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Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key grows in space and prominence

Each day hundreds of Florida Keys tourists and residents visit the Dolphin Research Center, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Open since 1984 at mile marker 59 on Grassy Key, and founded by Jayne and Armando "Mandy" Rodriguez, the DRC recently acquired adjacent property to its north and south to expand its parking lots and design and create a new education center in an existing bayfront building. The land acquisition also may enable the center to expand its lagoons, which will give the 24 dolphins more room to frolic and develop new skills while researchers are able to explore additional scientific inquiries.

The Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key raises mom and baby dolphins and encourages "family time."
Jill Zima Borski
Florida Keys' Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key offers daily swims with dolphins, dolphin and sea lion education, a sprayground for kids and more.
Jill Zima Borski

Groundbreaking research with dolphin such as “object permanence” — the ability to reason about objects that have disappeared from view -- is highlighted at DRC. Studied in humans, apes and other terrestrial animals, DRC was the first to publish research about this ability in dolphins. DRC, also, was the first to conclusively demonstrate mathematical ability in dolphins.

DRC is also conducting field research, studying the wild dolphin population of the Middle Florida Keys, with the goal of establishing a cohesive estimation of their distribution, residency, and movement patterns.

A daily schedule, located by the front lagoon and back causeway, is posted so that no matter what time guests arrive at the Dolphin Research Center, they can see what is happening and plan their visit accordingly. Not to miss are activities such as learning about dolphins through Dolphin Fun Facts, research sessions, dolphin playtime, moms and babies swimming together, dolphin dips, swimming with a dolphin, painting with a dolphin or hugging a sea lion. Three California sea lions call DRC home. Also, DRC is the licensed manatee rescue facility for the Florida Keys.

Presentations throughout the day by the education department showcase a variety of topics such as manatee rescues, Keys critters, sea lion secrets and the history of DRC. The air-conditioned theater offers a welcome respite from Florida sunshine.

Children may want to wear a swimsuit to the dolphin center to enjoy the sprayground that has a whale tale, seahorse and palm tree spraying water which not only keeps them cool but has sound features as well. If kids step on a certain button, water sprays and various squeaks and whistles of different sea creatures can be heard.

New programs with Keys schools incorporate sponsorship from area businesses to cover transportation to and from the DRC. Students from Switlik Elementary in Marathon enjoyed experiential environmental education while visiting DRC last year.
Distance-learning capability reaches many more students nationwide, from grade school to college level courses, although it is still under development. DRC’s curriculum adheres to the National Standards in science, Florida Next Generation Standards in science, and Ocean Literacy principles.

DRC is a pet-friendly facility, too. There’s no reason to leave “Fido” in a hot car. As long as the well-behaved animal is on a leash, it is welcome.

The Dolphin Research Center in Marathon is a member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA). Members are dedicated to the highest standards of care for marine mammals and for conservation in the wild through public education, scientific study and wildlife preservation. DRC has been a member since the alliance formed in the late 1980s and DRC was one of the first facilities to receive full accreditation in 2002.

The DRC also established the College of Marine Mammal Professions in 2013 which is licensed by the Florida Commission for Independent Education. “We are graduating five outstanding women this spring,” said Mary Stella, Director of Media and Marketing. With heavy hands-on training with dolphins and sea lions, the students have an advantage in a competitive field with the skills and knowledge to work at any marine mammal facility in the world.

The DRC also supports the military in several ways, enabling wounded warriors special opportunities. “Spending time with the dolphins offers our heroes and their families an opportunity to relax and play with these social animals in an environment of fun and unconditional acceptance,” an on-premise sign explains.

When the Rodriguezes founded DRC as a nonprofit corporation, their goal was to ensure dolphins had a home for life, and in doing so to establish a unique education and research facility. But DRC’s beginnings had a fascinating history before this young couple moved to the Keys in 1973 from the New England Aquarium to work with dolphins that were intended to relocate to that facility in Boston. When the pair fell in love with the Florida Keys and wanted to remain, they were hired to work at Flipper’s Sea School, the precursor to DRC.

“Mitzi” and several of the other dolphins that lived at the school starred in the original Flipper movie in 1963. Two dolphins who also appeared in Flipper, Little Bit and Mr. Gipper, lived there until the 1980s, and their family lineage continues with their daughter, Tursi, and her offspring who live at DRC today. Tursi was the facility’s first successful birth.
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