of DRC as members of the media.